Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America at 129,494 sq kilometers big, but is also the least densely populated with a population of 5.5 million. It is bordered by Honduras to the north, Costa Rica to the south, the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west. The country’s name is a derivative of “Nicarao”, one of the most powerful indigenous leaders at the time of the Spaniard’s arrival, and Aqua, which means water and represents the large lakes in the region.
Evidence has been found in Nicaragua indicating that humans lived there at least 6000 years ago, and maybe even as far back as 8,000 years ago. When the Spaniards first arrived, there were three distinct people groups. In the east were hunters/gatherers believed to have originally migrated north from Colombia. The central and western regions were populated by tribes related to the Aztecs and Maya, who were farmers that had migrated southwards from Mexico.
Columbus was the first to “find” Nicaragua in 1502, about the same time he “found” Costa Rica. As you have already read in the Histories of Panama and Costa Rica, colonization of the Atlantic American coast didn’t pan out for the Spaniards. It wasn’t until Panama City was established on the Pacific coast that active colonization of the Americas began. In 1524, the first exploration party arrived in Nicaragua, and a few months later, settlers began conquering lands from the Indians. The Pacific coast and central part of Nicaragua were overtaken by the Spaniards, but the Atlantic coast was left alone. Most indigenous in the conquered areas were murdered by the Spaniards or died of European disease. It is believed that by 1575, about 650,000 indigenous peoples had died in Nicaragua alone. Those that survived were enslaved, forced to work in the Spaniard’s new plantations, in the mines in the north of Nicaragua, or sent to be slaves in Panama or Peru.
In 1633, the British pirates set up a successful colony on the Atlantic coast, a base camp for their raiding parties. The pirates frequently sacked various cities in Nicaragua, which weakened the Spanish. They also befriended and armed the indigenous peoples. The British formally claimed the Atlantic coast in 1655. A very different culture developed in the British areas from the Spanish areas.
In the Spanish areas, there was an ongoing battle about trade policies. The wealthy, backed by the Catholic Church, wanted to keep trade monopolies in place. The anti-clerical “˜liberals’ wanted a free trade system. There were several minor civil wars and rebellions, but they were quickly suppressed.
Like Costa Rica, Spanish Nicaragua became independent of Spain in 1821 and joined the Central American Federation as a semi-autonomous state. Civil war broke out over who would fill the power vacuum, liberals vs. conservatives. Mexico also tried to conquer Nicaragua as a territory but was repelled. The Federation collapsed in 1838 and Nicaragua became a completely independent nation, still at war.
In 1848, gold was discovered in California. Just like Panama, tens of thousands of people going from the eastern US to California (and vice versa) took a land short cut through Nicaragua rather than sailing all the way around South America. In 1855, with the civil war escalating, the liberals hired American mercenaries led by William Walker. Instead of aiding the liberals, Walker (financially aided by Vanderbilt, Morgan and Garrison) grew his army to be over 1200 people and seized control of the Nicaraguan government. The US immediately recognized sovereignty of the new government. The Nicaraguans fought Walker, and the other Central American countries joined in to help. Walker had managed to make Vanderbilt really mad, so Vanderbilt helped to finance the opposition. Walker was defeated in 1857. Needless to say, the Nicaraguans weren’t too happy with the liberals for inviting Walker in and the Conservatives won the ensuing elections. The conservatives stayed in power for 30 years and had a cozy relationship with the US.
In 1893, the liberals staged a coup and took control of the government under new President Zelaya. Ever since 1633, there had been occasional battles with the British over control of the east coast. Zelaya, backed by US troops, got full control of the area in 1894. So, the US was pretty unhappy when Zelaya said no to the inter-oceanic canal that the Americans had spent the last 25 years planning to build. Instead, The US picked up the abandoned French construction in Panama. Zelaya then changed his mind and decided he did want a canal through Nicaragua, after all, and started negotiating with Germany and Japan for rights. This made the US very mad. Zelaya was also trying to re-unite Central America and was aiding liberalist factions in the surrounding countries, and the US feared Panama would be included. The US labeled Zelaya a tyrant and gave aid to Nicaraguan groups that opposed Zelaya.
In December 1909, American marines invaded Nicaragua and managed to get control of the government, installing a cabinet of leaders who were US friendly. The US physically occupied Nicaragua with troops until 1933. In 1927, rebel groups started fighting to get the US out. While the US did eventually succumb to pressure and go, they still continued to train and arm a group of US loyalists that had significant political clout within Nicaragua. The loyalists were led by Samoza. Samoza was elected president in 1936, winning the democratic election with an amazing 99.9% of all votes cast.
