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the atlantic coast  •  1926-1934

documentary annex, page 11:

on sandino'S arms in jan 1927


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   THIS IS PAGE 11 OF THE ATLANTIC COAST DOCUMENTARY ANNEX.   It examines five different versions of how, exactly, Sandino's small band of Liberal revolutionists acquired arms on the Coast in January 1927 at the height of the 1926-27 Civil War, and who helped them.

     The first two accounts were written & signed in press releases by Sandino in 1929 and 1932, respectively.  The third Sandino narrated to the Nicaraguan journalist José Román in March 1933, who published the interview 50 years later in his now-classic Maldito país (1983).  The fourth was narrated by old-time Sandinista Santos López in 1976, and the fifth comes from a report by the US Military Attaché in Costa Rica in January 1928, based on information gleaned from an anonymous informant.

     In what follows I first quote, summarize & critically analyze each version.  I then offer a imaginative reconstruction of what I think probably actually happened, judging from this fragmentary & conflicting evidence, before concluding with some brief reflections on the relationship between "history" and "myth".

VERSION #1.  “La Guerra Constitucionalista” (18 March 1929, PV1: 82-84).

"... El 24 de diciembre de 1926, los yankees declararon Zona Neutral Puerto Cabezas, ordenando al Doctor Sacasa la evacuación del Puerto en el término de cuarenta y ocho horas por todo el Ejército Constitucionalista y el retiro de elementos bélicos nicaragüenses que allí hubiera.  ¶  Al recibir la grosera intimación procedieron a desocupar aquella plaza los constitucionalistas, en el escaso tiempo de la intimación.  ¶  No pudiendo llevar todos los elementos bélicos almacenados alli, gran cantidad de ellos fue arrojada al mar por los yankees.  La desesperante humillación dio lugar a que las fuerzas de Sacasa dejaran abandonados cuarenta rifles y siete mil cartuchos sobre la raya de costa entre Puerto Cabezas y Prinzapolka.  ¶  Mis seis ayudantes y yo no quisimos dar un paso sin llevar con nosotros los elementos abandonados.  ¶  Con la ayuda de algunos nativos de La Mosquitia transportamos por tierra a Prinzapolka aquellas armas y el parque. ..."

     Several aspects of this important narrative merit attention.

      First, note that this it does not say that Sandino’s forces got their rifles & bullets from the sea.  Nor does it say anything about anyone helping his small force acquire the 40 rifles and 7,000 bullets.  Let us look at what it does say.

     It says that the Yankees threw a "great quantity" of the Constitutionalists’ confiscated arms into the sea near Puerto Cabezas.  It then goes on to say that after being expelled from Puerto Cabezas by the Yankees, Sacasa’s forces "in desperate humiliation" abandoned 40 rifles and 7,000 bullets “along the coastline” (sobre la raya de costa) between Puerto Cabezas & Prinzapolka.  These were the arms Sandino says his small band retrieved:  not from the sea, but presumably from the "coastline".  Note his language here:  "humiliated" is a highly charged & coded term, deeply imbricated with cultural constructions of honor & shame and discourses of gender & sexuality.  In this narrative, Sacasa’s retreat shamed & emasculated his troops so completely that they simply abandoned their weapons along the coastline as they retreated.  Then Sandino and his heroic band came along and found them.  Here Sandino's acquisition of arms becomes a kind of morality tale:  in the face of brutal Yankee aggression, Sacasa retreats & thus loses his honor and his claim to virile manhood.  Sandino, in contrast, becomes the heroic, resourceful, aggressive, and determined bearer of Sacasa’s surrendered virility & manhood.  The episode on Sacasa abandoning the arms along the coast thus occupies a key position in this narrative as a pivotal moment in a larger morality tale.  The account goes on to say that after these arms were acquired, "some natives of the Mosquito Coast" helped to transport them by land to Prinzapolka – away from Puerto Cabezas.  If these were Miskitu Indians, they seem to have been enlisted as overland porters.

     This is the version that has inspired various fictional accounts & artistic renderings, including the wonderfully imaginative magical-realist story by Stephen Duplantier in the December 2011 issue of the online zine Neotropica and its mildly eroticized portrayal of the event in the image below:

Image via the kind courtesy of Stephen Duplantier, "The General & the Mermaid," in the online zine Neotropica, issue no. 3, December 2011, at http://issuu.com/stephanz/docs/neotropica3/125 (offsite)

VERSION #2. “Para la historia de Nicaragua” (4 August 1932, PV2: 238).

"... Yo salí con seis ayudantes atrás de la Guardia de Sacasa, y conmigo iba un grupo de muchachas de amores libres, ayudandonos a sacar hasta la distancia impuesta por los invasores, rifles y parque, que fueron en número de treinta rifles y seite mil cartuchos. ..."

