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   In 1502 Christopher Columbus made a last voyage in the Antillas- or Caribbean- Sea in search of land that was just an island. Sailing South from the coast of what is today Honduras, he rounded a cape which gave him protection and which he named "Cabo Gracias a Dios", and went to the mouth of a river, the Rio San Juan. He had discovered the Atlantic coast of what is today Nicaragua.

   In 1522, on the other side of the Isthmus of Panama where the fleet built by Nuñez de Balboa lay, an expedition organized and led by Gil Gonzalez de Avila was pushing up towards the North of the Continent along the Pacific coast of what is today Costa Rica. It soon made landfall and started moving into the territories which were later become the West Coast of Nicaragua. He met the Indian chiefs, Nicoya and Diriangen, and then discovered a vast stretch of water, a great lake known to the natives as Cocibolca.

   The story goes that the Spandish Andalusians of Gil Gonzalez de Avila, who founded the town of Granada on the South bank of this great lake, called the lake "Agua de Nicarao", the Lake of Nicarao, which was the name of the Indian chief they met in 1523. The name subsequently became the Lake of Nicaragua.

   It was Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, lieutenant of the Governor Pedro Arias de Avila, known as Pedrarias, who founded the towns of Granada and Leon in 1524 and 1525 respectively.

   In 1534 Pope Clement VI set up the first episcopal church in Nicaragua.

   There followed a period of quarrels, often bloody ones, between the Spaniards of the two cities. The quarrels continued almost without interruption among the newly colonized territories.

   In 1570 the town of Leon and its inhabitants, both Spanish and native, came under the authority of the Gobernación de Guatemala (The Guatemalan Governorship). But the conflicts between Leon and Granada continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

   In 1620 a most violent eruption of the Momotombo Volcano, situated near the smaller Nicaraguan lake known as Xolotlan, destroyed the town of Leon, and the religious and lay authorities decided to move the city to its present site. Although the only sign of life now given by the Momotombo Volcano is smoke, the volcanoes that surrounded the town periodically showered the new site with ashes, sometimes causing damage both to the town and the surrounding crops. Granada, on the other hand, was now exposed to another disaster; raids from the Atlantic coast.

   It was in 1605 that the first raid occurred. It was carried out by the Dutch pirate, John Davis.

   Towards the end of the 17th century, the English, which settled nearby in Jamaica, established a kind of protectorate over the eastern seaboard of the Central American continent from the Gulf of Mexico to Panama in order to enable their pirates to penetrate more easily into this area. With the English came African-Americans from Jamaica who established themselves all along the coastal area and today still constitute, together with the native Indians, the majority population of these eastern regions.

   In 1740, these African-Americans founded two towns in Nicaragua, Bluefields and Greytown. During the 18th century, the English, accompanied by Miskito Indians, carried out periodic raids of the interior by sailing up the rivers and crossing the Great Lake. They frequently inflicted serious damage to towns which were well on the road to prosperity such as Jinotega, Boaco and Camoapa.

   It was at this time that a young female Nicaraguan, Rafaela Herrera Sotomayor, performed a heroic act designed to expel the pirates out of Nicaragua. Pirate ships were sailing up the San Juan River to attack a fortress. Rafaela Herrera's father had fallen ill and could no longer defended the fortress; the people's only hope was placed on the young Rafaela. They were very low on ammunition, so she decided to soak some bed sheets in alcohol, tie them to tree branches and dump them in the river. This strategy, together with firing a few cannons, prevented the pirates from approaching the fortress and made them decide no to attack. From then on the Miskito chiefs stopped assisting the foreign pirates and submitted to the established government.

   Rumors of the French Revolution soon began to reach America, and the inhabitants of the Spanish province of Nicaragua, like those of the neighboring provinces of the Governorship of Guatemala, began to nurture hopes of liberation from the yoke of Spain.

   The first manifestations of independence in Nicaragua took place in the town of Masaya; these were followed by others in Leon, Granada, and the provinces of Nicoya and Guanacaste.

   On September 15, 1821, Central America declared its independence from Spain at Guatemala. Throughout this part of the American continent, one municipality after another swore oaths of allegiance to the principles of the Guatemalan declaration. In Nicaragua, the town of Matagalpa was the first to take the oath.

   Shortly after the proclamation, a Mexican general, Iturbide, annexed the United Provinces of Central America to the Mexican empire, causing a rift between those in favor of submitting to this new master and those determined, convinced partisans of unconditional independence, particularly in Nicaragua. Leon, which had submitted to Mexico, sent an expedition to fight Granada, which was resisting annexation to the Mexican empire.

   There followed a real civil war, which Guatemala ended by turning to mediation. But the fighting frequently broke out again, and the towns, together with their populations, suffered for many more years.

   Mexican domination did not last long and ended in 1823. A treaty establishing the Federal Republic of Central America was signed on November 23, 1824. This Republic consisted of five states, each of which had a legislative assembly and an executive.

