|Jose Santos Zelaya and his family|
The home of this reputed leader of a united Central America is in that dirty, dusty, disorderly, little sun-baked city of Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. It is a capital that lies hidden away on the far side of the mountains, for, like all seats of government in the revolutionary belt, it must not stand too easy of access on the part of the possible invader. The name of this Managuan leader is Jose Santos Zelaya, and he is to-day known officially as the President of Nicaragua.
But this Zelaya, it must be conceded, has an anachronistic touch of the Napoleonic in his make-up. A character of intense energy, of illimitable ambition, of calm and judicial clear-headedness when advancing, of primordial and ruthless savagery when necessary, of undisputed courage and equally undisputed cruelty, sly and circuitous in his inner and uncompromised pertinacities, sophisticated in his use of auxiliaries, truly Castilian in his preparedness, Olympian in his absence of earthly scrupulosity, cynical through his knowledge of life, and sinister in his dogged exactions of vengeance, he stands to-day a menace and a promise to all Central America.
Both the man and the movement he represents can be divided into two distinct phases, one the romantic, and the other the malignant. Like all martial reorganizers, he puzzles us with his admixture of Hyde-and-Jekyll incongruities. To his enemies — and he has many — he is an opportunist, a tyrant and an autocrat; a demagogue, thief, sensualist, fratricide, wading through shame and blood to a short-lived political notoriety. To his supporters he is a penetrating and dispassionate-minded statesman, a courageous and determined liberator, a builder and organizer of inspired adroitness, lending his gifts to the bitter but determined struggle for some ultimate peace in Central America.
Of Zelaya, the youth, we know but little, because there is little of interest to know. He was of "unmixed blood," the son of a wealthy coffee-planter. So he could claim an aristocracy of birth, as such things go in Central America. But much the same as other Spanish-American youths of the upper class, he spent his early days in gambling and cock-fighting. He entered the army at an early age. What special talents he may have possessed still lay dormant. His initiative and executive powers did not show themselves until his vocation of an officer merged by easy and natural transitions into that of a politician. Then the man awakened, the organizer found himself.
Zelaya also saw that his world was an austerely provincial and isolated one. He felt the necessity for outside ideas, for a saner and wider perspective of things. So for practically ten years he became a looker-on, a student of life beyond his native republic. It was a big slice from a predetermined career; but it paid. Zelaya lived and studied in France, in the Lycee of Versailles, in Belgium, in London, in New York. Then he went back to Nicaragua, to the dusty little sun-baked plain and the dirty little city of Managua. He went back more or less of a cosmopolite, a cynical and somewhat hardened student of history, still intent on his original purpose, still ambitious to the uttermost. He had stood by and watched the outside world conducting its vast businesses; he had beheld and probed about the machinery of its great governments. He had come into touch with the unrest and the individualism of the century end. He had hardened into a Nietzsche-like egoist, intent on his own ends, fixed in his own methods to attain those ends.
|Jose Santos Zelaya|
In the Nicaragua of the early nineties the dictator-to-be must have seen a field somewhat to his liking. The son of the soil in that republic is an easy-going and pliant peon, a gentle-natured provincial. He is dominated, for all his admixture of blood and color, by a deep pride of race, leaving him tinder to the flame of the patriotic demagogue. He is meek, but not mean-spirited, and he is reasonably industrious. He is illiterate, for in his land there are no public schools; and he is deeply, if primordially, religious. He is mobile, emotional, excitable, easily led. He is a lover of pomp and of ceremonial; and before a uniform embellished with sufficient gold lace he will invariably prostrate himself. This means that a pilgrimage of a few dashing officers in full uniform through any remoter section of the country will result in an immediate mushroom army, a seemingly miraculous band of patient-spirited conscripts from Heaven knows where, quite ready to face and fight for Heaven knows what. When driven beyond their endurance, it is true, they desert. When conscripted with a frequency that causes even their docile spirits to rebel, they are rounded up and taken by force, and marched to the capital in chains and manacles. Even a lasso is not an unheard of thing in the making up of a Central American army.
