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A brief history of Nicaragua

When Columbus landed on the Atlantic coast of what is now Nicaragua in 1502, most of the region was inhabited by indigenous peoples. The Spanish founded permanent settlements in1522. Within 30 years the aboriginal population fell from an estimated 1 million to a few tens of thousands. For 300 years thereafter Nicaragua was ruled from the Spanish empire’s regional capital of Guatemala. When independence from Spain was declared in 1821, this included all five Central American countries.

Throughout its history Nicaragua has been divided both geographically and culturally between east and west. The Pacific coast, where today about 90 percent of the population lives, was colonized by the Spanish. In the late 17th century the Atlantic coast fell under the British sphere of influence and is mostly inhabited by Miskito Amerindians and English-speaking blacks. Most of the Atlantic coast was not incorporated into Nicaragua until the beginning of this century, and no road connected the two coasts until the 1980s.

As the original site of the proposed trans-isthmus canal, Nicaragua was always carefully watched by the world powers. U.S. marines invaded Nicaragua on numerous occasions in the early 20th century. Beginning in 1927, General Augusto César Sandino fought the occupying U.S. marines until they left in 1933. Sandino was murdered in 1934 by the head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza. From then until 1979 Somoza and his family ruled Nicaragua like a fiefdom.

In 1978 and 1979 structural injustice and repression spurred mass insurrections, which the National Guard put down brutally, killing 30,000 to 50,000 people. Opposition to the Somoza regime was organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which came to power in July 1979. The Sandinistas nationalized the land and commercial interests of the Somoza family and their close associates (roughly 20 percent of arable land and industry) and carried out an extensive agrarian reform. Sandinista health and literacy campaigns in the early years of the new government won worldwide acclaim. From 1982 to 1989 Nicaragua was again immersed in war when the Reagan administration supported a heavily armed counterrevolutionary movement. Although unable to win political power, the “contras” terrorized the countryside and inflicted great damage to the economy. A U.S. embargo brought further hardship to the country.

Most of the fighting ended with the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, which resulted from a war-weariness and political ineptness. But the country had been ravaged and profoundly polarized by the long years of fighting. Today Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

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