Discover the history of Nicaragua

The History of Nicaragua

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.

General overview

If you think life is unfair, the history of Nicaragua will certainly not dissuade you.

Even by the standards of Central America, Nicaragua’s history has been marked by extremely frequent victimization by more powerful countries.

Spain managed to kill off all but a small proportion of the area’s one million indigenous inhabitants.

English pirates attacked frequently and set up camp on the Caribbean coast.

Later, the British government itself attacked the Caribbean coast and invaded inland. These invasions culminated in a failed and did not influence the history of Nicaragua, but long and destructive attempt, to take control of Nicaragua as the British did in Belize.

After independence, Nicaragua was dragged into conflicts with neighboring Central American countries.

In the 1850s, a US adventurer even briefly took control of the country and tried to use it as a launching pad to take over the rest of Central America. This was the first intrusion of the USA in the history of Nicaragua.

The United States government continued to terrorize Nicaragua for virtually the entire 20th century, overthrowing the government several times, occupying the country militarily for a total of more than a decade, and then supporting the corrupt Somoza regime for forty years. When Nicaraguans finally overthrew the Somozas, the US made them pay dearly.

What has kept Nicaragua going? That is a good question for a lot of countries in the Americas, and for that matter, the world.

In Nicaragua, there’s the gorgeous landscape, including beaches that would attract many more international tourists if it weren’t for the crime problem. There are also closely-knit families, and a variety of indigenous cultures, including societies where there are still people who do not speak Spanish.

Perhaps most of all, Nicaraguans have always had hope, whether in the form of the courageous and honest leaders who appear every so often, or the not quite entirely empty promises of the United States and other powerful countries.

The First Nicaraguans

At Acahualinca, volcanic ash has preserved the footprints of people running to Lake Managua 10,000 years ago.

But the people who would eventually dominate Nicaragua at the time of the Spanish conquest did not arrive until the 900s AD, during migrations from present-day Mexico to Nicaragua’s Pacific lowlands.

In the half century before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs arrived and set up a trading colony, introducing their culture into the history of Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean coast was occupied by a much smaller group of hunter-gatherers descended from migrants from Colombia and Panama.

It has been estimated that at the time of Columbus, there were a million people living in present-day Nicaragua, a level of population the country would not reach again during centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

The history of Nicaragua under the Spanish ruling

Disastrous consequences in the history of Nicaragua

Nicaragua was one of the places visited by Columbus in 1502, but the Spaniards did not explore it until 1520, when they set out to conquer it. First Gil Gonzalez Davila, and later Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba, conquered the country, finishing in 1524 with the foundation of Granada and Leon.

Nicaragua’s huge population (relative to world population at that time) suffered a disastrous decline. Disease wiped out many. Many were enslaved, included 200,000 who were sent to work in mines in Peru and elsewhere. The 1548 census listed only 11,137 indigenous people left in western Nicaragua, the country’s heartland.

Nicaragua was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, itself part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which was ruled from Mexico City.

At that time of the history of Nicaragua, the country was a backwater that only exported small amounts of cacao and indigo. English pirates also made the country a target.

The British government made further incursions into Nicaragua, sacking Granada in 1655 and looting Granada and Leon 30 years later. In 1780, the British made a failed attempt to take over Nicaragua militarily. However, they kept control of the Miskito people who lived along the Caribbean. They even created the puppet Kingdom of Mosquitia in 1687. But the English influence in the history of Nicaragua was not very prominent.

In the mid-1700s, Spain pushed hard for its colonies to expand trade. This effort essentially gave Central America its present-day identity as an important exporter of natural products, beginning with indigo and tobacco, and later expanding to coffee and bananas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Nicaragua became a society even more sharply divided between a rich elite and a vast poor majority, a problem that has persisted during the whole history of Nicaragua.

The beginnings of a Nicaraguan political life

Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s elite started to develop the liberal-conservative divide that occurred almost everywhere else in the Spanish colonies after independence.

Liberals were typically merchants and other businessmen who wanted to modernize the country and make it better for commerce.

Conservatives were typically landowners who wanted to maintain their old privileges and especially the privileges of the Church, which kept order in the countryside.

As with elsewhere in the former Spanish colonies, the Liberal-Conservative divide left their marks in the history of Nicaragua until the 20th century. In Nicaragua, it ended during the long, brutal Somoza dictatorship from the 1930s through the 1970s. In some countries, most notably Colombia, Liberals and Conservatives are actually still the two leading political parties today.


Unlike most of Central America, Nicaragua did not wait for Mexico’s war for independence to succeed before striking out on its own. The province rose up against Spain in 1811, though this uprising failed.

In 1821, Mexico became independent, taking Central America with it. The United Provinces of Central America was formed the next year but as in the other countries in Central America it did not leave its mark in the history of Nicaragua.

In 1838, Nicaragua, along with several other former provinces, declared their independence from the confederation.

As happened in many other former Spanish colonies, the rival Liberals and Conservatives each controlled a major city. The Liberals dominated Leon, and the Conservatives, Granada.

The rivalry escalated to a full-scale civil war. The Liberals, facing defeat, invited William Walker of the US to bring in an army of mercenaries.

Walker overthrew both the Liberals and Conservatives, and promptly set out to conquer the rest of Central America. The other countries in the region, with support from the British, and also the American billionaire Vanderbilt, drove Walker from Central America.

The Conservatives controlled Nicaragua for most of the rest of the nineteenth century. They moved the capital to Managua to undercut the Granada-Leon rivalry.

Nicaragua also became a major coffee exporter, and a railroad was built to facilitate the country.

The very beginning of a permanent US intervention in the history of Nicaragua

Meanwhile, the United States government set his eyes on Nicaragua. With its San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua acting as a sort of natural Pacific-Atlantic canal, Nicaragua was an important transit point for settlers going to California by ship.

