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Nicaragua has likely been occupied by humans since sometime around 18,000 BC. In Managua the traces of human inhabitation exist in well-preserved human footprints from the year 4,000 BC at the Las Huellas Museum. Ceramic evidence of organized settlement in Nicaragua begins around 1,500-1,000 BC and is prevalent in many areas of the Pacific. Nicaragua received migrations from both north and south until the first arrival of the Spanish explorers in 1523.
Southern migrants may have occupied the entire country until the arrival of the more sophisticated Mangue speaking Chorotegas from central Mexico around 750 AD displaced them to the east of the great lakes. The Chorotegas were then partially dispersed by another wave of migrants in the form of the Nicaraguas, whose final migration from Mexico to Nicaragua and the shores of Lake Nicaragua occurred just 150-200 years before the arrival of the Spanish. They spoke Náhuat (a rustic version of the Aztec language Náhuatl), which would become the lingua franca for the indigenous people after the conquest and may have already been widely used for trading in the region before the arrival of the first Europeans. Also arriving from the north were the Maribios, very similar to Hokano speakers in California and Baja Mexico, and theorized to have migrated from that area. They populated the western slope of what is today the Maribios Volcanic range, in northwestern Nicaragua. The Nicaraguas and Chorotegas were very successful societies that sat in the middle of a trade route that stretched as far north as Mexico and south to Peru.
At the time of the conquest the eastside of the great lakes was home to cultures of South American origin. It is believed that the northern migrations of the people found in central and eastern Nicaragua at the time of the conquest began around 3,000 BC. The Chontales and Matagalpas may have been of the same language root (Chibcha) as the Caribbean basin Rama, Sumu and Miskito cultures. The Miskito may be the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Pacific that lost in wars to the invading tribes of Chorotegas in the 9th century. The only indigenous languages still spoken in Nicaragua are of the Miskito, Sumu and Rama, with the latter in threat of extinction. The Chontales appear to have been the most developed of the group, though sadly little is known about their culture, despite ample and impressive archaeological evidence.
Christopher Columbus sailed the Caribbean shores of Nicaragua in 1502 on his fourth and final voyage and took refuge from a nasty storm in Cabo Gracias a Dios (Cape Thank God) as he dubbed it and it remains today. The Spanish explorer Gil González Dávila sailed from Panama to the Gulf of Nicoya and then traveled overland to the western shores of Lake Nicaragua to met the famous Nicaraguas tribe chief, Niqueragua, in April of 1523. After the conversion of 917 Nicaraguas elite to Christianity, González Dávila left with a fair amount of gold and traveled further north before being chased out of the area by a surprise attack of Chorotega warriors’ lead by legendary chieftain, Diriangén.
In 1524, an army of 229 men lead by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba overcame the local populace and founded the cities of Granada and León on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua respectively. Nueva Segovia was founded in (or before) 1543 to try and capitalize on mineral resources in the northern mountains. The Indian population and mineral resources where quickly exhausted and many of the Spanish left Nicaragua, looking for greener pastures. The ones that stayed on became involved in agriculture. Cattle were introduced and cacao production was continued. Indigo was the other principle crop along with some trade in wood. The beef, leather and indigo were exported to Guatemala, the cacao to El Salvador. There was also a heavy commercial route between Granada and the Caribbean colonial states via the Río San Juan and trade between Nicaragua and Peru. Granada became much wealthier thanks to its advantageous position in these international trade routes, but administrative and church authority remained in León, creating a rivalry that would explode after independence from Spain. During the 17th century Nicaragua was victim of multiple attacks from Dutch, French and British pirates as well as two attacks by the British Navy in the 18th century.
In 1811 the people of León took to the streets demanding the creation of a new government, new judges, abolition of the government monopoly to produce liquor, lower prices for tobacco and the end to taxes on beef, paper and general sales. All the demands were granted. Ten years later a meeting was called on September 15, 1821 in Guatemala City. Representatives attended the meeting from Madrid, Spanish representatives from every country in Central America, the heads of the Catholic Church from each province, the archbishop of Guatemala and the local senators of the provinces. Independence was from Spain was declared. Nicaragua remained part of a federation of Mexico and Central America until 1823 when the “United Provinces of Central America” met and declared themselves free of Mexican domain and any other foreign power. The five members were a federation free to administer their own countries and in November of 1824 a new constitution for the Central America Federation was decreed. On April 30, 1838 the legislative assembly of Nicaragua, declared Nicaragua independent of any other power and Nicaragua was completely independent.
