At about 5500 B.C. some different tribes lived in what is todays Nicaragua. Descendantes of a mongolian race, who came to Northern America from Siberia via a then existing landbridge at Alaska. Being hunters and gatherers they advanced further south and from about 3500 B.C. started to till the soil.
Present-day Nicaragua is located south of the pre-Columbian culture areas of the Maya and the Aztec in Mexico and northern Central America. Although conventional wisdom states that the culture of lower Central America did not reach the levels of political or cultural development achieved in Mexico and northern Central America, recent excavations in Cuscutlatán, El Salvador may prove that assumption erroneous. Two basic culture groups existed in precolonial Nicaragua. In the central highlands and Pacific coast regions, the native peoples were linguistically and culturally similar to the Aztec and the Maya. The oral history of the people of western Nicaragua indicates that they had migrated south from Mexico several centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, a theory supported by linguistic research. Most people of central and western Nicaragua spoke dialects of Pipil, a language closely related to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. The culture and food of the peoples of western Nicaragua also confirmed a link with the early inhabitants of Mexico; the staple foods of both populations were corn, beans, chili peppers, and avocados, still the most common foods in Nicaragua today. Chocolate was drunk at ceremonial occasions, and turkeys and dogs were raised for their meat.
Most of Nicaragua’s Caribbean lowlands area was inhabited by tribes that migrated north from what is now Colombia. The various dialects and languages in this area are related to Chibcha, spoken by groups in northern Colombia. Eastern Nicaragua’s population consisted of extended families or tribes. Food was obtained by hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Root crops (especially cassava), plantains, and pineapples were the staple foods. The people of eastern Nicaragua appear to have traded with and been influenced by the native peoples of the Caribbean, as round thatched huts and canoes, both typical of the Caribbean, were common in eastern Nicaragua. When the Spanish arrived in western Nicaragua in the early 1500s, they found three principal tribes, each with a different culture and language: the Niquirano, the Chorotegano, and the Chontal. Each one of these diverse groups occupied much of Nicaragua’s territory, with independent chieftains (cacicazgos) who ruled according to each group’s laws and customs. Their weapons consisted of swords, lances, and arrows made out of wood. Monarchy was the form of government of most tribes; the supreme ruler was the chief, or cacique, who, surrounded by his princes, formed the nobility. Laws and regulations were disseminated by royal messengers who visited each township and assembled the inhabitants to give their chief’s orders.
The Chontal were culturally less advanced than the Niquirano and Chorotegano, who lived in well-established nation-states. The differences in the origin and level of civilization of these groups led to frequent violent encounters, in which one group would displace whole tribes from their territory, contributing to multiple divisions within each tribe. Occupying the territory between Lago de Nicaragua and the Pacific Coast, the Niquirano were governed by chief Nicarao, or Nicaragua, a rich ruler who lived in Nicaraocali, now the city of Rivas. The Chorotegano lived in the central region of Nicaragua. These two groups had intimate contact with the Spanish conquerors, paving the way for the racial mix of native and European stock now known as mestizos. The Chontal (the term means foreigner) occupied the central mountain region. This group was smaller than the other two, and it is not known when they first settled in Nicaragua.
In the west and highland areas where the Spanish settled, the indigenous population was almost completely wiped out by the rapid spread of new diseases, for which the native population had no immunity, and the virtual enslavement of the remainder of the indigenous people. In the east, where the Europeans did not settle, most indigenous groups survived. The English, however, did introduce guns and ammunition to one of the local peoples, the Bawihka, who lived in northeast Nicaragua. The Bawihka later intermarried with runaway slaves from Britain’s Caribbean possessions, and the resulting population, with its access to superior weapons, began to expand its territory and push other indigenous groups into the interior. This Afro-indigenous group became known to the Europeans as Miskito, and the displaced survivors of their expansionist activities were called the Sumu.
Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast was first seen by Spanish explorers in 1508. It was not until 1522, however, that a formal military expedition, under Gil González Dávila, led to the Spanish conquest of Nicaraguan territory. González launched an expedition from Panama, arriving in Nicaragua through Costa Rica. After suffering both illness and torrential rains, he reached the land governed by the powerful chief Nicoya, who gave González and his men a warm welcome. Soon thereafter, Nicoya and 6,000 of his people embraced the Roman Catholic faith. González continued his exploration and arrived in the next settlement, which was governed by a chief named Nicaragua, or Nicarao, after whom the country was named. Chief Nicaragua received González as a friend and gave him large quantities of gold. Perhaps to placate the Spanish, Nicaragua also converted to Roman Catholicism, as did more than 9,000 members of his tribe. All were baptized within eight days. Confident of further success, González moved on to the interior, where he encountered resistance from an army of 3,000 Niquiranos, led by their chief, Diriagén. González retreated and traveled south to the coast, returning to Panama with large quantities of gold and pearls.
In 1523 the governor of Panama, Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias), appointed Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to lead the Nicaraguan conquest effort. Hernández de Córdoba led an expedition in 1524 that succeeded in establishing the first permanent Spanish settlement in Nicaragua. He quickly overcame the resistance of the native peoples and named the land Nicaragua. To deny González’s claims of settlement rights and prevent his eventual control of the region, Hernández de Córdoba founded the cities of León and Granada, which later became the centers of colonial Nicaragua. From León, he launched expeditions to explore other parts of the territory. While the rivalry between Hernández de Córdoba and González raged, Pedrarias charged Hernández de Córdoba with mismanagement and sentenced him to death. González died soon thereafter, and the Spanish crown awarded Pedrarias the governorship of Nicaragua in 1528. Pedrarias stayed in Nicaragua until his death in July 1531.
Spain showed little interest in Nicaragua throughout this period, mostly because it was more interested in exploiting the vast riches found in Mexico and Peru. By 1531 many Spanish settlers in Nicaragua had left for South America to join Francisco Pizarro’s efforts to conquer the wealthy regions of the Inca Empire. Native Nicaraguans settlements also decreased in size because the indigenous inhabitants were exported to work in Peruvian mines; an estimated 200,000 native Nicaraguans were exported as slaves to South America from 1528 to 1540. Many Spanish towns founded in Nicaragua during the first years of the conquest disappeared. By the end of the 1500s, Nicaragua was reduced to the cities of León, located west of Lago de León (today Lago de Managua), and Granada, located on Lago de Nicaragua.
Although Nicaragua had been part of the audiencia (audience or court) of Panama, established in 1538, it was transferred to the Viceroyalty of New Spain when Spain divided its empire into two viceroyalties in 1543. The following year, the new audiencia of Guatemala, a subdivision of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, was created. This audiencia extended from southern Mexico through Panama and had its capital first at Gracias, Honduras, and then at Antigua, Guatemala after 1549. In 1570 the audiencia was reorganized and reduced in size, losing the territory of present-day Panama, the Yucatán, and the Mexican state of Tabasco. The audiencia was divided into provinces for administrative purposes, and the leading official in each province was generally called an alcalde mayor, or governor. León was the capital of the Province of Nicaragua, housing the local governor, the Roman Catholic bishop, and other important appointees. An elite of creole (individuals of Spanish descent born in the New World) merchants controlled the economic and political life of each province. Because of the great distance between the centers of Spanish rule, political power was centered with the local government, the town council or ayuntamiento, which ignored most official orders from the Spanish crown.
Throughout the seventeenth century, trade restrictions imposed by Spain, natural disasters, and foreign attacks devastated the economy of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The local government neglected agricultural production, powerful earthquakes in 1648, 1651, and 1663, caused massive destruction in the Province of Nicaragua, and from 1651 to 1689, Nicaragua was subjected to bloody incursions from English, French, and Dutch pirates. In 1668 and 1670, these buccaneers captured and destroyed the city of Granada, center of the province’s agricultural wealth. The Captaincy General of Guatemala was generally neglected by Spain. Within the captaincy general, the Province of Nicaragua remained weak and unstable, ruled by persons with little interest in the welfare of its people. In the late 1600s, the Miskito, who lived in Nicaragua’s Caribbean lowlands, began to be exploited by English "filibusters" (irregular military adventurers) intent on encroaching on Spanish landowners. In 1687 the English governor of Jamaica named a Miskito who was one of his prisoners, "King of the Mosquitia Nation," and declared the region to be under the protection of the English crown. This event marked the beginning of a long rivalry between Spanish (and later Nicaraguan) and British authorities over the sovereignty of the Caribbean coast, which effectively remained under British control until the end of the nineteenth century.
