How does a nation with colonial origins synthesize its own identity? How does a small nation assert its own will in the shadow of a much more economically and militarily powerful neighbor?
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Adapted in part from open sources.
Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus. The population of Nicaragua is slightly over 6 million. Nicaragua’s capital Managua is the third-largest city in Central America. The multi-ethnic population includes indigenous peoples, Europeans, Africans, Asians, and people of Middle Eastern origin. The main language is Spanish. Native tribes on the eastern coast speak their own languages.
Nicaragua’s name is derived from Nicarao, the name of the Nahuatl-speaking tribe which inhabited the shores of Lake Nicaragua before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the Spanish word ‘Agua’, meaning water, due to the presence of the large Lake Cocibolca (or Lake Nicaragua) and Lake Managua (or Lake Xolotlán), as well as lagoons and rivers in the region.
The Spanish Empire conquered the region in the 16th century. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821. Since its independence, Nicaragua has undergone periods of political unrest, dictatorship, and fiscal crisis—the most notable causes that led to the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic, and has experienced modest economic growth and increased political stability in recent years.
Nicaragua has three distinct geographical regions: the Pacific lowlands – fertile valleys which the Spanish colonists settled, the Amerrisque Mountains (North-central highlands), and the Mosquito Coast (Atlantic lowlands/Caribbean lowlands).
The low plains of the Atlantic Coast have long been exploited for their natural resources.
Nearly one fifth of Nicaragua is designated as protected areas like national parks, nature reserves, and biological reserves. Nicaragua is bordered by Honduras to the north, the Caribbean to the east, Costa Rica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Geophysically, Nicaragua is surrounded by the Caribbean Plate, an oceanictectonic plate underlying Central America and the Cocos Plate. Since Central America is a major subduction zone, Nicaragua hosts most of the Central American Volcanic Arc.
In pre-Columbian times, in what is now known as Nicaragua, the indigenous people were part of the Intermediate Area, between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions, and within the influence of the Isthmo-Colombian area. The Pipil migrated to Nicaragua from central Mexico after 500 BC.
Occupying the territory between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Coast, the Niquirano were governed by chief Nicarao, or Nicaragua, a rich ruler who lived in Nicaraocali, now the city of Rivas. The Chorotegano lived in the central region. These two groups had intimate contact with the Spanish conquerors, paving the way for the racial mix of native and European stock now known as mestizos.
In the west and highland areas where the Spanish settled, the indigenous population was almost completely wiped out by the rapid spread of new diseases brought by the Spaniards, for which the native population had no immunity, and the virtual enslavement of the remainder of the indigenous people. In the east where the Europeans did not settle most indigenous groups survived. The English introduced guns and ammunition to one of the local peoples, the Bawihka, who lived in northeast Nicaragua. The Bawihka later intermarried with runaway slaves from Britain’s Caribbean possessions, and the resulting population, with its access to superior weapons, began to expand its territory and push other indigenous groups into the interior. This Afro-indigenous group became known to the Europeans as Miskito.
The first Spanish permanent settlements were founded in 1524. Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded two of Nicaragua’s principal towns in 1524: Granada on Lake Nicaragua was the first settlement, followed by León at a location west of Lake Managua. Córdoba soon built defenses for the cities and fought against incursions by other conquistadors. Córdoba was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedro Arias Dávila. His tomb and remains were discovered in 2000 in the ruins of León Viejo.
The clashes among Spanish forces did not impede their destruction of the indigenous people and their culture. The series of battles came to be known as the “War of the Captains”.Pedro Arias Dávila was a winner; although he had lost control of Panama, he moved to Nicaragua and successfully established his base in León. Through adroit diplomatic machinations, he became the first governor of the colony.
Without women in their parties, the Spanish conquerors took Niquirano and Chorotega wives and partners, beginning the multiethnic mix of native and European stock now known as “mestizo“, which constitutes the great majority of the population in western Nicaragua.
Land taken from the natives was parceled out to the conquistadors.
The area of most interest was the western portion. It included a wide, fertile valley with huge, freshwater lakes, a series of volcanoes, and volcanic lagoons. Many Indians were soon enslaved to develop and maintain “estates” there. Others were put to work in mines in northern Nicaragua, but the great majority were sent as slaves to Panama and Peru at a significant profit to the new landed Spanish aristocracy. Many Indians died through disease and neglect by the Spaniards, who controlled everything necessary for their subsistence.
