Ask any fourth grader who the first Americans were, and he will tell you that the Indians who came across the Bering Strait were. These same Indians didn't stop in Arizona, however. Small groups of them kept on wandering south in search of food and by the year 2000 BC, they had settled all over Central America. In Managua, Nicaragua, there are footprints which were formed, according to native legend, by people fleeing to Lake Managua from a volcanic eruption almost 10,000 years ago. These first explorers found that the soil which had been formed by the volcanic ash and minerals was perfect for growing food like beans and maize. They no longer had to wander in search of food to survive and so they began to build permanent civilizations. In Nicaragua, only small agricultural communities developed in the East and their civilizations never become as advanced as their neighbors who formed the mighty Aztec Empire and the Mayan Empire. In spite of the fact that they did not leave behind any large ruins as proof of their development, the indigenous Nicaraguans were very skilled craftsmen who left behind intricate stone carvings, pottery, and gold jewelry.
See a picture of indiginous Indian rock carvings.
But history changed forever when the coast of the Americas was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1502. Twenty-two years after that first sighting by a member of the European continent, Nicaragua was settled by a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba who claimed the region for his native country. In 1524, the settlements of Leon and Granada were founded by Hernandez and Nicaragua became an official part of the Spanish Empire. These two cities still exist today, by the way, and they are important centers of the Nicaraguan culture and economy.
Spanish rule was imposed on all the Indians who had not died from the Old World diseases which the "conquistadors" had brought with them or who had not been carried away as slaves. It is estimated that in western Nicaragua alone, what had been a population of over one million Indians was crushed to a few tens of thousands by the end of the Spanish conquest. Also, historical research indicates that as many as half a million native Nicaraguans may have been exported as slaves to Panama and Peru. Most of these unfortunate souls died en-route to their destination or after a year or two in slavery as a result of the deplorable conditions. However, although vast quantities were annihilated, some Indians did survive the onslaught.
This drastic reduction in population was not the only major change that the Spanish brought to the region. Before the conquest, labor-intensive agriculture was commonplace because the Indians grew corn, beans, peppers, and squash as assigned to them by their caciques. (Caciques were the Indian chiefs whom the Spanish manipulated by way of bribes and alliances to extract gold and slaves.) Although the common Indian had to give a certain portion of their crops to their cacique as a kind of tax, they could keep the rest to eat or sell in the market. However, because of the drastic reduction in population, there were not enough farmers left to till the earth and much of the agricultural land reverted to jungle and became unusable to the future inhabitants. Also, the Spanish forced the people to produce goods such as gold, silver, timber, and cattle which could be exported to Spain or traded with the other colonies instead of the basic bread-basket foods which they had been growing for centuries. The Indians, even though they were far more numerous than their Spanish masters, provided the labor to fund this export- based economy. This in itself was not so terribly bad; what was terrible about this situation was the fact that most of the wealth which was produced flowed into the hands of the tiny white minority and very little trickled down into the hands of the common people.
As the conquistadors tried to impose their religion, language, and customs on the conquered people, many cultural aspects where altered drastically as well. However, nowhere was the transition complete, and many items and cities retain their native Nicaraguan names and Indian customs are still in evidence. By and large, however, Nicaragua was hispanicized and Spanish became the language of the people and Catholicism became the almost universal religion. All the new cities such as Granada and Leon were built following the typical Spanish system of plazas, city markets, cathedrals, and public buildings.
The conquest also revolutionized the social system by establishing brand new class patterns. The pre-Columbian societies of Central America operated on the basis of a hierarchical system, and it was this fact which facilitated the superimposition of the Spanish on the system. What changed, however, was the fact that social classes came to be determined by race. Two highly unequal classes emerged with the Spanish as the obvious superiors. Those who were Spanish by birth or descent became the ruling class and everybody else became the poor and seemingly worthless lower class. Within this lower class, a system of classification developed based on the amount of Spanish blood flowing through each individual's veins. A group of people called the mestizos, the off-spring of Spanish men and Indian women, were at the top of this sub-system with the pure-blooded, indigenous Nicaraguans at the very bottom.
From 1526 to 1821, Nicaragua was governed by Spain and was considered to be one of her colonies. Pedrarias Davila governed the young colony from 1526 until his death in 1531. A period of intense rivalry and civil war among the Spanish conquerors arose soon after the end of his governorship, and Nicaragua was incorporated into the captaincy-general of Guatemala. However, the administrative power really lay in Spain and the viceroyalty was merely a name in most cases. As a result of the new system of dependency, most of the development and moneys were spent in Guatemala, thus causing resentment and rivalry to grow in the other regions of Central America such as Nicaragua.