Events in Spain in the early 1700s were to have long-lasting repercussions in Nicaragua. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) resulted in the Bourbons replacing the Habsburgs on the Spanish throne. The Habsburgs had supported strict trade monopolies, especially in the Spanish colonies. The Bourbons were proponents of more liberal free-trade policies. Throughout the captaincy general, groups were hurt or helped by these changes; the factions supporting changes in trading policy came to be known as liberals while those who had profited under the old rules were known as conservatives. Liberals generally consisted of growers with new crops to sell, merchants, or export interests. Conservatives were generally composed of landowners who had profited under the old protectionism and who resisted new competition. In time, conservatism also became associated with support for the Roman Catholic Church; the liberals took a more anticlerical stand.
Spain’s control over its colonies in the New World was threatened in the early 1800s by the struggle for national independence throughout the entire region. Weakened by the French invasion in 1794 and internal upheaval, Spain tried to hold onto its richest colonies, which led to even further neglect of its poorer Central American territories. Resentment toward the Spanish-born elite (peninsulares–those born in Spain and the only persons allowed to administer Spanish colonies) grew among Nicaraguan creoles. The first local movements against Spanish rule in Central America occurred in 1811, when the Province of El Salvador staged a revolt. Peninsular authorities were deposed and replaced by creoles, who demanded less repressive laws. Although the Province of Nicaragua officially refused to join the rebellion, a popular uprising soon broke out. Violence and political rivalry prevailed in all of the Central American colonies during the ensuing decade.
Establishment of an independent Nicaragua came in stages. The first stage occurred in 1821 when the Captaincy General of Guatemala formally declared its independence from Spain on September 15, which is still celebrated as independence day. At first the captaincy general was part of the Mexican Empire under General Agustín de Iturbide, but efforts by Mexico to control the region were resisted all over Central America. Separatist feelings throughout the isthmus grew, however, and five of the United Provinces of Central America–Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua–declared their independence from Mexico in July 1823. The sixth province, Chiapas, opted to remain with Mexico. Under a weak federal government, each province created
its own independent internal administration. Inadequate communication and internal conflicts, however, overshadowed efforts to institutionalize the federation for the next decade and a half. Efforts to centralize power led to civil war between 1826 and 1829. The federation finally dissolved in 1837, and a Constituent Assembly formally declared Nicaragua’s independence from the United
Provinces of Central America on April 30, 1838.
British and United States interests in Nicaragua grew during the mid-1800s because of the country’s strategic importance as a transit route across the isthmus. British settlers seized the port of San Juan del Norte–at the mouth of the Río San Juan on the southern Caribbean coast–and expelled all Nicaraguan officials on January 1, 1848. The following year, Britain forced Nicaragua to sign a treaty recognizing British rights over the Miskito on the Caribbean coast. Britain’s control over much of the Caribbean lowlands, which the British called the Mosquito Coast (present-day Costa de Mosquitos), from 1678 until 1894 was a constant irritant to Nicaraguan nationalists. The start of the gold rush in California in 1849 increased United States interests in Central America as a transoceanic route, and Nicaragua at first encouraged a United States presence to counterbalance the British.
The possibility of economic riches in Nicaragua attracted international business development. Afraid of Britain’s colonial intentions, Nicaragua held discussions with the United States in 1849, leading to a treaty that gave the United States exclusive rights to a transit route across Nicaragua. In return, the United States promised protection of Nicaragua from other foreign intervention. On June 22, 1849, the first official United States representative, Ephraim George Squier, arrived in Nicaragua. Both liberals and conservatives welcomed the United States diplomat. A contract between Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a United States businessman, and the Nicaraguan government was signed on August 26, 1849, granting Vanderbilt’s company–the Accessory Transit Company–exclusive rights to build a transisthmian canal within twelve years. The contract also gave Vanderbilt exclusive rights, while the canal was being completed, to use a land-and-water transit route across Nicaragua, part of a larger scheme to move passengers from the eastern United States to California. The westbound journey across Nicaragua began by small boat from San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast, traveled up the Río San Juan to San Carlos on Lago de Nicaragua, crossed Lago de Nicaragua to La Virgen on the west shore, and then continued by railroad or stagecoach to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. In
September 1849, the United States-Nicaragua treaty, along with Vanderbilt’s contract, was approved by the Nicaraguan Congress.
British economic interests were threatened by the United States enterprise led by Vanderbilt, and violence erupted in 1850 when the British tried to block the operations of the Accessory Transit Company. As a result, United States and British government officials held diplomatic talks and on April 19, 1850, without consulting the Nicaraguan government, signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in which both countries agreed that neither would claim exclusive power over a future canal in Central America nor gain exclusive control over any part of the region. Although the Nicaraguan government originally accepted the idea of a transit route because of the economic benefit it would bring Nicaragua, the operation remained under United States and British control. Britain retained control of the Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte, and the United States owned the vessels, hotels, restaurants, and land transportation along the entire transit route.
Continued unrest in the 1850s set the stage for two additional elements in Nicaragua history: frequent United States military interventions in Nicaragua and a propensity for Nicaragua politicians to call on the United States to settle domestic disputes. In 1855 a group of armed United States filibusters headed by William Walker, a soldier of fortune from Tennessee who had previously invaded Mexico, sailed to Nicaragua intent on taking over. Internal conflict facilitated Walker’s entry into Nicaragua. In 1853 conservative General Fruto Chamorro had taken over the government and exiled his leading liberal opponents. Aided by the liberal government in neighboring Honduras, an exile army entered Nicaragua on May 5, 1854. The subsequent conflict proved prolonged and bloody; Chamorro declared that his forces would execute all armed rebels who fell into their hands, and the liberal leader, General Máximo Jérez, proclaimed that all government supporters were traitors to the nation. The liberals enjoyed initial success in the fighting, but the tide turned in 1854 when Guatemala’s conservative government invaded Honduras, forcing that nation to end its support of the liberals in Nicaragua. Chamorro’s death from natural causes in March 1855 brought little respite to the beleaguered liberals, who began to look abroad for support. Through an agent, they offered Walker funds and generous land grants if he would bring a force of United States adventurers to their aid. Walker leaped at the chance–he quickly recruited a force of fifty-six followers and landed with them in Nicaragua on May 4, 1855. Walker’s initial band was soon reinforced by other recruits from the United States. Strengthened by this augmented force, Walker seized Granada, center of conservative power. The stunned conservative government surrendered, and the United States quickly recognized a new puppet liberal government with Patricio Rivas as president. Real power, however, remained with Walker, who had assumed command of the Nicaraguan army.
As Walker’s power and the size of his army grew, conservative politicians throughout Central America became increasingly anxious. Encouraged by Britain, the conservative governments of the other four Central America governments agreed to send troops to Nicaragua. In March 1856, Costa Rica declared war on the adventurer, but an epidemic of cholera decimated the Costa
Rican forces and forced their withdrawal. Encouraged by this victory, Walker began plans to have himself elected president and to encourage colonization of Nicaragua by North Americans. This scheme was too much even for his puppet president Rivas, who broke with Walker and his followers and sent messages to Guatemala and El Salvador requesting their help in expelling the filibusters. Undeterred, Walker proceeded to hold a farcical election and install himself as president. Making English the country’s official language and legalizing slavery, Walker also allied himself with Vanderbilt’s rivals in the contest for control of the transit route, hoping that this alliance would provide both funds and transportation for future recruits. His call for Nicaragua’s annexation by the United States as a slave state garnered some support from United States proslavery forces.
In the meantime, forces opposing Walker were rapidly gaining the upper hand, leading him to attack his liberal allies, accusing them of half-hearted support. Most Nicaraguans were offended by Walker’s proslavery, pro-United States stance; Vanderbilt was determined to destroy him, and the rest of Central America actively sought his demise. The British also encouraged opposition to Walker as a means of curbing United States influence in the region. Even the United States government, fearful that plans to annex Nicaragua as a new slave state would fan the fires of sectional conflict growing within the United States, became opposed to his ambitions. The struggle to expel Walker and his army from Nicaragua proved to be long and costly. In the process, the colonial city of Granada was burned, and thousands of Central Americans lost their lives. The combined opposition of Vanderbilt, the British Navy, and the forces of all of Central America, however, eventually defeated the filibusters. A key factor in Walker’s defeat was the Costa Rican seizure of the transit route; the seizure permitted Walker’s opponents to take control of the steamers on Lago de Nicaragua and thereby cut off much of Walker’s access to additional recruits and finances. Vanderbilt played a major role in this effort and also supplied funds that enabled the Costa Ricans to offer free return passage to the United States to any of the filibusters who would abandon the cause. Many took advantage of this opportunity, and Walker’s forces began to dwindle.
