The Year Santa Claus Skipped Costa Rica

Today I came across a memorandum of a telephone conversation between William Tapley Bennett Jr., a U.S. official in the State Department’s Division of Central America and Panama, and the U.S. ambassador in Costa Rica, Nathaniel Davis. The conversation, dated December 12, 1948, concerned an invasion of Costa Rica by a force originating from neighboring Nicaragua. During the conversation Bennett inquired about the situation in Costa Rica. Davis replied that San Jose seemed normal, however “the football game scheduled for this afternoon has been cancelled and Santa Claus will not arrive as planned.” It is unclear whether Davis’s comment was facetious, or whether an appearance by Santa Claus had been canceled. What is clear is that the situation concerned U.S. officials in Costa Rica enough to place their holiday activities on hold.

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Hostilities between Costa RIca and Nicaragua had existed since the previous spring, when Jose Figueres, leading an army of Costa Ricans and Caribbean exiles, ousted the regime Rafael Calderon (see the Abelardo Cuadra post for more information on the Costa Rican civil war). This troubled the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, for two reasons. First, he was an ally of Calderon. Second, Figueres was very public in his desire to see Somoza removed from power. In order to remedy both of these problems, Somoza began conspiring against Costa Rica. On December 9, 1948 a small group of insurgents, under the leadership of Calderon, invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua. Figueres, who had disbanded the Costa Rican military on December 1 and therefore lacked the significant means to defend his country, called on the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the invasion. The event quickly became an international incident because many suspected, and rightfully so, that Somoza Garcia was behind the invasion. Despite Nicaraguan help, the invaders failed in their invasion, largely because the popular support they had hoped for never materialized. The force itself was so small that the Costa Rican police force, along with cobbled together militias, were sufficient to contain the invasion. The OAS ultimately ruled against both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, condemning both countries for housing exiles bent on overthrowing the government of the other. Although relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica remained tense for at least another decade, I’d like to believe that Santa Claus was able to return to Costa Rica in 1949.

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Abelardo Cuadra – Mercenary or Freedom Fighter

Today I came across an interesting bit of information while writing about the role of Nicaraguans during the Costa Rican civil war of 1948. It involves the ever-changing allegiances of Abelardo Cuadra, a Nicaraguan who fought against Augusto Sandino, later plotted to assassinate Anastasio Somoza García, and managed to fight for and against the Caribbean Legion. Although it is not quite clear whether he was an idealist or an opportunist, Cuadra’s story highlights the paucity of both ideological and national boundaries in the post-war Caribbean.

Much of what we know about Cuadra comes from his memoir, Hombre del Caribe (1977), in which he recounts his numerous exploits. As a young man, Cuadra was a member of the Nicaraguan Conservative party, which largely represented the country’s elites, and left school at the age of 22 to fight for them during the 1926 civil war. During the Sandino Rebellion, Cuadra served as a second lieutenant in the Guardia Nacional in the Segovias, Sandino’s home department, and later aided in the plot to assassinate Sandino. However, he was not unswervingly loyal to Somoza García. Cuadra believed Somoza García had corrupted the ideals of the Guardia and conspired to assassinate the jefe director in 1934 and 1935. Both attempts failed and Cuadra was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to exile. It was while in exile that Cuadra found like-minded individuals committed to removing Somoza García and the region’s other dictators from power.

After having lived in exile in Costa Rica, Cuadra traveled to Cuba in 1947 and joined with other Caribbean exiles planning an invasion of the Dominican Republic. As discussed in a previous post, following World War II democratic and dictatorial forces battled over the ideological future of the Caribbean. Towards the end of 1947, a group Caribbean democrats conspired to launch an invasion of the Dominican Republic from a small island off the coast of Cuba. Their goal was to oust the Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo. Ultimately, the invasion never materialized, but this group of revolutionaries constituted what, less than a year later, would become the Caribbean Legion. With the Dominican invasion canceled, Cuadra returned to Costa Rica, however it would not be his last encounter with the Caribbean Legion.

