In Pre-Columbian times, in what is now known as Nicaragua, the Indigenous people were part of the Intermediate Area located between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions and within the influence of the Isthmo-Colombian area. It was the point where the Mesoamerican and South American native cultures met. This is confirmed by the ancient footprints of Acahualinca, along with other archaeological evidence, mainly in the form of ceramics and statues made of volcanic stone like the ones found on the island of Zapatera and petroglyphs found on Ometepe island.
At the end of the 15th century, western Nicaragua was inhabited by several indigenous peoples related by culture to the Mesoamerican civilisations and by language to the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. They were primarily farmers who lived in towns, organized into small kingdoms. Meanwhile, the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua was inhabited by other peoples, mostly chibcha related groups, that had migrated from what is now Colombia. They lived a less sedentary life based on hunting and gathering. The people of eastern Nicaragua appear to have traded with, and been influenced by, the native peoples of the Caribbean, as round thatched huts and canoes, both typical of the Caribbean, were common in eastern Nicaragua. In the west and highland areas, occupying the territory between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Coast, the Niquirano were governed by chief Nicarao, or Nicaragua, a rich ruler who lived in Nicaraocali, now the city of Rivas. The Chorotega lived in the north-central region of Nicaragua. These two groups had intimate contact with the Spanish conquerors, paving the way for the racial mix of native and European stock now known as mestizos. However, within three decades an estimated Indian population of one million plummeted, as approximately half of the indigenous people in western Nicaragua died from the rapid spread of new diseases brought by the Spaniards, something the indigenous people of the Caribbean coast managed to escape due to the remoteness of the area.
The Spanish Conquest
Christopher Columbus was the first European known to have reached what is now Nicaragua as he sailed south along the Central America isthmus. On his fourth voyage Columbus sailed alongside and explored the Mosquito Coast on the east of Nicaragua. The first attempt to conquer what is now known as Nicaragua was by Gil González Dávila, whose Central American exploits began with his arrival in Panama in January 1520. González claimed to have converted some 30,000 indigenous peoples into the catolism religion and discovered a possible transisthmian water link. After exploring and gathering gold in the fertile western valleys González was attacked by the indigenous people, some of whom were commanded by Nicarao and an estimated 3,000 led by chief Diriangén. González later returned to Panama where governor Pedro Arias Dávila attempted to arrest him and confiscate his treasure, some 90,000 pesos of gold. This resulted in González fleeing to Santo Domingo.
It was not until 1524 that the first Spanish permanent settlements were founded. Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded two of Nicaragua's principal towns in 1524: Granada on Lake Nicaragua was the first settlement and León east of Lake Managua came after. Córdoba soon found it necessary to prepare defenses for the cities and go on the offensive against incursions by the other conquistadores. Córdoba was later publicly beheaded following a power struggle with Pedrarias Dávila, his tomb and remains were discovered some 500 years later in the Ruins of León Viejo.
The inevitable clash between the Spanish forces did not impede their devastation of the indigenous population. The Indian civilization was destroyed. The series of battles came to be known as The War of the Captains. By 1529, the conquest of Nicaragua was complete. Several conquistadores came out winners, and some were executed or murdered. Pedrarias Dávila was a winner; although he had lost control of Panama, he had moved to Nicaragua and established his base in León. Through adroit diplomatic machinations, he became the first governor of the colony. The land was parceled out to the conquistadores. The area of most interest was the western portion. Many indigenous people were soon enslaved to develop and maintain "estates" there. Others were put to work in mines in northern Nicaragua, few were killed in warfare, and the great majority were sent as slaves to other New World Spanish colonies, for significant profit to the newly-landed aristocracy. Many of the indigenous people died as a result of disease and neglect by the Spaniards who controlled everything necessary for their subsistence.
Colonization to Independence
Corn Island off the Atlantic Coast was originally a British protectorate until it was ceded along with the rest of the Mosquito Coast to Nicaragua. In 1536, the Viceroyalty of New Spain was established. By 1544 after a huge fight among Spaniard for power, the territory was incorporated to the Guatemalan kingdom.
The area of Nicaragua was divided into administrative "parties" with León as the capital. In 1610, the Momotombo volcano erupted, destroying the capital. It was rebuilt northwest of what is now known as the Ruins of Old León. Nicaragua became a part of the Mexican Empire and then gained its independence as a part of the United Provinces of Central America in 1821 and as an independent republic in its own right in 1838. The Mosquito Coast based on the Caribbean coast was claimed by the United Kingdom and its predecessors as a protectorate from 1655 to 1850; this was delegated to Honduras in 1859 and transferred to Nicaragua in 1860, though it remained autonomous until 1894. José Santos Zelaya, president of Nicaragua from 1893-1909, managed to negotiate for the annexation of this region to the rest of Nicaragua. In his honour the entire region was named Zelaya.
In the 1800s Nicaragua experienced a wave of immigration, primarily from Europe. In particular, families from Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Belgium moved to Nicaragua to set up businesses with money they brought from Europe. They established many agricultural businesses such as coffee and sugar cane plantations, and also newspapers, hotels and banks.
Throughout the late nineteenth century the United States (and several European powers) considered a scheme to build a canal across Nicaragua linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. A bill was put before the U.S. Congress in 1899 to build the canal, but it was not passed, and instead the construction of the Panama Canal began.
