Our very own tyrant is ours to depose

Monday Books

February 21, 1994|By Dan Berger

AT THE FALL OF SOMOZA. By Lawrence Pezzullo and Ralph Pezzullo. University of Pittsburgh Press. 303 pages. $34.95.

LAWRENCE Pezzullo was the executive director of Catholic Relief Services who relocated that agency from New York to Baltimore in 1989. Before that job, he was a career Foreign Service officer. He left CRS last year to return to the State Department, fitted for his new assignment by the events described in this book.

Mr. Pezzullo was U.S. ambassador to Uruguay when Washington's embarrassing client dictator in Nicaragua, Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle, was crumbling under the relentless civil war launched by a coalition of forces under the rubric of Sandinistas.

The Carter administration -- and notably the deputy secretary of state, Warren Christopher -- came to the conclusion not that Somoza had to go but that he basically already had gone. What remained was to tell him.

Somoza was a corrupt and ruthless dictator, but he had gone to West Point and had his own cronies and agents in the Pentagon and Congress. He had penetrated the U.S. government more effectively than Washington had infiltrated his.

Mr. Pezzullo, a crusty and straight-talking Latin American specialist at State, was considered just the man to talk tough sense to the Nicaraguan tyrant. He was yanked from Uruguay and sent to Managua, which was under siege by an angry guerrilla army.

He arrived in Managua on June 27, 1979. On July 17, Somoza flew to Miami, under a scenario Mr. Pezzullo had brokered for a peaceful transition to Sandinista rule pending fair elections.

The changeover wasn't that simple. The interim figure Somoza left in authority, Francisco Urcuyo, welshed on the deal and tried to hang on to power. What remained of the National Guard disintegrated, Mr. Pezzullo left to register disapproval, Urcuyo fled, Somoza absconded from U.S. soil and the Sandinistas took over, unbound by the deal that Somoza-Urcuyo repudiated.

Mr. Pezzullo returned as ambassador to the new regime for two years. Then he retired from the Foreign Service, and then he criticized the Reagan administration's Central America policy. This apparently commended him to the nation's Catholic bishops, who were looking for a lay professional to replace a bishop as head of their relief agency, which provides food and other aid around the world.

This book, written and researched while he was heading the agency in Baltimore, was Mr. Pezzullo's chance to revisit Nicaraguan history as if to understand better where it was heading when his sudden assignment collided with it. He was joined in this by his son, Ralph, a writer in New York.

The result is detailed research on Nicaraguan history and the birth of the Somoza dynasty (quite sympathetic to its enemies), and U.S. complicity in its excesses. There is much here on the first Somoza and his victim, Sandino, for whom the Sandinistas are named.

As for the melodrama of Somoza's fall, it proceeds at the pace of a thriller, though the flash-back and flash-forward narrative technique will disconcert some readers. History happens in linear time, not in a sci-fi time warp. But any confusion is compensated by a detailed chronology carried as an appendix.

The result is both informative for students of the time and place, and a rattling good read such as may not be found in the other monographs in the Pitt Latin American Series.

And the exercise must have prepared Mr. Pezzullo for his return to government, in an assignment he cannot have anticipated.

President Clinton's secretary of state, this same Warren Christopher, prevailed on him to come back to manage policy on Haiti. It is his job to persuade another military strongman to step down.

This one is Lt. Gen Raoul Cedras, commander of Haiti's army, who agreed to leave so that the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, could return. And then didn't.

So far, the Clinton (and Christopher and Pezzullo) policy is unsuccessful. Mr. Cedras remains in Port-au-Prince and Mr. Aristide in Miami or Washington, instead of the other way around. No rebels are at the gate.

President Clinton (Mr. Pezzullo) is still trying to shoehorn the strongman out of power with diplomatic firmness and economic weapons. If he succeeds (and maybe if he fails) there ought to be another good book in it.

Dan Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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