History of Nicaragua

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Nicaragua takes its name from Nicarao, chief of the Native American tribe then living around present-day Lake Nicaragua.


[edit] The Spanish conquest

In 1523, the first Spaniards entered the region of what would become known as Nicaragua. Gil González Dávila with a small force reached its western portion after a trek through Costa Rica, following a near disaster while exploring the western coast of Central America. He proceeded to explore the fertile western valleys and was impressed with the indian civilization he found there. He and his small army gathered gold and baptized indians along the way. Eventually, they so imposed upon the indians that they were attacked and nearly annihilated. González Dávila returned to his expedition's starting point in Panama and reported on his find, naming the area Nicaragua. However, governor Pedrarias Dávila attempted to arrest him and confiscate his treasure. He was forced to flee to Santo Domingo to outfit another expedition.

Within a few months, Nicaragua was invaded by several Spanish forces, each led by a conquistador. González Dávila was authorized by royal decree, and came in from the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba at the command of the governor of Panama approached from Costa Rica. Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid at the command of Hernán Cortés, came from Guatemala through San Salvador and Honduras.

Córdoba apparently came with the intention of colonization. In 1524, he established permanent settlements in the region, including two of Nicaragua's principal towns: Granada on Lake Nicaragua and León east of Lake Managua. But he soon found it necessary to prepare defenses for the cities and go on the offensive against incursions by the other conquistadores.

The inevitable clash between the Spanish forces did not impede their devastation of the indigenous population. The Indian civilization was destroyed. The series of battles came to be known as The War of the Captains.<ref>Duncan, David Ewing, Hernando de Soto - A Savage Quest in the Americas - Book II: Consolidation, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1995</ref> By 1529, the conquest of Nicaragua was complete. Several conquistadores came out winners, and some were executed or murdered. Pedrarias Dávila was a winner; although he had lost control of Panama, he had moved to Nicaragua and established his base in León. Through adroit diplomatic machinations, he became the first governor of the colony.

The land was parceled out to the conquistadores. 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, for significant profit to the new landed aristocracy. Many Indians died through disease and neglect by the Spaniards, who controlled everything necessary for their subsistence.

[edit] From colony to nation

In 1538, the Viceroyalty of New Spain was established, encompassing all of Mexico and Central America, except Panama. By 1570, the southern part of New Spain was designated the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The area of Nicaragua was divided into administrative "parties" with León as the capital. In 1610, the volcano known as Momotombo erupted, destroying the capital. It was rebuilt northwest of its original site.

The history of Nicaragua remained relatively static for three hundred years following the conquest. There were minor civil wars and rebellions, but they were quickly suppressed. The region was subject to frequent raids by Dutch, French and British pirates; the city of Granada was invaded twice, in 1658 and 1660.

Nicaragua became a part of the Mexican Empire and then gained its independence as a part of the United Provinces of Central America in 1821 and as an independent republic in its own right in 1838. The Mosquito Coast based on Bluefields on the Atlantic was claimed by the United Kingdom (and its predecessor states) as a protectorate from 1655 to 1850; this was delegated to Honduras in 1859 and transferred to Nicaragua in 1860, though remained autonomous until 1894.

Much of Nicaragua's politics since independence has been characterized by the rivalry between the liberal elite of León and the conservative elite of Granada. The rivalry often degenerated into civil war, particularly during the 1840s and 1850s. Initially invited by the Liberals in 1855 to join their struggle against the Conservatives, a United States adventurer named William Walker (later executed in Honduras) was elected to the presidency in 1856. Honduras and other Central American countries united to drive him out of Nicaragua in 1857, after which a period of three decades of Conservative rule ensued.<ref>Herring, Hubert, A History of Latin America - from the Beginnings to the Present - Chapter 28, Central America and Panama - Nicaragua, 1838-1909, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1968</ref>

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.

[edit] United States involvement (1909 - 1933)

See also: Occupation of Nicaragua

However, 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 foreign access to Nicaraguan natural resources. On November 18, 1909, U.S. warships were sent to the area after 500 revolutionaries (including two Americans) were executed by order of Zelaya. The U.S. justified the intervention by claiming the protection of U.S. lives and property. Zelaya resigned later that year. Five years later (1914), the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was signed, giving the U.S. control over the proposed canal, as well as leases for potential canal defenses. U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua until 1933 (from 1912 - 1925, and from 1926 - 1933, with a 9-month gap in between). From 1910 to 1926, the conservative party dominated Nicaragua. Following the evacuation of U.S. marines, another violent conflict between liberals and conservatives took place in 1926, known as the Constitutionalist War, which resulted in a coalition government and the return of U.S. Marines.