Catholicism in the Colonial Period
Roman Catholicism came to Nicaragua in the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquest and remained until 1939 the established faith. Protestantism and other Christian sects came to Nicaragua during the nineteenth century, but only during the twentieth century have Protestant denominations gained large followings in the Caribbean Coast of the country. Popular religion revolves around the saints, who are perceived as intermediaries between human beings and God.
Most localities, from the capital of Managua to small rural communities, honor patron saints selected from the Roman Catholic calendar, with annual fiestas. In many communities, a rich lore has grown up around the celebrations of patron saints, such as Managua’s Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo), honored in August with two colorful, often riotous, day-long processions through the city. The high point of Nicaragua’s religious calendar for the masses is neither Christmas nor Easter, but La Purísima, a week of festivities in early December dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, during which elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are constructed in homes and workplaces.
From colony to state
Rivalry between the Liberal elite of León and the Conservative elite of Granada characterized the early years of independence and often degenerated into civil war, particularly during the 1840s and 1850s. Invited by the Liberals in 1855 to join their struggle against the Conservatives, a United States adventurer and filibuster named
William Walker set himself up as President of Nicaragua, after conducting a farcical election in 1856. Costa Rica, Honduras, and other Central American countries united to drive Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857,after which a period of three decades of Conservative rule ensued.
United States occupation
Taking advantage of divisions within the conservative ranks, José Santos Zelaya led a liberal revolt that brought him to power in 1893. Zelaya ended the longstanding dispute with the United Kingdom over the Atlantic coast in 1894, and “reincorporated” the Mosquito Coast into Nicaragua.
In 1909, the United States provided political support to conservative-led forces rebelling against President Zelaya. U.S. motives included differences over the proposed Nicaragua Canal, Nicaragua’s potential as a destabilizing influence in the region, and Zelaya’s attempts to regulate the access of U.S. corporations to Nicaraguan natural resources. On November 17, 1909, two Americans were executed by order of Zelaya after the two men confessed to having laid a mine in the San Juan River with the intention of blowing up the Diamante. The U.S. justified the intervention by claiming to protect U.S. lives and property. Under pressure from the U.S., Zelaya resigned later that year.
United States Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, except for a nine-month period beginning in 1925. Their purpose was to support a conservative government friendly to U.S. business.
Nicaraguan civil war (1926-1927)
From 1927 until 1933, Gen. Augusto César Sandino led a sustained guerrilla war first against the Conservative regime and subsequently against the U.S. Marines, whom he fought for over five years. He was referred to as a “bandit” by the United States government; his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to United States’ domination. He drew units of the United States Marine Corps into an undeclared guerrilla war. When the Americans left in 1933, they set up the Guardia Nacional (national guard), a combined military and police force trained and equipped by the Americans and designed to be loyal to U.S. interests.
After the U.S. Marines withdrew from Nicaragua in January 1933, Sandino and the newly elected Sacasa government reached an agreement by which he would cease his guerrilla activities in return for amnesty, a grant of land for an agricultural colony, and retention of an armed band of 100 men for a year.A growing hostility between Sandino and Somoza, however, led Somoza to order the assassination of Sandino. Fearing future armed opposition from Sandino, Somoza took the decision to order his assassination. Sandino was invited by President Juan Bautista Sacasa to have dinner and sign a peace treaty at the presidential house in Managua. After leaving the Presidencial House, Sandino’s car was stopped by soldiers of the National Guard and he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Later Sandino was assassinated that same night on February 21, 1934, by soldiers of the national guard. Hundreds of men, women, and children from Sandino’s agricultural colony were later executed.
Somoza dynasty (1927–1979)
Nicaragua has experienced several military dictatorships, the longest being the hereditary dictatorship of the Somoza family, who ruled for 43 years during the 20th century. The Somoza family came to power as part of a U.S.-engineered pact in 1927 that stipulated the formation of the Guardia Nacional to replace the marines who had long reigned in the country. Somoza slowly eliminated officers in the national guard who might have stood in his way, and then deposed Sacasa and became president on January 1, 1937, in a rigged election.
“Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” – Attributed to Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. President, in reference to Luis Somoza Debayle.
