Lives To Remember

Francisco Aguirre Baca | 1920-2008

By Angela Valdez
Friday, January 2, 2009; 12:00 PM

Francisco Aguirre Baca and his brother Horacio moved to Washington from Nicaragua smack in the middle of a year full of historic transitions: In 1947, the post-war became the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its attention to Hollywood and Jackie Robinson opened Major League Baseball to black players.

Arriving in late May after fleeing political upheaval in Nicaragua with the help of American diplomats, Aguirre was making a transition of his own. In Managua, he'd been known as Don Panchito, an affectionate name for a precocious captain in the National Guard, who, at age 27, served as a close adviser to longtime president Anastasio Somoza Garcia. "He had a low rank, but he was more powerful than any colonel or any general," says Aguirre's friend Arturo Cruz, 84, from his home in Managua.

When diplomat and doctor Leonardo Arguello Barreto was elected to succeed Somoza in May of that year, Aguirre aligned himself with the new administration. Somoza staged a coup against his successor less than a month later, prompting the Aguirre brothers' sudden departure for the United States.

In a buzzing Washington, Aguirre went from influencing national policy to picking up fares as a taxi driver.

"That first year was a year in which he was trying to survive," says son Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, 64, who stayed behind in Nicaragua with his mother and two sisters. "It was a year of tremendous hardship for him and for us."

Decades later, after Aguirre and Horacio started Diario Las Americas, now Miami's oldest Spanish-language daily paper; after some shrewd investments in real estate; after advising two generations of U.S. and Latin American officials; Aguirre would tell his family that his stint driving a cab had galvanized him for the hard work that lay ahead.

Arturo Cruz, now a retired banker, joined the Aguirre brothers in Washington a few months after the coup, after a four-month layover in a Nicaraguan prison. In the fall of 1947, he moved into their apartment at the Chastleton Hotel at 16th and R streets NW.

"By the time I arrived in Washington, things were different," he says. From what Cruz recalls, Aguirre wasn't driving a cab anymore. Most likely, he'd already gotten his next job, operating a stencil machine at the American Road Builders Association. Cruz mostly remembers that Aguirre was busy meeting people. He reconnected with Americans he'd known in Nicaragua, military officials and intelligence operatives from the now-defunct federal Office of Strategic Services. He lobbied on behalf of Arguello and worked on advancing his own career. "Undoubtedly, he was at the beginning of what was going to be a very successful new life," Cruz says.

For about a year, the three men lived in a two-bedroom suite on the second floor. The Gothic Revival building, with gargoyles out front and an elaborate, two-story foyer inside, was a glamorous Washington address, the onetime home of Filipina screen star Isabel Rosario "Dimples" Cooper, Douglas MacArthur's mistress. A maid cleaned their rooms, and although they usually cooked breakfast, they dined out for lunch and dinner every day. They opened their door to friends making the same transition, turning their suite into something of a crash pad for the exiled Nicaraguan ruling class.

They drove around in Aguirre's blue, secondhand Chevy and sometimes went out dancing with American girls, even though, as Cruz says, "neither of the three of us was a dancer." Cruz still remembers the lyrics to Irving Fields's "Managua, Nicaragua," which spent several months on the Billboard magazine bestseller chart that year.

Mostly, the roommates concentrated on the future. Horacio wanted to finish law school and, eventually, start a newspaper. Cruz was working at the newly formed International Monetary Fund. But Aguirre was the most ambitious.

Cruz could judge his friend's growing influence by the kind of men who came to drink whiskey at the apartment: American military officers and businessmen, Latin American officials and countless Nicaraguans seeking advice.

Aguirre didn't stay a stencil operator long. The Road Builders Association was working to secure a piece of the post-war boom in Latin American infrastructure projects, and Aguirre -- with his connections and his ability to charm -- soon moved up from the basement drawing room. He began traveling the world, helping to negotiate deals on projects such as the construction of the Pan American Highway. He also began investing in real estate, which became his most successful business endeavor.

Aguirre continued to nurture his relationship with the American intelligence community. Many of the men he knew from the military and the OSS now worked for the CIA, according to Cruz, though Francisco is careful to point out that his father never worked directly for the agency. "He had contacts with the visible and invisible government of the United States," Francisco says.

"There was the G-man in him always," Cruz says. "He would ask me something related to what happened in Nicaragua. A couple of weeks later, he would ask me the same question, and five days later, he would ask again. He wanted to make sure I was telling him what I really thought. It was typical of him. He was a detective. A wise guy."

Regardless, Cruz adds, "he was always known as someone who could separate politics from friendship."

The clearest example of this trait was his enduring friendship with Somoza Garcia. Aguirre publicly decried the abuses perpetrated by the dictator, but he never disavowed his friendship with the man. One day, the roommates learned that Somoza was flying to Boston for surgery. The next morning, Aguirre shook Cruz awake and said, "Why don't you take a ride with us?" He was on his way, with Horacio, to say hello to Somoza in his hospital bed.

"That's how he was," says Cruz, who recalled his days in prison and stayed behind. "He put incredible importance on friendship."

About a year after Aguirre's exile, his wife, a cousin of Somoza's wife, and children would join him in Washington. (The couple would have three more children after moving to the States.) Aguirre, who died in September after suffering a stomach aneurysm, became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and wouldn't return to Nicaragua until 1997, when he was invited to attend the inauguration of president Arnoldo Aleman as a guest of the U.S. delegation.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company