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, who withdrew upon the establishment of a new Liberal government. Sandino rejected a 1927 negotiated agreement brokered by the United States to end the latest round of fighting between liberals and conservatives.

The revolt finally forced the United States to compromise and leave the country. 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. Anastasio Somoza García, a close friend of the American government, was put in charge. He was one of the three rulers of the country, the others being the extremely popular Sandino and the mostly figurehead President Juan Bautista Sacasa.

The Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, a decoration of the United States Navy, was later issued for those American service members who had performed military duty in Nicaragua during the early years of the 20th century.

[edit] The Somozas (1936 - 1979)

[edit] Anastasio Somoza García's rule

With U.S. support Anastasio Somoza García outmaneuvered his political opponents, including Sandino who was assassinated by National Guard officers in February 1934 in violation of a safe-conduct agreement, and took over the presidency in 1936. The Somoza family would rule until 1979.

The earliest opposition to the Somoza regime came from the educated middle class and the normally conservative wealthy who were being forced out as Somoza put friends and family in control of the nation's economy. In the face of restrictions of freedom of speech, these resistance efforts were not successful. Many from these classes left Nicaragua, ironically often for the United States. One notable exception was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, editor of La Prensa, the country's most popular newspaper, whose international reputation and continued rejection of violence led him to be all but untouchable by the regime.

The liberal opposition began to be eclipsed by the far more radical and violent Marxists. On September 21, 1956, one young Marxist, Rigoberto López Pérez, snuck into a party attended by the President and shot him in the chest. While the assassin quickly died in a hail of gunfire Somoza himself died a few days later, in the American hospital in Panama Canal Zone.

[edit] Somoza's rise to power and the formation of a dictatorship

Divisions within the Conservative Party in the 1932 elections paved the way for the Liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa to assume power. This initiated an inherently weak presidency—hardly a formidable obstacle to Somoza as he set about building his personal influence over Congress and the ruling Liberal Party. President Sacasa's popularity decreased as a result of his poor leadership and accusations of fraud in the 1934 congressional elections. Somoza García benefited from Sacasa's diminishing power, and at the same time brought together the National Guard and the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal-PL) in order to win the presidential elections in 1936. Somoza Garcia also cultivated support from former presidents Moncada and Chamorro while consolidating control within the Liberal Party.

Early in 1936, Somoza openly confronted President Sacasa by using military force to displace local government officials loyal to the president and replacing them with close associates. Somoza García's increasing military confrontation led to Sacasa's resignation on June 6, 1936. The Congress appointed Carlos Brenes Jarquín, a Somoza García associate, as interim president and postponed presidential elections until December. In November, Somoza resigned as chief director of the National Guard, thus complying with constitutional requirements for eligibility to run for the presidency. The Liberal Nationalist Party (Partido Liberal Nacionalista--PLN) was established with support from a faction of the Conservative Party to support Somoza Garcia’s candidacy. Somoza was elected president in the December election by the remarkable margin of 107,201 votes to 108. On January 1, 1937, he resumed control of the National Guard, combining the roles of president and chief director of the military.

After Somoza’s win in the December 1936 presidential elections, he diligently proceeded to consolidate his power within the National Guard, while at the same time dividing his political opponents. Family members and close associates were given key positions within the government and the military. The Somoza family also controlled the PLN, which in turn controlled the legislature and judicial system, thus giving Somoza absolute power over every sphere of Nicaraguan politics. Nominal political opposition was allowed as long as it did not threaten the ruling elite. Somoza Garcia’s National Guard repressed serious political opposition and antigovernment demonstrations. The institutional power of the National Guard grew in most government owned enterprises, until eventually it controlled the national radio and telegraph networks, the postal and immigration services, health services, the internal revenue service, and the national railroads.