The final battle of what Nicaraguans called the "National War" (1856-57) took place in the spring of 1857 in the town of Rivas, near the Costa Rican border. Walker beat off the attacks of the Central Americans, but the strength and morale of his forces were declining, and it would be only a matter of time until he would be overwhelmed. At this point, Commander Charles H. Davis of the United States Navy, whose ship had been sent to Nicaragua’s Pacific coast to protect United States economic interests, arranged a truce. On May 1, 1857, Walker and his remaining followers, escorted by a force of United States marines, evacuated Rivas, marched down to the coast, and took the ships back to the United States. Walker’s forced exile was short-lived, however; he made four more attempts to return to Central America (in 1857, 1858, 1859, and 1860). In 1860 Walker was captured by a British warship as he tried to enter Honduras. The British Navy turned him over to local authorities, and he was executed by a Honduran firing squad. Walker’s activities provided Nicaraguans with a long- lasting suspicion of United States activities and designs upon their nation.
Originally a product of interparty strife, the National War ironically served as a catalyst for cooperation between the liberal and conservative parties. The capital was moved to Managua in an effort to dampen interparty strife, and on September 12, 1856, both parties had signed an agreement to join efforts against Walker. This pact marked the beginning of an era of peaceful coexistence between Nicaragua’s political parties, although the onus of the liberals’ initial support of Walker allowed the conservatives to rule Nicaragua for the next three decades. After Walker’s departure, Patricio Rivas served as president for the third time. He remained in office until June 1857, when liberal General Máximo Jérez and conservative General Tomás Martínez assumed a bipartisan presidency. A Constituent Assembly convened in November of that year and named General Martínez as president (r. 1858-67).
The Conservative Party (Partido Conservador) ruled in Nicaragua from 1857 to 1893, a period of relative economic progress and prosperity sometimes referred to as the "Thirty Years." A railroad system connecting the western part of Nicaragua with the port of Corinto on the Pacific coast was built, and roads and telegraph lines were extended. Exports of agricultural products also increased during this period. Coffee as an export commodity grew between the 1850s and the 1870s, and by 1890 coffee had become the nation’s principal export. Toward the end of the 1800s, Nicaragua experienced dramatic economic growth because of the growing demand for coffee and bananas in the international market. The local economic elites were divided between the established cattle raisers and small growers and the new coffee-producers sector. Disputes about national economic policy arose between these powerful elites. Revealing their sympathies, the ruling conservatives passed laws favoring cheap labor that benefited mostly coffee planters.
The period of relative peace came to an end in 1891 when Roberto Sacasa, who had succeeded to the presidency in 1889 after the death of the elected incumbent, was elected to a term of his own. Although a conservative, Sacasa was from León, not Granada, and his election produced a split within the ruling Conservative Party. When Sacasa attempted to retain power after the March 1893 end of his term, the liberals, led by General José Santos Zelaya, quickly took advantage of the division within conservative ranks. A revolt began in April 1893 when a coalition of liberals and dissident conservatives ousted Sacasa and installed another conservative in office. An effort was made to share power with the liberals, but this coalition soon proved unworkable. In July, Zelaya’s liberal supporters resigned from the government and launched another revolt, which soon proved successful. A constitutional convention was hurriedly called, and a new constitution incorporating anticlerical provisions, limitations on foreigners’ rights to claim diplomatic protection, and abolition of the death penalty was adopted. Zelaya was confirmed as president, a post he would retain until 1909.
Zelaya’s administration was also responsible for an agreement ending the Nicaraguan dispute with Britain over sovereignty of the Caribbean coast. Aided by the mediation of the United States and strong support from the other Central American republics, control over the Caribbean coast region was finally awarded to Nicaragua in 1894. Sovereignty did not bring the government in Managua control over this region however; the Caribbean coast remained culturally separate and inaccessible to the western part of the country. Although his reputation was boosted by resolution of the centuries-old dispute with Britain, Zelaya was regarded with suspicion abroad. His imperialistic ambitions in Central America, as well as his vocal rebukes of United States intervention and influence in Central America, won him little support. Zelaya’s nationalist anti-United States stance drove him to call upon the Germans and Japanese to compete with the United States for rights to a canal route. Opposition to these schemes from the conservative faction, mostly landowners, led Zelaya to increase repression. In 1903 a major conservative rebellion, led by Emiliano Chamorro Vargas, broke out. Another uprising in 1909, this time aided by British money and the United States marines, was successful in driving Zelaya from power.
United States interest in Nicaragua, which had waned during the last half of the 1800s because of isolationist sentiment following the United States Civil War (1861-65), grew again during the final years of the Zelaya administration. Angered by the United States choice of Panama for the site of a transisthmian canal, President Zelaya made concessions to Germany and Japan for a competing canal across Nicaragua. Relations with the United States deteriorated, and civil war erupted in October 1909, when anti-Zelaya liberals joined with a group of conservatives under Juan Estrada to overthrow the government. The United States broke diplomatic relations with the Zelaya administration after two United States mercenaries serving with the rebels were captured and executed by government forces. Soon thereafter, 400 United States marines landed on the Caribbean coast. Weakened and pressured by both domestic and external forces, Zelaya resigned on December 17, 1909. His minister of foreign affairs, José Madriz, was appointed president by the Nicaraguan Congress. A liberal from León, Madriz was unable to restore order under continuing pressure from conservatives and the United States forces, and he resigned on August 20, 1910.
Conservative Estrada, governor of Nicaragua’s easternmost department, assumed power after Madriz’s resignation. The United States agreed to support Estrada, provided that a Constituent Assembly was elected to write a constitution. After agreeing with this stipulation, a coalition conservative-liberal regime, headed by Estrada, was recognized by the United States on January 1, 1911. Political differences between the two parties soon surfaced, however, and minister of war General Luis Mena forced Estrada to resign. Estrada’s vice president, the conservative Adolfo Díaz, then became president. In mid-1912 Mena persuaded a Constituent Assembly to name him successor to Díaz when Díaz’s term expired in 1913. When the United States refused to recognize the Constituent Assembly’s decision, Mena rebelled against the Díaz government. A force led by liberal Benjamín Zelaydón quickly came to the aid of Mena. Díaz, relying on what was becoming a time-honored tradition, requested assistance from the United States. In August 1912, a force of 2,700 United States marines once landed again at the ports of Corinto and Bluefields. Mena fled the country, and Zelaydón was killed.
The United States kept a contingent force in Nicaragua almost continually from 1912 until 1933. Although reduced to 100 in 1913, the contingent served as a reminder of the willingness of the United States to use force and its desire to keep conservative governments in power. Under United States supervision, national elections were held in 1913, but the liberals refused to participate in the electoral process, and Adolfo Díaz was reelected to a full term. Foreign investment decreased during this period because of the high levels of violence and political instability. Nicaragua and the United States signed but never ratified the Castill-Knox Treaty in 1914, giving the United States the right to intervene in Nicaragua to protect United States interest. A modified version, the Chamorro- Bryan Treaty omitting the intervention clause, was finally ratified by the United States Senate in 1916. This treaty gave the United States exclusive rights to build an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua. Because the United States had already built the Panama Canal, however, the terms of the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty served the primary purpose of securing United States interests against potential foreign countries–mainly Germany or Japan–building another canal in Central America. The treaty also transformed Nicaragua into a near United States protectorate.
A moderate conservative, Carlos Solórzano, was elected president in open elections in 1924, with liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa as his vice president. After taking office on January 1, 1925, Solórzano requested that the United States delay the withdrawal of its troops from Nicaragua. Nicaragua and the United States agreed that United States troops would remain while United
States military instructors helped build a national military force. In June, Solórzano’s government contracted with retired United States Army Major Calvin B. Carter to establish and train the National Guard. The United States marines left Nicaragua in August 1925. However, President Solórzano, who had already purged the liberals from his coalition government, was subsequently forced out
of power in November 1925 by a conservative group who proclaimed General Emiliano Chamorro (who had also served as president from 1917 to 1921), as president in January 1926.
Fearing a new round of conservative-liberal violence and worried that a revolution in Nicaragua might result in a leftist victory as happened a few years earlier in Mexico, the United States sent marines, who landed on the Caribbean coast in May 1926, ostensibly to protect United States citizens and property. United States authorities in Nicaragua mediated a peace agreement between the liberals and the conservatives in October 1926. Chamorro resigned, and the Nicaraguan Congress elected Adolfo Díaz as president (Díaz had previously served as president, 1911-16). Violence resumed, however, when former vice president Sacasa returned from exile to claim his rights to the presidency. In April 1927, the United States sent Henry L. Stimson to mediate the civil war. Once in Nicaragua, Stimson began conversations with President Díaz as well as with leaders from both political parties. Stimson’s meetings with General José María Moncada, the leader of the liberal rebels, led to a peaceful solution of the crisis. On May 20, 1927, Moncada agreed to a plan in which both sides–the government and Moncada’s liberal forces–would disarm. In addition, a nonpartisan military force would be established under United States supervision. This accord was known as the Pact of Espino Negro.
