At 83, the last Marine in Nicaragua still has the enemy within his sights

April 12, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Earthquakes, military dictatorships and a revolution have struck Nicaragua since Capt. George Smith first set foot in the nation in 1927 as part of a U.S. Marine Corps regiment sent to fight an obscure rebel leader named Augusto Sandino.

Mr. Smith, 83, is still here, the last Marine. And he's still fighting.

These days, Mr. Smith is struggling with the legacy of Sandino's intellectual heirs, the leftist Sandinistas who seized his ranches, wiped their boots on his treasured U.S. flag and nearly destroyed his life.

"I'd like to see them all dumped in the volcano out there," he said, motioning from a porch in Managua.

"Everything they touched they destroyed -- our home, our ranches. We lost 1,050 head of purebred, registered Brahman cattle."

Mr. Smith and his family are laboring to rebuild their lives after regaining some of their property from the civilian government of President Violeta Chamorro. Ms. Chamorro upset the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, and her centrist government is entangled in disputes over land confiscated years earlier by the Sandinistas. Thousands of Nicaraguans who lost their land are trying to reclaim it, and the debate has become one of the most controversial issues of the Chamorro administration.

Mr. Smith, one of 102 U.S. citizens believed to have lost property to the Sandinistas, is perhaps the most unusual claimant because he has witnessed so much of Nicaragua's history.

A Virginia native, he arrived in Nicaragua on Sept. 20, 1927, with the Marine Corps' 5th Regiment, part of a 7,500-member force deployed to capture Sandino, a wispy insurgent roaming northern Nicaragua's mountains and enlisting supporters in his anti-imperialist cause. Spurring Sandino's armed crusade was a profound bitterness over U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. From Mr. Smith's viewpoint, Sandino and his followers were rogues.

"They would harass ranchers. They would murder people. They were bandits, that's the truth," he said. For five years, the Marines unsuccessfully stalked Sandino and his men. "Sandino never showed his skin. . . . He would never stay in one spot long enough. It was hit-and-run, hit-and-run," Mr. Smith recalled.

In 1928, a grenade explosion injured his legs. He nearly lost them to amputation when they became infected from the mud.

Two years later, he became convinced that the fight against Sandino was a losing battle and said so in a written report.

"We were too few men, and it was not our fight," he said. Mr. Smith feared court-martial, but when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office in 1933, he pulled the Marines out. Sandino was killed in 1934 by troops under the late Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, whom the Americans had installed as head of the new Nicaraguan National Guard. Mr. Smith, fluent in Spanish, fell in love and stayed in Nicaragua.

"I married the farmer's daughter," he said. "My father-in-law was one of the most well-known ranchers in the country."

Mr. Smith and his wife, Amanda Pastora, carved out ranches from pastureland in Boaco, about 55 miles east of Managua.

"We were not land barons. But we prospered after 50 years of hard work," he said. The family, including son George Jr., acquired more than 5,000 acres.

Mr. Smith caught word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on a short-wave radio at his ranch and immediately went to Managua to report for duty with the 5th Regiment.

"I fought the battle of Managua," he quipped, adding that he spent the war as the adjutant of the Nicaraguan military academy, becoming friendly with the Somoza family, which ruled for more than 40 years.

In 1979, long after Mr. Smith had returned to his ranches, calamity struck. The Sandinistas overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, son of the previous dictator. Sandinistas swept onto the Smith ranches.

"They took everything, even the doors and the windows. It was a disaster. . . . They dismantled the barns. Loaded them up and away they went," he said.

In a claim to the State Department, Mr. Smith calculated his family's losses at $1.15 million, including 112 prized horses, 1,050 head of cattle, houses and savings accounts.

What still makes him "burning, stinking mad," though, was something else the Sandinistas did.

"I had a beautiful American flag with gold fringe. I kept it staff-mounted behind my desk. When the Sandinistas took my home, they took down my American flag, folded it up and used it as a rag to clean their boots.

"When the flag was torn to pieces, a rag, they made a big fiesta out in the street and burned my flag."

Mr. Smith said he wrote to President Ronald Reagan from Costa Rica, where the family temporarily resettled after the 1979 revolution, and "told him exactly what they had done." When Mr. Reagan visited Costa Rica in 1983, he gave Mr. Smith a new flag.

Good fortune befell the Smith clan when Ms. Chamorro came to office in April 1990.

"I've gotten special treatment from Dona Violeta. She knows I'm an old, dear friend of her father and mother," he said.

Mr. Smith has gotten about half his family's land back so far, more than any other of the Americans with pending land claims. He doesn't hold out much hope for the rest.

His 1,700-acre Pedrenal Ranch above the town of Boaco already has been turned over to about 50 families of demobilized contra rebels, who waged war against the Sandinistas for eight years. But Mr. Smith is rebuilding the ranches he has gotten back -- making him one of the only Americans reinvesting in Nicaragua today.

"My family up there in Florida thinks I'm crazy," he said, referring to a daughter and grandchildren living in Venice. "I've taken out my savings in Miami, about $90,000, and invested it," he said.

Declining to pose for a photo with his war medals and flag, Mr. Smith said, "I've got to be very careful here to keep a low profile. As far as the Sandinistas are concerned, I'm an S.O.B."

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