On September 21, 1956, Somoza was shot by Rigoberto López Pérez, a 27-year-old Liberal Nicaraguan poet. Luis Somoza Debayle, the eldest son of the late dictator, was appointed president by the congress and officially took charge of the country.He is remembered by some for being moderate, but was in power only for a few years and then died of a heart attack.
The Somoza family was among a few families or groups of influential firms which reaped most of the benefits of the country’s growth from the 1950s to the 1970s. When Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third member of the Somoza family to serve as president of Nicaragua, was deposed by the Sandinistas in 1979, the family’s worth was estimated to be between US$500 million and US$1.5 billion.
A 1972 earthquake destroyed nearly 90% of Managua, creating major losses. Instead of helping to rebuild Managua, Somoza siphoned off relief money. Even the economic elite were reluctant to support Somoza, as he had acquired monopolies in industries that were key to rebuilding the nation.
American economic involvement
From 1945 to 1960, the U.S.-owned Nicaraguan Long Leaf Pine Company (NIPCO) directly paid the Somoza family millions of dollars in exchange for favorable benefits to the company, such as not having to re-forest clear cut areas. By 1961, NIPCO had cut all of the commercially viable coastal pines in northeast Nicaragua. Expansion of cotton plantations in the 1950s and cattle ranches in the 1960s forced peasant families from the areas they had farmed for decades. Some were forced by the National Guard to relocate into colonization projects in the rainforest.
Some moved eastward into the hills, where they cleared forests in order to plant crops. Soil erosion forced them, however, to abandon their land and move deeper into the rainforest. Cattle ranchers then claimed the abandoned land. Peasants and ranchers continued this movement deep into the rain forest. By the early 1970s, Nicaragua had become the United States’ top beef supplier. The beef supported fast-food chains and pet food production. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle owned the largest slaughterhouse in Nicaragua, as well as six meat-packing plants in Miami, Florida.
Also in the 1950s and 1960s, 40% of all U.S. pesticide exports went to Central America. Nicaragua and its neighbors widely used compounds banned in the U.S., such known toxins and carcinogens as DDT, endrin, dieldrin and lindane. In 1977 a study revealed that mothers living in León had 45 times more DDT in their breast milk than the World Health Organization safe level.
Repression Under Somoza’s National Guard
The Inter-American Commission on Human Right of the Organization of American States (OAS) stated that the Nicaraguan Government was “responsible for serious attempts against the right to life”, that “many persons were executed in a summary and collective fashion,” and that “physical and psychological torture” occurred.
Numerous human rights reports stated that tortures took place at this time. For example, in 1977 Amnesty International reported that 7 out of 10 prisoners captured by the Somoza regime had been tortured. The report also disclosed that in the countryside many peasants had been tortured and raped by Guardia patrols. It gave detailed testimony from individuals describing their torture which included beatings, electric shocks, and mutilation. The International Commission of Jurists’ report also stated that:
“Torture was regularly used in the interrogation of political prisoners. Common practices included blows, hanging from the wrists, electric shocks, immersion of the head in water, hooding or blindfolding, exhausting physical exercises, keeping naked detainees in air-conditioned rooms at very low temperatures, and food and drink deprivation. . . . The nails and eyes of some victims were pulled out while others had their tongues cut off.”
Thus evidence of torture was well documented and available to anyone who looked. U.S. officials were aware of these charges but generally denied that torture was rampant. In response to Father Cardenal’s 1976 testimony before the U.S. Congress, which had discussed the torture and repression taking place in Nicaragua, the State Department declared that, “We do not have any reason to believe that torture has been resorted to in any widespread or concerted fashion.”They also rejected Father Cardenal statements that U.S. aid had facilitated this repression. U.S. military aid to the Somoza regime increased in the following years.
Overthrow of the Somoza Regime
The Sandinistas took power in July 1979. The Carter administration decided to work with the new government, while attaching a provision for aid forfeiture if it was found to be assisting insurgencies in neighboring countries.Somoza fled the country and eventually ended up in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in September 1980, allegedly by members of the Argentinian Revolutionary Workers’ Party.
In 1980, the Carter administration provided $60 million in aid to Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, but the aid was suspended when it obtained evidence of Nicaraguan shipment of arms to Marxist El Salvadoran rebels.In response to the coming to power of the Sandinistas, various rebel groups collectively known as the “contras” were formed to oppose the new government. The Reagan administration authorized the CIA to help the contra rebels with funding, armaments, and training. The contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south.