     This version largely corresponds to the first:  Sandino & six lieutenants follow behind Sacasa in the latter’s retreat from Puerto Cabezas, but this time accompanied by "a group of young women of free love" who "until the distance imposed by the invaders," find and take the 30 rifles and 7,000 bullets.  There is nothing about getting the weapons from the sea here, either.  Note the date:  4 August 1932 is two months before Sacasa is widely expected to become president in the elections slated for November.  Sandino, ever the shrewd political actor, was probably looking to foster a positive environment for the upcoming negotiations with soon-to-be President Sacasa, transforming the story from a morality tale deriding Sacasa's cowardice into a mildly salacious hero & adventure story.  Why?  Perhaps because young women "de amores libres" from around Puerto Cabezas did in fact help his band acquire the arms.  And, perhaps, because he was in a truth-telling mood at the time – with the forty rifles shrinking to thirty.

VERSION #3:  José Román, Maldito país (Managua, 2007), 88-89.

"... Moncada me negó las armas que tanto necesitamos. Como los norteamericanos declararan a Puerto Cabezas ‘Zona Neutral,’ el Gobierno de Sacasa tuvo que moverse a Prinzapolka.  En Puerto Cabezas quedaron rifles y ametralladoras escondidas para que no los capturaran los marinos.  Estas armas me fueron ‘entregadas’ secretamente por unas prostitutas de esa ciudad que sabían donde estaban escondidas y por suerte eran segovianas.  Con mis ayudantes y ese grupo de segovianas de la vida pública, logramos sacar los rifles, dos ametralladoras y poco más de 37,000 cartuchos. Todo nuevo.  Esto además de unos pocos rifles viejos y quebrados que nos dieron los del Gobierno y de los cuales apenas uno que otro sirvió.  ¶  Bueno, en total permanecí cuarenta días en la Costa Atlántica. ..."

     Note that in this version, an unknown quantity of rifles, machine guns & ammunition lie hidden somewhere inside Puerto Cabezas, so that the Marines cannot seize them.  With the help of a group of young Segovian prostitutes, these arms are secretly delivered to Sandino:  an unknown number of rifles, 2 machine guns, and now a little more than 37,000 bullets.  I would argue that this latter claim of 37,000 bullets, vastly inflated from 7,000 in Versions #1 and #2, as well as the addition of two machine guns, actually lends additional credibility to Román's account.  As seen throughout his writings, Sandino routinely & prodigiously inflated figures of various kinds (e.g., see the Battle of El Bramadero, PC-DOCS 28.03.01).  Vastly inflating numbers to make his troops look stronger & more powerful & successful than they actually were is entirely consistent with the Supreme Chief’s routine practice.  One can readily imagine Sandino in early 1933, recounting an episode six years earlier, and adding 30,000 to the original number of bullets, as well as two machine guns atop the rifles.

     Note also that in Version #3 these young women are described not once but twice, the second time by the noteworthy phrase, "segovianas de la vida pública".  In Nicaraguan political culture, "public space" is generally conceived as male-dominated space, while "private space" — the space of the home — is widely considered female-dominated.  Sandino thus rhetorically masculinizes these Segovian prostitutes, who, by virtue of their heroic actions, were discursively transformed into the cultural equivalent of males. 

     This double referent in José Román’s account makes a total of three specific references by Sandino regarding the individuals who helped his band acquire the arms:

(1)  Version #2:  "muchachas de amores libres"
(2)  Version #3:  "prostitutas [que] eran segovianas"
(3)  Version #3:  "segovianas de la vida pública"

     Version #3 also dispenses with the morality tale about Sacasa’s humiliation causing his troops to abandon their arms somewhere along the coastline between Puerto Cabezas & Prinzapolka.  Instead it offers a more plausible scenario:  that some Liberals hid their arms inside Puerto Cabezas to keep them from the Marines, and that some transplanted young Segovian prostitutes in the city knew where these arms were hidden & helped Sandino and his men retrieve them.  José Román’s thus seems to me the most credible of the three versions.  It is the most specific, detailed, and plausible, and is also consistent with Version #2's description of the "young women of free love".

     Some might object that Román’s account was not published for 50 years and that parts of his narrative likely suffer from inaccuracies & flawed memories.  If this is the argument against this passage, then the only logical response is to throw out the whole of Román’s book, for there is no way to determine definitively which parts are credible and which are not.  There is no reason to think that Román got it wrong here, unless one thinks he got it wrong everywhere.  The passage is wholly consistent in tone & content with everything else in Maldito país and seems to me entirely plausible & credible.

     There is a fourth version, narrated by Col. Santos López in his Memorias de un soldado, published by the Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario (FER) in 1976 during the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, which reads as follows:

VERSION #4:  Santos López, Memorias (FER, Managua, 1976), p. 2.

