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A sad case.

Nicaragua is said to be named after an Indian Chief, Nicarao. The native inhabitants had migrated from South America. The people now are descended from the original inhabitants and the Spanish invaders and Caribbean Blacks.

Columbus landed in 1502. European settlement began from about 1524 when the two cities of Granada and Leon were founded on behalf of the Governor of Panama. The Spanish colonial capital was Leon. (Managua was chosen later as a compromise between the two.)

British pirates or Buccaneers were found on the Caribbean coast, where English speaking peoples still live, especially at the town of Bluefields where the people are mostly of Caribbean origin. This Mosquito Coast was claimed by Britain from 1740-86. In this district live the Miskito "Indians" who are a mixture of Indian and African and speak English (Creole).

Independence came with the other United Provinces of Central America in 1826 and on its own in 1838. The British held the port of San Juan from 1848 -1860. During the Californian Gold Rush it was a transit route from Atlantic to Pacific. A wandering American freelance soldier, William Walker, made himself President of Nicaragua from 1856-7. Following this there were dictatorships until 1909. During the 20th century the United States intervened officially in a civil war and occupied it with Marines from 1912-1933. They left behind a force they had trained, known as the National Guard, whose leader was the first Anastasio Somoza. During this time Nicaragua could be regarded as an informal colony of the US (like Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Anastasio Somoza seized the presidency in 1937 and remained leader (sometimes with another as president) until he was shot in 1956. He was then succeeded by his sons Luis and Anastasio. He led a dynastic regime which had several counterparts in other Latin countries - Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Paraguay, Cuba but went on longer than the others.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front, named after General Cesar August Sandino, an earlier rebel against US power and who had been murdered by Somoza, was founded in 1962. It came to power after driving out the Somozas in a long civil war ending in 1979. US sanctions began soon after.

Somoza was overthrown in 1979 after a long brutal dictatorship which kept the country in a state of semi-slavery and was in effect his family's private estate. The revolutionaries formed a government which was left wing and accepted help from Cuba and the Soviet Union but did not actually develop into the single-party communist state the United States government said they feared. They put effort into basic education and rural health which the previous mafia administration had neglected (indeed ever since Spanish colonial times).

The US tried to embargo the country and prevent it trading, especially with the United States. It also provided funds (sometimes laundered through apparently private foundations) to counter-revolutionary guerrillas - the Contras - who were made up of the former National Guard army of the Somozas. During the Somoza regime these had practiced torture on dissidents. Their fighting techniques - blowing up schools, health centers and random massacres - would have qualified them to be called terrorists in any other context. Their American money seems to have come from a variety of sources, including Saudi Arabia and the proceeds of illegal arms sales to Iran.

In 1986 the World Court at the Hague ruled against the United States for blockading Nicaragua, giving aid to the Contras and embargoing Nicaraguan trade and especially for mining harbors. The judgement upheld Nicaragua's demand for reparations. The US refused to admit the competence or jurisdiction of the court. It also vetoed a Security Council resolution to enforce the judgement of the court.

The 1990 elections saw the Sandinista National Liberation Front defeated by a US sponsored coalition. The Front peacefully handed over power to the coalition.

Some commentators have wondered how providing literacy training and basic health centers was a threat to United States interests, sufficient to require a largely anti-constitutional expenditure on terrorists. Nicaragua does not seem likely to provide a threat to United States interests, unless the real nature of these interests is to maintain a quasi-colonial government there. Perhaps the perceived danger was that success would encourage others.



Creole English (Caribbean side)

Amerindian langs.






Elections were held in 1990 and the Sandinista Liberation Front, which had led the revolution against a brutal dictator ten years earlier, lost power to a coalition extending from the extreme right to the extreme left.

This government was led by Violeta Chamorra the wife of a murdered opposition newspaper proprietor who had at one time supported the revolution - a member of the traditional political aristocracy. The coalition had the support of the United States government, who then reduced aid to the right wing guerrillas who had tried to overthrow the previous government.

The government looked unstable as the component members did not have much in common and the president was politically inexperienced.

On her election she had been promised access to US funds to improve the economy which had developed very low investment and very high inflation, partly as a result of the American embargo, partly as a result of the quasi-collectivist policies of the former government. But the US refused to send the funds, making them conditional on the removal of certain individuals from public life. It is not just Sandinistas who see this as a resumption of US control of the country.

The coalition which brought Chamorra to power has ceased to support her, probably at the insistence of the US government.

Elections in October 1996 brought to power Arnoldo Aleman and a landlord coalition. He promised to return land to its previous owners. The unrest therefore will probably continue. He was jailed after leaving office for diverting $100 million of state funds to his political party. He was succeeded by his vice president Enrique Bolanos who promised to clean up politics.

In December 2006 the former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was elected again, despite US hostility. However, he seems to be much more moderate (rightwing) these days. Will he reverse the domination of the rich? He gave in to the Catholic Church's demands for a total ban on abortion.

Clearly, the Revolution is over and no longer even pretends to support the interests of women.






There were tentative plans for a new canal through Nicaragua (to be financed by the Japanese) to supersede the Panama Canal which is now too small and facing water shortage. A Nicaragua canal would probably be at sea level.

If built this would give Nicaragua a steady income from transit fees.

But it won't be. See Chinese rail project in Colombia

The economy, after many years of war and US blockade is in a very bad state with hyperinflation and very low productivity.

Under Somoza most of the economy belonged to the ruling family. This was an extreme version of the common problem in Latin America: that property is concentrated in the hands of people who have little incentive to develop it, as long as they get their rents from poor uneducated peasants. The Sandinistas confiscated the Somoza holdings. The danger is that the post-Sandinista regime may return landholdings to the pre-revolutionary owners and re-create the conditions for feudal stagnation. Promised American development funds did not arrive so the economy has not improved since the defeat of the Sandinista government. The hyperinflation has ended but production has not improved.

Poor world price of coffee is a disaster for the economy.






A sea level canal, if built, would join the marine ecologies of the Atlantic and Pacific though marine ecologists have warned of serious danger to marine life if the Pacific and Caribbean ecologies come into contact.

The only source of capital would have been China, and they have decided to build a rail link in Colombia instead. So, it will not happen.





Human Rights

The human rights record of the original Sandinista government was reported to be good. No concentration camps, torture or other signs of Stalinist communism (but then perhaps they weren't communists).

The new regime had at least the passive support of the former National Guard members in the Contra army whose record of torture and death squads was as bad as in any other Central American country.

Some of the Contras refused to accept the orders of the new government.

All abortions for any cause whatsoever are illegal, showing that the Catholic Church has established a dictatorship, even under the former revolutionary Daniel Ortega.

Climate effects

Last revised 17/02/11

Central America


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