In 1948 Jose Figueres, an exiled landowner and future president of Costa Rica, launched what he termed a “war of national liberation” to free his homeland of what he saw as a communist and autocratic government. Figueres secured the support of many democratic exiles, including those involved in the failed invasion of the Dominican Republic, as well as many Nicaraguans fighting under the promise that after its liberation Costa Rica would become the springboard in ousting Somoza García. It was this group of exiles that journalists first labeled the Caribbean Legion. However, the term soon came to cover all of the region’s revolution-minded democratic exiles, which leads us back to Abelardo Cuadra.

Because he had served with and shared many of the ideals of the Caribbean Legion, it would be easy to assume that Cuadra fought for Figueres in the Costa Rican civil war. However, Cuadra proves to be a more complex figure than we might imagine. Cuadra related that at the beginning of the conflict Figueres’ men approached him about joining their struggle. However, he declined the invitation and instead allied with the government forces. Cuadra said that he could not justify joining the revolutionaries because he believed that Figueres’ cause served the nation’s elites, and he preferred to fight for the poor of Costa Rica. Cuadra could not reconcile the fact that the forces “organized to fight against military dictatorships, such as Trujillo and Somoza, came to Costa Rica to overthrow a government that had authored many social programs” and done much to help unions and the poor. Ironically, by allying with the government, Cuadra would be fighting on the same side as the Somoza regime, which supported the Costa Rican government. Apparently, Cuadra’s distaste of Somoza García was not enough to push him into Figueres’ camp. Despite the rhetoric of the antidictatorial struggle, Cuadra saw the government, and not Figueres, as the true advocates of social justice in Costa Rica. Cuadra, at least in his own words, fought for the people of Costa Rica.

During the civil war, Cuadra led a column of government troops against Figueres’ forces, battling against Nicaraguans and other Caribbean nationals that he had considered his brothers in arms less than a year before. Ultimately, Figueres’ forces won the civil war, and Cuadra fled to Venezuela, where he taught high school classics. In 1979, following the success of the Sandinistas, he quickly became a vocal critic of the regime. Like many moderate Nicaraguans who fought to remove the Somozas from power, Cuadra became disillusioned with the apparent lack of democratic reform under the FSLN and voiced his opposition.

Cuadra, like many historical figures, is inherently more complex than we might assume. According to his own memoirs, his varying allegiances represented a commitment to democratic principles and social justice. However, sometimes the most flattering pictures we paint are of ourselves. It is unclear whether Cuadra was an idealist or an opportunist: a mercenary or a freedom fighter. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What Cuadra’s story does reveal is the paucity of the region’s national boundaries and the ambiguity of the ideological line separating the democratic and dictatorial camps. Cuadra, like many Caribbean exiles, moved freely from one country to another with relative ease, highlighting the weakness of the region’s national boundaries. Also, his ability to travel back and forth between political camps points to the ill-defined ideological tenets that underlined each movement. Survival motivated the dictators, while those opposed to them varied in their commitment to democracy. There were those who sought to create a Central American republic based on high democratic ideals and others who viewed democratic structures and institutions as the rightful tools of the elites. What united the opposition was their hatred of the dictators. With such varying and ambiguous ideals, it proved easy for someone like Cuadra to move back and forth between factions. He could be both a mercenary and a freedom fighter.


Abelardo Cuadra, Hombre del Caribe: memorias (San José, Costa Rica : Editorial Universitária Centro Américana, 1977)

Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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“Thanks Obama!” – FRUS and Digital Collections

Two days ago I posted about the Larreta Doctrine and its repercussions for Latin America. In that post I used a document from the Foreign Relations of the United States, which I obtained through the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS as it is commonly abbreviated, is not necessarily a difficult document to find, nearly every research library will hold copies, but it is voluminous, which can make it difficult when researching a specific topic. Besides FRUS, the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections also hold many other federal as well as Wisconsin specific documents.

You can also access FRUS through the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State. When I first attempted to access the site this morning they were apparently experiencing some technical difficulties and I was greeted by the following image:

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The site is working now, but in true internet fashion I have to thank our current president for my problems.

