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History of Nicaragua

Numerous indigenous people have living in Nicaragua over time and it appears that during most of the region's early history the people were descendants of peoples in what is today northern South America and perhaps related to the Andean cultures. These early people were also mobile as it seems along the Caribbean coast they traveled via boat, although the extent of that travel is unknown.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the region was primarily occupied by three differing groups: the Niquirano, who lived in the west; the Chorotegano, who lived in the central part of the country; and the Chontal, who lived in the region's mountainous areas.

The Spanish first spotted Nicaragua in 1502 on Columbus's voyage, but colonized the country primarily from the west, where the land is more accessible. With their arrival and settlement in the 1520s, the Spanish unintentionally spread European diseases that immediately killed much of the local population. At first Spanish Conquistadors arrived from all directions and their battles killed each other and much of the surviving local population.

The most heavily settled region in the country was the west as most of the local people were enslaved to work for the Spanish settlers, but many of these Spanish and local people also intermarried. This status remained fairly unchanged throughout the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s as the region proved quite stable, despite occasional foreign raids or invasions.

In 1821 Nicaragua gained independence from Spain, as did most of the Central American countries. Upon this freedom these countries united in a federation, but the countries fought each other over border disputes and politics. In 1839 the federation ended and Nicaragua gained full independence, although much of the Caribbean coast was ruled over by the British.

Almost immediately after independence though, the country broke out in civil war. These wars were fought primarily between the elite liberals and conservatives, with little attention paid to the rest of the people. After warring throughout the 1840s and early 1850s the liberals invited an American named William Walker to help their cause. Walker though only took over the country and declared himself king in 1856, an action that none were too happy with, driving him out of the region and bringing in more conservative rule in Nicaragua.

In 1893 power shifted once more as Jose Santos Zelaya took power and worked with the British to gain control over the Caribbean coast. However, Zelaya's rule was quickly marred by instability and the United States intervened to protect their interests in Central America, which included the banana trade, primarily based in Honduras, and the Panama Canal. Their encouragement pushed Zelaya out of power in 1909.

After 1909 stability was based more on foreign influence than by internal strength. In 1912 the government asked the U.S. government to intercede and guarantee security, which the U.S. did immediately and remained until 1933. During this period the country remained relatively stable although there were regular riots and underground movements.

Even after the removal of U.S. troops in 1933, U.S. involvement remained and in 1936 Anastasio Somoza Garcia took the presidency with U.S. support. He and his family ruled the country from this point until 1979, primarily due to political moves that included changing laws and placing relatives and family friends into positions of power.

The rule of the Somoza Garcia family was controversial and even many conservatives fought their power. Their rule also encouraged revolts from the middle class and created more extreme liberals with a tendency for violence. However, their rule was fairly stable, although heavily biased in favor of personal interests and in order to maintain U.S. support. U.S. companies controlled most of the country's lumber and beef industries as laws were altered to favor these industries.

The fall from power of the Somoza Garcia family began in 1972 when a massive earthquake struck the capital city of Managua, leading to great destruction. Both Cuba and the Soviet Union volunteered aid and hence gained greater support from the people. Two years later rebels took government officials hostage, received a ransom, and escaped, adding more pressure to the government. These actions encouraged the government to burn villages and towns suspected of supporting the liberal revolutionaries and this led to civil war in 1978 when non-violent activist Pedro Chamorro was killed.

By 1979 the government collapsed and the rebels took the country, but after the long war the country was ravaged. Cities were destroyed, diseases were rampant, and the heavy use of pesticides under Somoza Garcia rule led to bad water, leading to further deaths. This new group, the Sandinistas, won the 1984 election and soon turned to Cuba and the Soviet Union for support. This shift in political affiliations put Nicaragua squarely with the Soviets in the Cold War and tensions rose between Nicaragua and the United States, along with other Central American countries allied with the U.S.

In 1990 a surprise free election was undertaken and the Sandinistas party lost power, giving it up freely. Since this time, Nicaragua has had a fairly open and free election process as differing parties have taken power with nearly every election since 1990.

This page was last updated: March, 2013