Any fan of the UK punk-rock band The Clash will have heard of the 1980 hit album Sandinista!. Named after a famous revolutionary movement in Nicaragua called the Sandinistas, the band felt clearly inspired to go forth and write one of the top-selling records of all time. The Sandinista movement speaks volumes about Nicaragua’s twentieth century political controversies, although their history stretches further. Prior to becoming an independent nation the country had been in Spanish hands for nearly 300 years, and before this had Mesoamerican heritage.
The Spanish first arrived with Christopher Columbus’ expedition of 1502. Before this the land was inhabited by indigenous people linked to the Aztec and Maya civilizations that dominated the continent. Nicaragua was left alone by the Spanish for nearly 20 years, until the first attempt to conquer the country in 1520. It was not until 1524 that the country was colonized by the Conquistador, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who is the founder of Nicaragua. The towns of Granada and Leon were founded at this time. There were many battles with the indigenous people, who attempted to drive the Spanish out, but ultimately the colonizing force enslaved most of the population for cheap labor; tragically many died out from infectious diseases brought from Europe that they had never been exposed to (including a strain of the common cold).
Spain had not dominated the whole area that is modern Nicaragua, and Great Britain claimed the Caribbean facing Mosquito Coast in 1665 to serve their naval and trade purposes in the region. The Mosquito Coast contained what is part of modern day Honduras, and they delegated it first to the northern neighbor of Nicaragua, before finally ceding it to them in 1860, although it remained an autonomous area until 1894. Meanwhile, Nicaragua had broken free of Spanish rule in 1823, before becoming a fully independent nation in 1838. Throughout the 19th century Nicaragua drew in many immigrants from Europe, mostly from Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, forming a diverse social and cultural mix that makes up the Nicaragua of today.
During the 19th century, Nicaragua also missed out on added fame and global importance by a curious twist of fate; there had been many discussions by Western governments about constructing a shipping canal through the country, thus linking up the two major oceans of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and speeding up trade routes. However, by 1899 construction of this trans-Central America aquatic thoroughfare had commenced in the country of Panama to the south. Indeed, foreign powers involvement in Nicaragua affairs dominated the land throughout the 19th century, and continued into the 20th. By 1912 the US military had occupied Nicaragua (as part of the overarching Banana Wars), and this lasted until 1933.
The US withdrawal was partly due to the resistance headed by General Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led a six-year guerrilla war against the US marines and the Nicaraguan ‘puppet’ government between 1927 and 1933. Sandino has gone down as an extremely popular figure in Nicaragua’s history, and at the time he was given top office in the government of the newly liberated Nicaragua. Rivalry between himself and another leader of the country, Anastasio Somoza García, who was installed by the American government, saw Sandino assassinated in 1934, on Somoza’s orders. Somoza and his family then went on to form Nicaragua’s longest dictatorship, for 43 years until 1979.
By 1961, opposition to the Somoza dynasty had grown strong, and Carlos Fonseca looked back to the influences of the country’s greatest hero, and formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front, also known as the Sandinistas. Their revolutionary war lasted 18 years, until in 1979 they took power, supported by a huge element of the Nicaraguan populace, the powerful Catholic Church, and many neighboring governments, such as those of Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, and Venezuela. When forming the government they created a ‘junta’ of five leading Sandinista members, including most memorably Daniel Ortega. Nicaragua ran into trouble with the US administration during the 1980s, and the Reagan government assisted in the funding and formation of a counter-revolutionary group against the Sandinistas known as the Contras. Nicaragua effectively entered into a civil war for the next ten years. By 1990 Nicaragua had elected in its first anti-Sandinista government, and the country was changing and reshaping. However, in 2006, and again in 2011, Daniel Ortega was elected again as president by the people of Nicaragua.
Considering the migratory movements, Nicaraguan culture has strong elements of European culture, although it has maintained some indigenous feel. More so on the Pacific coast, Nicaraguan folklore, music, and religious traditions are deeply influenced by Spanish heritage. Interestingly, on the Caribbean side that is known as the Mosquito Coast there is more of a British influence akin to that in other countries of the Caribbean, and English is the most widely spoken language here. You will also hear some indigenous languages being spoken around the Mosquito Coast, most of which were more or less wiped out in the west and replaced by Spanish. Most people in Nicaragua are Mestizo, European mixed in with the native blood of the region.
You can find out more about Nicaragua’s fascinating history by visiting the National Museum in Managua, which documents a great deal of the country’s history from ancient times until present day, and holds some pre-Colombian artifacts. Another interesting pre-historic museum is the Acahualinca Footprints Museum outside Managua where you can examine real footprints left behind by primeval ancestors that used to live by the lake. For more modern times, visit the Museum of the Revolution or the Sandino Museum, both in Managua, which tell the tale of the controversies the country faced for the best part of the 20th century.