This text is copyright © 2016 by WESTVIEW PRESS

Please be aware that this is not the final manuscript—some typos and grammatical errors may be present—but we hope that this advance look will help you determine whether the content and writing style will appeal to you and your students.


Sample Download

Download a PDF of this sample by clicking the thumbnail below:

Table of Contents




Acronyms and Abbreviations

Map of Nicaragua


1  Early History: The Pre-Columbian Period to the Mid-1930s

2  The Somoza Era and the Sandinista Revolution

3  The Sandinistas in Power

4  A Revolution at War

5  The Conservative Restoration

6  A Revolution Returns

Annotated Sources in English




When a nation-state is subjected to the prolonged external interference of a regional hegemon—no matter how well intentioned—its social, economic, and political systems are often hurt and deformed. Nicaragua shares with most Latin American countries a centuries-old experience of U.S. intervention and interference. But few countries have been so extensively and repeatedly intervened in as Nicaragua. This experience was reflected in the book’s previous subtitle, Living in the Shadow of the Eagle.

In this sixth edition we have tried to balance Nicaragua’s history of U.S. intervention and interference with the growing assertiveness of Nicaraguan domestic and foreign policy. The new chronological structure of the book still highlights Nicaragua’s relationship with “the Eagle,” but also stresses that which is inherently special about Nicaraguan politics.

This edition, like earlier ones, shows how U.S. interference inexorably led to the Sandinista Revolution of the late twentieth century. First, after the country’s formal independence in the nineteenth century, England and the United States squabbled over control of Nicaragua. At one point in the 1850s, U.S. filibuster William Walker actually took over the country and made himself president long enough to be recognized by Washington. Later, U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua for most of the period from 1912 to 1933. Then, the U.S.-appointed head of the U.S.-created “Nicaraguan” National Guard, Anastasio Somoza García, created a dynastic dictatorship that was passed on to two of his sons and lasted until 1979. During this time, the Somozas’ corrupt National Guard came to hold the distinction of being the most heavily U.S.-trained military establishment in Latin America. Finally, on July 19, 1979, a massive national uprising coordinated by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew West Point–educated dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle—often referred to as “the Last Marine.”

We also detail the history and nature of the subsequent nationalist government led by the FSLN (1979–1990). The government’s quite moderate social, economic, political, and international policies are carefully described. So, too, are the efforts by the U.S. government to bring this nationalistic experiment to an end. We show how U.S. programs of economic strangulation, low-intensity warfare, and disinformation were ultimately successful in so undermining the Sandinista experiment that it was voted out of power by a cowed and desperate electorate.

We then examine how the three administrations from 1990-2007—those of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños—owed their existence, in large part, to heavy-handed U.S. involvement in the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections. Once “in power,” these leaders were then pressured to implement economic and social policies approved of by Washington. The result of the new social and economic policies—enforced by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank (in which the United States has controlling interests)—was a reversal of the old Sandinista “logic of the majority.” Instead, the new administrations pursued neoliberal economic policies, which, though they eventually brought growth to the economy, created such a regressive distribution of income that Nicaragua’s place among the nations of the world on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (measuring social as well as economic factors) dropped from 60th at the time of Chamorro’s inauguration to 116th ten years later.

Early in the 21st century, however, Nicaragua experienced major changes that would make our book’s previous subtitle obsolete. In 2006, a disgruntled electorate voted former president Daniel Ortega back into power. True, his victory had been due in part to the fact that he had faced a divided opposition. But more important was the fact that the voters; who gave him his plurality victory longed for a return to economic and social policies based on the “logic of the majority.” In many respects, that’s exactly what they would get—and more so. As a result—and in spite of his frequently questionable interpretations of the law—the old caudillo would eventually enjoy the highest approval ratings in the hemisphere.

But what about the eagle to the north? Though Washington had, of course, tried to influence the outcome of the 2006 election, its post-Cold War, pro-democracy rhetoric essentially forced it to accept the results. Even more important, the mess the U.S. was creating in the Middle East had drawn its attention away from Latin America. No longer of much interest, Nicaragua could now begin Emerging from the Shadow of the Eagle.




