History of Nicaragua

The Spanish Empire conquered the territory of what is now known as Nicaragua in the early 16th century, but more than 3,000-year-old human footprints have been found preserved in volcanic mud near Lake Managua.

In pre-Columbian times, the indigenous people were part of the Intermediate Area, between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions, and within the influence of the Isthmo-Colombian area. The Pipil migrated to Nicaragua from central Mexico after 500 BC. As a result of these processes, at the end of the 15th century, the territory was inhabited by several indigenous peoples related by culture to the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Aztec and Maya, and by language to the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. However, the Caribbean coast (Mosquito Coast) was inhabited mostly Chibcha language groups who later coalesced in Central America and migrated also to present-day northern Colombia and nearby areas. They lived a life based primarily on hunting and gathering.

In 1502, Christopher Columbus was the first European to have reached what is now Nicaragua as he sailed southeast toward the Isthmus of Panama. The first attempt to conquer what is now known as Nicaragua was by Gil González Dávila, who arrived in Panama in January 1520. After exploring and gathering gold in the fertile western valleys, González was attacked by the indigenous people, some of whom were commanded by Nicarao and an estimated 3,000 led by the chief Diriangén.

It was not until 1524 that the first Spanish permanent settlements were founded by conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba who founded two of Nicaragua's principal colonial towns: Granada on Lake Nicaragua was the first settlement, followed by León at a location west of Lake Managua. Córdoba was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedro Arias Dávila. His tomb and remains were recently discovered in the ruins of León Viejo.

The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception was constructed in the late 17th century to protect locals in neighboring Granada from pirate attacks. Today, it is one of the country's main tourist attractions.

In 1610, the Momotombo volcano erupted, destroying the capital of the colony, but the city was rebuilt northwest of what is now known as the Ruins of Old León.

The Captaincy General of Guatemala was dissolved in September 1821 with the Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire, and Nicaragua became part of the First Mexican Empire. After the monarchy was overthrown in 1823, Nicaragua joined the newly formed United Provinces of Central America, which was later renamed as the Federal Republic of Central America. The country finally became an independent republic in 1838.

Rivalry between the liberal elite of León and the conservative elite of Granada characterized the early years of independence and often degenerated into civil war. Invited by the Liberals in 1855 to join their struggle against the Conservatives, a United States adventurer and filibuster named William Walker set himself up as president of Nicaragua, after conducting a farcical election in 1856. Costa Rica, Honduras and other Central American countries united to drive Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857, after which a period of three decades of Conservative rule ensued.

Throughout the late 19th century, the United States considered a scheme to build a canal across Nicaragua, linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

In 1909, the United States provided political support to conservative-led forces rebelling against President Zelaya. On November 18, 1909, U.S. warships were sent to the area after 500 revolutionaries (including two Americans) were executed by order of Zelaya. Zelaya resigned later that year.

In August 1912, the Nicaraguan Secretary of War, General Luis Mena, fled Managua with his brother, the Chief of Police of Managua, to start an insurrection. When the U.S. Legation asked President Díaz to ensure the safety of American citizens and property during the insurrection he replied that he could not and asked the United States to intervene in the conflict. U.S. Marines occupied thus Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, except for a nine-month period beginning in 1925. In 1914, the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was signed, giving the U.S. control over the proposed canal, as well as leases for potential canal defenses. Following the evacuation of U.S. Marines, another violent conflict between liberals and conservatives took place in 1926, which resulted in 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 he fought for over five years. When the Americans left in 1933, they set up the Guardia Nacional, a combined military and police force trained and equipped by the Americans.

In 1933, Sandino and the newly elected Sacasa government reached an agreement by which he would cease his guerrilla activities in return for amnesty, a grant of land for an agricultural colony, and retention of an armed band of 100 men for a year. But a growing hostility between Sandino and Somoza led Somoza to order the assassination of Sandino on February 21 of 1934 by soldiers of the National Guard. Hundreds of men, women, and children from Sandino's agricultural colony were executed later.

Since that Nicaragua has experienced the hereditary dictatorship of the Somoza family, who ruled for 43 years during the 20th century. Somoza eliminated officers in the National Guard who might have stood in his way, and then deposed Sacasa and became president on January 1, 1937, in a rigged election.