"Hace el viaje en un pipante guiado por indios con su propio dialect que vivían en el Coco, llegando finalmente a Puerto Cabezas después de 8 días de navegación; aquí se encuentra con las tropas de Moncada, General en Jefe de los ejércitos que iban a luchar por el derrocamiento de Adolfo Díaz; y sostuvo conversaciones con Moncada, ofreciéndole Sandino ponerse bajo sus órdenes y luchar en Las Segovias en una sola causa común, encontrándose con que Moncada ya había armado las tropas y las había dirigido hacia la Laguna de Perlas y Chontales, negándole toda ayuda a él, teniendo Moncada todavía armas en su poder y posibilidades para ayudarle; desfiló Moncada con sus tropas quedando Sandino en Puerto Cabezas; allí Sandino se enteró que los conservadores habían tirado una cantidad de armas al muelle.  El, entonces, decide sacarlas cooperando en esta operación el pueblo, logrando rescatar 47 rifles, deja Puerto Cabezas y se encamina aguas arriba del Coco, con los 17 compañeros, agregándosele 45 compañeros más; . . ."  (Right: photo of Sandino & Santos López, Feb. 1934)

      In Santos López's telling, it is the Conservatives who throw their weapons off the dock (muelle) in Puerto Cabezas, after which Sandino's forces retrieve them "with the cooperation of the people" of the city.  A key part of López's version, however, does not make sense:  since the Conservatives were supported by the USA, there was no reason for them to dispose of their weapons in this fashion.  This seems a composite of various versions Santos López had heard about second-hand.

VERSION #5:  Anonymous Informant to US Military Attaché, Costa Rica, Jan. 1928.

 " ... Upon the establishment of the Sacasa government at Puerto Cabezas Sandino appears upon the scene there, offering his services.  It is understood that at that time General Moncada had no confidence in Sandino and refused to furnish him with guns at the time of the battle of Pearl Lagoon.  Sandino kept insisting that he and his followers be furnished arms and ammunition and finally obtained an order for forty rifles and ammunition, to be turned over to him at Cabo Gracias a Dios.  However, after the battle of Pearl Lagoon Sandino had already picked up a certain number of rifles and ammunition which were left behind by the forces of General Rivers Delgadillo and armed with these rifles he and his followers proceeded to the mouth of the Segovia river, near the Horduras frontier and commenced his march inland. . . ."

     In this version, synopsized by the US Military Attaché from a conversation he had with someone who obviously had quite a bit of detailed inside information about Sandino’s early life and his rise to military prominence, Sandino is initially rebuffed by Moncada but "finally obtained an order" (presumably from Moncada) for 40 rifles and ammunition, though it remains unclear in this narrative whether he actually received those weapons.  The arms he does acquire were taken from those abandoned by the forces of Conservative General Rivers Delgadillo after the Battle of Pearl Lagoon, and he brings these rifles & bullets back up the Río Coco to Las Segovias.  (For the document collection from which this report is taken, see the TOP 100 PAGE 95, PAGE 4, document nos. 36-37; for photographs of Gen. Rivers Delgadillo, see Major Bloor's Report in the TOP 100, PAGE 99.)


     Given these five different versions, the following seems to me the likeliest scenario of actually happened:

     A week or so after the Marines declare Puerto Cabezas a neutral zone on 24 December 1926, Sandino and his small group of Liberal revolutionists sneak into the city.  By chance, or because one or more of his men seek out the services of prostitutes, or because one of them is already acquainted with one of the women, Sandino’s small band is befriended by a group of young Segovian sex-workers, who tell them about a small cache of arms hidden inside the city.  Sandino’s men follow up on the lead, acquire the rifles & bullets, sneak out of the city & bring them back up the Río Coco to Las Segovias.

     There is no way to prove this, of course, and the fact is we'll never really know.  But given what we do know, this seems the likeliest sequence of events.


     On the other hand, this episode has gone beyond the confines of “History” to enter the realm of “Mythstory” – an iconic moment around which has congealed & crystallized multiple layers of meaning, symbolism & belief.  In important ways, it matters less “what actually happened” in Puerto Cabezas in January 1927 than what people today understand & believe happened there.  Artists, writers, poets & songwriters will doubtless continue to create works of art that express not simply “what happened” but the layers of meaning & symbolism that undergird the image of Sandino & the “young women of free love” heroically retrieving discarded arms from the depths of the sea to fight the despised Yankee aggressors. 

     The rigors of the historian's craft, in short, have their limits — much like the discipline of History itself — and at a certain point the historian must surrender such iconic episodes to the poets & mythmakers.

 

BACK TO ATL-DOCS 1927, PAGE 2


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