   However, Nicaragua's authority within the Federation was weakened as a result of in-fighting between the two large towns, As a result, Nicaragua successively lost a considerable part of the Province of Nueva Segovia to Honduras and part of the Province of Nicoya to Costa Rica (Today Guanacaste).

   In addition, Colombia imposed its rule on the Nicaraguan San Andres Archipelago and Providencia on the Caribbean Sea following a series of acts of aggression.

   Quarrels among the conquistadores, who had also established themselves in Nicaragua, until the end of Spanish rule, had deeply marked the history of the country.

   The notables of Granada and Leon were to continue fighting throughout the period when the country was part of the Central American Federation, and even the proclamation of independence from Central American Federation in 1838 did not see the end of this internal strife.

   On April 30, 1838, the Federal Pact was denounced by Nicaragua and independence was proclaimed. There was no hesitation about doing so since the Federation had brought only disadvantages to Nicaragua. A Constitution was promulgated by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Nicaragua declaring the country free, sovereign and independent of all power. The head of the Government would be known as "Director of the State". The other states (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica) also broke away from the Federation.

   Directors succeeded one another and gradually gave the country its laws and regulation, while in Granada, a university was established and national newspapers began to appear. But many of the Directors had to contend with serious difficulties provoked by power hungry adventurers- improvised chiefs of local or foreign origin calling themselves "caudillos".

   Spain recognized Nicaragua's independence by a treaty signed on June 25, 1850.

   In 1851, there were attempts, sometimes successful, by the military to take over the reins of power and depose the Director of the State; successive revolutionary movements set up governments in Leon and Granada.

   General Fruto Chamorro, as Director, promulgated a new constitution which declared that from then on the leader of the country would be known as "President". General Chamorro then became President of the Republic in 1854; the term of office was fixed at 4 years.

   Meanwhile, William Walker, a North American adventurer, had landed in Nicaragua and had himself proclaimed President in 1855.

   His adventure did not last long. On September 14, 1856 he was defeated near Managua, at the farm of San Jacinto. Walker returned to Central America in 1860, was taken prisoner and shot in Honduras.

   But from 1854 to 1857 Granada and Leon were again at war with one another; the war ended with the establishment of a joint government between Generals Maximo Jerez and Tomas Martinez. Later, Martinez ruled the country alone. He carried through reforms and broadened the legislation; a new Constitution was adopted in 1858, which established the system of election of the main public offices.

   The city of Managua had been declared the "Seat of the Executive Power of the State" in 1852, but under the joint government of Jerez and Martinez, it was declared the capital in 1857. This at last, put an end to the rivalry between the cities of Leon and Granada.

   From 1863 to 1893 the conservatives were in power, for the country was already divided between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives proclaimed the separation of the State from the Church, expelled the Jesuits and founded schools with freemasons and protestants as teachers.

   In 1893 a revolution put an end to the conservative government of Roberto Sacasa. A junta government the installed the liberal Jose Santos Zelaya as President; he remained in power until 1909.

   To this period dates the improvement and extension of the railroad which, running from Granada to the port Corinto on the Pacific, also serves the major coffee-growing areas of Masaya.

   In 1906 the King of Spain arbitrated in favor of Honduras in a frontier dispute between that country and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, President Zelaya succeeded in making Great Britain cede the Miskito coast to Nicaragua, and tried, though unsuccessfully, to find the resources for building an inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua.

   During the years 1909 and 1910 there were minor revolutionary movements against the government of the Liberal Party; finally, in 1910 Zelaya resigned and left the country. But the revolution continued and spread. A series of domestic events which occurred during 1910 and 1911 brought to fore names which were to leave their mark on the history of the period, Adolfo Diaz, Emiliano Chamorro, Jose Dolores Estrada and Luis Mena.

   Due to the incessant fighting between the factions, the United States intervened in force under the pretext of needing to protect the Corinto-Granada railroad.

   Adolfo Diaz remained President until January 1, 1913. From then on, the railroad and customs were under U.S. control. The country was occupied by the United States Marines.

   In 1914, Emiliano Chamorro, the diplomatic representative of Nicaragua in Washington, signed the treaty granting the United States an option of building an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua. The provision of this treaty remained in force until 1970.

   When war broke in 1914, the Nicaraguan economy was in difficulties. General Emiliano Chamorro succeeded President Adolfo Diaz in 1977. But, during the post-war period the country was divided, one army based in Bluefields and the other in Leon. The United States infantry intervened in favor of the one supporting Diaz and stopped the advance of the Liberal forces, whose chiefs, the supporters of the Government of President Moncada, lay down their arms with the exception of General Augusto Cesar Sandino, who together with others, waged a guerilla war lasting six years against the U.S. Marines.

   Sandino was executed in 1934 at the very time when the Marines were evacuating Nicaragua. Three years earlier an extremely violent earthquake had destroyed the majority of the capital, Managua.

