Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of Nicaragua
In 1524, Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded the first Spanish permanent settlements in the region, including two of Nicaragua's principal towns: Granada on Lake Nicaragua and Leon east of Lake Managua. Settled as a colony of Spain in the 1520s, 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 Britain 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 élite of León and the conservative élite of Granada. The rivalry often spills into civil war. 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.
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 Britain over the Atlantic Coast in 1894, and reincorporated the Mosquito Coast into 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. U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua until 1933 (from 1912 - 1925, and from 1926 - 1933, with a 9-month gap in between).
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 Gardia a combined military and police force trained and equipped by the Americans and designed to be loyal to US 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 Carlos Alberto Brenes Jarquín .
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.
Anastasio Somoza García's rule
With US 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, 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 efforts were not successful. Many of these classes left Nicaragua, ironically often for the United States. One notable exception was Pedro Chamorro 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 sneaked 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.
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 trade terms, 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 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.
The younger Somozas
Somoza García was succeeded by his two sons. Luis Somoza Debayle became dictator, but 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 Organzation found that polluted water led to 17% of all Nicaraguan deaths.
The Sandinista Insurrection
A major turning point was the December 1972 Managua earthquake that 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 alienated the United States. Violent opposition to the government, especially to the widespread corruption, was then renewed with the Sadinistas being revived.
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 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, who had continued to oppose violence against the regime. 50,000 turned out for his funeral.
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 US knew the Somozas were unpopular so they sought a policy of "Somocismo without Somoza." When this tactic failed, the US sought to maintain its 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 tens of 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.
As Somoza's government collapsed, the U.S. helped Somoza and National Guard commanders escape, 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 the Violeta Chamorro, Pedro's widow.
The United Nations estimated material damage from the revolutionary war to be US$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.
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 attitudes of the FSLN leadership, Carter's approach ultimately failed. The U.S. had already begun to reconstitute the National Guard, which would later become known as Contras, on Nicaragua's borders. Though other disaffected elements of Nicaraguan society would later join different Contra fronts in the ensuing civil war, critics of U.S. policy claimed that the rebels were extremely unpopular and that their military command was almost exclusively dominated by ex-National Guardsmen.
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 Leninist revolutionary committments of the FSLN leadership, Carter's approach ultimately failed. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, relations between the United States and the Sandanista regime became an active front in the Cold War. The United States suspended aid to Nicaragua, while the Sandinistas joined with Cuban President Fidel Castro in sponsoring Marxist insurgent groups and promoting general instability in Central America, particularly in El Salvador (Kagan 1996).
Under Reagan, the United States continued supplying arms and training to the Contra guerrilla forces established in neighbouring Honduras by elements of the defeated National Guard, as well as allied groups based to the south in Costa Rica. The U.S. had already begun to constitute the Contras, an armed opposition group, on Nicaragua's borders. Critics of U.S. policy argued that the rebels were extremely unpopular and that their military command was almost exclusively dominated by ex-National Guardsmen. Others responded that a wide variety of disaffected elements of Nicaraguan society eventually join different Contra fronts in the ensuing civil war, ranging from former National Guard figures, liberal politicians, Indians, ordinary peasants, to diaffected Sandinista commanders (Kagan 1996).
The Sandinistas were victorious in the national election of November 4, 1984. The legitimacy of this result was disputed. The election was certified as free and fair by international observers. Its supporters also compared it favorably to any election that had been held during the long period of U.S.-backed dictatorship. Principal opposition political figures, however, boycotted the election. There were charges of widespread government-sponsored violence (Kagan, 1996), and it was argued that, because the Sandinistas had refused to allow international supervision of the election, there were only informal international observers (Kagan 1996, 335). The Contras, the political opposition, and the Reagan administration rejected the results.
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, implying that the U.S. was not obligated to abide by its decision. On May 1, 1985 Reagan issued an executive order that imposed a full economic embargo on Nicaragua, which remained in force until March 1990.
Due to the murder of young American engineer Ben Linder in 1987 by the Contras, the growing distaste in the U.S. for the war in Nicaragua, and the recapture of the U.S. Senate by the Democrats in the 1986 elections, the U.S. Congress prohibited further direct aid to the Contras. Reagan's officials attempted to 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, Contra splits 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.
The post-Sandinista period
The FSLN lost to the liberal National Opposition Union led by Chamorro on February 25, 1990. 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 Liberal Constitutional 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.
- International Court of Justice
- United Nations General Assembly resolution
- Article discussing history behind American funding of the Contra-rebels. This article was written in 1987.
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