Located at the geographic center of Central America, with Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, Nicaragua is the largest country in the region. Even so, its 57,143 square miles (148,000 square kilometers) of surface is only about that of Illinois (57,914 square miles), and its population of about 6.1 million actually made it only slightly more populous than Missouri (6.08 million) in 2015. Nevertheless, Nicaragua is an extremely interesting country with an importance that, at least for a while, far exceeded its size. Although there have been many revolts and coups d’état in Latin America, Nicaragua is one of only a handful of Latin American countries to have experienced a real social revolution, by which we mean a rapid process of change in social and economic as well as political structures.

The physical characteristics of Nicaragua have long drawn the attention and captured the imagination of outsiders. The country has abundant and rich agricultural lands, considerable potential for geothermal and hydroelectric energy, important timber and mineral resources, and conveniently located waterways that make Nicaragua an ideal site for an interoceanic canal.

Though located entirely within the tropics, this small country varies from one region to another in temperature and other climatic characteristics. Altitude, mountainous land barriers, and the differing meteorological influences of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean are the determining factors. As throughout the tropics, altitude rather than season determines temperature. On the lowlands of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, temperatures usually are quite high. In the central mountain ranges—or Cordilleras—that transverse the country from northwest to southeast, the climate is temperate. The mountains also influence Nicaraguan weather by acting as a natural barrier between the predominantly humid environment of the Caribbean and the seasonally dry patterns of the Pacific.

As a result of these factors, Nicaragua can be divided conceptually into three distinct regions: the Caribbean lowlands, the central highlands, and the western lowlands. Occupying nearly half of the country, the Caribbean lowlands are composed of hot, humid tropical rain forests, swamps, and savannahs. As the most appropriate type of agricultural activity in such an environment involves the primitive slash-and-burn technique, this vast region has never been able to support a large human population—at present less than 8 percent of the national total lives there.

Due to the more moderate and seasonal nature of rainfall in the central highlands and western lowlands, these regions are more inviting for commercial agriculture and human habitation. The temperate climate and rich soils of the highlands make an ideal environment for coffee cultivation. Indeed, some of the best coffee in the world comes from the highland department of Matagalpa. The western lowlands are appropriate for such crops as cotton, rice, and sugar. A chain of volcanoes running through the western lowlands from northwest to southeast enriches the soil of the region through frequent dustings of volcanic ash. The principal cities and most of the population of Nicaragua are in the western lowlands.

Another important physical factor is the position of certain large lakes and rivers. Even in the colonial period, explorers and settlers knew that interoceanic travel across Nicaragua was possible via water routes, taking advantage of the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and Lake Managua. The amount of overland travel required to complete the journey was small. As a result, Nicaraguan waterways were regularly used as commercial routes for transisthmian travel during the nearly three centuries of colonial rule. And in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the country’s obvious potential as a canal site made Nicaragua the object of frequent foreign intrigue and intervention.

Nicaragua is blessed not only in natural resources and environment but also in certain demographic, social, and cultural characteristics. First, unlike some Latin American countries, it is not overpopulated. Indeed, although it has an abundance of arable land, Nicaragua’s population is relatively small. Second, Nicaraguans are a congenial, outgoing people with every reason to be proud of things nica, such as their distinctive cookery, music, dialect, literary heritage, and sense of humor. Finally, the people are relatively homogeneous and culturally integrated. Practically all Nicaraguans are Catholic, speak Spanish, and share a common cultural heritage. The majority are mestizo, a mixture of Spanish and Indian. And though there are some “pure” whites, Indians, and blacks, racial prejudice has been less divisive than in other countries in the region. By comparison with many other Latin American societies, Nicaragua is relatively integrated, but important divisions remain nonetheless.

In the early years of independence, regional tensions dominated politics. Over the past century, the problem of regionalism has become steadily less important. The relocation of the national capital to Managua in 1852 and several generations of elite intermarriage have reduced the old rivalry between the colonial cities of León and Granada to a triviality. In addition, the construction of highways and railroads in the twentieth century tended to integrate other formerly remote areas. Perhaps the greatest single problem of regional integration relates to the much neglected Caribbean region, where large segments of the population still look upon the central government with distrust. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Sandinista government created the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).