See a picture of early Nicaragua.
Colonial Nicaragua enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity, although freebooters like the English navigators Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Hawkins continually disrupted that prosperity by raiding and destroying coastal settlements. During the 1700s, the British managed to ally themselves with the Miskito, a Native American group of people intermarried with blacks, and they began to severely challenge Spanish control. For a period during and after the middle of the century the Mosquito Coast was considered a British dependency. However, The Battle of Nicaragua which lasted from 1775 to 1783, the time period of the American Revolution, ended Britain's attempts to win a permanent foothold in Nicaragua.
Unlike the United States, Central America managed to pass from colonial rule into formal independence with almost no violence. Central America merely followed Mexico's lead and broke with Spain in mid-1821. In January of 1822, Central America joined the Mexican empire of Agustin de Iturbide. However, he was "abdicated" in mid-1983 and his short reign ended. Shortly after that, Central America decided it was tired of its relationship with Mexico and all but the province of Chiapas, which chose to remain united with Mexico, declared themselves independent once again. From then until 1838, the region was supposedly unified into a federation called the United Provinces of Central America.
At first, the union seemed like a great idea and everyone was excited about the possibilities. They reasoned that Central America would be politically and economically stronger as one unit instead of five small pieces. However, from the very beginning, powerful forces worked to destroy the fragile relationship. First of all, the resentment that most of the nations held for Guatemala grew even larger when Guatemala received eighteen of the forty-five seats in the congress and therefore dominated policymaking. Second, the Constitution of 1824 declared each state to be "free and independent" in their internal affairs. However, the Constitution also contained contradictory features which supported nationalist and centralist ideas and these ideas tended to hamper the freedom which each country sought in their "internal affairs." Finally, two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, began to emerge out of the ruling elite and their rivalry threatened the union. Liberals and Conservatives not only disputed within their own provinces, but also across borders. As a result, meddling in neighbor's affairs has become a common practice of Central American leaders. These three factors worked together to create tension and resurgent civil war. Everything just blew up in 1838 as first Nicaragua and then everybody else split. Several more attempts were made to reunify the countries, but none were ever successful.
Leon went on to became the center of the Liberals (Los Liberales), and Granada became the political center of the Conservatives (Los Conservativos). Faction-based strife began to heat up as the Liberals fought to establish an independent nation and declared Nicaragua an independent republic in 1983. This strife became characteristic of Nicaraguan politics and still continues today in a different form. Even after the declaration, civil strife continued and in 1855 William Walker, an American adventurer with a small band of followers, was hired by the Liberals to head their forces in the opposition of the Conservatives. Walker captured and sacked Granada and then set himself up as president of Nicaragua in 1856 and sought US statehood. However, Walker made a fatal mistake when he seized the property of Cornelius Vanderbilt because Vanderbilt retaliated by backing the Conservatives who forced Walker to leave the country in 1857. Cornelius interest in Nicaragua was due to his Accessory Transit Company which he founded in 1849 to facilitate the California Gold Rush.
See a picture of early Leon.
In 1893, the Liberals brought about a successful revolution which placed their leader Jose Santos Zelaya to power. Zelaya remained president for the next 16 years, ruling as a dictator. He was forced out in 1909, after Adolfo Diaz was elected provisional president. Diaz requested United States military to maintain order after a revolt in 1912, and US marines landed a few years later. According to the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, the US paid $3 million dollars to Nicaragua for the right to build a canal across the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, to lease the Great and Little Corn Islands, and to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca. The agreement was extremely unpopular with many elements and it aroused anti-American guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua as well as protests from other Central American countries. When the American marines left in 1925 rebellions began and the marine force returned a year after its departure. Under American supervision, an election was held in 1928, and General Jose Moncada, a Liberal, was chosen. One Liberal leader, however, Augusto Cesar Sandino, engaged the US forces in guerrilla warfare for many years.. The U.S. Government withdrew the marines in 1933, leaving Anastasio Somoza commander of the National Guard. Somoza purportedly had Sandino assassinated and was elected president in 1937. Thus began the Somoza dynasty which ruled Nicaragua as a dictatorship for the next 43 years.
See a picture of Augusto Sandino and Anastasio Somoza Garcia.