The power vacuum of the post colonial period was the stage for continued battles between the Liberal Party of León and Conservative Party of Granada. These conflicts created the environment for the arrival of a strange and brutal character named William Walker. Walker was actually invited by the Liberals to help defeat the Conservatives. What the Liberals did not know was Walker’s grand plans to make Nicaragua part of a slave plantation that ran from Guatemala to Panama. Key to Walker’s success was the inter-oceanic steamship transportation of Cornelius Vanderbilt that served a route from San Francisco to New York via San Juan del Sur, La Virgen, the Río San Juan and San Juan del Norte. In September of 1855 Walker and his little battalion landed in San Juan del Sur and confronted Granada’s Conservative Party army in La Virgen and won easily. On October 13, 1855 he traveled north, attacked and took Granada. As per prior agreement, Patricio Rivas of León’s Liberal Party was named president of the republic and Walker as the head of the military. Rivas then followed Walker’s wishes and confiscated Vanderbilt’s steamship line. Walker then used the boats to ship more arms, ammunitions and mercenary soldiers to Nicaragua from both coasts of the USA. Soon he had the most modern, well equipped fighting force in Central America. After a spell as the head of the military Walker decided to run for president. From June 22-24, 1856 farcical elections were held and William Walker was named President of the Republic.
The Liberal Party chiefs and the rest of Nicaragua united with combined Central American forces to fight the Guerra Nacional (National War). The end of William Walker troop’s myth of invincibility came at the little ranch north of Tipitapa called San Jacinto were the Nicaraguan rebel army won a decisive battle and stands today a museum open to visitors. The tide had turned and battles in Masaya, Rivas and Granada would prove victorious for the combined Central American forces. William Walker escaped to a steamship, where he calmly watched the final, grisly actions of his troops, who looted then burned Granada to the ground. Walker would later return to Nicaragua, before just escaping with his life. He then tried Honduras where he was taken prisoner by the British Navy and handed over to the Honduran authorities. He was tried, put against a wall and shot by Honduran armed forces on September 12, 1860.
General José Santos Zelaya
Between 1857 and 1893 Nicaragua enjoyed a period of calm. In 1858 the pre-Walker constitution was reactivated, with elections required for public office. The wealthy families of Granada would control the government for the next 30 plus years. The first trains were installed in 1874, along with telephone and telegraph. Coffee became an important crop responsible for more than 50% of exports. In 1893 Liberal Party General José Santos Zelaya overthrew Granada’s Conservative Party President, Dr. Roberto Sacasa. Zelaya would maintain power until 1909 when he was pushed out with the help of the US Marines. Zelaya did much to modernize Nicaragua. The separation of church and state was instituted, as were ideas of equality and liberty for all, respect of private property, civil marriage and legal divorce. The death penalty and debtors prisons were banned and freedom of expression legally guaranteed. Construction was rampant, with new roads, docks, postal offices, new shipping routes built and electricity installed in Managua and Chinandega. A slew of new laws was passed to facilitate business, along with a proper police; military codes and a Supreme Court created. The Caribbean Coast was finally officially incorporated into the country in 1894.
US Marines and General Augusto Sandino
In 1909 an uprising in Bluefields against Liberal President Zelaya was made with the support of the Granada Conservative Party. General José Santos Estrada took control of the eastern coast. Two North Americans who had fought on the side of the rebel army were put in front of the firing squad on orders of the central government. The US demanded Zelaya’s resignation and he stepped down to allow a fellow Liberal Party member to take charge. The US refused to recognize the new president. In May of 1910 the US Marines arrived to Bluefields to establish a “neutral zone”. Conservative General Estrada marched into Managua to install himself as the new president of Nicaragua. Stuck with debts from European creditors, he was forced to borrow from the North American banks to pay debts. He then gave the US control and collection of customs, as a guarantee for those loans. The Nicaraguan National Bank and a new monetary unit called the córdoba were established in 1912. The Granada aristocrats were not happy with General Estrada and a new round of fighting between León Liberals and Granada Conservatives erupted. In August the US Marines entered Managua to secure order and establish their choice as president of the country. The Marines would stay in a fluctuating force until 1933. Their desire to leave behind a stabilizing presence in Nicaragua gave rise to a new army would be called the Guardia Nacional (National Guard).
General Augusto Sandino was a Liberal general who became a national hero by taking the fight directly to the US Marines. Fighting side by side with the Marines to exterminate Augusto Sandino and his rebel army, was the newly created Guardia Nacional. The Marines in Nicaragua’s northern mountains experimented with air bomb attacks for the first time while trying to exterminate Sandino and his rebel army. The charismatic general had widespread support in the north and was not defeated. Sandino relentlessly attacked US Marine positions with what many believe was the first use of modern guerrilla warfare. Finally, with elections approaching in 1933 and with the National Guard under the command of Anastasio Somoza García, the US government announced that the Marines would pull out when the new president took office. Juan Bautista Sacasa was elected, and the day he took power, January 1, 1933, the last regiment of US Marines left Nicaragua from the docks of Corinto.