Samoza immediately consolidated power, making himself a dictator. His rule was characterized by brutality, despotism and systematic corruption. To scare people from rebelling, Samoza did things like drag brutally tortured, dead bodies of rebels in the streets. The Samoza family stayed in power until 1979. In the early 60′s, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, where the Cubans ousted a US backed leader, an insurgent group was set up called the Sandinistas. The Cuban Revolution provided not just hope, but also weapons and funding. The Sandinistas were mostly university students that most people didn’t take too seriously. At this point, most workers were impoverished. Many people had been forced off family farms that had been given to US companies for big cotton and cattle plantations. The plantations were using pesticides that were illegal in the US, causing health problems for the laborers. 17% of Nicaraguans were dying from polluted water, contaminated from both chemical runoff and lack of proper sewage. US owned logging companies were clear cutting the forests, creating soil erosion issues.
In 1972, there was an earthquake in the capital city of Managua that killed 6,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. Countries from all over the world sent aid to help the people, and the Samozas embezzled most of it. The people were outraged and the Sandinistas gained a major political foothold, and escalated violent attacks against Samoza. In 1978, yet another civil war ensued, and in 1979, the Sandinistas defeated the Samozas. The country was in total shambles. The Sandinistas started instituting major socialistic reforms that got applause, such as providing health care and public education. But when they started nationalizing many businesses and redistributing land, many anti-communist countries became worried.
Within days of taking office as the new US president in 1981, Regan started funding a civil war, backing the former Samoza supporters who now called themselves “Contras”. He also instituted an economic blockade, including food and medicine. Of course, the Soviet Union jumped in to help the Sandinistas.
The civil war lasted until 1987, ending with a peace treaty brokered by Costa Rica (link to history of Costa Rica here). 110,000 people had died. Part of the peace treaty included not accepting any more military aid from any country, but at this point, it looked like arms aid had come to an end, anyway, on both sides. The Soviet Union was months away from collapsing and too mired in its own problems to worry about Nicaragua. Reagan had just gotten busted for funding the war when Congress specifically told him he wasn’t allowed to. *
The country was in ruins. Nicaragua held elections and power passed peacefully. The US ended its embargo. The new leader de-centralized government and brought political and economic stability. Nicaragua started to re-build. In 1998, a hurricane blew through that killed 4,000 people and destroyed 70% of the country’s infrastructure. They re-built again. In early 2004, the World Bank agreed to write off 80 per cent of the country’s debt to the institution a sum of around $3 billion, which significantly helped the nation.
Sadly, Nicaragua was hit by a category 5 hurricane in 2007.
Nicaragua is still the poorest country in Latin America. Agriculture is the main component of Nicaragua’s economy, with coffee, sugar, bananas and meat the principal exports. Maize, beans and rice are grown for domestic consumption. The principal manufacturing industries are food, drinks, the production of chemicals and oil refining. There is also a small mining industry working deposits of gold, silver, lead and zinc.
*Side notes”¦ During the ensuing US investigation, it was revealed that Reagan didn’t use tax dollars to fund the Contras. They got the money from three sources. 1. They solicited “donations” from wealthy American republicans, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and a private Saudi arms dealer. 2. They struck a deal with an Iranian arms dealer. While Reagan said publicly “America will never make concessions to terrorists”, the US military was in the middle of selling Iran 1500 weapons over a two year period. The hope was that by selling Iran the weapons, the Iranians would release the American hostages. Only one hostage was released and some were killed anyway. The profits from the Iranian arms sale were given to the Contras. 3. The CIA helped the Contras set up, then protected, a drug trafficking network where the Contras bought drugs from Columbia then sold them to drug dealers in the United States. The drug sales profits were used to buy arms. Unfortunately, the investigation was never fully completed. When George HW Bush was elected president in 1988, he pardoned almost everyone at the White House, military and CIA who was involved, effectively slamming the case shut. The full extent of the details had never been revealed. Most involved later admitted they withheld evidence from the investigators, flat out lied to investigators, or simply refused to testify. Subordinates got pinned with all the blame, and no one was punished. At the time, Bush testified that he was “out of the loop”, but after he lost the presidential re-election in 1992, it was revealed that Bush was one of the few who knew all the intimate details of the Contra fundings.