In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was a frequent visitor to Managua. I saw Nicaragua’s seedy and dilapidated capital before and after the devastating earthquake that left most of the city in ruins. The purpose of my visits was to collaborate with my Cuban partner, Eddie Rodriguez Feliu, to obtain mandates from the government to finance infrastructure projects for the public sector. Inevitably, the high point of each trip was meeting the incumbent dictator, President Anastacio ‘Tacho’ Somosa. The Somosa family had maintained an iron grip on the country since 1935, when US Marines were sent into collect money that Nicaragua owed to American investors.
Tacho rarely received us at his official office at the presidential palace. He preferred to meet at dinner at the home of one of his cousins, the highly attractive, ebullient Cecilia Sacasso, where his flock of security guards lurked in the back of the garden, trampling the bushes and flowers. Alternatively, we would meet late in the afternoon at a local restaurant called El Rancho, a flimsily constructed shack with tacky décor. The routine was for us to arrive 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled meeting. We were expected to sit at a table in near darkness in the middle of the main dining room, drink a beer or two to quench our thirst in this hot and muggy banana republic, and wait patiently for the great man to appear. Would he roar up to the entrance of the restaurant in a bullet proof Cadillac heralded by the screaming sirens of his police escort?
No. Such a dramatic entrance never happened. Instead, he arrived by stealth at the rear of the restaurant and walked briskly through the kitchen, which was still strewn with dirty dishes and glasses from lunchtime customers. The president was usually surrounded by six burley bodyguards, who cursorily searched for bombs or potential assassins lurking in the shadows, then stationed themselves at the four corners of the main dining room and also covered the front and rear exits. Gripped in their hands were Uzi automatic weapons, which they pointed at us, because we might, I suppose, ask an embarrassing question that would have provoked an appropriate response. This reality, of course, discouraged extemporaneous sneezing. When Tacho gave first Eddie, then me, a fuerte abrazo, the Central American version of a Russian bear hug, the nervous guards seemed especially trigger-happy. Fortunately, the guards kept their cool, and no shoot-out took place at that time.
‘Gordon, tell me, what’s going on in London,’ Tacho asked me in his Americanized English that he had picked up as a stevedore on the docks of New York and as a cadet at West Point, the US military academy. ‘London – What a great place to live!’
I reminded Tacho that his estranged American wife, Hope, was my neighbor on Thurloe Square, along with Maria Luisa Ryan, nee Lobo, the once fabulously rich Cuban sugar heiress, now in exile. Hope and Maria Luisa had recently stopped by for drinks and dinner at my town house. Tacho’s son, Tachito, also popped in. He had graduated from Harvard and was then burnishing his military skills at Sandhurst rather than at West Point. He was a good friend of Pancho Soler, a Salvadoran whom I had hired as my assistant just after he had graduated from Harvard Business School.
Tacho asked, ‘So you guys are confident that the loans you’re raising for me on the Euromarket will work out OK?’
‘Don’t worry, Tacho. You can sleep well at night,’ I said confidently.
‘That reminds me. Last night, I didn’t get much sleep,’ he said. It was obvious that Tacho didn’t want me to give him another boring account about the vicissitudes of the Euromarket. He was much more interested in talking about his favorite topic, a VIP visitor from Hollywood.
‘Who was she?’ I asked.
‘No, no. I had another meeting with Howard Hughes. This time it was at three AM in his private jet that’s parked at the far corner of the airport. As usual, he was in his pyjamas. He looked terrible: thin and emaciated. He lets his fingernails grow and grow. They’re very long, you know. He occasionally got up, shuffled around, took a couple of steps, then collapsed on his sofa bed. He looked as if he were about to die. And, of course, he had his security guys watching him like a hawk. You know, they’re Mormons. They don’t smoke or drink. But they do have multiple wives. Ha, Ha!’ Tacho chortled.
I replied that I had seen the clean cut, All-American, Jack Armstrong-type guards swarming around the Intercontinental Hotel, where I was staying. On my floor Howard Hughes had ordered a partition to be installed. It was reinforced by his security guards who blocked inquisitive hotel guests from getting anywhere near Hughes’ suite.
Lowering his voice, Tacho confided, ‘You know, Howard’s a sick guy. He’s lost a lot of weight. I think he may fly out at any time. He said he’s gotta to go to LA to see his doctors.’
A couple of days later, the legendary billionaire Howard Hughes flew away like a wounded bird. He never returned to Managua. After he arrived in a Los Angeles hospital, some of the best doctors in the world couldn’t save him. Hughes lingered on in a tenuous, skeletal existence until he completely withered away. He died in 1976.
After my last visit to Managua, Tacho and his family were forced to flee their fiefdom when the Sandinista rebels toppled his corrupt, totalitarian regime. The political pendulum had swung from one extreme to another. The Wild West style of capitalism in Nicaragua, which Al Capone would have admired, gave way to a militant, left wing ideology with close ties to Castro’s Cuba. After searching in vain for a country that would give the Somosa family political asylum, Tacho ended up with his mistress in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The country was still under the sway of General Stroessner, who was pleased to help Tacho, his old friend and fellow dictator.
Though Tacho had found a new home, he was not safe from retribution. The Sandinistas tracked him down, studied his life style, and waited patiently to take revenge. Then on one fine hot and humid day, September 17th, 1980, they ambushed his limo. Tacho was sitting in the back seat with his American advisor, Joseph Baittner, who had been the vice president of Singer Sewing Machine’s Latin American operations. They were discussing various business deals. Suddenly, the blast of a bazooka smashed into the limo. Both Tacho and Baittner were killed instantly. My own lawyer and friend, Theodore O. Prounis, who was in Asuncion to advise Tacho on legal matters, had declined to attend the final, wrap-up meeting. At the very last minute, Ted decided to stay in the hotel to review various legal documents, instead of having yet another meeting with Tacho. Miraculously, Ted survived.
When my wife and I lunched with Ted in New York a week ago, it was obvious that the events of that fateful day in Asuncion were still clearly etched in his mind. After he described how he was nearly killed, he shrugged and shook his head. ‘Sometimes, you’re just lucky,’ he said, with deliberate understatement.
I thought about Tacho, whom I had known and liked, warts and all. He had been a target of so many assassination attempts. Maybe he was just unlucky.