Although Christopher Columbus (known in Spanish as Cristobal Colón) landed in the north-east of Nicaragua on one of his voyages, it was the western half of the country that first attracted the attention of the Spanish. The conquistadors devastated most indigenous cultures through war, assimilation, enslavement, disease and deportation, but traces of indigenous cultures are still very visible in many aspects of modern Nicaragua. Nicaragua became a Spanish colony and cities such as Granada (one of the first permanent European cities in the Americas) and its rival León were founded for administrative purposes, among others.
Nicaragua declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and was part of the short-lived First Mexican Empire for two years before joining the (also short-lived) United Provinces of Central America; in 1838, after this failed attempt at Central American unity, the country became fully independent. The Caribbean coast came under British control and remained a protectorate administered by the local Miskitos on behalf of the British until the liberal general and president José Santos Zelaya conquered the region, which was then named “Departamento Zelaya” (and is still known by some western Nicaraguans). However, the British, Miskito and general indigenous influence is still very visible on the Caribbean coast and Creole English is still spoken in places like Bluefields or Corn Island.
Around this time (the 1850s), Nicaragua also became an important transit country for people wanting to travel from the East Coast of the United States to the West. The Ruta del Tránsito, as the Nicaraguan press calls it, was invested in by the railway and steamship magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, as well as travellers like Mark Twain.
The US Marines invaded Nicaragua several times. The invasions were almost always justified by internal disputes between conservative and liberal factions, but the US also tried to install leaders who were on good terms with them and, more importantly, with their banana trade. One of the towns that was conquered was San Juan Del Sur. General Sandino, seeing the United States as invaders, waged war against them. This occupation lasted about six years until the Marines withdrew from the country in 1933. Sandino is credited with the Marines’ withdrawal, but the change in Washington (from Hoover to Roosevelt) and the Great Depression certainly did not strengthen the US determination to occupy the country indefinitely. Sandino’s victory was to prove short-lived, however, as the United States simply changed tactics from direct occupation to supporting a regime that pursued its goals through more indirect means.
Somoza and the Sandinistas
The twentieth century saw the rise and fall of the Somoza dynasty. Anastasio Somoza Garcia took power as head of the Guardia Nacional or National Guard (which would remain the centre of power during the Somoza years) after assassinating Sandino following a peace dinner held in his honour in 1934. Educated in the United States and trained by the US military, he was adept at managing his relations with the United States. Somoza is one of the few Latin American rulers to whom Roosevelt’s semi-anecdotal quote “our son of a bitch” refers. After his own assassination by Rigoberto Lopez Perez, Somoza Garcia was succeeded by his sons Luis and Anastasio Jr (“Tachito”) Somoza Debayle. Although the Somozas did not always hold the presidency, it was clear to everyone who was the real power at any given time. The Somozas initially proclaimed themselves liberals, and initially much of their opposition came from the conservative camp and the Chamorros political dynasty, but Somoza quickly consolidated support from the business sector by buying out or expropriating anyone who might threaten his family politically. Although Somoza rule coincided with a period of relative prosperity and a small urban upper class could live comfortably as long as it did not clash with the regime, the Somoza family usurped almost everything, amassing landholdings the size of El Salvador and stifling the development of certain sectors of the economy in favour of their own businesses. Somoza Garcia, for example, allowed the national railway to rot because he was the middleman for all Mercedes bus imports and the railway was an unwanted competitor. The railways never recovered from this neglect, and what was left after Somoza’s fall and eleven years of civil war was literally sold for scrap in the 1990s. Luis Somoza’s rule is often described as relatively liberal and open-minded compared to the more dictatorial approach of his father and brother, but when he died in office of a heart attack, his brother took over completely, having previously been head of the National Guard and very influential. By 1978, opposition to the government’s manipulations and corruption (the most recent coups could be the blatant embezzlement of aid funds after the 1972 Managua earthquake and the assassination of popular anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978) became commonplace and led to a decisive anti-Somoza military campaign that managed to capture Managua and overthrow Somoza on 19. July 1979, a date still celebrated every year by the Sandinistas. The most notable anti-Somoza movement was the Sandinistas, named after the liberal general and fighter against the US Marines of the 1930s, Augusto Cesar Sandino. Due to the nature of the Sandinista government, with its social programmes designed to benefit the poor majority, its support for the rebels fighting the military government of El Salvador, and its close alliance with Cuba, the right-wing US President Ronald Reagan considered it a threat and, at the urging of his administration, guerrilla forces (contras) were organised, trained and armed throughout most of the 1980s. The Sandinistas’ misguided policies (e.g. the literacy programme was initially to be implemented only in Spanish) also led to discontent among indigenous groups on the Caribbean coast, but a truce of sorts was reached in the early 1980s when the Sandinistas formed the RAAN and RAAS autonomous zones. To this day, many indigenous leaders remain suspicious of the Sandinistas in general and Daniel Ortega’s government in particular, although tactical alliances have been made from time to time. After protracted negotiations, a peace treaty was finally reached in 1987, authored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. To the surprise of many, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro of the coalition UNO (Union Nacional Opositora) defeated Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. The factors that contributed to Ortega’s defeat were probably the turnaround in the international economy, the weariness of the population with military service and the poor economic situation (mainly caused by the war).
After the Contra War
Ortega and the Sandinistas lost the 1996 and 2001 elections to the liberals Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños respectively. In the 1990s, the country’s economic policy underwent a change of direction aimed at transforming Nicaragua into a market economy through privatisation and other aspects of the neoliberal economic agenda. However, the Sandinistas, still led by Daniel Ortega, returned to power in the 2006 elections, when the liberals split the vote and Ortega won with 38% of the vote in the first round after a constitutional amendment abolished the run-off. He won again in 2011, with accusations of electoral fraud stemming from his party’s sudden surge to 62% of the vote, a figure the party had never even come close to in any previous peacetime election. The main right-wing newspaper La Prensa is still grumbling about the constitutionality of Ortega’s re-election, since more than two terms and two uninterrupted terms were originally prohibited by the constitution until a controversial Supreme Court ruling rendered that provision of the constitution unconstitutional. Ortega was re-elected in the November 2016 elections, with his wife Rosario Murillo now elected vice-president, amid allegations of fraud and a partial boycott by the weak and fractured opposition.
Unlike the radical Marxist and atheist you remember Ortega as in the 1980s, Ortega has dramatically changed his public image, reconciling with the Catholic Church and former anti-Sandinista Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who now even appears on Sandinista campaign posters. As part of the reconciliation, Ortega now has the support of some of the people who took up arms against him in the 1980s, while many former comrades – including his former vice-president Sergio Ramirez – denounce him as a sell-out, dictator and corrupt. Ortega has also become much more business-friendly, praising the establishment of a “mixed economy” in which private and state-owned companies go hand in hand, leaving the field open for private enterprise, which has led to solid growth figures in recent years, apart from the years of the Great Recession. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is a public figure and current Sandinista public relations are heavily influenced by her, including billboards with the faces of Sandinista leaders and an annual slogan, or the “arboles de la vida”, stylised metal trees that can be seen throughout Managua. Political passions can run high and as a foreigner it is best to listen politely but not to speak your mind unless asked.
Nicaragua has suffered from natural disasters in the past. The city centre of Managua was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1972 that killed more than 10,000 people, and in 1998 Nicaragua was hit hard by Hurricane Mitch. Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, but strong growth in sectors such as tourism and a better crime and security situation than its northern neighbours give hope for a better future.