FRUS is an excellent resource for anyone curious about the international history of the United States. It contains documents from many of the U.S. government’s overseas agencies and departments, as well as the personal communications of the diplomats and policy makers. It is available for free to the public through both the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections and the Office of the Historian of the Department of State.

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Latin American Regime Change, Proposed by Uruguay?

When examining the experience of Latin American states in the twentieth century, intervention and overthrow are at the heart of the discussion. Typically, the United States, who regularly intervened in the affairs of its neighbors and ousted many governments it found “troublesome,” is portrayed as the architect of Latin American regime change. However, the United States was not alone in seeking to reshape the politics of the hemisphere. In the late 1940s, inspired but the democratic rhetoric of the Second World War and the human rights ideals of the United Nations, many Latin Americans dreamed of eliminating dictatorial governments from the Americas. Some called for peaceful change through public and international pressure, while others advocated for military intervention.

Among the latter was Eduardo Rodriguez Larreta, the Foreign Minister of Uruguay, who proposed that the American republics work multilaterally to remove any non-democratic elements. In a letter to other American governments, Larreta defended the principle of non-intervention, however he argued that it did not protect “the notorious and repeated violation by any republic of the elementary right of man and of the citizen.” According to the Larreta Doctrine, as it came to be known, dictators like Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic could no longer abuse their citizens while hiding behind the non-intervention. As a means of ending this maltreatment, Larreta called for the pursuit of “multilateral collective action, exercised with complete unselfishness by all other republics of the continent, aimed at achieving in a spirit of brotherly prudent the mere reestablishment of essential rights.” It was also important that the intervention follow international law and not “injure the government affected” because it was “being taken for the benefit of all, including the country which has been suffering under such a harsh regime.”

Initially the United States supported the proposal, however the Cold War quickly forced the U.S. policymakers to change their tune. The United States could not support ousting the region’s dictators because they were its closest anti-communist allies. Without U.S. support, many Latin American countries also withdrew support for what came to be known as the Larreta Doctrine.

However, Latin American democrats, such as Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt and Guatemalan president José Arévalo, saw the doctrine as a means of removing what they saw as a blight on the hemisphere. These leaders began sponsoring national liberation movements, headed by democratic exiles, bent on ousting the likes of Somoza and Trujillo. These democratic revolutionaries became known as the Caribbean Legion and launched a series of invasions of Caribbean states over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s. The Caribbean Legion, despite giving Caribbean despots many sleepless nights, existed only in their imaginations. Although many of the revolutionaries shared resources and logistics, there was never a cohesive army made of Caribbean democrats, only individual bands of insurgents largely divided by nationality. Nicaraguan exiles represented a large portion of the Caribbean Legion, with many aiding Jose Figueres in overthrowing the despotic regime of Teodoro Picado Michalski in Costa Rica. In 1954 and 1959, Nicaraguan exiles unsuccessfully attempted to oust the Somoza regime, and with the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the antidictatorial struggle became the purview of communist national liberation movements.

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Make Your Voice Heard on FOIA Reform; Support the FOIA Improvement Act Today


Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) and Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-CT) (R).  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) and Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-CT) (R). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), responding to both federal agencies refusal to embrace President Obama’s mandate to adopt a “presumption in favor of disclosure” and their continued misapplication of the b(5) FOIA exemption, have introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. The Act will make it easier for everyday Americans to use the FOIA to request and receive documents by fixing the b(5) “withhold it because you want to” FOIA exemption, cementing fairness into the fee system, and strengthening the FOIA ombuds office, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). Thanks to the much-needed fixes it introduces, the bill is supported by a broad coalition of open government advocates, including the National Security Archive.

But, for these important reforms to be felt, the FOIA Improvement Act needs…

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Somoza’s Mad Men

At the end of the Second World War governments from around the world turned to U.S. public relations firms to improve their image abroad and help curry favor with foreign officials, particularly those of the United States. Amongst those foreign governments employing U.S. PR firms were the former Axis power nations if Italy, Japan, and West Germany, as well as many of Latin America’s more autocratic regimes, including that of Anastasio Somoza Garcia in Nicaragua.

