Largest but most sparsely populated of the Central American nations, Nicaragua borders Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. It is slightly larger than New York State. Nicaragua is mountainous in the west, with fertile valleys. Two big lakes, Nicaragua and Managua, are connected by the Tipitapa River. The Pacific coast is volcanic and very fertile. The swampy Caribbean coast is aptly called the “Mosquito Coast.”
Nicaragua, which derives its name from the chief of the area's leading Indian tribe at the time of the Spanish Conquest, was first settled by the Spanish in 1522. The country won independence in 1838. For the next century, Nicaragua's politics were dominated by the competition for power between the Liberals, who were centered in the city of León, and the Conservatives, centered in Granada.
To back up its support of the new Conservative government in 1909, the U.S. sent a small detachment of marines to Nicaragua from 1912 to 1925. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916 (terminated in 1970) gave the U.S. an option on a canal route through Nicaragua and naval bases. U.S. Marines were sent again to quell disorder after the 1924 elections. A guerrilla leader, Gen. César Augusto Sandino, fought the U.S. troops from 1927 until their withdrawal in 1933.
Dictators Struggle for Power
After ordering Sandino's assassination, Gen. Anastasio Somoza García was dictator from 1936 until his own assassination in 1956. He was succeeded by his son Luis, who alternated with trusted family friends in the presidency until his death in 1967. He was succeeded by his brother, Maj. Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somozas ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist, reducing its dependence on banana exports, exiling political foes, and amassing a family fortune.
Sandinista guerrillas, leftists who took their name from Sandino, launched an offensive in 1979. After seven weeks of fighting, Somoza fled the country on July 17, 1979. The Sandinistas assumed power two days later. On Jan. 23, 1981, the Reagan administration suspended U.S. aid, charging that Nicaragua, with the aid of Cuba and the Soviet Union, was supplying arms to rebels in El Salvador. The Sandinistas denied the charges. Later that year, Nicaraguan guerrillas known as “Contras” began a war to overthrow the Sandinistas. Elections were finally held on Nov. 4, 1984, with Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista junta coordinator, winning the presidency. The war intensified in 1986–1987. Negotiations sponsored by the Contadora (neutral Latin American) nations foundered, but Costa Rican president Oscar Arias promoted a treaty signed by Central American leaders in Aug. 1987.
Sandista's Rule Comes to an End
Violetta Barrios de Chamorro, owner of the opposition paper La Prensa, led a broad anti-Sandinista coalition to victory in the 1990 elections, ending 11 years of Sandinista rule. Enthusiasm for Chamorro gradually faded. Business groups were dissatisfied with the pace of reforms; Sandinistas, upset with what they regarded as the dismantling of their earlier achievements, threatened to take up arms again; and many people were disillusioned over governmental corruption.
Former Managua mayor and Conservative candidate Arnoldo Alemán won the 1996 election. Former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was his closest rival.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed more than 9,000 people, left 2 million people homeless, and caused $10 billion in damages. Many people fled to the U.S., which offered Nicaraguans an immigration amnesty program until July 1999. Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
In the Nov. 2001 presidential elections, Enrique Bolaños, the ruling Liberal Party leader, defeated Ortega, who was attempting a comeback.
In Aug. 2002, former president Arnoldo Alemán was charged with fraud and embezzlement, and in 2003 he was sent to prison for 20 years. Current president Bolaños triumphantly called it the “frying of the Big Fish.” The anticorruption watchdog, Transparency International, ranks Alemán among the most corrupt leaders of the past two decades.
The country received an enormous show of support from the international community in 2004 when the IMF and World Bank forgave $4.5 billion of Nicaragua's debt. In April 2006, a free-trade agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) went into effect.
Former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega won the Nov. 2006 presidential election with 38% of the vote and took office in Jan. 2007.
On March 7, 2008, during a summit meeting in the Dominican Republic, the leaders of Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua ended their diplomatic dispute over Colombia's raid into Ecuador that occurred on March 1, 2008.
Ortega Wins Controversial Reelection
In November 2011, President Daniel Ortega was re-elected in a landslide victory. He received 62.6% of the vote. Ortega's party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, also won big. Their victory might give Ortega the needed majority to change the constitution.
Ortega's win was not without controversy. There were at least 600 complaints of voting irregularities according to Hagamos Democracia, a National Democratic Institute partner organization based in Honduras. However, the European Union and other international election observers who witnessed the election saw no major problems, including no signs of extreme violence at the polls. Still, Ortega ignored Nicaragua's constitutional law, which does not allow leaders to serve consecutive terms. The constitution also limits the president to two terms overall. In 2009, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, controlled by Ortega, ruled that the constitution's limits were a violation of human rights.
Having been in power since the Sandinista revolution in 1979, Ortega has a history of ignoring complaints about the election process. In the 2008 municipal elections there were allegations of fraud against the Sandinistas. The U.S. withheld $62 million in aid from Nicaragua because of the 2008 fraud allegations.
Poverty remains a problem in Nicaragua with 48% of the population living below the poverty line and 79.9% living on less than $2 per day. High unemployment and underemployment levels, eroding education levels and the regional drug war violence also remain major issues facing the country.
An End to the Monroe Doctrine?
In December 2011, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States met for a two day summit in Caracas. The group, unlike the Organization of American States, includes Cuba, but excludes the U.S. and Canada. At the summit President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called for an end to the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine is a policy of U.S. intervention in the region, instated by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823. Before the summit officially began, Ortega said, "We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death."
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