In less than two years after his election, Somoza Garcia, defying the Conservative Party, declared his intention to stay in power beyond his presidential term. Thus, in 1938, Somoza Garcia named a Constituent Assembly that gave the president extensive power and elected him for another eight-year term. A Constituent Assembly, extension of the presidential term from four years to six years, and clauses empowering the president to decree laws relating to the National Guard without consulting Congress, ensured Somoza’s absolute control over the state and military. Control over electoral and legislative machinery provided the basis for a permanent dictatorship.

[edit] The younger Somozas

Somoza García was succeeded by his two sons. Luis Somoza Debayle became dictator, but his brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle held the true reins of power as head of the National Guard. A graduate of West Point, Anastasio was even closer to the Americans than his father and was said to speak better English than Spanish.

The revolutionaries were also greatly strengthened by the Cuban Revolution. The revolution provided both hope and inspiration to the revolutionaries, as well as weapons and funding. Operating from Costa Rica they formed the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) and came to be known as Sandinistas. They took their name from the still legendary Augusto César Sandino. With aid from the United States, the Somoza brothers succeeded in defeating the guerrillas.

President Luis Somoza Debayle, under pressure from the rebels, announced that national elections would be held in February 1963. Election reforms had been made that established secret ballots and a supervising electoral commission (though the Conservative Party never elected any members of the commission). Somoza had also introduced a constitutional amendment that would prevent family members from succeeding him. The opposition was extremely skeptical of Somoza's promises, and ultimately the dictatorship continued, passing to Anastasio Somoza Debayle after Luis died of a heart attack in 1967.

By the 1970s, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, like his brother and father, was regarded by many as a kleptocrat, as he owned 20% of the nation's prime farm land. Landless peasants worked on large plantations during short harvest seasons and received wages as low as USD$1 per day. In desperation, many of these poor laborers migrated east, seeking their own land near the rain forest. In 1968, the World Health Organization found that polluted water led to 17% of all Nicaraguan deaths.

[edit] 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. Six Miami, Florida meat-packing plants and the largest slaughterhouse in Nicaragua were all owned by President Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

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 as DDT, endrin, dieldrin and lindane. In a later study (1977) it was revealed that mothers living in León had 45 times more DDT in their breast milk than the World Health Organization deemed safe.

[edit] Sandinista insurrection (1961 - 1979)

See also: Sandinista National Liberation Front

A major turning point was the December 1972 Managua earthquake that killed over 10,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. A great deal of international relief was sent to the nation, but up to half of it was embezzled by Somoza and the National Guard. As a result, most of downtown Managua, devastated in the earthquake, was never rebuilt. This not only enraged the Nicaraguan people but also began to alienate the United States. Violent opposition to the government, especially to its widespread corruption, was then renewed with the Sandinistas being revived, this time backed by communist Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Somoza reacted violently after one of his close friends was taken hostage and executed. Martial law was declared, and the National Guard began to raze villages in the jungle suspected of supporting the rebels. Human rights groups condemned the actions, but U.S. President Gerald Ford refused to break the U.S. alliance with Somoza.

As continual National Guard attacks killed several civilians, the rebels were gaining support, and stepped up their assault against the government. The country tipped into full scale civil war with the 1978 assassination of Pedro Chamorro (by a Cuban American who had been a target of his criticisms), who had continued to oppose violence against the regime. 50,000 turned out for his funeral. It was initially assumed that Somoza had ordered his assassination.

The Sandinista forces, backed by Cuba and gathering in Honduras and Costa Rica, advanced into the country and began to seize isolated communities. Other towns rose up, expelling the National Guard units. Somoza responded with increasing brutality. When León fell into Sandinista hands, he famously ordered the air force to "bomb everything that moves until it stops moving."

The U.S. knew the Somozas were unpopular so they sought a policy of "Somocismo without Somoza." When this tactic failed, Somoza sought to maintain his influence through the National Guard. By June 1979, the National Guard was carrying out massive atrocities in the war against the Sandinistas, bombing residential neighborhoods in Managua and killing thousands of people. At that point, the U.S. ambassador sent a cable to the White House saying it would be "ill-advised" to tell the Guard to call off the bombing, because such an action would help the Sandinistas gain power. When the National Guard executed ABC reporter Bill Stewart and graphic film of the execution was broadcast, the American public became more antipathetic to Somoza. In the end, President Jimmy Carter refused Somoza U.S. military aid, believing that the repressive nature of the government had led to popular support for the Sandinista uprising.