A rebel liberal group under the leadership of Augusto César Sandino also refused to sign the Pact of Espino Negro. An illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner and a mestizo servant, Sandino had left his father’s home early in his youth and traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. During his three-year stay in Tampico, Mexico, Sandino had acquired a strong sense of
Nicaraguan nationalism and pride in his mestizo heritage. At the urging of his father, Sandino had returned to Nicaragua in 1926 and settled in the department of Nueva Segovia, where he worked at a gold mine owned by a United States company. Sandino, who lectured the mine workers about social inequalities and the need to change the political system, soon organized his own army, consisting mostly of peasants and workers, and joined the liberals fighting against the conservative regime of Chamorro. Highly distrusted by Moncada, Sandino set up hit-and-run operations against conservative forces independently of Moncada’s liberal army. After the United States mediated the agreement between liberal forces and the conservative regime, Sandino, calling Moncada a traitor and denouncing United States intervention, reorganized his forces as the Army for the Defense of Nicaraguan Sovereignty (Ejército Defensor de la Soberanía de Nicaragua-EDSN). Sandino then staged an independent guerrilla campaign against the government and United States forces. Although Sandino’s original intentions were to restore constitutional government under Sacasa, after the Pact of Espino Negro agreement his objective became the defense of Nicaraguan sovereignty against the United States. Receiving his main support from the rural population, Sandino resumed his battle against United States troops. At the height of his guerrilla campaign, Sandino claimed to have some 3,000 soldiers in his army, although official figures estimated the number at only 300. Sandino’s guerrilla war caused significant damage in the Caribbean coast and mining regions. After debating whether to continue direct fighting against Sandino’s forces, the United States opted to develop the nonpartisan Nicaraguan National Guard to contain internal violence. The National Guard would soon become the most important power in Nicaraguan politics.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw the growing power of Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza García, a leader who would create a dynasty that ruled Nicaragua for four and a half decades. Moncada won the 1928 presidential elections in one of the most honest elections ever held in Nicaragua. For the 1932 elections, the liberals nominated Juan Bautista Sacasa and the conservatives, Adolfo Díaz. Sacasa won the elections and was installed as president on January 2, 1933. In the United States, popular opposition to the Nicaraguan intervention rose as United States casualty lists grew. Anxious to withdraw from Nicaraguan politics, the United States turned over command of the National Guard to the Nicaraguan government, and United States marines left the country soon thereafter. President Sacasa, under pressure from General Moncada, appointed Somoza García as chief director of the National Guard. Somoza García, a close friend of Moncada and nephew of President Sacasa, had supported the liberal revolt in 1926. Somoza García also enjoyed support from the United States government because of his participation at the 1927 peace conference as one of Stimson’s interpreters. Having attended school in Philadelphia and been trained by United States marines, Somoza García, who was fluent in English, had developed friends with military, economic, and political influence in the United States.
After United States troops left Nicaragua in January 1933, the Sacasa government and the National Guard still were threatened by Sandino’s EDSN. True to his promise to stop fighting after United States marines had left the country, Sandino agreed to discussions with Sacasa. In February 1934, these negotiations began. During their meetings, Sacasa offered Sandino a general amnesty as well as land and safeguards for him and his guerrilla forces. However, Sandino, who regarded the National Guard as unconstitutional because of its ties to the United States military, insisted on the guard’s dissolution. His attitude made him very unpopular with Somoza Garcia and his guards. Without consulting the president, Somoza Garcia gave orders for Sandino’s assassination, hoping that this action would help him win the loyalty of senior guard officers. On February 21, 1934, while leaving the presidential palace after a dinner with President Sacasa, Sandino and two of his generals were arrested by National Guard officers acting under Somoza García’s instructions. They were then taken to the airfield, executed, and buried in unmarked graves. Despite Sacasa’s strong disapproval of Somoza García’s action, the Nicaraguan president was too weak to contain the National Guard director. After Sandino’s execution, the National Guard launched a ruthless campaign against Sandino’s supporters. In less than a month, Sandino’s army was totally destroyed.
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, while at the same time he brought together the National Guard and the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal-PL) in order to win the presidential elections in 1936. Somoza García also cultivated support from former presidents Moncada and Chamorro while consolidating control within the Liberal Party. Early in 1936, Somoza García 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 García officially 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 García’s candidacy. Somoza García was elected president in the December election by the remarkable margin of 107,201 votes to 108. On January 1, 1937, Somoza García resumed control of the National Guard, combining the roles of president and chief director of the military. Thus, Somoza García established a military dictatorship, in the shadows of democratic laws, that would last more than four decades.
Somoza García controlled political power, directly as president or indirectly through carefully chosen puppet presidents, from 1936 until his assassination in 1956. A cynical and opportunistic individual, Somoza García ruled Nicaragua with a strong arm, deriving his power from three main sources: the ownership or control of large portions of the Nicaraguan economy, the military support of the National Guard, and his acceptance and support from the United States. His excellent command of the English language and understanding of United States culture, combined with a charming personality and considerable political talent and resourcefulness, helped Somoza García win many powerful allies in the United States. Through large investments in land, manufacturing, transport, and real estate, he enriched himself and his close friends.
After Somoza García won 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 García absolute power over every sphere of Nicaraguan politics. Nominal political opposition was allowed as long as it did not threaten the ruling elite. Somoza García’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 García, defying the Conservative Party, declared his intention to stay in power beyond his presidential term. Thus, in 1938 Somoza García named a Constituent Assembly that gave the president extensive power and elected him for another eight-year term.
Somoza García’s opportunistic support of the Allies during World War II benefited Nicaragua by injecting desperately needed United States funds into the economy and increasing military capabilities. Nicaragua received relatively large amounts of military aid and enthusiastically integrated its economy into the wartime hemispheric economic plan, providing raw materials in support of the Allied war effort. Exports of timber, gold, and cotton soared. However, because more than 90 percent of all exports went to the United States, the growth in trade also increased the country’s economic and political dependence. Somoza García built an immense fortune for himself and his family during the 1940s through substantial investments in agricultural exports, especially in coffee and cattle. The government confiscated German properties and then sold them to Somoza García and his family at ridiculously low prices. Among his many industrial enterprises, Somoza García owned textile companies, sugar mills, rum distilleries, the merchant marine lines, the national Nicaraguan Airlines (Líneas Aéreas de Nicaragua–Lanica), and La Salud
dairy–the country’s only pasteurized milk facility. Somoza García also gained large profits from economic concessions to national and foreign companies, bribes, and illegal exports. By the end of World War II, Somoza García had amassed one of the largest fortunes in the region–an estimated US$60 million.
After World War II, however, widespread domestic and international opposition to the Somoza García dictatorship grew among political parties, labor, business groups, and the United States government. Somoza García’s decision to run for reelection in 1944 was opposed by some liberals, who established the Independent Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Independiente–PLI). Somoza García’s reelection was also opposed by the United States government. The dictator reacted to growing criticism by creating a puppet government to save his rule. He decided not to run for reelection and had the PLN nominate the elderly Leonardo Argüello, believing he could control Argüello from behind the scenes. Argüello ran against Enoc Aguado, a candidate supported by a coalition of political parties that included the conservatives and the PLI. Despite the large support for the Aguado candidacy, Somoza García subverted the electoral process by using government resources and the National Guard to ensure the electoral victory of his candidate. Argüello was sworn in on May 1, 1947, and Somoza García remained as chief director of the National Guard.
Argüello had no intention of being a puppet, however, and in less than a month, when Argüello’s measures began to challenge Somoza García’s power, the National Guard chief staged a coup and placed a family associate, Benjamín Lacayo Sacasa, in the presidency. The administration of United States president Harry S. Truman responded by withholding diplomatic recognitions from the new Nicaraguan government. In an effort to legitimize the new regime and win United States support, Somoza García named a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The assembly then appointed Somoza García’s uncle, Víctor Román Reyes, as president. The constitution of 1947 was carefully crafted with strong anticommunist rhetoric to win United States support. Despite efforts by Somoza García’s to placate the United States, the United States continued its opposition and refused to recognize the new regime. Under diplomatic pressure from the rest of Latin America, formal diplomatic relations between Managua and Washington were restored in mid-1948.
