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By Christmas morning troops were stationed at street corners in downtown Managua, notably outside banks and government buildings. The stench of death was overwhelming. On some blocks hundreds of decaying bodies littered the streets, and many more remained trapped under debris. Health officials were concerned about the spread of typhoid and other diseases. Most of the old city had been declared a contaminated area. General Somoza instructed all service agencies to stop feeding the poor and hungry in the center of town, to force people to leave dangerous precincts. A six o'clock curfew was imposed, but late into the night the old city echoed with gunfire. Some looting had begun. Somoza directed guardsmen to shoot looters on sight.
Dawn on the morning of Dec. 26 "broke with the arrival of parachutists," recalled Chamorro, the opposition newspaper editor. They were U.S. troops from Panama, sent to supplement Somoza's Guard. But the tension only increased. Chamorro described "the thousands and thousands of hands extended toward emptiness, asking for food, which was kept ... under custody of the government tanks. They didn't give out the food." A massive tent city was rising on the edge of town. U.S. Army engineers began clearing the old city in 100� heat. Demolition crews used bulldozers and dynamite to level anything that stood after the quake. Lime was spread over the rubble. Vultures circled overhead.
Clemente spent the day at the parking lot of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. His committee had leased a Lockheed Constellation called the Super Snoopy for three round-trips to Managua, each at a cost of $3,700. Volunteers in San Juan worked overnight to load the Super Snoopy with donated goods, including an X-ray machine and other medical equipment. The plane would leave the next morning at dawn. Ra�l Pelligrina, a major in Puerto Rico's National Guard, had agreed to accompany the crew to Nicaragua.
The Clementes went to the airport to see them off in the dark, misty chill. Vera looked over at her husband and wondered whether that was a tear she saw in his eye.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, about the size of Iowa, but one of the least populated. In 1972 it had about two million citizens, a quarter of them in metropolitan Managua. More than half of the nation's populace was illiterate. The Somoza family had controlled Nicaragua since Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garc�a seized power in 1936. He was assassinated in 1956, but power was passed along to his sons.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last in the family line, took control in 1967. He spoke fluent English; he had gone to prep school in the U.S. and graduated from West Point in 1946. He excelled at using power for financial gain. By 1972 Somoza and his family controlled an estimated 25% of Nicaragua's gross national product. They had cattle ranches, coffee and sugar plantations, sugar mills, distilleries, auto dealerships, textile mills, hotels, an airline and vast stretches of real estate. A commission on Central America chaired by Kissinger declared in 1984 that the general's "achievements gave new meaning to the term kleptocracy, that is, government as theft."
By Dec. 27, 1972, Red Cross volunteers in Managua were wondering where all the arriving aid was going. Money seemed to disappear. Major Pelligrina returned to San Juan that night, after delivering the first cargo of aid from Puerto Rico, and could barely contain his disappointment. It was awful, he told Clemente. The moment they landed, Somoza's soldiers surrounded the plane and tried to take everything. Pelligrina had told the soldiers that if they didn't let him through, he would reload his aircraft and fly back to San Juan and tell the great Roberto Clemente what was happening. Finally Somoza's son Tachito, a Guard officer, came to see who was giving his troops trouble. Upon hearing Clemente's name invoked, Tachito let Pelligrina and his crew go on to Masaya, but it seemed to Pelligrina that most other supplies were being diverted.
Clemente, his voice reaching a high pitch, said they had to do something to get the aid to the people who needed it. If he had to travel to Managua himself to make sure Somoza and his Guard weren't stealing it, he said, then that is what he would do.
To several friends in those final days of 1972 Clemente made this request: Come with me. I'm going to Nicaragua. Orlando Cepeda, recently released by the Oakland A's, told Clemente he wanted to stay in Puerto Rico to get in shape for the next major league season and to enjoy the holidays. Clemente's Pirates teammate Manny Sanguillen had ball games to play with the San Juan Senadores. Then there was Gil, Clemente's compatriot on the baseball trip to Nicaragua. "Valdy, will you go with me?" Clemente asked. Gil said, Sure. But that night when he told his wife, she fled to the bedroom and cried. They had been married just a few months when he left for Nicaragua the first time, and now he was going again. The next day Gil told Clemente, "I talked to my wife, and I'm not going."
"You're right," Clemente said. "You shouldn't go. I'll go by myself."