[edit] Sandinista period (1979 - 1990)

Political graffiti in León, "if the gringos intervene, the militias will stop them," 1980

As Somoza's government collapsed, the U.S. helped Somoza and National Guard commanders escape, with Somoza fleeing to exile in Miami. The rebels advanced on the capital victoriously. On July 19, 1979 a new government was proclaimed under a provisional junta headed by Daniel Ortega (then age 35) and including Violeta Chamorro, Pedro's widow.

The United Nations estimated material damage from the revolutionary war to be USD$480 million. The FSLN took over a nation plagued by malnutrition, disease, and pesticide contaminations. Lake Managua was considered dead because of decades of pesticide runoff, toxic chemical pollution from lakeside factories, and untreated sewage. Soil erosion and dust storms were also a problem in Nicaragua at the time due to deforestation. To tackle these crises, the FSLN created the Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment.

The Sandinistas were victorious in the national election of November 4, 1984. Although the election was certified as "free and fair" by international observers, there were many groups, including the Nicaraguan political opposition and the Reagan administration, who claimed political restrictions placed on the opposition by the government. The primary opposition candidate was the U.S.-backed Arturo Cruz, who succumbed to pressure from the United States government<ref name=Smith>Smith, Wayne S., Lies About Nicaragua, Foreign Policy (Summer 1987)</ref> not to take part in the 1984 elections; other opposition parties, such as the Conservative Democratic Party and the Independent Liberal party, were both free to denounce the Sandinista government and participate in the elections<ref name=LASA>The Electoral Process in Nicaragua: Domestic and International Influences, Latin American Studies Organization</ref>. The fears of opposition groups were apparently well founded, as it was later discovered that the FSLN had, in fact, been actively suppressing right-wing opposition parties while leaving moderate parties alone, with Ortega claiming that the moderates "presented no danger and served as a convenient facade to the outside world"<ref name="Andrew">Andrew, Christopher et al. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Basic Books, September 20, 2005.</ref>. Ortega was overwhelmingly elected President in 1984, but the later years of war took an unparalleled toll on Nicaragua's economy and left many families in quite difficult situations.

[edit] U.S. and Contras

U.S. President Carter initially hoped that continued American aid to the new government would keep the Sandinistas from forming a doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist government aligned with the Soviet bloc. Given past American support for the long rule of the Somoza family, though, and the committed Marxist ideology of the ruling FSLN government (many of the leading Sandinista had long-standing relationships with the Soviet Union and Cuba), Carter's approach made little sense. The Carter administration allotted the Sandinistas minimal funding to start them off,[1] but the Sandinistas resolutely turned away from the U.S. and, with Cuban and East European help, built up an army of 75,000. The buildup included T-55 heavy tanks, heavy artillery and HIND attack helicopters, an unprecedented military buildup that made the Sandinista Army more powerful than all of its neighbors combined. The Soviets also pledged to provide MiG 21 fighters, but, to the annoyance of the Sandinistas, the aircraft were never delivered.<ref name="Andrew">Andrew, Christopher et al. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Basic Books, September 20, 2005.</ref>

Managua became the second capital in the hemisphere (after Cuba) to host an embassy from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. Ironically, in light of the tensions between their Soviet sponsors and China, the Sandinistas allowed Taiwan to retain its mission and refused to allow the PRC to enter the country.

The first challenge to the powerful new army came from groups of Somoza's National Guard who had fled to Honduras. The Contras were soon under the control of Nicaraguan business elites who opposed Sandinista policies to seize their assets.[citation] The Contra chain of command included some ex-National Guardsmen, including Contra founder and commander Enrique Bermúdez and others. One prominent Contra commander, however, was ex-Sandinista hero Edén Pastora, aka "Commadante Zero," who rejected the Leninist orientation of his fellow comandantes.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, relations between the United States and the Sandinista regime became an active front in the Cold War. The Reagan administration insisted on the "Communist threat" posed by the Sandinistas--reacting particularly to the support provided to the Sandinistas by Cuban president Fidel Castro, by the Sandinistas' close military relations with the Soviets and Cubans, but also furthering the Reagan administration's desire to protect U.S. interests in the region, which were threatened by the policies of the Sandinista government. The United States quickly suspended aid to Nicaragua and expanded the supply of arms and training to the Contra in neighbouring Honduras, as well as allied groups based to the south in Costa Rica.

