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
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
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
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
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
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
Due to the incessant fighting between the factions, the United States
intervened in force under the pretext of needing to protect the Corinto-Granada
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
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
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
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.
16 June 2008