This is an updated version of an article originally published in April 2019.
The whole region of South and Central America has a very vibrant history, filled with twists, horrible civil wars, coups and dictatorships as well as foreign intervention, notably by Spain, Portugal, Britain and later also by the USA. In case you were interested, here are some significant and rather twisted events from Nicaragua’s history or shall I say: Nicaragua: history’s roller-coaster?
Please note that this piece is not intended to be a serious academic paper. It’s just a compilation of some of the most important and twisted historical events that took place in this beautiful country. FYI, in case you were interested in further reading about particular topics, I’ll upload all the references and few extra links at the bottom of this post.
June 2021 update. Nicaragua’s history’s roller-coaster is rolling again): Given the recent events that are taking place in the Nicaraguan political scene, when the opposition leaders are being arrested, I thought that it would be a good idea to update and repost this article because it appears that the long-sought stability and democracy in the country is once again under a serious threat, this time again from a former revolutionary leader-turned dictator Daniel Ortega, who’s been active in Nicaraguan politics, even before ABBA split up.
Coups, Civil Wars and invasions
If I’m counting well, if we exclude the colonial period and Mexican invasions prior to 1821 when the region gained its independence from Spain, Nicaragua went through two civil wars, 5 dictatorships, a partial invasion of Britain and two invasions of the USA. Those numbers might be different, depending on where you ask.
But perhaps, we should start at the beginning. The name of the country comes from a local indigenous tribe Nicarao and it was coined in 1522 by one of the numerous Spanish “explorers” who were browsing through the Americas at the time. The Spanish word agua was added because the tribe lived around the present-day Lake Nicaragua.
A year later, another “explorer” from the same country Francisco Hernández de Córdoba conquested the territory of present-day Nicaragua. The Spanish crown then ruled over the territory for over 300 years, conducting their usual business at the time, such as establishing the principal cities, in the Nicaraguan case, it was Granada and León, terrorising the indigenous population and so on…
Independence and Federal Republic of Central America
The Central American countries then formed their own independent federation called República Federal de Centroamérica (1823-1841). It was a bloc of countries and regions (present day’s Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) which signed the declaration of independence of Spain in 1821 in a surprisingly peaceful process.
However, soon Mexico showed its imperial interest by annexing the new sovereign territories and things evolved fast and pretty much the same way as they always did around the globe throughout human history. There was blood. Then came the “Nicaexit” from the bloc (1838), and here we are, in sovereign Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this act didn’t mean that the good times were to roll anytime soon.
Civil War and Inter-oceanic route through Granada
The newly sovereign Nicaragua’s early political scene was dominated by two powerful forces. The two most influential cities represented each the different one. León became a stronghold of the Liberal Party, while Granada became a base for the Conservative Party. The power struggle escalated fast in a series of armed conflicts, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s.
At the same time, Nicaragua became an important and busy inter-oceanic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These were the days before the Panama Canal (1914) was constructed and back the ships had to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America unless the travellers decided to cut through Nicaragua.
Basically, back in the 19th century, it was possible to take the ships up the San Juan river from Punta Gorda near Bluefields all the way to the cities of Granada and Rivas on Lake Nicaragua, making both cities de facto Caribbean ports. From Rivas, the transport went on using stagecoaches through the narrow stretch of land (32km) to Brito on the Pacific coast, where they were picked up by another ship heading north to San Francisco.
I guess that this sufficiently illustrates how strategic this route was at the time, during a rather turbulent period in the history of massive immigration from Europe to the USA, not to mention that all this was all further accelerated by the Californian Gold Rush that begun in 1948. As a result of this Nicaraguan route’s importance and the money it was generating, in 1850 USA and Great Britain sign the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty granting them access to this trade route through Nicaraguan territory.
Altogether, these were conditions with very high explosive potential for the newly formed country. A combination of a Civil War with international interests focused on the massive profits the Nicaraguan inter-oceanic trade route was producing.* It, therefore, appeared to be only a question of time for things to turn from bad to worse in the country.
William Walker story
Well and then some idiots from León‘s Liberal party came up with an idea to hire a US mercenary William Walker to help them to crush their Granadian rivals. This was in 1855 and therefore it was during the infamous Manifest Destiny era, which pretty much stated that the (white) people are destined by God, to expand their dominion across the entire North American continent.
So Walker happily obliged but in his mind, he had a different idea. With a small army of about 2500 mercenaries, he managed to seize Granada but then he almost immediately faked the elections and declared himself a president of Nicaragua, establishing Granada as a capital. What a silly irony León, innit?