US rivalry with the British ensued. In the 1850s, the US largely won out, getting the UK to agree not to take control, effectively leaving the US as the dominant foreign power in the country and a sedition monger in the history of Nicaragua.

But despite its interest, the US failed to follow through on plans to build a transoceanic canal in Nicaragua.

In 1893, the Liberal General Zelaya took power, ruling until 1909. His regime was furious when the US built the much hoped-for canal in Panama rather than Nicaragua. The US responded by inciting a revolt against him and supporting it with the US Navy.

When the US-imposed government failed after a couple of years, US marines were brought in for one of the longest-running US military occupations of a foreign country ever.

Until their departure in 1925, the US helped the Conservatives rig elections so that they could remain in power and keep control on the history of Nicaragua. The US got Nicaragua to sign a treaty preventing any other nation from building a Nicaraguan canal that would compete with the Panama Canal. US businesses came to dominate the economy.

Within a year of the US marines’ departure in 1925, the US-installed Conservative-Liberal puppet government was overthrown by Chamorro, himself a Conservative who had been a puppet president earlier.

Facing the prospect of a successful Liberal coup against Chamorro, the US invaded again in 1926 and 1927, using the marines to prop up another puppet government.

The fight between the partisans of Sandino and the supporters of Somoza: another period of turmoil in the history of Nicaragua

The US created the Nicaraguan National Guard, a combined military-police force, and also supervised two elections that were won by Liberals. Still, the government was challenged by guerillas led by Sandino, who became a national hero in history of Nicaragua, particularly after his murder in 1934 by the National Guard.

In 1933, the US withdrew, leaving the National Guard in the hands of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a Liberal politician.

In 1936, Somoza managed to strong-arm the resignation of the president of Nicaragua, and coerced the Liberal party into backing his own presidential ambitions. A fraudulent election and subsequent US support sealed his grip on the presidency.

Somoza ruled with US support until his assassination in 1956, when his son Luis became president and his other son, Anastasio (also known as Tachito) took over the National Guard.

While the country was more stable and developed under the regime, the Somoza family stole copiously from the government and made it more corrupt than ever. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, killed, and/or exiled.

The recent history of Nicaragua

From the 1960’s to the 1980’s

Average Nicaraguans did not see great improvements to their standard of living, and in the 1960s, the situation got worse. Malnutrition and disease were commonplace.

In the 1960s, opposition groups formed the Sandinista front, named for the popular hero of the 1930s. The Cuban government gave some support to these groups. The groups fought against the National Guard, suffering great defeats, especially during their 1967 military campaign.

When a 1972 earthquake destroyed Managua, the Somoza family gobbled up the international aid donations, outraging almost everyone in the country and tarnishing once again the history of Nicaragua.

The regime became even more brutally repressive, which only encouraged popularity of the Sandinistas, as well as a new opposition group of elite Nicaraguans. The Catholic Church, long a bulwark of support for repressive regimes in Nicaragua, became a vocal critic. In the late seventies, US President Jimmy Carter ended US support for Somoza.

In 1978, a newspaper editor who had been the spokesperson for the opposition was murdered, probably by business associates of Somoza. For many Nicaraguans, this was the last straw.

Later in 1978, the Sandinistas took Congress hostage, shattering the authority of the National Guard and encouraging further uprisings.

When the National Guard started killing large numbers of civilians, Nicaraguans from all levels of society turned to the Sandinistas in droves. Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Panama threw their support behind the Sandinistas as well.

In the ensuing war to defeat Somoza, up to 50,000 people died. The Organization of American States was instrumental in defeating a US plan to invade the country and take over from both Somoza and the Sandinistas, instead calling on theSandinistasto form a provisional government.

The tumultuous history of Nicaragua from the 1980’s

The Sandinistas’ ambitious reform program eliminated polio, reduced illiteracy from 50% to 13%, nationalized the lands of the Somozas, and cut infant mortality rates by a third.

The United States naturally could not tolerate such developments. Under the personal direction of President Reagan, the US suspended all aid to Nicaragua and instead formed an army of disaffected Nicaraguans. This army, composed mostly of the old National Guard, was called the Contras, short for contrarevolucionarios.

The Sandinistas’ broad base of support had already begun to weaken, and the war further exacerbated internal tensions. Meanwhile, the country was forced to divert massive resources to national defense against the mighty US. A 1985 US-imposed trade embargo ruined the already damaged economy.

US support for the Contras did not finally end until the Congressional investigations into the Iran Contra Affair. The Iran Contra Affair was the secret deal under which Reagan sold weapons to Iran (against whom the United States was officially supporting Iraq in the devastating Iran-Iraq War) in order to get money to support the Contra attack on Nicaragua.

The Iran-Contra Affair was perhaps the single most disgusting revelation of corruption and evildoing by a sitting US president ever. But Reagan was never really punished, and most of the people who had done his bidding received only slaps on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the damage had been done. Nicaraguans, unable to withstand the US attack on their country any longer, succumbed to the demands of the US and elected a non-Sandinista, Violeta Chamorro, president.

Chamorro was the widow of the prominent newspaper editor murdered in the last years of the Somoza dictatorship. She continued to allowSandinistasto work in the government, for which the US once again leveled threats against Nicaragua. She was replaced in the next election by a member of the old Liberal Party, Aleman.

In 1999 Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua, and the country will probably still be rebuilding from it for the foreseeable future.

Another Liberal, Bolanos, became president in 2000. He actually stripped the corrupt former president Aleman of his immunity, one of the few bright spots in post-Sandinista’s political history of Nicaragua.

Improve your knowledge on the country's geography now that you know the history of Nicaragua.
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History of Nicaragua
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