Nicaragua declared war on Germany on December 8, 1941, during World War II. No soldiers were sent to the war, but Somoza did seize the occasion to confiscate properties held by German-Nicaraguans. In 1945 Nicaragua was among the first countries to ratify the United Nations Charter.

On September 21, 1956, Somoza was shot by Rigoberto López Pérez, a Nicaraguan poet. Luis Somoza Debayle, the eldest son of the late dictator, was appointed President by the congress and officially took charge of the country. He was in power only for a few years and then died of a heart attack. His successor as president was René Schick Gutiérrez, whom Nicaraguans viewed as nothing more than a puppet of the Somozas.

The 1972 earthquake destroyed nearly 90% of Managua, creating major losses. Instead of helping to rebuild Managua, Somoza’s family  siphoned off relief money. The mishandling of relief money also prompted Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente to personally fly to Managua on 31 December 1972, but he died en route in an airplane accident.

In 1961, Carlos Fonseca  along with two friends (one of which was believed to be Casimiro Sotelo who was later assassinated) founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). After the 1972 earthquake and Somoza's apparent corruption, the ranks of the Sandinistas were flooded with young disaffected Nicaraguans who no longer had anything to lose.

In December 1974, a group of FSLN, in an attempt to kidnap U.S. Ambassador Tuner Shelton, held some Managuan partygoers hostage, after killing the host, former Agriculture Minister Jose Maria Castillo, until the Somozan government met their demands for a large ransom and free transport to Cuba.

On January 10, 1978, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of the national newspaper La Prensa and ardent opponent of Somoza, was assassinated.

The Sandinistas took power in July 1979 after a guerrilla war. Somoza fled the country and eventually ended up in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in September 1980, by members of the Argentinian Revolutionary Workers Party.

In 1980 the Carter administration provided $60 million in aid to Nicaragua under the Sandinistas but the aid was suspended when it obtained evidence of Nicaraguan shipment of arms to El Salvadoran rebels. Various rebel groups collectively known as the Contras were formed to oppose the new government.  The Contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. The US also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo on Nicaragua. The Sandanistas were also accused of human rights abuses.

The FSLN won the Nicaraguan general elections of 1984, which were judged to have been free and fair. During the war between the Contras and the Sandinistas, 30,000 people were killed.

In the Nicaraguan general election, 1990, a coalition of anti-Sandinista parties (from the left and right of the political spectrum) led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, defeated the Sandinistas. Chamorro's victory over Ortega was achieved with a 55% majority, and Violeta Chamorro was the first female President of Nicaragua. In the next Nicaraguan general election, in 1996, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas of the FSLN were defeated again, this time by Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC).

In the 2001 elections, the PLC again defeated the FSLN, with Enrique Bolaños winning the Presidency, but later he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement, money laundering, and corruption, after liberal members loyal to Alemán and Sandinista parliament members, had stripped the presidential powers of President Bolaños and his ministers, calling for his resignation and threatening impeachment.

Meanwhile,the National Assembly passed a bill further restricting abortion in Nicaragua. As a result, Nicaragua is one of five countries in the world where abortion is illegal with no exceptions.

Legislative and presidential elections took place on November 5, 2006. Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency with 37.99% of the vote. This percentage was enough to win the presidency outright, because of a change in electoral law which lowered the percentage requiring a runoff election from 45% to 35% (with a 5% margin of victory). Nicaragua's 2011 general election resulted in re-election of Daniel Ortega. In 2014 the National Assembly approved changes to the constitution allowing Daniel Ortega to run for a third successive term.

Today, the armed forces of Nicaragua consist of Army, Navy and Air Force. There are roughly 15,000 active duty personnel, which is much less compared to the numbers seen during the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Although the army has had a rough military history, a portion of its forces, which were known as the National Guard became integrated with what is now the National Police of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is considering construction of a canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, which President Daniel Ortega has said will give Nicaragua its "economic independence." The project is scheduled to be completed in 2019 or 2020, but today, due to extreme poverty in Nicaragua, many Nicaraguans are now living and working in neighboring El Salvador, a country that has the US dollar as currency, and in Costa Rica, where as many as 200,000 Nicaraguans live and work, mostly illegally.

Granada in Nicaragua

View of Granada City, the oldest colonial settlement in Latinamerica. Photo : Frédéric Eveno, source : Granada-Nicaragua.com

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