Walker‘s first “presidential” decree was to re-sanction the already abolished slavery in Nicaragua. This act was celebrated by many wealthy people north of Mexico, which was best illustrated by the fact that US president Franklin Pierce immediately recognized Walker‘s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua in 1856. I don’t know about you but to me, this sounds more like a work of fiction, rather than historical facts, right? Well and this story isn’t over yet…
Nicaragua’s Central American neighbours have been monitoring the situation with concern about any possible expansions of Walker‘s ambitions. Just as he was preparing to expand his influence in the region, 4000 troops from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala surrounded Walker‘s forces in Granada.
During the 1856 offensive, Walker and his mates managed to contaminate the water in Granada, which resulted in 10 000 deaths among Costa Rican as well as Nicaraguan people. The final act of Walker‘s mercenaries was to burn Granada down to ashes. Walker escaped but he was later executed in Honduras where he attempted yet another filibustering coup. To prevent further Granada vs León conflicts, the local leaders agreed to make Managua the country’s capital in 1857.
In just a little over four decades of the relative calm period in the country’s history, in 1894, Nicaragua was to get its new dictator. It was a liberal General José Santos Zelaya López that first kicked off the British of Nicaragua’s east (Mosquito) coast and then established a dictatorship for himself. And yep – it is not a typo – although it sounds like an oxymoron, you’ve read that well – that’s “liberal military dictatorship” (:0
Regardless of his treatment of democracy, Zelaya also introduced the country to some progressive policies, such as equal rights, property guarantees, compulsory vote, the protection of arts and industry, minority representation and improvement of public education.
Zalaya furthermore promoted sovereignty as well as the reunification of Central American nations, which didn’t make him a very popular figure in the US. As a result of that, in 1909 US military overthrown Zalaya‘s regime, imposing the puppet government, including the instalments of US military bases in Nicaragua. Later on, there were more treaties signed with the USA in exchange for cash for various puppet presidents.
Moving on another 40 years to another major event in Nicaragua’s history, we’d get to a Civil/Guerilla War between the independence rebellion led by Augusto Sandino and Mr Mocanda, one of the puppet presidents of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas then surprisingly managed to expel the US military from the country in 1934.
However, at the time, there was already a new emerging figure, who was to affect Nicaragua’s future. His name was General Anastasio Somoza and he was in charge of the Nicaraguan National Guard at the time. To cut the long story short, in 1934, Somoza managed to assassinate Sandino, who meanwhile became a local hero. Supported by the US, Somoza then commenced a dynasty that maintained absolute and brutal control over Nicaragua for 55 years.
In the coming years, Somoza and his family used the military to intervene in Costa Rica as well as the Dominican Republic on Uncle’s Sam behalf. Nicaragua was also used as a base to invade Cuba in 1966. The regime was brutal and various assassinations of political opponents weren’t exactly off the menu. The dynasty cringed on to power until 1978, even after the devastating earthquake in Managua (1972) that killed 6000 people.
The last drop for the Somoza dynasty proved to be a murder of a journalist Joaquín Chamorro. Another Civil War broke, between the Somoza regime and guerrilla forces called Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The violent uprising against the Somoza regime forced Somoza to flee Nicaragua to Miami in 1979.
The political control of the country devastated by a bloody Civil War was then shifted to a Sandinista junta, which called itself the Council of National Reconstruction that ruled Nicaragua until 1985. The junta was made up of five appointed members, one of which was Daniel Ortega. Another curious fact is that among those 5 members, two were selected from the political opposition and Violeta Chamorro, the widow of the murdered journalist was one of them.
The rise of Daniel Ortega
In 1985, the Junta held elections, with FSLN and Daniel Ortega declared as winners. In the meantime, an anti-FSLN paramilitary group Contras was formed to combat Ortega‘s regime with Marxist tendencies. Mr Ortega, therefore, didn’t hesitate much and begun his ruling period with a classic dictatorship style by declaring a state of national emergency and suspension of civil rights pretty much straight away.
Reagan‘s administration was already funding the Contras to undermine the Sandinista/Ortega regime (perhaps you’ve seen the Cocaine-smuggling movie with Tom Cruise, which was partially about that). The consequent ten-year bloody Civil War war followed at cost of 60 000 lives and nearly 200 billion dollars, not to mention its devastating effects on the Nicaraguan economy and infrastructure.
In 1988, the already traumatized country was hit by Hurricane Hugo. Ortega was forced to agree to hold a round of peace talks with Contras, reaching a temporary truce, ending the Civil War as well as his dictatorship, well the latter for now.