Somoza Garcia employed the services of Max Rogel Inc., a “Madison Avenue” – they claimed in their advertisements that their offices were on Madison Avenue but they actually operated out of Newark, New Jersey – firm that serviced both domestic and international clients. In its relationship with the Somoza regime, Max Rogel Inc. acted as the dictator’s voice to the broader world, churning out news articles about Nicaragua and sending them to major U.S. newspapers. These articles largely painted Somoza in a flattering light, but they also provided publicity for foreign governments ignored by the mainstream U.S. media. In this regard, Max Rangel Inc. acted as both publicist and propagandist of the Somoza regime, but that does not mean that the firm was entirely loyal to the dictator.

In selling its services to the Somoza regime, Max Rangel Inc. was not above over promoting or lying to the dictator. The firm claimed that it had “a comprehensive news service that makes it possible to flash a story or photograph to every major newspaper in the United States” and that it was a service extended to them by the Associated Press or United Press International, the two major news services of the post-war era. In fact, what the firm was referring to was the PR Newswire that only operated in New York City and had no affiliation with either the Associated Press or United Press International. Although the politics of Max Rogel are unclear, they clearly had no scruples against working for a murderous dictator, or ripping him off.

On a completely unrelated note, I found a 1954 Wall Street Journal article detailing how the Federal Trade Commission told a subsidiary of Max Rogel Inc., The Charm Institute, to stop making phoney claims. The FTC accused the Charm Institute of making false claims about its “gold medal,” which was an award given to a product that was apparently “judged by famous stage and screen stars to be superior.” However, the FTC found that “famous people neither participated in any judging nor in the companies activities.” In both its domestic and international dealings, the truth was obviously a malleable thing for Max Rogel Inc.


Douglass Cater, Power in Washington: A Critical Look at Today’s Struggle to Govern in the Nation’s Capital (New York: Random House, 1964), 214-216.

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Brains, Beards, and Butterflies

Following the success of the Cuban Revolution in early 1959, the dictators of the Caribbean feared that bearded revolutionaries would soon invade their shores and oust them from power. These fears were not unfounded as Castro had made Cuba a safe haven for exiles of the region’s antidictatorial struggle.

In the Spring of 1959, a number of revolutionary movements, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, attempted to overthrow the governments of Haiti, Panama, and Nicaragua. All of these movements proved to be disastrous failures, but they put the region’s tyrants on alert. In the face of possible aggression Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic warned any possible revolutionaries to stay away from his shores unless they wanted “to see their beards and brains flying about like butterflies.”

In June of 1959, Trujillo made good on his word to make the “beards and brains” of his enemies fly when the Dominican National Guard repulsed an invasion of Dominican exiles. Although the invaders were mostly Dominicans, they received logistical and financial support from the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. The incursion exacerbated the already tension situation and resulted in Cuba and Venezuela severing relations with the Dominican Republic. By the end of the 1950s the Caribbean was a hotbed of tensions between the region’s democratic, communist, and dictatorial elements, and would remain that way for decades to come.

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Duel Across the Border: Somoza’s Challenge to Figueres

On January 11, 1955 a group of roughly five hundred Costa Rican expatriates entered Costa Rica with the intent of ousting the then president Jose Figueres. For two weeks the insurgents fought government troops in northern Costa Rica until the Organization of American States intervened and put an end to the violence. Although he denied it, the insurrectionist force had received substantial support from the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The previous spring the dictator had survived an assassination attempt and the Guardia Nacional – the Nicaraguan security forces loyal to Somoza – had defeated a small insurrection of Nicaraguan exiles that originated in Costa Rica. Somoza had also just aided in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, so seeking revenge and emboldened by his recent success in Guatemala the Nicaraguan dictator sought to remove another of his regional rivals, Figueres. Not only did Somoza supply the Costa Rican insurgents, he also provided use of his air force, which strafed and bombed targets in northern Costa Rica. Knowing that Somoza was the principal benefactor of the attacking forces, Figueres lambasted the Nicaraguan dictator in the press calling his relatives a “family of gangsters.” Somoza, who spoke fluent English and was known for his love of English curse words, responded by calling Figueres a “damn liar”and challenged Figueres to a duel at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border.

