To have even a basic understanding of Nicaraguan culture it’s important to first know a little about the land’s history. In the Pre-Columbian era, the region now called Nicaragua was inhabited by several tribes culturally related to Aztec and Maya civilizations. Not long after Christopher Columbus first reached Nicaragua in 1502, an attempt was made to conquer the region by Gil González Dávila in the 1520s. On April 17, 1523, Dávila first met with Cacique Diriangen, leader of the Dirian peoples. Dávila gave the tribe a three day deadline to become Christians but rather than comply Diriangen led an attack, making him the first known resistance fighter of Nicaragua.
During over 300 years of colonization, countless indigenous people died of diseases, rival conquistadors waged war on each other, Caribbean pirates raided cities along Lake Nicaragua, British forces fought the Spanish in Nicaragua during a sub-conflict of the the Seven Years’ War, and in 1610 Momotombo volcano erupted, destroying the old capital city of León. In 1838, Nicaragua became an independent republic. Within a few decades, during a power struggle between León and Granada, filibusterer William Walker was hired by the government of León to fight on their side but he exploited the region’s instability and briefly established himself as President of Nicaragua before being forced out of the country a few years later. Three decades of conservative rule followed, during which the U.S. began formulating plans to build a canal across Nicaragua (which may soon become a reality with funding from Chinese corporations). However, when the U.S. shifted their plans to Panama, President Jose Santos Zelaya attempted to negotiate with European partners. Because of the potential threat Zelaya posed to U.S. hegemony and his ambitions to unite the Central American nations, the U.S. government compelled him to resign with the threat of military force and funding of conservative opposition groups, replacing him with a series of puppet regimes. Attempting to prevent insurrection, Nicaragua was occupied by U.S. Marines from 1912 to 1933. From 1927 (the start of Somoza’s rise to power though the National Guard), national hero Augusto César Sandino led a guerrilla war against the conservative government and the U.S. Marines. Shortly after a peace agreement was reached with a newly elected Sacasa administration, the Marines left Nicaragua and the head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza García ordered Sandino’s assassination. Sandino was killed by National Guard troops on February 21, 1934. His body was hidden and never found. In 1937 Somoza ousted the Sacasa government in a rigged election.
The Somoza regime was Nicaragua’s longest lasting hereditary military dictatorship, having ruled for 43 years. The father of the dynasty, Anastasio Somoza García, was famously called “our son of a bitch” by FDR and was assassinated by 27 year old poet Rigoberto López Pérez in León in 1956. In response to increasingly corrupt and reactionary policies of the Somoza government, Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge led the formation of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN, named after and inspired by Augusto Sandino) in 1961. In 1972 a major earthquake hit Managua killing 6000 people, injuring tens of thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle mishandled the situation by failing to distribute essential aid and supplies. When it was later revealed that the government was siphoning relief money for personal gain, popularity and membership of the FSLN greatly increased. Hundreds of Chilean refugees also joined their ranks after a CIA-backed coup assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973 and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet the following year.
When Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of the national newspaper and critic of Somoza, was assassinated by the government on January 10, 1978, a mass insurrection was triggered. By the end of Summer, armed youths took over Matagalpa while factions of the FSLN and civilian recruits had the National Guard under siege in Managua, Masaya, León, Chinandega and Estelí. On July 19, 1979, FSLN forces entered the capital and officially assumed power. Just two days before, Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned and fled to Miami. He was killed a year later by a rocket attack from members of the Argentinian Revolutionary Workers Party while in exile in Paraguay.
Though the Sandinista government inherited a country in ruins and over a billion dollars in debt, they had an ambitious platform which included:
- nationalization of property owned by the Somozas and their supporters
- improved rural and urban working conditions
- free unionization for all workers, both urban and rural
- price fixing for commodities of basic necessity
- improved public services, housing conditions, education
- abolition of torture, political assassination and the death penalty
- protection of democratic liberties
- equality for women
- non-aligned foreign policy
The Sandinistas had early successes with their education and literacy programs but were soon hindered by emerging conflicts with counter-revolutionary Contra forces heavily financed, armed and trained by the CIA. Investigations into the Iran-Contra scandal revealed some of the funding was acquired through arms sales to Iran and drug shipments to U.S. inner cities (read Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance for more about this). Despite strong support for the opposition by the U.S., the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega won the 1984 elections. Less than a year later the Reagan administration implemented a complete embargo on U.S. trade with Nicaragua that would last five years. By the late 80s, the continuing Contra campaign was notorious for human rights violations, corruption and terrorism. In August 1987, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez created a peace accord which led to a ceasefire signed by Contra and Sandinista representatives a year later. Disillusioned by conflict and economic strife (made worse by Reagan’s embargo), Nicaraguan voters elected conservative administrations throughout the 1990s and early 2000s but seeing little improvement and much corruption, they reelected FSLN member Daniel Ortega in 2006 and 2011. So far, there has not yet been radical reforms that corporate investors feared and that more radical liberals hoped for, but Ortega has maintained a skepticism towards capitalism while simultaneously maintaining relations with the U.S. and rivals such as Iran, Libya and Venezuela.
As for how the average Nicaraguan feels about their current situation, opinions seem to vary but I plan to share some of the impressions I got in a future post.