Zelaya, as the returned cosmopolite, was also better able to understand the little pinchbeck aristocracy of Managua. He beheld in it a contentious, ceremonially mendacious, grasping, unscrupulous, and idle band of parasites, each with his eyes on the presidency — for managed with even moderate discretion the rulership of such a republic can be made to yield dividends of bewildering dimensions. If this be so of one republic, ruminated this calm, thoughtful man of destiny, how much more so it would be of five republics thrown into one. Every machete and car-wheel, bean of coffee and pound of rubber, that comes in or goes out of such a country would have to pay tribute to him. From the Atlantic to the Pacific his hand would surrender every concession and dole out every monopoly. No capital could enter that country, and no enterprise could be set up within it, without his consent thereto and his power of levying thereon. And the union of these five contentious states into one would do infinitely more than obviate the waste ensuing from tribal warfare and internecine aggression. It would do more than leave him at the head of a potentially wealthy and only partially developed country. It would find him the supreme dictator of "the United States of Central America," a formidable nation of millions, of magnificent harbors and impregnable mountain recesses, of a strategic position uniquely enviable, of ample endowments for all movements of defense and offense, when the occasion arose. Mexico need no longer he deferred to; her success and her rivalry need no longer be feared.
The United States of America need no longer be consulted, her gunboats need no longer be countenanced in certain Caribbean seaports, and her suavely dictatorial messages as to the treatment of invested capital need no longer be observed.
Walker, the filibuster, was a romantic "bad man" with a mania for dominion, and the Honduranian fusilado that closed his career was as logical as it was legitimate. Castro, the Venezuelan, was a vacillator who met his Moscow and slowly declined, before even the glory of a lost Waterloo. But Zelaya has shown that he knows neither vacillation nor romance. He has rid himself of the retrospective tendency. He has common sense and is commercial and modern. He has always been calm and judicial. And from the first, when he has been the coolest he has been the most circuitous; when he has been the most deliberate he has proved the most cruel, the most implacably ruthless. He has planned each move to win. And, so far, he has won.
The first necessary step in this far-reaching campaign was to capture the presidential chair. The second essential, when once in that chair, was to remain there. So in 1893 Zelaya became the chief executive of the Republic of Nicaragua. And it is worth pausing to note that while these little Central American nations are called "republics" they are far from republican in spirit. Each country is an example of absolutism, of varying degrees of arrogance and irresponsibility. In each the citizen will find himself surrounded by spies and espionage, by peremptory court-martial and compulsory military service, by the exasperating injustices of an autocracy still medieval in spirit. In countries more enlightened, the natural spirit of revolt against such conditions would assert itself through the columns of the press and re-echo from the platform, and find itself still again reiterated from the club-house and the committee room. In Central America there is no press as we know the press. The editor who writes an open attack on the administrator of his country's destinies promptly finds his paper suppressed. If he has time to escape across the frontier and become an emigrado, he will discover plenty of company awaiting him. One's first impression of Central America is that half its population is living in enforced exile. The result is that the spirit of criticism and of natural protest on the isthmus invariably flowers into the ubiquitous little revolution. The executive so assailed must duly protect himself. He must even take steps to nip the movement in the bud. So the slightest unfriendly spirit in an individual or a coterie can be construed into a reasonable excuse for the fusilado; the undesirables are lined up against a church wall, the word is given to the waiting firing squad, and criticism of the earnest and altruistic chief executive is silenced! Such a line of procedure obviously, when it comes to a matter of re-election, has a wonderfully simplifying effect. Opposition is anarchy, and anarchy, above all things, must be suppressed.
Zelaya, it is worthy of note, has been twice re-elected. Of these elections perhaps the least said the better. Yet a moment's glance is due one of them, at least, as a mere demonstration of a resourceful leader's half-contemptuous comprehension of the conditions with which he must cope. For in many of the remoter portions of this evasive politician's republic, the mercurial, hotheaded, oratorical native was given to understand that one of three candidates was to be elected by his vote: Jose, Santos, or Zelaya. One of these three the native was to support; beyond that he knew little. But the people divided into factions, with each party arguing and debating, as only the Spanish-American can argue and debate, for its leader. Those who supported Jose invariably condemned Santos. Those who cried for Santos would have none of Zelaya. In the end, when the votes were counted, the man called Zelaya was duly elected. Ignominious was the defeat of Jose and Santos. Indeed, they promptly retired from public life. It was only in the capital that the new president was known as Jose Santos Zelaya.