Despite its anticommunist rhetoric, the government promoted liberal labor policies to gain support from the communist party of Nicaragua, known as the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Nicaragüese–PSN) and thwarted the establishment of any independent labor movement. The government approved several progressive laws in 1945 to win government support from labor unions. Concessions and bribes were granted to labor leaders, and antigovernment union leaders were displaced in favor of Somoza García loyalists. However, after placement of pro-Somoza García leaders in labor unions, most labor legislation was ignored. In 1950 Somoza García signed an agreement with conservative general Emiliano Chamorro Vargas that assured the Conservative Party of one-third of the congressional delegates as well as limited representation in the cabinet and in the courts. Somoza García also promised clauses in the new 1950 constitution guaranteeing "commercial liberty." This measure brought back limited support from the traditional elite to the Somoza García regime. The elite benefited from the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the cotton and cattle export sectors. Somoza García again was elected president in general elections held in 1950. In 1955 Congress amended the constitution to allow his reelection for yet another presidential term. Somoza García had many political enemies, and coups against him were attempted periodically, even within the National Guard. For protection, he constructed a secure compound within his residence and kept personal bodyguards, independent of the National Guard, with him wherever he went. Nevertheless, on September 21, 1956, while attending a PLN party in León to celebrate his nomination for the presidency, Somoza García was fatally wounded, by Rigoberto López Pérez, a twenty-seven-year- old Nicaraguan poet, who had managed to pass through Somoza García’s security. The dictator was flown to the Panama Canal Zone, where he died eight days later.
Somoza García was succeeded as president by his eldest son Luis Somoza Debayle. A United States-trained engineer, Luis Somoza Debayle was first elected as a PLN delegate in 1950 and by 1956 presided over the Nicaraguan Congress. After his father’s death, he assumed the position of interim president, as prescribed in the constitution. His brother Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate, took over leadership of the National Guard. A major political repression campaign followed Somoza García’s assassination: many political opponents were tortured and imprisoned by guards under orders from Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the government imposed press censorship and suspended many civil liberties. When the Conservative Party refused to participate in the 1957 elections–in protest of the lack of freedom imposed by the regime–the Somoza brothers created a puppet opposition party, the National Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Nacional– PCN), to give a democratic facade to the political campaign. Luis Somoza Debayle won the presidency in 1957 with little opposition. During his six-year term, from 1957 to 1963, his government provided citizens with some freedoms and raised hopes for political liberalization. In an effort to open up the government, Luis Somoza Debayle restored the constitutional ban on reelection.
In 1960 Nicaragua joined El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Costa Rica joined later) in the establishment of the Central American Common Market (CACM). The main objective of the regional economic group was to promote trade among member countries. Under this partnership, trade and manufacturing increased, greatly stimulating economic growth. Furthermore, in the international political sphere, Luis Somoza Debayle’s anticommunist stance won government favor and support from the United States. In 1959 Nicaragua was among the first nations to condemn the Cuban Revolution and to accuse Fidel Castro Ruz of attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The Luis Somoza Debayle government played a leading role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, allowing the Cuban exile brigade to use military bases on the Caribbean coast to launch the failed maneuver. Trusted friends of the Somoza family held the presidency from 1963 until 1967. In 1963 René Schick Gutiérrez won the presidential election; Somoza García’s younger son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, continued as chief director of the National Guard. Shick gave the appearance of following the less repressive programs of Luis Somoza Debayle. President Schick died in 1966 and was succeeded by Lorenzo Guerrero Gutiérrez.
When poor health prevented Luis Somoza Debayle from being a candidate, his brother Anastasio ran in the 1967 presidential election. To challenge the candidacy of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the conservatives, the PLI, and the Christian Social Party (Partido Social Cristiano-PSC) created the National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora-UNO). The UNO nominated Fernando Agüero as their candidate. In February 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was elected president amidst a repressive campaign against opposition supporters of Agüero. Two months later, Anastasio’s brother Luis died of a heart attack. With his election, Anastasio Somoza Debayle became president as well as the director of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military
control over Nicaragua. Corruption and the use of force intensified, accelerating opposition from populist and business groups. Although his four-year term was to end in 1971, Anastasio Somoza Debayle amended the constitution to stay in power until 1972. Increasing pressures from the opposition and his own party, however, led the dictator to negotiate a political agreement, known as the Kupia-Kumi Pact, which installed a three-member junta that would rule from 1972 until 1974. The junta was established in May 1972 amidst opposition led by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal and his newspaper La Prensa. Popular discontent also grew in response to deteriorating social conditions. Illiteracy, malnourishment, inadequate health services, and lack of proper housing also ignited criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo. The archbishop began to publish a series of pastoral letters critical of Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s government.
On December 23, 1972, a powerful earthquake shook Nicaragua, destroying most of the capital city. The earthquake left approximately 10,000 dead and some 50,000 families homeless, and destroyed 80 percent of Managua’s commercial buildings. Immediately after the earthquake, the National Guard joined the widespread looting of most of the remaining business establishments in Managua. When reconstruction began, the government’s illegal appropriation and mismanagement of international relief aid, directed by the Somoza family and members of the National Guard, shocked the international community and produced further unrest in Nicaragua. The president’s ability to take advantage of the people’s suffering proved enormous. By some estimates, his personal wealth soared to US$400 million in 1974. As a result of his greed, Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s support base within the business sector began to crumble. A revived labor movement increased opposition to the regime and to the deteriorating economic conditions. Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s intentions to run for another presidential term in 1974 were resisted even within his own PLN. The political opposition, led by Chamorro and former Minister of Education Ramiro Sacasa, established the Democratic Liberation Union (Unión Democrática de Liberación–Udel), an opposition group that included most anti-Somoza elements. The Udel was a broad coalition of business groups whose representation included members from both the traditional elite and labor unions. The party promoted a dialogue with the government to foster political pluralism. The president responded with increasing political repression and further censorship of the media and the press. In September 1974, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was reelected president
The Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional–FSLN) was formally organized in Nicaragua in 1961. Founded by José Carlos Fonseca Amador, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge Martínez, the FSLN began in the late 1950s as a group of student activists at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua–UNAN) in Managua. Many of the early members were imprisoned. Borge spent several years in jail, and Fonseca spent several years in exile in Mexico, Cuba, and Costa Rica. Beginning with approximately twenty members in the early 1960s, the FSLN continued to struggle and grow in numbers. By the early 1970s, the group had gained enough support from peasants and students groups to launch limited military initiatives. On December 27, 1974, a group of FSLN guerrillas seized the home of a former government official and took as hostages a handful of leading Nicaraguan officials, many of whom were Somoza relatives. With the mediation of Archbishop Obando y Bravo, the government and the guerrillas reached an agreement on December 30 that humiliated and further debilitated the Somoza regime. The guerrillas received US$1 million ransom, had a government declaration read over the radio and printed in La Prensa, and succeeded in getting fourteen Sandinista prisoners released from jail and flown to Cuba along with the kidnappers. The guerrilla movement’s prestige soared because of this successful operation. The act also established the FSLN strategy of revolution as an effective alternative to Udel’s policy of promoting change peacefully. The Somoza government responded to the increased opposition with further censorship, intimidation, torture, and murder.
In 1975 Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the National Guard launched another violent and repressive campaign against the FSLN. The government imposed a state of siege, censoring the press, and threatening all opponents with detention and torture. The National Guard increased its violence against individuals and communities suspected of collaborating with the Sandinistas. In less than a year, it killed many of the FSLN guerrillas, including one of its founders, José Carlos Fonseca Amador. The rampant violation of human rights brought national and international condemnation of the Somoza regime and added supporters to the Sandinista cause. In late 1975, the repressive campaign of the National Guard and the growth of the group caused the FSLN to split into three factions. These three factions–Proletarians (Proletarios), Prolonged Popular War, and the Insurrectional Faction, more
popularly known as the Third Way–insisted on different paths to carry out the revolution. The Proletarian faction, headed by Jaime Wheelock Román, followed traditional Marxist thought and sought to organize factory workers and people in poor neighborhoods. The Prolonged War faction, led by Tomás Borge and Henry Ruiz after the death of Fonseca, was influenced by the philosophy of Mao Zedong and believed that a revolution would require a long insurrection that included peasants and labor movements. The Third Way faction was more pragmatic and called for ideological pluralism. Its members argued that social conditions in Nicaragua were ripe for an immediate insurrection. Led by Daniel José Ortega Saavedra and his brother Humberto Ortega Saavedra, the Third Way faction supported joint efforts with non-Marxist groups to strengthen and accelerate the insurrection movement against Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The FSLN’s overall growing success led the factions to gradually coalesce, with the Third Way’s political philosophy of pluralism eventually prevailing.
United States support for President Somoza waned after 1977, when the administration of United States President Jimmy Carter made United States military assistance conditional on improvements in human rights. International pressure, especially from the Carter administration, forced President Somoza to lift the state of siege in September 1977. Protests and antigovernment demonstrations resumed although the National Guard continued to keep an upper hand on the FSLN guerrillas. During October 1977, a group of prominent Nicaraguan businesspeople and academics, among then Sergio Ramírez Mercado–known as Los Doce (the Group of Twelve)–met in Costa Rica and formed an anti-Somoza alliance. Los Doce strengthened the FSLN by insisting on Sandinista representation in any post-Somoza government. Nevertheless, opposition to the dictatorship remained divided. Capital flight increased, forcing President Somoza to depend on foreign loans, mostly from United States banks, to finance the government’s deficit.