American pressure against the government escalated, including attacks on Nicaraguan ports and oil installations (September 1983-March 1984) and the laying of magnetic mines outside Nicaraguan harbours (early 1984), actions condemned as illegal (June 27, 1986 Nicaragua v. United States) by the International Court of Justice. The U.S. refused to pay restitution and claimed that the ICJ was not competent for the case. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in order to pressure the U.S. to pay the fine. Although only Israel and El Salvador, which also had disputes with Nicaragua, voted with the U.S., the money still has not been paid. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American ambassador to the UN under Reagan, criticized the Court as a "semi-judicial" body. The U.S. was legally bound by the court's decision, had signed the treaty and made use of the court in other cases. On May 1, 1985 Reagan issued an executive order that imposed a full economic embargo on Nicaragua, which remained in force until March 1990.

In 1982, the U.S. Congress prohibited further direct aid to the Contras with the Boland Amendment. Reagan's officials attempted to illegally supply them out of the proceeds of arms sales to Iran and third party donations, triggering the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986-87. Mutual exhaustion, Sandinista fears of Contra unity and military success, and mediation by other regional governments led to the Sapoa ceasefire between Sandinistas and Contras (March 23, 1988) and subsequent agreements (February, August 1989) for Contra reintegration into Nicaraguan society preparatory to general elections which were subsequently won in a landslide by the party identified with the Contras.

[edit] Post-Sandinista period

In a stunning landslide defeat(ABC news had been predicting a 16 point Sandinista victory - they lost by 14 points), the FSLN lost to the National Opposition Union led by former Sandinista Violeta Chamorro in elections on February 25, 1990, but still largely controlled the army, labor unions, and courts. During President Chamorro's nearly 7 years in office, her government achieved major progress toward consolidating democratic institutions, advancing national reconciliation, stabilizing the economy, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and reducing human rights violations. In February 1995, Sandinista Popular Army Cmdr. Gen. Humberto Ortega was replaced, in accordance with a new military code enacted in 1994 by Gen. Joaquín Cuadra, who espoused a policy of greater professionalism in the renamed Army of Nicaragua. A new police organization law, passed by the National Assembly and signed into law in August 1996, further codified both civilian control of the police and the professionalization of that law enforcement agency.

The October 20, 1996 presidential, legislative, and mayoral elections also were judged free and fair by international observers and by the groundbreaking national electoral observer group Ética y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency) despite a number of irregularities, due largely to logistical difficulties and a baroquely complicated electoral law. This time Nicaraguans elected former-Managua Mayor Arnoldo Alemán, leader of the center-right Liberal Alliance, which later consolidated into the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). Alemán continued in liberalizing the economy and fulfilling his campaign promise of "works not words" by completing infrastructure projects such as highways, bridges, and wells (thanks in large part to foreign assistance received after Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua in October 1998). His administration was, however, tainted by charges of corruption that resulted in the resignation of several key officials in mid-2000. Alemán was subsequently arrested and sentenced to twenty years in jail for corruption.

In November 2000, Nicaragua held municipal elections. Alemán's PLC won a majority of the overall mayoral races, but the FSLN fared considerably better in larger urban areas, winning a significant number of departmental capitals, including Managua.

Presidential and legislative elections were held on November 4, 2001--the country's fourth free and fair elections since 1990. Enrique Bolaños of the PLC was elected to the Nicaraguan presidency, defeating the FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega, by 14 percentage points. The elections were characterized by international observers as free, fair and peaceful.

President Bolaños was inaugurated on January 10, 2002. During the campaign Bolaños promised to reinvigorate the economy, create jobs, fight corruption and support the war against terrorism.

The country has partly rebuilt its economy during the 1990s, but was hard hit by Hurricane Mitch at the end of October 1998, almost exactly a decade after the similarly destructive Hurricane Joan.

[edit] See also

[edit] References


  1. Adu, Yvonne (ed) Nicaragua: Nation History. www.aeroflight.co.uk/waf/americas/nicaragua/Nicaragua.national.histoyr.htm, April 22, 2006. -- 21:48, 15 April 2006
  2. Black, George. Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. London: Zed Press, 1981.
  3. Diederich, Bernard. Somoza. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981.

[edit] Further reading

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