The Somoza Family
With the US Marines gone, General Augusto Sandino signed a peace and gradual disarmament treaty with President Sacasa at the presidential palace, today’s Parque Loma de Tiscapa. One year later, on February 21, 1934, Sandino returned to the presidential palace for dinner with President Sacasa. After he left the dinner party, Sandino was abducted and executed. With the death of Sandino, the Liberal party was divided in two camps, one that supported Somoza and the other President Sacasa. Somoza attacked the fort above León in May of 1936, while the National Guard asked for Sacasa’s resignation. In June of 1936 Sacasa resigned and new elections held, which were won by Somoza García. Anastasio Somoza García and later his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle would maintain effective power until 1979. Nicaragua enjoyed a period of relative stability and economic growth. The relationship of the US and Nicaragua was never better. This formed a basis for building a business empire that used state money to grow. At the end of their decades long hold on power the family owned more up to 50% of all arable land and controlled an estimate 65% of the GDP. Somoza García met his death in León, at a party in the worker’s club of León, after accepting the Liberal Party nomination for the election of 1956, assassinated by gun shots of Rigoberto López Pérez. One of Somoza García’s sons, Luis Somoza Debayle stood in for the election and won anyway. He was sworn in as president in 1957. Luis Somoza’s brother Anastasio remained as the head of the Guardia Nacional and the real power of the country and he would quickly take over as president of Nicaragua. In 1954, 1958 and 1959 armed attempts and dethroning the Somozas failed.
In 1961 the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was founded. On 1967 there were anti-government demonstrations in Managua. The National Guard attacked the demonstrators, killing some and injuring many. None the less, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was elected president of Nicaragua once again. In 1972 the great earthquake of Managua struck and an Emergency Committee was created to deal with the disaster, under the direction of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Millions in aid and reconstruction money went through the hands of Somoza’s companies and accounts of the ruler. In 1975 Somoza was re-elected president of Nicaragua and took office in 1976. In January of 1978 Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of the country’s oldest newspaper, La Prensa and a respected member of society, was shot to death. Most assumed it was work of the Guardia Nacional. Chamorro had been part of the failed 1959 overthrow attempt and 1974 founder of an opposition group to Somoza Debayle called the UDEL. The “revolution” or “war against Somoza” was in full swing with support from all social classes.
The culmination of a 20 year struggle lead for 15 years by Carlos Fonseca Amador (who died in combat) and at great cost of more than 50,000 Nicaraguan lives, Somoza Debayle and the Guardia National were chased out of Nicaragua. The revolution brought major damage to Nicaragua’s economy and cities like Masaya, Managua, León and Estelí. Somoza finally fled on July 17, 1979, after a prolonged and horrifying series of battles. The war was won by a broad coalition of labor unions, private enterprise, the Catholic Church, various political parties and the most visible of all, the FSLN or Sandinistas.
A committee assumed power of Nicaragua on July 19, 1979 made up of five members: Daniel Ortega, Sergio Ramírez, Moisés Hassan, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo. A new legislative body was organized to write a new constitution. Any idea of shared power amongst other groups led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro or the non-Marxist rebel forces like those of revolutionary hero Eden Pastora were quickly dashed. Peace was short lived, as rebel groups formed in the northern mountains and Honduras and in 1982 the Resistencia Nicaraguense better known as the contras (short for counter-revolutionary in Spanish) began attacks. The national monetary reserves were increasingly taxed by more than half of the national budget going to military spending and a US economic embargo sent inflation spinning out of control, annihilating the already beleaguered economy. A peace agreement was reached in Sapoá; Rivas and elections were held in 1990. Daniel Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro.
Most Nicaraguans consider the election of Doña Violeta (as she is affectionately known) as the beginning of democracy in Nicaragua. The widow of assassinated La Prensa director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro had her two sons on both sides of the fence in the 1980’s, with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Junior with the contras and Carlos Fernando Chamorro with the Sandinistas. As she brought together her family, she brought together the country. Doña Violeta was forced to compromise on many issues and at times the country looked set to collapse back into war, but miraculously Nicaragua’s first woman president spent the next five years mending the country into one whole piece. The Nicaraguan military was de-politicized, put under civilian rule and reduced from over 150,000 to less than 30,000.
In November of 1996 Liberal Party candidate Arnoldo Alemán won the presidential vote. Alemán made strides in augmenting economic growth and foreign investment in Nicaragua and improvements to road and school infrastructure. In 1998 the worst hurricane to strike Central America in the 20th century brought to Nicaragua little wind, but biblical rains for five days. More than 2,400 lives were lost in flooding and landslides. The disaster encouraged foreign countries to consider external debt pardon, in what could be a possible savior to the world’s most indebted country in proportion to its GDP. Elections in November of 2001 were won by Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños. The 2001 elections were the third consecutive democratic presidential election in Nicaragua and boasted a record turnout at the polls.