United States Intervention (1909 – 1933)
In 1909, the United States provided political support to conservative-led forces rebelling against President Zelaya. U.S. motives included differences over the proposed Nicaragua Canal, Nicaragua's potential as a destabilizing influence in the region, and Zelaya's attempts to regulate foreign access to Nicaraguan natural resources. On November 18, 1909, U.S. warships were sent to the area after 500 revolutionaries (including two Americans) were executed by order of Zelaya. The U.S. justified the intervention by claiming to protect U.S. lives and property. Zelaya resigned later that year.
U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, except for a nine month period beginning in 1925.
From 1927 until 1933, Gen. Augusto César Sandino led a sustained guerrilla war first against the Conservative regime and subsequently against the U.S. Marines, who withdrew upon the establishment of a new Liberal government. Sandino was the only Nicaraguan general to refuse to sign the el tratado del Espino Negro agreement and then headed up to the northern mountains of Las Segovias, where he fought the U.S. Marines for over five years. The revolt finally forced the United States to compromise and leave the country. When the Americans left in 1933, they set up the Guardia Nacional (National Guard), a combined military and police force trained and equipped by the Americans and designed to be loyal to U.S. interests.
Anastasio Somoza García, a close friend of the American government, was put in charge. He was one of the three rulers of the country, the others being Sandino and the President Juan Bautista Sacasa.
After the US Marines withdrew from Nicaragua in January 1933, Sandino and the newly elected Sacasa government reached an agreement by which he would cease his guerrilla activities in return for amnesty, a grant of land for an agricultural colony, and retention of an armed band of 100 men for a year. But a growing hostility between Sandino and Somoza led Somoza to order the assassination of Sandino. Fearing future armed opposition from Sandino, Somoza invited him to a meeting in Managua, where Sandino was assassinated on February 21 of 1934 by the National Guard. Hundreds of men, women, and children were executed later.
The Somoza Dynasty (1936 - 1979)
Nicaragua has experienced several military dictatorships, the longest one being the rule of the Somoza family for much of the 20th century. The Somoza family came to power as part of a US-engineered pact in 1927 that stipulated the formation of the Guardia Nacional, or the National Guard, to replace the U.S. marines that had long reigned in the country. Somoza slowly eliminated officers in the National Guard who might have stood in his way, and then deposed Sacasa and became president on January 1, 1937 in a rigged election. Somoza was 35 at the time.
Throughout his years as dictator, "Tacho" Somoza 'ruled Nicaragua with a strong arm'. He had three main sources for his power: control of Nicaraguan economy, military support, and support from the U.S.
In 1961 Carlos Fonseca, turned back to the historical figure of Sandino, and along with 2 others founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The FSLN was a tiny party throughout most of the 1960s, but Somoza's utter hatred of it and his heavy-handed treatment of anyone he suspected to be a Sandinista sympathizer gave many ordinary Nicaraguans the idea that the Sandinistas were much stronger.
After the 1972 earthquake and Somoza's brazen corruption, mishandling of relief, and refusal to rebuild Managua, the ranks of the Sandinistas were flooded with young disaffected Nicaraguans who no longer had anything to lose. The Sandinistas, supported by some of the populace, elements of the Catholic Church, and regional and international governments such as President Jimmy Carter of the United States, took power in July 1979.
Somoza fled the country and eventually ended up in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in September 1980.
Sandinistas and the Contras
Upon assuming office in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the FSLN for joining with Cuba in supporting Marxist revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador. His administration authorized the CIA to have their paramilitary officers from their elite Special Activities Division begin financing, arming and training rebels, some of whom were the remnants of Somoza's National Guard, as anti-Sandinista guerrillas that were branded "counter-revolutionary" by leftists (contrarrevolucionarios in Spanish).
This was shortened to Contras, a label the anti-socialist forces chose to embrace.
The Contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. As was typical in guerrilla warfare, they were engaged in a campaign of economic sabotage in an attempt to combat the Sandinista government and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua's Corinto harbour, an action condemned by the World Court as illegal. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo.
After the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back the Contras by covertly selling arms to Iran and channeling the proceeds to the Contras (the Iran–Contra affair). When this scheme was revealed, Reagan admitted that he knew about the Iranian "arms for hostages" dealings but professed ignorance about the proceeds funding the Contras; for this, National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North took much of the blame.
1990s and the Post-Sandinista Era
Multi-party democratic elections were held in 1990, which saw the defeat of the Sandinistas by a coalition of anti-Sandinista (from the left and right of the political spectrum) parties led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.
Exit polls of Nicaraguans reported Chamorro's victory over Ortega was achieved with 55%. Violeta Chamorro was the first woman to be popularly elected as President of an American nation and first woman president of Nicaragua and first female president in the Americas. Exit polling convinced Daniel Ortega that the election results were legitimate, and were instrumental in his decision to accept the vote of the people and step down rather than void the election. Nonetheless Ortega vowed that he would govern "desde abajo" (from below), in other words due to his widespread control of institutions and Sandinista individuals in all government agencies, he would still be able to maintain control and govern even without being president.
In subsequent elections in 1996 Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas of the FSLN were again defeated, this time by Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC).
In the 2001 elections the PLC again defeated the FSLN, with Enrique Bolaños winning the Presidency. However, President Bolaños subsequently brought forward allegations of money laundering, theft and corruption against former President Alemán. The ex-president was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement, money laundering, and corruption. The Liberal members who were loyal to Alemán and also members of congress reacted angrily, and along with Sandinista parliament members stripped the presidential powers of President Bolaños and his ministers, calling for his resignation and threatening impeachment.
Legislative and presidential elections took place on November 5, 2006. Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency with 37.99% of the vote. This percentage was enough to win the presidency outright, due to a change in electoral law which lowered the percentage requiring a runoff election from 45% to 35% (with a 5% margin of victory).