Nicaragua History, Language and Culture

History of Nicaragua

Ruthless dictators, oppression and natural disasters have characterised Nicaragua’s fascinating history.

In pre-colonial times, the country was occupied by two ethnic groups, one from Mexico, the other from South America. The Spanish took control in 1524, 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 their hold over the New World and Nicaragua finally became independent from Spain in 1821, becoming a fully independent republic in 1838.

In 1909, the Americans began to exert their power over the fledgling nation, arriving in force in 1926 to steer an election in their favour. But Augusto Sandino – who later gave his name to the Sandinistas – launched a guerrilla campaign that forced them out by 1933.

However, they’d left a new internal power to contend with, the paramilitary National Guard led by General Anastasio Somozo. 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. Much of the international relief money was syphoned off by the government 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 Americans, under Ronald Reagan and the banner of fighting communism, set about toppling the Sandinistas. They funded the Contra guerrilla forces – made up of ex-National Guard, until the Irangate scandal shook the US in 1986, when it was discovered that the funding came from the sale of arms to Iran.

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. Another controversial project is his plan to build an inter-ocean canal to rival Panama's, almost 120 years after it was first proposed.

Nicaragua Culture


75% Roman Catholic; 15% Protestant; 10% other.

Language in Nicaragua

Spanish is the official language. Along the Mosquito Coast (Costa de Mosquito), there are English-speaking communities in which African or mixed African and indigenous Indians predominate.