Pearl Harbor was bombed, and on December 9, 1941, Nicaragua entered World War II. In June of1945, it became a charter member of the United Nations. Nicaragua joined the Organization of American States in 1948 and the Organization of Central American States, created to solve common central American problems, in 1951. In 1956, Anastasio Somoza, who had resumed the presidency, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his son, Luis Somoza Debayle, who first served out his father's term and was then elected in his own right. For four years after the end of his term, close associates, instead of the actual Somoza family, held the presidency. Then, in 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the younger son of the former dictator, was elected president. Debayle was a military-minded autocrat and he repressed his opposition with the aid of the National Guard.
In August 1971 the legislature abrogated the constitution and dissolved itself, and in February 1972, Somoza's Liberal party won in a landslide. In May, Somoza stepped down to the post of chief of the armed forces; political control was assumed by a trio of two Liberals and one Conservative.
The forces of nature struck and devastated Nicaragua on December 23, 1972 when a massive earthquake virtually leveled the city of Managua. The earthquake left 6000 dead and 20,000 injured in its wake. Martial law was declared, and Somoza in effect became chief executive again. Sadly, however, Somoza did not use the international aid which he received to rebuild country in a prudent manner and the opposition to his regime grew even stronger. He formally became president again with his re-election in 1974.
By the late 1970s, the economy of Nicaragua was stagnant and the people were ripe for a revolution. Then in 1978, an editor of the anti-Somoza newspaper La Prensa was assassinated and the people began to blame Somoza. The anti-Somoza guerrilla forces under the leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) began to violently oppose the existing military and the country was plunged into a virtual civil war. The United States was so worried that a Communist regime would emerge from the chaos which had taken over Nicaragua that they urged Somoza to resign so that a moderate group could take power. In 1978, the US and the OAS failed in mediation attempts with Nicaragua and the US suspended military aid to Somoza. Somoza did in fact resign on July 17 of 1979 and flew to Miami, Florida and then to Paraguay in exile. In 1980, radicals found him and assassinated him in Paraguay.
See a picture of farmer.
Control of the country was shifted to a junta of five people, one of which was Violeta Chamorro, and this junta ruled Nicaragua from 1980 to 1985. The junta began to lean more and more toward left-wing policies, and Chamorro resigned in disgust and turned her late husband's newspaper into an opposition voice to these policies. Around this time, a group of Sandinista- opponents sprang up and became known as contras. In 1981, the US began to fund the contras in their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas in order to continue the US foreign policy of suppressing communism. Facing enormous economic difficulties, the junta made an agreement with the former USSR for an aid package. Of course the US became even more desperate, fearing that another Cuba was in the making. In 1985, Daniel Ortega, the FSLN's presidential candidate, took office and declared a state of national emergency and suspended civil rights. At this time, what has become known as the Iran-Contra Affair occurred, an operation in which funds were secretly channeled to the contras, directly violating the 1992 Boland Amendment. By 1988, the country was a social and economic disaster zone as a result of the civil war and Hurricane Hugo so President Ortega agreed to the first peace talks with the contras and a temporary truce was achieved in March. In 1990, the moderate Violeta Chamorro became President of Nicaragua as a result of the free elections and she was able to maintain peace in the land throughout her term of office and improve relations with the US.
In 1997, the conservative candidate of the Liberal Party, Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo, was elected over Daniel Ortega, 49 percent to 39 percent, and Arnoldo's party gained a majority in the National Assembly as well. The transfer of power from Chamorro to Aleman was the first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another in Nicaragua's history. The new administration has stated that they are committed to further reforms that will ensure sustainable economic growth. These reforms include improving the business climate through the privatization of the few state enterprises that are left, strengthening law enforcement, resolving private property disputes, remaking tax and investment laws as well as the judicial system. In May of 1997, a demobilization accord was reached with the many armed bands that have been operating in remote areas of the country. Reforms of the Tax and Commercial Justice Law have been made to reduce income tax rates, widen the tax base, lower average import tariffs, and increase the tax contribution from consumption. International trade and exchange controls have been vastly reduced inviting more and more trade. The government appears to be succeeding in its effort to improve economic conditions, because the GDP growth rate has reached almost 6%, the highest in Central America, and the IMF has accepted Nicaragua's structural adjustment plan (ESAF) and the Paris Club has renegotiated the payment of over a billion dollars of the national debt.
See a picture of Arnoldo Aleman.