|Entrance to Zelaya's Palace|
Once in the chair, this man who would be king showed his mettle. He suavely yet audaciously issued a proclamation reincorporating the long-disputed Mosquito Coast into the Nicaraguan Republic. It was a deliberate twist to the lion's tail, although the territory involved, so many years under the protectorate of Great Britain, was bubbling with the spirit of a most convenient revolution, and stood sorely in need of a little disinterested discipline. Nicaragua, of course, was the power to administer this impersonal reproof. But in the course of this benignant ministration it clapped a British consul into prison. The result was an indemnity of fifteen thousand pounds sterling, and a momentary shock to the mildly bewildered Zelaya. But it was merely a pebble under the car of destiny. For in the meantime he had invaded Honduras, and left an army of occupation to impress the Honduranians with the sincerity of his earlier promise of such things. The invasion of Honduras, in fact, has grown to be a habit with Zelaya. His armies of coerced irregulars have marched and countermarched so often across the hills of Honduras that to-day he feels enough at home to dictate its policy and appoint its foreign representatives and make recommendations as to its officers and its elections. His defeat of Bonilla is too much a matter of present-day history to be more than mentioned here, though, oddly enough, when this same Bonilla was elected to the presidency of Honduras he had to re-enter his native republic and march to his capital and his presidential chair surrounded by a bodyguard of Nicaraguan troops.
Truly the changes of isthmian politics are ironic in their kaleidoscopic abruptness!
There is peace on the isthmus for the moment, but it is only the peace of a quiescent Vesuvius. The Conference of Amapala was merely a towel-wave over a winded fighter. Zelaya, the man who shoots tigers for a pastime, has fed on too strong meat to be satisfied with inaction. He has his ultimate destiny to fulfill, and in the meantime he has certain old scores to wipe out. Costa Rica remains undisciplined for that subterranean sympathy with Honduras, during this year's war, which prompted Zelaya, when he found a wounded Honduranian carrying a letter of sympathy and encouragement from Costa Rica's Secretary of State, to go to the telegraph key and dispatch to the last-named gentleman the grim and pregnant words, "I condole with you on your approaching death." For the Spanish-American is nothing if not dramatic.
Zelaya's hand of rulership has never been velvety of touch. A name and an empire based on bullets cannot be either vacillating or kindly. Bolivar lost the love of Venezuela through soft-heartedness. Zelaya will never repeat that mistake. When Filberto Castro and Anacleto Gaundique were court-martialed on a charge of trying to dynamite Zelaya's military headquarters, four years ago, it was, of course, the President himself who appointed that drumhead court.
Yet it is un-denied and un-deniable that this man of iron has introduced many material reforms into Nicaragua. His despotism is not the blind and malignant self-seeking of a Guatemalan Cabrera. He has caused the medievalism’s of his capital to be mocked by the modernities of steam laundries and electric lighting. He has had built over two hundred miles of railroad and made possible the carriage of freight and passengers across his republic. He has inaugurated the novelty of a machine-shop, and built a few warehouses and wharves, and opened up a port or two. When he came into power, in 1893, his country's foreign debt was two hundred and eighty thousand pounds. Zelaya's special envoy was sent to London, and it was finally arranged that, along with all interest, one per cent of the capital should be paid off. It was not much, but one must not look for speed from a glacier. But it was enough to restore the financial standing of his republic, so that to-day Nicaragua is third, from the commercial view-point, among all the South-American republics, being preceded by Argentina and Chile alone. He has also opened up a gold mine or two, and instituted an industry or two, but in these efforts the acumen and organization of the invading Americans have robbed him of his profits. They have, too, these "gringos" from the North, scattered the seeds of discord among his people, and have been blamed for more than one of the perennial Bluefields revolutions. Zelaya, accordingly, has no love for these aggressive and investment-seeking Americans. They keep his sponge squeezed too dry. They tend to monopolize his businesses and limit his possibilities. Some day he will meet them on more equal ground — if all goes well with him. Someday, when his governor controls Honduras, and his underlings administer the affairs of Salvador, and Cabrera has been attacked and ousted and Costa Rica has been subjugated by a show of arms, he might openly defy the Americans. But the time is not yet ripe; all he can do now is to harass them with heart-breaking tariffs and bleed them incontinently for concessions, and madden them with over-exacting quarantine laws. When the time is ripe, it is reasonable enough to expect, he will take his stand in the open. Then, for a:while at least, the United States of Central America will be of considerable interest to the United States of America. It may or may not be for long, since the policeman of the Western Hemisphere has other and sterner duties. But it will be interesting while it lasts. And the most interesting figure in it will be Zelaya, for round him will center everything that the movement and the moment represent. It will be seen, then, in that final test, just what order of intellect lies behind the high, square-lined, dome-like forehead of the man. He can then show if the sullen and stolid bulkiness of his physical make-up is an index of his inner spirit; if the furtiveness and half-cynical reticence of the deep-set and unstable eyes, almost Asiatic in their inscrutability, are a sign and symbol of something more than blind bull-dog tenacity and a reckless ambition founded only on egotism.
From The Metropolitan Magazine, April 1908.