Ruthless dictators, oppression and natural disasters have characterised Nicaragua’s fascinating though troubled history.
Originally, the country was occupied by migrating ethnic groups, from South and Central America. Arriving in 1524, the Spanish took control and stayed for around 300 years, enslaving the indigenous population, building the cities of Granada and León and fending off attacks from Dutch, French and British pirates. Conflict in Europe gradually weakened Spain’s hold over the New World and Nicaragua finally became independent in 1821, becoming a fully independent republic in 1838.
In 1909, the United States began to exert its power over the fledgling nation, opening military bases over the coming years to steer an election in its favour. But Augusto Sandino – who later gave his name to the Sandinistas – launched a guerrilla campaign that forced them out by 1933.
However, a new internal power stood in their way: the paramilitary National Guard led by General Anastasio Somoza. In 1934, he ordered the arrest and execution of Sandino and his senior commanders. Two years later he became president and established a brutal and corrupt dictatorship that lasted for almost half a century.
When Somoza was assassinated in 1956, his sons Luis and Anastasio took over. In the early 1960s, the Marxist Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), or Sandinistas, formed but soon disbanded. A turning point came in 1972, when an earthquake in Managua killed over 10,000 people and left 500,000 homeless. The government siphoned off much of the international relief money and opposition to them began to grow amongst all social classes.
The Sandinistas regrouped and, after a short but bloody conflict, the government was overturned in 1979. They then began a programme of agrarian reform that gave land back to the peasants, nationalised industry and set up health and literacy programmes.
But peace was short-lived. In 1981, the United States set about toppling the Sandinistas, with Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist campaign funding the Contra guerrilla forces. The Sandinistas lost popularity during the Contra war but Daniel Ortega survived as leader and, after losing the 1990, 1996 and 2001 elections, he was re-elected in 2006 and, controversially, again in 2011.
Did you know?
• Nicaraguans sometimes call themselves “pinoleros”, after the soft drink, pinol, which is popular throughout the country.
• Nicaragua plans to build an inter-ocean canal to rival Panama's, almost 120 years after it was first proposed.
• US president Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of ruthless dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”