The Contras engaged in a systematic campaign of terror amongst the rural Nicaraguan population to disrupt the social reform projects of the Sandinistas. Several historians have criticized the contra campaign and the Reagan administration’s support for it, citing the brutality and numerous human rights violations of the Contras, including the destruction of health centers, schools, and cooperatives at the hands of the rebels. Witnesses have contended that murder, rape, and torture occurred on a large scale in Contra-dominated areas.The Contras also carried out a campaign of economic sabotage, and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua’s port of Corinto, an action condemned by the International Court of Justice as illegal. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo.
After the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the contras in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back them by covertly selling arms to Iran and channeling the proceeds to the contras (the Iran–Contra affair).The International Court of Justice, in regard to the case of Nicaragua v. United States in 1984, found, “the United States of America was under an obligation to make reparation to the Republic of Nicaragua for all injury caused to Nicaragua by certain breaches of obligations under customary international law and treaty-law committed by the United States of America”. During the war between the Contras and the Sandinistas, 30,000 people were killed.
Violeta Chamorro in 1990 became the first female president democratically elected in the Americas.
In the Nicaraguan general election, 1990, a coalition of anti-Sandinista parties (from the left and right of the political spectrum) led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, defeated the Sandinistas. The defeat shocked the Sandinistas, who had expected to win.
Commentators such as Noam Chomsky and Brian Willson attributed the outcome to the U.S.-Contra threats to continue the war if the Sandinistas retained power, the general war-weariness of the Nicaraguan population, and the abysmal Nicaraguan economic situation.
Since the end of the Sandinista era, politics of Nicaragua takes place in a framework of a presidentialrepresentative democratic republic, whereby the President of Nicaragua is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in the national assembly. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
The government has seen its fair share of corruption and conflict, but these crises have been resolved within constitutional means of due process. The Sandinistas have become a successful political party on a social democratic model.
Today, Nicaragua is among the poorest countries in the Americas. Agriculture represents 17% of GDP, the highest percentage in Central America.Remittances (cash sent home from Nicaraguans living outside the country) account for over 15% of the Nicaraguan GDP. Close to one billion dollars are sent to the country by Nicaraguans living abroad. The economy grew at a rate of about 4% in 2011.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, 48% of the population of Nicaragua live below the poverty line,79.9% of the population live with less than $2 per day,According to UN figures, 80% of the indigenous people (who make up 5% of the population) live on less than $1 per day.
Every year about 60,000 U.S. citizens visit Nicaragua, primarily for business or tourism. Tourism has become Nicaragua’s single largest industry.
The Cordoba is the official currency of Nicaragua. The currency was named after the Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the founder of Nicaragua. The Cordoba is divided into 100 centavos. U.S. dollars are also widely accepted.
Gallo pinto, Nicaragua’s national dish, is made with white rice and red beans that are cooked individually and then fried together. The dish has several variations including the addition of coconut milk and/or grated coconut on the Caribbean coast. Most Nicaraguans begin their day with Gallopinto. Gallopinto is most usually served with carne asada, a salad, fried cheese, plantains or maduros.
The Bottom Line
- As the graphic above suggests, tourism is an increasingly important sector of Nicaragua’s economy, but do most tourists who visit the country have any sense of the nation’s complex and at times troubled past? Plan a two week tour of Nicaragua, visiting sites relevant to each period in its history, as well as to its culture, environment, and distinct geography. Include a paragraph for each stop in this itinerary, explaining its significance.
- The figures, items, and locations featured on a nation’s currency say a lot about what a nation’s values and how it wishes to be perceived. The Nicaraguan currency is called the Cordoba, named for the conquistador who founded Granada in 1524. Choose a denomination (value), then research and report on the historical figures, locations, and items featured on each bill’s face. What does the inclusion of each on the national currency say about Nicaraguan values and aspirations?
- Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in Central America. Research the history and economy of Costa Rica, the wealthiest nation in the region. Compare and contrast the circumstances of these two geographically and historically linked nations and theorize about the factors that have contributed to the divergent conditions in each nation.
- How have colonialism and imperialism shaped the path of Nicaragua’s history, culture, politics, and economy?
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Scenes from Nicaragua, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.