The 1990 election was won by the moderate UNO Coalition candidate and Violeta Chamorro (yes, it’s her, the widow of the journalist killed by Somoza‘s regime again) was elected president of Nicaragua. While Chamorro improved the diplomatic relations with the USA, Ortega‘s FSLN party still kept the majority of support in the country.
We are already at the break of the millennia. In the 90s, Nicaragua had been arguably faithful to a democratic election process because Ortega accepted the 1997 election results, which went 49% to 39% in favour of Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, the Liberal Party candidate over FSLN.
The 2006 elections however installed Daniel Ortega back in power, where he remained pretty much until now. In 2018, many Nicaraguans took part in protests against his government, which pretty much brought the country to a standstill. The former anti-dictator Ortega however did not indicate any signs of his past anti-tyranny morals and beliefs. Instead, he engaged his police forces in a violent oppression campaign against protesters in response.
Between 325 and 568 have been killed over the period of the 2018 protests. Ortega increasing dictator-like behaviour also alienated many of his former brothers in arms and allies from FSLN, some of which compared him to the former brutal dictator Somoza, whom they once fought against together.
Summer 2021 events
In summer 2021, Daniel Ortega once again showed what has he became. Prior to the November 2021 national elections, Ortega began to crackdown on the opposition leaders, under “a controversial law passed last December, which grants the government the power to unilaterally classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running as political candidates.”
The arrests of the opposition leaders currently stand at number thirteen, and they’re including revered former guerrillas who fought alongside Ortega during the campaign to topple the dictator Anastasio Somoza, some of which formed the Unamos party because they got disillusioned by Ortega’s “nepotism, autocracy and perpetual re-election”.
Another and perhaps the most prominent arrest Ortega ordered was of the opposition leader and a leading candidate to beat him in November’s elections was Christina Chamorro (yes, it’s her, the widow of the murdered journalist again). She’s been locked up by a man who gained his popularity by toppling the dictator who shot her husband, which sparked the original anti-Somoza revolution back in the days when ABBA was still around. But that was a very long time ago and things have changed quite radically since then…
Will these twists and turns ever end for the common people in Nicaragua?
Well, I guess that dictators don’t change back to revolutionaries – it’s a process that only happens the other way around. People who suffered under Ortega, Mugabe or Castro regimes, after they “turned” could probably talk a lot about this sad phenomenon ):
Sources and/or further reading:
- United Provinces of Central America: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on the Federal Republic of Central America
- William Walker: Sarah Pruitt writes for History.com about filibusters and William Walker
- Manifest Destiny: History.com‘s page on the Manifest Destiny
- The “Liberal Dictator” Zelaya: Christopher Minster writes a biography of the former dictator of Nicaragua for ThoughtCo.
- USA’s 1911/12 intervention in Nicaragua: US Dept of State page on the events from 1911/12
- Somoza: Christopher Minster writes a bibliography of another former dictator of Nicaragua for ThoughtCo.
- Augusto Sandino: Encyclopedia.com page on the Centra Americal freedom fighter
- Sandinistas: Rebecca Bodenheimer writes about the history of the Sandinista movement for Thought.Co
- Daniel Ortega: BBC‘s profile of the current Nicaraguan president
- 2018 Protests: BBC explains events that led to the 2018’s crisis in Nicaragua
- Nicaragua rounds up president’s critics in sweeping pre-election crackdown: Wilfredo Miranda writes for The Guardian
- Nicaragua cancels nearly 200 NGOs in sweeping purge of civil society: An Associated Press piece in The Guardian (June 2022)
- * Nicaraguan Canal: FYI, the idea of turning the historical inter-oceanic route into a full-on Nicaraguan Canal is not over yet. The Nicaraguan government signed a contract with Chinese investors and although the project is still in limbo, it appears to be a real project, rather than just some utopistic dream.
Destinations worth checking out in Nicaragua:
San Juan del Sur and Ometepe Island
A small party town on a Pacific coast with beautiful beaches that’s popular with surfers and a rural, eco-tourism-orientated lake island with two volcanoes. Read about what there is to do, how to get there and so on here, in case you were interested.
Granada and León
Two pretty colonial former principal cities of the country with a great nightlife scene and few nice activities options. Read about things to see & do in those two cities, as well as safety, how to get there and so on here.
Two small unspoiled Caribbean islands with crystal clear waters and amazing laidback vibes. Read about things to do there, how to get to the islands and so on here, in case you were interested.