Violeta Barrios Torres was born in 1929 in Rivas, a small city near Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica. Her family was wealthy and conservative, with large landholdings and cattle. She was raised a rough and ready cattlewoman. She was an exceptionally bright child and her family sent her to a Catholic high school for girls in San Antonio (Texas), and then on to Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia where she became further gentrified. In 1947, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and, though he died before she could get home, she returned to Nicaragua without graduating in the U.S. She met Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal in 1949; they married the next year and subsequently had five children together.
In 1952, on the death of his father, Joaquín Chamorro inherited the family newspaper in Managua, La Prensa. The paper had already become a voice of opposition to the Somoza regime, and in 1957 Joaquín Chamorro played a key role in a failed revolt against Somoza. His actions resulted in his exile to Costa Rica, where Violeta later joined him. For the next 20 years Joaquín Chamorro wrote articles in exile condemning the Somoza regime. He was assassinated in January 1978, at which point Violeta took over control of La Prensa.
When Daniel Ortega and his guerrilla forces took Managua in July 1979, Violeta Chamorro was by his side. She also represented the Unión Democrática de Liberación (UDEL) political party on the coalition junta that replaced Somoza. Others on the junta were Luis Alfonso Robelo Callejas representing the UDN (Movimiento Democrático Nicaragüense), Sergio Ramirez Mercado representing the Grupo de los Doce, Moisés Hassan Morales of the Frente Patriotico Nacional, and Daniel Ortega of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional).
Soon after establishment of the Junta, the influential Sandinista faction (FSLN) with its Cuban-Marxist roots, began taking over television and radio stations and censoring newspapers. Although the Junta announced a non-alignment policy and continued discussions on diplomatic, economic, and military relationships with the U.S., they also developed strong ties with the Soviet bloc. In March 1980, the FSLN signed several accords with the Soviet Union that caused President Jimmy Carter, who had initially authorized aid to the Sandinista government, to approve CIA support for opposition forces. In April 1980, Violeta Chamorro resigned from the Junta in opposition to the Sandinista’s push for control, implementation of a Cuban version of Marxism, and failure to establish a working democracy. Her exit prompted other members of the Junta to resign and opposition groups began to form.
Chamorro returned to her role as editor of La Prensa, driving it to be an advocate of free speech and opposition opinion. In 1982, La Prensa fell under strict censorship by the Sandinistas.
Over the years, the Chamorro family has been split into feuding factions based upon political association. Two of Violeta and Joaquín’s children, Pedro and Cristiana, worked at La Prensa, although Pedro left in 1984 to join the Contras. Her other children were active Sandinistas—Claudia was ambassador to Costa Rica, and Carlos become the editor of the Sandinista’s daily “government-voice” newspaper Barricada.
In 1986 Daniel Ortega shut down La Prensa altogether and threatened Violeta Chamorro with a thirty-year prison sentence for treason. That same year she won the Louis Lyons Award from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University for “resisting repression and censorship” in her country.
In 1987, Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sanchez brokered a new Central America Peace Accord. The accord required all countries in the region to allow “complete freedom for television, radio and press.” Arias stated, “No Marxist regime can survive with a free press.” Soon, different members of the Chamorro family were publishing four newspapers. In September 1987, Violeta reopened La Prensa. Xavier was editor of the pro-government Nuevo Diario. Another Chamorro family member ran the official Sandinista daily, the Barricada. Another lived in Costa Rica and published the exiled weekly Nicaragua Hoy and became a senior Contra leader. The first edition of the revived La Prensa carried a front-page editorial, “La Prensa today tells the Sandinista Front that Nicaraguans have never wanted and do not want a communist-style totalitarian dictatorship.”
In 1989, Óscar Arias and other Central American leaders pushed Ortega to schedule another free election. Violeta Chamorro was the candidate for UNO, the Unión Nacional Opositora—a conglomerate of opposition parties. Her main platform was ending the civil war and ending mandatory military service. She also had her provincial roots, business acumen, distrust of the U.S., and humility working for her. President George H. W. Bush wanted Congress to directly fund her campaign, but they refused, noting it would be illegal by U.S. laws. However, Congress did agree to a $9 million aid package that could be used only for election monitoring. In addition, the CIA covertly paid close to $500,000 to nearly a hundred Nicaraguans living abroad so they would return home to vote.
In February 1990, Chamorro won the election with nearly 55 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman Head of State in the Americas. The election was the most strictly monitored of any in Latin America’s history, involving 2,578 international observers, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and four former presidents (Jimmy Carter, Raul Alfonsín of Argentina, Alfonso López Michelsen of Colombia, and Rodrigo Carazo Odio of Costa Rica). When Violeta Chamorro was sworn into office it was the first time in more than five decades that one government peacefully surrendered power to another in Nicaragua.
Sadly, the Chamorro presidency saw years of economic and social decline in the country. In 1992, Senator Jesse Helms steered a successful effort to cut off all U.S. aid to Nicaragua. From 1990 to 2001, Nicaragua dropped from 60th to 116th in the world in the United Nations “human development” index. It became the second poorest nation in the Americas, after Haiti. But Chamorro did end the draft, demobilize the military and reduced its size by 50 percent, and grant unconditional amnesties for political crimes. She also initiated a weapons-buying campaign to help eradicate the threat of continued violence. All of the collected weapons are now covered in concrete in the Plaza de la Paz in Managua. However, her actions left close to 70,000 military personnel unemployed and career military personnel saw their livelihoods taken away, including houses, land, and money that had been promised to them. The austerity measures adopted by the Chamorro administration, which included reduced free healthcare, led to massive strikes.
Violeta Chamorro retired from politics after her presidential term ended in 1997. Although she founded the nonprofit Fundación Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and joined the Carter Center’s Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Americas Program, declining health kept her from an active lifestyle.