The dictatorship’s repression of civil liberties and the lack of representative institutions slowly led to the consolidation of the opposition and armed resistance. The Somoza regime continually threatened the press, mostly the newspaper La Prensa and the critical editorials of its publisher and Udel leader, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal. The final act in the downfall of the Somoza era began on January 10, 1978, when Chamorro was assassinated. Although his assassins were not identified at the time, evidence implicated President Somoza’s son and other members of the National Guard. The opposition held the president and his guards responsible for Chamorro’s murder, thus provoking mass demonstrations against the regime. The Episcopate of the Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church issued a pastoral letter highly critical of the government, and opposition parties called for Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s resignation. On January 23, a nationwide strike began, including the public and private sectors; supporters of the stride demanded an end to the dictatorship. The National Guard responded by further increasing repression and using force to contain and intimidate all government opposition. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, meanwhile, asserted his intention to stay in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. The general strike paralyzed both private industry and government services for ten days. The political impasse and the costs to the private sector weakened the strike, and in less than two weeks most private enterprises decided to suspend their participation. The FSLN guerrillas launched a series of attacks throughout the country, but the better-equipped National Guard was able to maintain military superiority.
Indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population and abuses of human rights by National Guard members further tarnished the international image of the Somoza government and damaged the economy. In February 1978, the United States government suspended all military assistance forcing Somoza to buy weapons and equipment on the international market. The Nicaraguan economy continued its decline; the country suffered from increased capital flight, lack of investment, inflation, and unemployment. Although still fragmented, opposition to the Somoza regime continued to grow during 1978. In March, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, an anti-Somoza businessman, established the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (Movimiento Democrático Nicaragüense–MDN). In May 1978, the traditional Conservative Party joined Udel, Los Doce, and the MDN in creating the Broad Opposition Front (Frente Amplio de Oposición–FAO) to try to pressure President Somoza for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Although the FSLN was not represented in the FAO, the participation of Los Doce in the FAO assured a connection between the FSLN and other opposition groups. The FSLN responded to the FAO in July by establishing a political arm, the United People’s Movement (Movimiento del Pueblo Unido–MPU). The MPU included leftist labor groups, student organizations, and communist and socialist parties. The MPU also promoted armed struggle and a nationwide insurrection as the only means of overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship.
The FSLN strengthened its position on August 22, 1978, when a group of the Third Way faction, led by Edén Pastora Gómez (also known as Commander Zero–Comandante Cero), took over the National Palace and held almost 2,000 government officials and members of Congress hostage for two days. With mediation from Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, as well as from the Costa Rican and Panamanian ambassadors, the crisis was solved in two days. The results of the negotiations favored the insurrection and further tarnished the government’s image. President Somoza had no alternative but to meet most of the rebels’ demands, including the release of sixty FSLN guerrillas from prison, media dissemination of an FSLN declaration, a US$500,000 ransom, and safe passage for the hostage takers to Panama and Venezuela. The attack electrified the opposition. The humiliation of the dictatorship also affected morale within the National Guard, forcing Anastasio Somoza Debayle to replace many of its officers to forestall a coup and to launch a recruitment campaign to strengthen its rank and file. Fighting broke out throughout the country, but the National Guard, despite internal divisions, kept recapturing most of the guerrilla-occupied territories.
By the end of 1978, the failure of the FAO to obtain a negotiated solution increased the stature of the insurrection movement. In October, Los Doce withdrew from the negotiation process when the FAO persisted in seeking a negotiated settlement with the dictator, and many of FAO’s members resigned in protest over the negotiations with Somoza. The insurrection
movement, meanwhile, gathered strength and increased the fighting. The Somoza regime was further isolated and discredited when in November the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report charging the National Guard with numerous violations of human rights. The report was followed by a United Nations (UN) resolution condemning the
Nicaraguan government. In December 1978, the FSLN was further strengthened when Cuban mediation led to an agreement among the three FSLN factions for a united Sandinista front. Formal unification of the FSLN occurred in March 1979. A mediation process led by the OAS collapsed during January 1979, when President Somoza refused to hold a national plebiscite and insisted on staying in power until 1981. As fighting increased, the Nicaraguan economy faced a severe economic crisis, with a sharp decline in agricultural and
industrial production, as well as high levels of unemployment, inflation, defense spending, and capital flight. The government debt also increased mostly as a result of defense expenditures and the gradual suspension of economic support from all international financial institutions.
On February 1, 1979, the Sandinistas established the National Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótico Nacional–FPN), which included Los Doce, the PLI, and the Popular Social Christian Party (Partido Popular Social Cristiano–PPSC). The FPN had a broad appeal, including political support from elements of the FAO and the private sector. After the formal unification of the Sandinista guerrillas in March, heavy fighting broke out all over the country. By then the FSLN was better equipped, with weapons flowing from Venezuela, Panama, and Cuba, mostly through Costa Rica. The FSLN launched its final offensive during May, just as the National Guard began to lose control of many areas of the country. In a year’s time, bold military and political moves had changed the FSLN from one of many opposition groups to a leadership role in the anti-Somoza revolt.
On June 18, a provisional Nicaraguan government in exile, consisting of a five-member junta, was organized in Costa Rica. Known as the Puntarenas Pact, an agreement reached by the new government in exile called for the establishment of a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a nonaligned foreign policy. Free elections were to be held at a later date, and the National Guard was to be replaced by a nonpartisan army. The members of the new junta were Daniel José Ortega Saavedra of the FSLN, Moisés Hassan Morales of the FPN, Sergio Ramírez Mercado of Los Doce, Alfonso Robelo Callejas of the MDN, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of La Prensa‘s editor. Panama was the first country to recognize the junta. By the end of June, most of Nicaragua was under FSLN control, with the exception of the capital. President Somoza’s political and military isolation finally forced him to consider resignation. The provisional government in exile released a government program on July 9 in which it pledged to organize an effective democratic regime, promote political pluralism and universal suffrage, and ban ideological discrimination–except for those promoting the "return of Somoza’s rule." By the second week of July, President Somoza had agreed to resign and hand over power to Francisco Maliano Urcuyo, who would in turn transfer the government to the Revolutionary Junta. According to the agreement, a cease-fire would follow, and defense responsibilities would be shared by elements of the National Guard and the FSLN.
On July 17, 1979, Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned, handed over power to Urcuyo, and fled to Miami. The former Nicaraguan dictator then established residence in Paraguay, where he lived until September 1980, when he was murdered, reportedly by leftist Argentine guerrillas. After President Somoza left Nicaragua in 1979, many members of the National Guard also fled the
country, seeking asylum in neighboring countries, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala. Others turned themselves in to the new authorities after the FSLN took power, on promises of amnesty. They were subsequently tried and many served jail terms. The five-member junta arrived in the city of León a day after Somoza’s departure, on July 18. Urcuyo tried to ignore the agreement transferring power, but in less than two days, domestic and international pressure drove him to exile in Guatemala. On July 19, the FSLN army entered Managua, culminating the Nicaraguan revolution. The insurrection left approximately 50,000 dead and 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. The five-member junta entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a nonaligned foreign policy.
The new government inherited a country in ruins, with a stagnant economy and a debt of about US$1.6 billion. Food and fuel supplies were exhausted, and international relief organizations were trying to deal with disease caused by lack of health supplies. Yet the attitude of the vast majority of Nicaraguans toward the revolution was decidedly hopeful. Most Nicaraguans saw the Sandinista victory as an opportunity to create a system free of the political, social, and economic inequalities of the almost universally hated Somoza regime. At first the economy experienced positive growth, largely because of renewed inflow of foreign aid and reconstruction after the war. The new government enacted the Agrarian Reform Law, beginning with the nationalization of all rural properties owned by the Somoza family or people associated with the Somozas, a total of 2,000 farms representing more than 20 percent of Nicaragua’s cultivable land. These farms became state property under the new Ministry of Agrarian Reform. Large agroexport farms not owned by the Somozas generally were not affected by the agrarian reform. Financial institutions, all in bankruptcy from the massive capital flight during the war, were also nationalized.
The second goal of the Sandinistas was a change in the old government’s pattern of repression and brutality toward the general populace. Many of the Sandinista leaders were victims of torture themselves, and the new minister of interior, Tomás Borge Martínez, tried to keep human rights violations low. Most prisoners accused of injustices under the Somoza regime
were given a trial, and the Ministry of Interior forbade cruelty to prisoners. In their first two years in power, Amnesty International and other human rights groups found the human rights situation in Nicaragua greatly improved.