   The country was from then on in the hands of the Nicaraguan Narional Guard, which had been trained and established by the United States. Anastasio Somoza Garcia was appointed leader of the Guard and had their complete loyalty and trust. The Conservative opposition led by Emiliano Chamorro came to terms with him, and thus, Somoza Garcia served  as President of Nicaragua from 1937 to 1939, from 1939 to 1947, and from 1951 to 1956, when he was shot by Rigoberto Lopez Perez at the "Casa del Obrero" on the eve of his re-election to yet another term.

   During Somoza Garcia's presidency, agriculture and industry had begun to develop. His eldest son, Luis Somoza Debayle was appointed to complete his father's term in office. In 1963, the Somoza family hand-picked their successor, Rene Schick. Somoza Gracia second son, General Anastasio Somoza Debayle (Tachito), assumed the presidency in 1974.

   A few days after Tachito was sworn in, he closed down the opposition radio stations, suspended publication of the newspaper La Prensa, and threw its director, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in prison. Mr. Chamorro was the husband of the future President of Nicaragua, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

   In September 1968, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), a revolutionary movement that took its name after the 1930's natural figure, Augusto Cesar Sandino, created an urban unit in Managua headed by Julio Cesar Buitrago. In October 1970 the Frente Sandinista finally managed to attract world attention by hijacking a planebelonging to LACSA, the Costa Rican airlines, and forcing the Costa Rican government to free Carlos Fonesca Amador, one of their guerilla leaders.

   On December 23, 1972, the city of Managua was almost completely destroyed by a major earthquake which killed approximately 10,000 people. In 1974, the United States announced that it was recalling its Ambassador, Turner B. Shelton- an event that many interpreted as withdrawal of U.S. support for the Somoza regime. On December 27, 1974, the FSLN attacked the house of Jose Maria Castillo Quant, thinking Somoza would be at this farewell party in honor of Ambassador Shelton. The siege lasted 62 hours; Somoza accepted the FSLN's demands. Following this incident, Somoza immediately ordered martial law, press censorship and military tribunals were set up. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro broke censorship and published an open letter to Somoza criticizing his regime. Somoza intended to try him in military court but backed off in the face of pressure from the international press.

   On January 10, 1978, a gang of hired killers ambushed and killed Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. The ensuing uproar shook all sectors of Nicaraguan society. Enraged crowds took to the streets; the Nicaraguan business community ordered a nationwide strike. On August 22, 1978, a group of 25 Sandinistas, led by Eden Pastora, marched unopposed into the National Palace, the seat of the Nicaraguan Legislature, and took 1,500 hostages. Forty five hours later the Sandinistas surrendered having obtaines almost all their demands. By mid-September a full civil war broke out in Nicaragua.

   In February 1979, the United States, under President Jimmy Carter, decided to cut off all military and economic aid to Nicaragua, and to withdraw most of its military and diplomatic personnel, including the Peace Corp. On July 19, 1979 Somoza's regime collapsed. The Sandinistas assumed power in Nicaragua.

   They took posts in all the ministries, including the army and police. The press was censored, and no opposition was allowed; centralized planning and a state-run economy was implemented. The FSLN formed the CDS (Committees of Sandinista Defense) fashioned after the Cuban neighborhood watch committees. Certain groups started demanding elections for 1981. The Sandinistas announced that they would stay in power until 1985.

   In 1981 all U.S. financial aid was suspended. By 1982 the Contra Resistance Movement was in full swing. By 1983, contra units were probing deep into Nicaraguan territory. By 1984, one in every 113 Nicaraguans was a member of the regular armed forces- twice as many as a year before Somoza's ouster. At the same time, one out of every 371 Nicaraguans was a member of an armed contra organization. In 1984 the Sandinistas held a state-controlled plebiscite, and appointed Daniel Ortega as president.

   In 1987, the Sandinistas signed a Central American peace accord. They agreed to hold internationally monitored elections. On September 2, 1989, the UNO opposition party (a coalition of 14 parties) named Violeta Barrios de Chamorro as their candidate. Mrs Chamorro is the widiw of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the former La Prensa director and national hero whose murder in 1978 helped ignite the insurrection against Somoza. The Sandinistas conducted propaganda campaigns against her. The February 25, 1990 elections were closely monitored by independent international organizations. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro received 60% of the vote, and Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista candidate, received 40%. President Chamorro inherited a  country deeply divided by 10 years of civil war, economically bankrupt and with no previous democratic tradition. Among many other tasks, she had to end the war, restructure the economy and strengthen democratic institutions. During Sandinista decade, the Nicaraguan economy lost half of its value.

   Today Nicaragua enjoys complete freedom of the press. Political parties and labor unions operate freely. The economy has been transformed from a state-controlled economic system to a free market economic system. Mandatory military service has been abolished and the army has been reduced from 90,000 to 11,000 members. The educational system has been purged of all elements of marxist indoctrination. Inflation has been reduced. Much more needs to be done, but Nicaragua, for the first time in its 170 year history, is a democracy.*


*Source: Permanent Mission of Nicaragua to the OAS.

 

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Updated: 16 June 2008