José Santos Zelaya (1853-1919) was a Nicaraguan dictator and president from 1893 to 1909. His record is a mixed one: the country progressed in terms of railroads, communications, commerce and education, but he was also a tyrant who jailed or assassinated his critics and stirred up rebellions in neighboring nations. By 1909 his enemies had multiplied enough to drive him from office and he spent the rest of his life in exile in Mexico, Spain and New York.
José was born into a wealthy family of coffee growers. They were able to send José to the best schools, including some in Paris, which was quite the fashion for young Central Americans of means. Liberals and Conservatives were feuding at the time, and the country was ruled by a series of Conservatives from 1863 to 1893. José joined a Liberal group and soon rose to a position of leadership.
Rise to the Presidency:
The Conservatives had held onto power in Nicaragua for thirty years, but their grip was beginning to loosen. President Roberto Sacasa (in office 1889-1893) saw his party splinter when former President Joaquín Zavala led an internal revolt: the result was three different Conservative presidents at different times in 1893. With the Conservatives in disarray, the Liberals were able to seize power with the assistance of the military. Forty year old José Santos Zelaya was the Liberals’ choice for President.
Annex of the Mosquito Coast:
Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast had long been a bone of contention between Nicaragua, Great Britain, the United States and the Miskito Indians who made their home there (and who gave the place its name). Great Britain declared the area a protectorate, hoping eventually to establish a colony there and perhaps construct a canal to the Pacific. Nicaragua has always claimed the area, however, and Zelaya sent forces to occupy and annex it in 1894, naming it the Province of Zelaya. Great Britain decided to let it go, and although the US sent some Marines to occupy the city of Bluefields for a while, they, too, retreated.
Zelaya proved to be a despotic ruler. He drove his Conservative opponents into ruin and even ordered some of them arrested, tortured and killed. He turned his back on his liberal supporters, instead surrounding himself with like-minded crooks. Together, they sold concessions to foreign interests and kept the money, siphoned off of lucrative state monopolies, and increased tolls and taxes.
It wasn’t all bad for Nicaragua under Zelaya. He built new schools and improved education by providing books and materials and raising teacher salaries. He was a big believer in transportation and communication, and new railroads were built. Steamers carried goods across the lakes, coffee production boomed and the country prospered, especially those individuals with connections to President Zelaya. He also built up the national capital at neutral Managua, leading to a decrease in the feuding between traditional powers León and Granada.
Central American Union:
Zelaya had a vision of a united Central America – with himself as President, of course. To this end, he started stirring up unrest in neighboring countries. In 1906, he invaded Guatemala, allied with El Salvador and Costa Rica. He supported a rebellion against the government of Honduras and when that failed, he sent the Nicaraguan army into Honduras. Together with the El Salvadoran Army, they were able to defeat the Hondurans and occupy Tegucigalpa.
The Washington Conference of 1907:
This prompted Mexico and the United States to call for the Washington Conference of 1907, at which a legal body called the Central American Court was created to solve disputes in Central America. The small countries of the region signed an agreement not to meddle in one another’s affairs. Zelaya signed, but did not stop trying to stir up rebellions in neighboring countries.
By 1909 Zelaya’s enemies had multiplied. The United States considered him an impediment to their interests and he was despised by Liberals as well as Conservatives in Nicaragua. In October, Liberal General Juan Estrada declared a rebellion. The United States, which had been keeping some warships close to Nicaragua, quickly moved to support it. When two Americans who were among the rebels were captured and killed, the US broke off diplomatic relations and once again sent Marines into Bluefields, ostensibly to protect US investments.
Exile and Legacy of José Santos Zelaya:
Zelaya, no fool, could clearly see the writing on the wall. He left Nicaragua in December of 1909, leaving the treasury empty and the nation in shambles. Nicaragua had much foreign debt, most of it to European nations, and Washington sent experienced diplomat Thomas C. Dawson to sort things out. Eventually, the Liberals and Conservatives returned to bickering, and the US occupied Nicaragua in 1912, making it a protectorate in 1916. As for Zelaya, he spent time in exile in Mexico, Spain and even New York, where he was briefly jailed for his role in the deaths of the two Americans in 1909. He died in 1919.
Zelaya left a mixed legacy in his nation. Long after the mess he had left had been cleared up, the good remained: the schools, the transportation, the coffee plantations, etc. Even though most Nicaraguans hated him in 1909, by the late twentieth century opinion of him had improved enough for his likeness to be featured on Nicaragua’s 20 Cordoba note. His defiance of the United States and Great Britain over the Mosquito Coast in 1894 contributed greatly to his legend, and it is this act which is still remembered most about him today.
Memories of his dictatorship have also faded due to subsequent strongmen taking over Nicaragua, such as Anastasio Somoza García. In many ways, he was a precursor to the corrupt men that followed him into the President’s chair, but their malfeasance eventually overshadowed his.
Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Central America. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.