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The History of Nicaragua


The area of present-day Nicaragua has been inhabited for centuries, since long before the arrival of the Spanish to the area in the early sixteenth century. The indigenous people of Nicaragua were diverse, and there were different cultures on either coast and in the central highlands. Some of the cultures had language and trade ties to the Maya to the north, but the Maya Empire collapsed before fully integrating the region.

When the Spanish first arrived, it is estimated that there were about one million people living in present-day Nicaragua. The most powerful cultures at the time were those of the Niquirano people, led by Chief Nicarao (who would give his name to “Nicaragua”) and the Chorotega who lived in the center of the country. Both were decimated by Spanish attacks and disease and today there is little to remind us of these original cultures.

The Spanish Conquest

The region was first “conquered” by Gil González Dávila in 1522-1523, but his mission was essentially one of plunder and enslavement and he left no settlements behind. The first settlements were established in 1525: León and Granada. Both were founded by Francisco Henrández de Córdoba. The first years of the colony were marked by wars and violence: the conquistadors enslaved and wiped out native populations even while warring among themselves. One of the casualties of the civil wars among the conquistadors was Córdoba himself, beheaded in 1526.

The remote region was made part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) and was later included in the jurisdiction of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala. LeĂłn, then the capital, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1610 and moved to its present location.

In 1655, the Mosquito Coast, which was home to one of the last independent indigenous groups in Central America, was claimed by Great Britain as a protectorate, as a British trading company had set up friendly commerce with the Miskito Indians. Although the claim was disputed by Spain, nothing much ever came of it from either the Spanish or the British and the region was retuned to Nicaragua in 1860, although it remained autonomous until the José Santos Zelaya administration (1893-1909).


Nicaragua joined the rest of Central America in declaring independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. For two years Central America was part of Mexico, but in 1823 they established an independent republic known as the Federal Republic of Central America. The republic was doomed, however, quickly done in by bitter fighting between liberals and conservatives and by 1838 it had disintegrated, leaving the member states to make their own nations. The fighting between liberals and conservatives continued in Nicaragua, where liberal LeĂłn frequently clashed with conservative Granada over just about everything.

US Intervention

Historically, the United States has been very involved with Nicaragua and its internal politics. In 1856, American filibuster William Walker took over the nation with a small squad of American mercenaries: he was driven out the following year. Responding to chaos, the US sent marines to Nicaragua in 1912; they remained until 1933 (with a nine month hiatus in 1925). During this time they supported weak conservative governments that generally acquiesced to any and all US demands. Later, the US would support the Somoza dynasty and once again intervene in favor of the contras rebel group.

The Somoza Dynasty

When the US left in 1933, they left behind a coalition government led by rebel General Augusto Sandino, head of the National Guard Anastasio Somoza Garcia and President Juan Bautista Sacasa. Within a year, Somoza had ordered the assassination of Sandino, and by 1936 he was able to muscle out Sacasa, leaving him in charge of the nation. Thus began the Somoza Dynasty, which would last through Anastasio Somoza GarcĂ­a and two of his sons until 1979.

For forty years, Nicaragua was little more than a feudal kingdom absolutely ruled by the Somozas. They nationalized valuable industries and then sold them off to family members for a fraction of their worth. They controlled the railroads and transportation and used state money and resources to move their goods. Projects were awarded to Somoza cronies, and state funds paid for them even if they were never completed. The looting was brazen and had a devastating effect on Nicaragua’s economic development.

The Sandinistas

The Sandinista movement was begun in 1961 by Nicaraguans fed up with the Somoza government. For years, they fought the dictatorship but could make little headway. In 1972, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of the Somoza line of dictators, made a crucial mistake. An earthquake devastated Managua, leaving half of the city homeless. Humanitarian aid came flowing in, but the Somozas and their cooked cronies stole most of it. This gross indifference to the plight of common Nicaraguans led many to join the Sandinistas, and even though Somoza held on until 1979, his fate was sealed. Somoza went into exile in Paraguay, where he was assassinated by a team of Argentine rebels.

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and began undermining the Sandinista Regime, imposing a trade embargo and authorizing the CIA to do what it could to topple the government. The remnants of the Somoza era and National Guard organized a counter-revolutionary force, which eventually became known as the Contras. The Reagan administration would be embarrassed by their support for the contras when it was revealed first that arms sold to Iran were financing the rebels and subsequently that the contras were linked to sales of narcotics in the United States.

The Sandinista government limped along until 1990, when a coalition of opposition parties elected as President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, displacing Sandinista Leader Daniel Ortega. There was little that Chamorro, or her successor in 1996 Arnoldo Alemán, could do with an economy in tatters after forty years of dictatorship followed by ten years of communism, war and embargo. Alemán was later convicted of corruption and sentenced to 20 years prison.

Nicaragua continues to suffer from topsy-turvy politics, but the dust is finally beginning to settle after years of hardship. Although corruption is as bad as ever, at least the wars are over, and some key industries – including tourism – are making a comeback.


Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Nicaragua : Islas Solentiname History, History, José Daniel Ortega Saavedra, History, The History of the Corn Islands, Caribbean Coast History, Aleman and Ortega: "The Pact", Granada and Around History, History of Leon and the North West and Augusto Sandino.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
04 Mar 2009

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