The third major goal of the country’s new leaders was the establishment of new political institutions to consolidate the revolution. On August 22, 1979, the junta proclaimed the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua. This statute abolished the constitution, presidency, Congress, and all courts. The junta ruled by unappealable degree under emergency powers. National government policy, however, was generally made by the nine-member Joint National Directorate (Dirección Nacional Conjunto–DNC), the ruling body of the FSLN, and then transmitted to the junta by Daniel Ortega for the junta’s discussion and approval.
The new government established a consultive corporatist representative assembly, the Council of State, on May 4, 1980. The council could approve laws submitted to it by the junta or initiate its own legislation. The junta, however, had the right of veto over council-initiated legislation, and the junta retained control over much of the budget. Although its powers were
limited, the council was not a rubber stamp and often amended legislation given it by the junta. The establishment of the Council of State and the political makeup of its thirty-three members had been decided in negotiations among the revolutionary groups in 1979. The members were not elected but appointed by various political groups. In the discussions establishing the council, it was
agreed that the FSLN could name twelve of the thirty-three members. Soon after its formation, however, the junta added fourteen new members to the Council of State, with twelve of those going to the FSLN. This new configuration gave the FSLN twenty-four of the forty-seven seats. Opponents of the FSLN viewed the addition of the new members as a power grab, but the FSLN responded that new groups had been formed since the revolution and that they needed to be represented.
The membership of the junta changed during its early years. Chamorro resigned in early 1980, ostensibly for health reasons, but later asserted that she had become dissatisfied with increased FSLN dominance in the government. Robelo resigned in mid-1980 to protest the expansion of the Council of State. Chamorro and Robelo were replaced by a rancher who belonged to the PDC and a banker, one of the members of Los Doce. In 1983 the junta was reduced to three members, with Daniel Ortega clearly playing the lead role among the remaining three. Immediately after the revolution, the Sandinistas had the best organized and most experienced military force in the country. To replace the National Guard, the Sandinistas established a new national army, the Sandinista People’s Army (Ejército Popular Sandinista–EPS), and a police force, the Sandinista Police (Policía Sandinista–PS). These two groups, contrary to the original Puntarenas Pact were controlled by the Sandinistas and trained by personnel from Cuba, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. Opposition to the overwhelming FSLN influence in the security forces did not surface until 1980. Meanwhile, the EPS developed, with support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, into the largest and bestequipped military force in Central America. Compulsory military service, introduced during 1983, brought the EPS forces to about 80,000 by the mid-1980s.
Immediately after the revolution, the FSLN also developed mass organizations representing most popular interest groups in Nicaragua. The most significant of these included the Sandinista Workers’ Federation (Central Sandinista de Trabajadores–CST) representing labor unions, the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women’s Association (Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza–AMNLAE), and in 1982 the National Union of Farmers and Cattlemen (Unión Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos–UNAG) composed of small farmers and peasants. The FSLN also created neighborhood groups, similar to the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, called Sandinista Defense Committees (Comités de Defensa Sandinista–CDSs). One of the CDSs primary purposes was the gathering and dissemination of information to all Nicaraguans. The CDSs did a block-by-block census of all numbered houses in cities and therefore knew everyone’s whereabouts. The CDSs were also responsible for distributing rationed goods and community improvement projects. The opponents of the Sandinistas made little attempt to develop effective mass organizations that could challenge the well organized and well disciplined Sandinista groups. Thus, the FSLN mass organizations were instrumental in consolidating Sandinista power over political and military institutions. By 1980 Sandinista organizations embraced some 250,000 Nicaraguans. Less than a year after their victory, the Sandinistas controlled the government.
From late 1979 through 1980, the Carter administration made efforts to work with FSLN policies. However, when President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, the United States government launched a campaign to isolate the Sandinista government. Claiming that Nicaragua, with assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, was supplying arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador, the Reagan administration suspended all United States aid to Nicaragua on January 23, 1981. The Nicaraguan government denied all United States allegations and charged the United States with leading an international campaign against it. Later that year, the Reagan administration authorized support for groups trying to overthrow the Sandinistas. Using an initial budget of US$19 million and camps in southern Honduras as a staging area, the United States supported groups of disgruntled former members of the National Guards. These groups became known as the Contras (short for contrarevolucionarios). The Contras initially consisted of former members of the National Guards who had fled to Honduras after the fall of President Somoza. By the end of 1981, however, the group’s membership had multiplied because peasants from the north and ethnic groups from the Caribbean coast had joined in the counterrevolutionary war. Nevertheless, early Contra leadership was represented mostly by former members of the National Guard; this fact made the movement highly unpopular among most Nicaraguans.
The Contras established operational bases in Honduras from which they launched hit-and-run raids throughout northern Nicaragua. The charismatic Edén Pastora abandoned the Sandinista revolution in July 1981 and formed his own guerrilla group, which operated in the southern part of Nicaragua from bases in Costa Rica. The United Nicaraguan Opposition operated in the northwest, the Opposition Block of the South operated in the southeast, and the Nicaraguan Coast Indian Unity operated in the northwest. Although the Sandinista army was larger and better equipped than the Contras, the antigovernment campaign became a serious threat to the FSLN government, largely through damage to the economy. As the Contra war intensified, the Sandinistas’ tolerance of political pluralism waned. The Sandinistas imposed emergency laws to ban criticism and organization of political opposition. Most social programs suffered as a result of the war because the Sandinista regime was forced to increase military spending until half of its budget went for defense. Agricultural production also declined sharply as refugees fled areas of conflict.
By 1981 the country’s most influential papers, La Prensa, joined the growing chorus of dissent against the Sandinista government. Under the state of emergency declared in 1982, the paper was subject to prior censorship. Despite several instances of suspended publication, some mandated by the Ministry of Interior, and some in protest by the paper’s editor over cut copy, the paper continued to operate. In anticipation of upcoming elections, the government eased censorship. Increased latitude in what it could publish only increased La Prensa’s bitter criticism of the government.
By July 1984, eight parties or coalitions had announced their intention to field candidates: the FSLN with Daniel Ortega as presidential candidate; the Democratic Coordinator (Coordinadora Democrática–CD), a broad coalition of labor unions, business groups, and four centrist parties; and six other parties–the PLI, the PPSC, the Democratic Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Demócratica–PCD), the communists, the socialists, and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement. Claiming that the Sandinistas were manipulating the electoral process, the CD refused to formally file its candidates and urged Nicaraguans to boycott the election. In October, Virgilio Godoy Reyes of the PLI also withdrew his candidacy, although most of the other candidates for the National Assembly and the PLI’s vice presidential candidate remained on the ballot. Other parties reportedly were pressured to withdraw from the election also. On November 4 1984, about 75 percent of the registered voters went to the polls. The FSLN won 67 percent of the votes, the presidency, and sixty-one of the ninety-six seats in the new National Assembly. The three
conservative parties that remained in the election garnered twenty-nine seats in the National Assembly; the three parties on the left won a total of six seats. Foreign observers generally reported that the election was fair. Opposition groups, however, said that the FSLN domination of government organs, mass organizations groups, and much of the media created a climate of intimidation that precluded a truly open election. Inauguration came on January 10, 1985; the date was selected because it was the seventh anniversary of the assassination of newspaper editor Chamorro. Attending Ortega’s swearing in as president were the presidents of Yugoslavia and Cuba, the vice presidents of Argentina and the Soviet Union, and four foreign ministers from Latin America.
Daniel Ortega began his six-year presidential term on January 10, 1985. After the United States Congress turned down continued funding of the Contras in April 1985, the Reagan administration ordered a total embargo on United States trade with Nicaragua the following month, accusing the Sandinista regime of threatening United States security in the region. The FSLN government responded by suspending civil liberties. Both the media and the Roman Catholic bishops were accused of destabilizing the political system. The church’s press, as well as the conservative newspaper La Prensa, were censored or closed at various periods because of their critical views on the military draft and the government’s handling of the civil war. In June 1986, the United States Congress voted to resume aid to the Contras by appropriating US$100 million in military and nonmilitary assistance. The Sandinista government was forced to divert more and more of its economic resources from economic development to defense against the Contras.
Debate in the United States over military aid for the Contras continued until November 1986, when the policy of the Reagan administration toward Nicaragua was shaken by the discovery of an illegal operation in which funds from weapons sold to Iran during 1985 were diverted to the Contras. The Iran-Contra scandal resulted from covert efforts within the Reagan staff to support the Contras in spite of a United States Congressional ban on military aid in 1985. In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, the United States Congress again stopped all military support to the Contras in 1987 except for what was called "non-lethal" aid. The result of the cutoff was a military stalemate; the Contras were unable or unwilling to keep on fighting without full United States support, and the Sandinista government could not afford to continue waging an unpopular war that had already devastated the economy. The conditions for a negotiated solution to the conflict were better than ever, leaving both parties, the Contras and the Sandinistas, with few options other than to negotiate.
After Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected to the presidency of Costa Rica in 1986, he designed a regional plan to bring peace to Central America, following earlier efforts by the Contadora Group (formed by Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia in 1983). The Arias Plan, officially launched in February 1987, was signed by the presidents of the five Central American
republics (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) at a presidential summit held in Esquipulas, Guatemala in August 1987. This agreement, also known as Esquipulas II, called for amnesty for persons charged with political crimes, a negotiated cease-fire, national reconciliation for those countries with insurgencies (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua), an end to all external aid to insurgencies (United States support to the Contras and Soviet and Cuban support to guerrillas in Guatemala and El Salvador), and democratic reforms leading to free elections in Nicaragua. After the signing of Esquipulas II, the government created a National Reconciliation Commission headed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. The United States government responded by encouraging the Contras to negotiate. At the time, there were an estimated 10,000 Contra rebels and as many as 40,000 of their dependents living in Honduras.
An additional step toward the solution of the Nicaraguan conflict was taken at a summit of Central American presidents held on January 15, 1988, when President Daniel Ortega agreed to hold direct talks with the Contras, to lift the state of emergency, and to call for national elections. In March the FSLN government met with representatives of the Contras and signed a
cease-fire agreement. The Sandinistas granted a general amnesty to all Contra members and freed former members of the National Guard who were still imprisoned. By mid-1988, international institutions had demanded that the Sandinistas launch a drastic economic adjustment program as a condition for resumption of aid. This new economic program imposed further hardship on the Nicaraguan people. Government agencies were reorganized, leaving many Nicaraguans unemployed. The Sandinista army also went through a reduction in force. To complicate matters, in October 1988 the country was hit by Hurricane Joan, which left 432 people dead, 230,000 homeless, and damages estimated at US$1 billion. In addition, a severe drought during 1989 ruined agricultural production for 1990.
With the country bankrupt and the loss of economic support from the economically strapped Soviet Union, the Sandinistas decided to move up the date for general elections in order to convince the United States Congress to end all aid to the Contras and to attract potential economic support from Europe and the United States. As a result of Esquipulas II, the Sandinista regime and the Contras successfully concluded direct negotiations on a cease-fire in meetings held at Sapoá, Nicaragua, during June 1988. In February 1989, the five Central American presidents met once again in Costa del Sol, El Salvador, and agreed on a plan to support the disarming and dissolving of Contra forces in Honduras, as well as their voluntary repatriation into Nicaragua. President Ortega also agreed to move the next national elections, scheduled for the fall of 1990, up to February 1990; to guarantee fair participation for opposition parties; and to allow international observers to monitor the entire electoral process.
As a result of the Esquipulas II peace accords, the FSLN government reinstated political freedoms. At first, the various anti-Sandinista groups were weak and divided and did not have a cohesive government program to challenge the FSLN. The Sandinistas, therefore, felt confident of their success at the polls despite deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the country. On June 6, 1989, fourteen parties, united only in their opposition to the Sandinistas, formed a coalition called the National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora–UNO), whose support was drawn from a broad base, including conservative and liberal parties as well as two of Nicaragua’s traditional communist factions. Despite its determination to vote the Sandinistas out of power, however, the UNO coalition remained a weak opposition lacking a cohesive program. The UNO and the Sandinistas began their political campaigns in the summer of 1989. Although sharp divisions within the UNO remained, all fourteen parties finally compromised, and on September 2 the anti-Sandinista coalition nominated Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, publisher of LaPrensa and former member of the junta, as their candidate for president. Virgilio Godoy Reyes, head of the PLI and former minister of labor under the Sandinistas, was chosen as her running mate. The FSLN nominated Daniel Ortega for the presidency and Sergio Ramírez Mercado as his running mate.
The political campaign was conducted under the close international supervision of the OAS, the UN, and a delegation headed by former United States President Jimmy Carter. The administration of United States president George H.W. Bush provided economic assistance to the Sandinista opposition. Most of this aid was channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy, which contributed more than US$9 million. Despite some violent incidents, the electoral campaign was carried out in relative peace. The FSLN was better organized than the opposition and used government funds and resources–such as school buses and military trucks–to bring Sandinista supporters from all over the country to their rallies. In an effort to divert attention from the critical economic situation, the Sandinista campaign appealed to nationalism, depicting UNO followers as pro-Somoza, instruments of United States foreign policy and enemies of the Nicaraguan revolution. Despite limited resources and poor organization, the UNO coalition under Violeta Chamorro directed a campaign centered around the failing economy and promises of peace. Many Nicaraguans expected the country’s economic crisis to deepen and the Contra conflict to continue if the Sandinistas remained in power. Chamorro promised to end the unpopular military draft, bring about democratic reconciliation, and promote economic growth. In the February 25, 1990, elections, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro carried 55 percent of the popular vote against Daniel Ortega’s 41 percent. Exhausted by war and poverty, the Nicaraguan people had opted for change.
Although the election results surprised many observers, both sides began conversations to bring a peaceful transfer of power. In March a transition team headed by Chamorro’s son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren, representing the UNO, and General Humberto Ortega, representing the FSLN, began discussions on the transfer of political power. However, Sandinista bureaucrats systematically ransacked government offices and gave government assets to loyal government supporters, destroyed records; consolidated many of the government agencies (in particular, the Ministry of Interior, whose security forces were incorporated into the EPS), and passed legislation to protect their interests once they were ousted from the government. On May 30, the Sandinista government, along with the UNO transition team and the Contra leadership, signed agreements for a formal cease-fire and the demobilization of the Contras. Despite continued sporadic clashes, the Contras completed their demobilization on June 26, 1990.The FSLN accepted its new role of opposition and handed over political power to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the UNO coalition on April 25, 1990. President Chamorro pledged her determination to give Nicaragua a democratic government, bring about national reconciliation, and keep a small nonpartisan professional army. Nicaragua underwent yet another sea change as the country stepped out of the Cold War spotlight.
Once in government, much of Chamorro’s energy was consumed by holding together the fractious UNO coalition. The
President herself had little to do with the day-to-day business of government, which was mostly in the hands of her son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren. Under Chamorro, Nicaraguan relations with the USA did not proceed as smoothly as either party would have liked. Bilateral aid was the major sticking point, with the US Congress imposing a series of obstacles to the US$100 million annual
subvention. However, Nicaraguan diplomacy proved enough to avoid the suspension of aid. At home, the instability and perceived lack of action on the part of the Chamorro government led to a series of armed uprisings in the more remote parts of the country, executed by disaffected ex-soldiers from both Contras and Sandinistas, whose land claims had been ignored. UNO has since been pushed out of ministerial office by Chamorro, who has replaced their representatives with members of the newly formed Partido
Socialista Nicaragüense (PSN) and the Grupo de Centro, a faction composed of centrist UNO dissidents. While the disintegration of the anti-Sandinista UNO coalition was less than surprising, the split in the traditionally disciplined Sandinistas was unexpected. In the summer of 1995, a moderate faction led by ex-Vice-President Sergio Ramirez broke away, leaving Ortega in charge of the rump. Ortega’s fortunes have since deteriorated further, although he was once more re-elected Sandinista leader at the party’s May 1998 Congress, his future political prospects were put in serious jeopardy after he was accused of sexual molestation by his stepdaughter.
Both Ortega and the residual FSLN survived. However, both were defeated at the 1996 elections. Ortega drew on his huge popular following to register 40 per cent at the presidential poll but was overhauled by Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo leading an alliance of liberal and centrist parties. The Alianza Liberal also became the largest party in the Asamblea Nacional, following simultaneous legislative elections, albeit falling short of an absolute majority. The bitter issue of land reform continued to dominate Nicaraguan politics, with numerous disputes dating back to the Sandinista era and before. Following the passage of carefully worded legislation and the disarming of the Rearmados (rural guerrillas still pursuing some of these claims at the beginning of 1998), the issue now seems to have been settled. Ortega made another stab at the presidency in November 2001 and was widely tipped for victory. During the 1990s, he had gradually repositioned himself politically, dropping socialist policies and revolutionary rhetoric in favour of a Blairite Christian democrat posture. The FSLN was restyled as Convergencia, the ranks of which are even open to former members of Somoza’s once-loathed National Guard. In the event, Ortega lost out once again, this time to Lacayo’s vice-president, Enrique Bolanos Geyer. Convergencia also fell just short of the winning post; the Liberals have a majority of just two in the new national assembly. The new government faces several major problems, mostly related to the economy. Its work also has been paralysed by a dispute over the fate of ex-president Aleman, who was arraigned for corruption during his term of office. This was finally resolved in September 2002, when Aleman’s parliamentary immunity was removed.
- Library of Congress / Area Handbook Series / Nicaragua
- Columbus World Travel Guide – Central America – Nicaragua