Figueres declined the invitation to duel, stating that Somoza was “crazier than a goat in the midsummer sun.”

Ultimately the crisis was defused by the intervention of the United States. Hoping to improve its image after the Guatemalan coup, the United States quickly stepped in and negotiated an end to the crisis, however tensions between the two countries remained high even after the assassination of Somoza the next year.

Although Somoza was the main aggressor against Costa Rica and Figueres, he was aided by the other dictatorial regimes of the Caribbean. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican, Castillo Armas of Guatemala, and Marcos Perez Jiménez of Venezuela also provided resources or support to the 1955 insurgency. Along with Somoza, they represented a regional alliance bent on securing their own regimes and sniffing out any form of opposition be it democratic or communist. In 1957 Trujillo hatched a plot to assassinate Figueres and bring down one of the regions strongest voices for democracy. The plot failed but extraterritorial violence of the Caribbean dictators continued for decades to come.


Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945-1959 (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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Ernesto Cardenal and Venezuelan Solidarity

The Following images are from the April/May 1977 issue of Gaceta Sandinista, which was published by the Venezuelan Committee in Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua. The group was composed primarily of students and members of leftist political parties, as evinced by the imagery of Karl Marx. The issue from which these images were taken chronicled a visit to Venezuela by Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet and religious leader who opposed the Somoza regime and clandestinely worked with the Sandinistas. Prior to the success of the Sandinista Revolution Cardenal traveled the globe as a member of “the Twelve,” a group of twelve Nicaraguan exiles who traveled the globe speaking out against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and garnering support for the revolutionary cause. The actions of Cardenal and other members of “the Twelve” helped raise awareness about the plight of Nicaraguans under the dictatorship and placed pressure on the Carter administration to withdraw for Somoza Debayle.

Sandino and Cardenal
The above image is the front cover of Gaceta Sandinista, which depicts Cardenal standing with Augusto Sandino. Cardenal and the Sandinistas were the heirs to Sandino’s revolutionary movement against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua between 1927 and 1933.

Cardenal 2

Cardenal and monster
As these cartoons accurately depict, Catholicism and leftist political ideals formed the two main pillars of the Nicaraguan Revolution. The Nicaraguan Revolution utilized both Liberation Theology and Marxist thought in their struggle against Somoza Debayle.


Cardenal and Marx

Cardenal and Marx 2
These cartoons were drawn by the well-known Venezuelan cartoonist Abilio Padron, who created pieces sympathetic to national liberation struggles. Before producing these cartoons for Venezuelan Committee in Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua, Abilio had created pieces protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

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Microfilm Will Steal Your Sanity, So Listen to Podcasts.

Over the past few months I have been working through the North American Congress on Latin America’s (NACLA) rather large collection of microfilm on the Nicaraguan Revolution. The collection is held on twenty rolls of microfilm with at least 1,000 pages on each roll, which translates to roughly 20,000 individual pages of documents. Luckily my department has a digital microfilm machine, as opposed to the difficult analog models, but going through such a large microfilm collection can be a very tedious task. Too keep me from losing my mind during this process I have been listening to a number of podcasts.

The first, and in my humble opinion foremost, of these is Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, which is a weekly podcast featuring such popular comedians as Paul F. Tompkins, Nick Kroll, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. The show is beyond absurd as each weeks guests create bizarre characters and improvise hilarious encounters. Below is this weeks episode, which had me laughing out loud in the library yesterday. If you like strange Irish women and robotic dogs I would recommend taking a listen.

When I have run out of episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! I often turn to How Did This Get Made?, a podcast in which comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas (also a regular on Comedy Bang! Bang!) rib one terrible movies they have watched. If you liked MST3K but thought that it could use more profanity this is the show for you.

These two shows are my staples, with a little music mixed in. They have helped me get through hundreds of pages of documents with my mind intact, and hopefully they will get me through hundreds more.

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