That large but sparsely populated territory has five culturally and racially distinct peoples of African or indigenous origin, plus an ever-growing Spanish-mixed origin population that has emigrated from the Pacific, and a history of separateness that dates to pre-Columbian times. Unlike the original inhabitants of western Nicaragua, who were largely of Meso-American origin, the pre-Columbian peoples of the eastern coast were believed to have been descendants of immigrants from South America. Later, during the colonial period, when the region fell under the control of the British, English-speaking black slaves were introduced into the region. As a result of these factors, most of the people there speak English and/or indigenous languages rather than Spanish, are Protestant rather than Catholic, and have a variety of cultural traditions distinct from those of the country’s Hispanic majority.

By far the most serious dimension of social cleavage in Nicaragua is that of class. Before the revolution, there was a very wide gap in the standard of living between the privileged top 20 percent of the population and the impoverished 80 percent. As elsewhere in Latin America, the usual European and North American class categories were inadequate to describe the Nicaraguan class structure. The problem lay in the fact that although the bulk of the privileged class could be described as belonging to a “middle group” or “middle sector” by virtue of occupation and standard of living, they were definitely not a distinct “middle class.” Rather than having their own set of values and distinct group identification, members of the middle sector tended to mimic and identify with the tiny upper class. The real distinguishing factor in Nicaragua was whether one worked with one’s hands. Quite simply, 80 percent did and 20 percent did not. Since any physical work was viewed as degrading, the privileged minority was accustomed to hiring lower-class individuals at very low pay to cook their meals, care for their children, clean their homes, tend their yards, shine their shoes, and tote their luggage. This was the “natural” order of things. And whereas la sociedad, the people of the upper class or high society, often looked down on members of the middle sector, there was much less distance between the two privileged groups than between them and the impoverished majority.

In spite of its human and natural potential, Nicaragua is a poor country, and the majority of the people have endured great oppression throughout history. Before the 1979 revolution, in the late 1970s, the annual gross national product (GNP) per capita was only a little over US$800. Moreover, this statistic obscures the fact that income in Nicaragua was so unevenly distributed that 50 percent of the people probably had an annual disposable income of only $200. The average citizen lived in inadequate housing, ate poorly, and prior to the revolution, had little access to education, health care, or other public services. In 1979 the estimated life expectancy at birth for the average Nicaraguan was fifty-three years—ten years less than the average for Central America and eighteen years less than the average for the Latin American nation with the greatest longevity, Cuba.[1]

Like most other Latin American countries, Nicaragua experienced tremendous demographic change in the twentieth century. Population growth rates soared, the median age dropped to around fifteen, and there was a population shift away from the country toward the urban areas. In 1900, fewer than one in every three Nicaraguans lived in towns and cities of 1,000 inhabitants or more. By 1980, however, approximately half were urban dwellers. Since birthrates in the cities are lower than those in the country, the urbanization of Nicaragua appears to have been essentially the product of rural to urban migration. People were leaving the countryside. They were motivated on the one hand by “push” factors, such as land concentration, seasonal unemployment, and inhumane rural working conditions. Although the new government began to alleviate these problems by the early 1980s, the activities of the contras soon provided another powerful incentive for rural folk to flee to more protected urban areas. On the other hand, the cities exercised a certain “pull” by offering somewhat better health care and educational opportunities and the illusion of a better standard of living.

Urbanization has had some important effects on Nicaragua. In a very real sense, it made possible the Sandinista Revolution (1979–1990). Decades of government corruption and insensitivity in the face of the miserable condition of many poor urban dwellers throughout the country provided a powerful incentive for the urban insurrection. Without mass urban participation, the small Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) army in the field would surely have had a much more difficult time defeating the murderous National Guard. Another effect of urbanization—one with which both the revolutionary and subsequent governments had to come to grips—is the maldistribution of the workforce. Throughout its period in power, the Sandinista government was faced paradoxically with manpower shortages in rural areas and massive unemployment in the cities. This problem is bound to plague the post-Sandinista governments, too, for the foreseeable future.

Nicaragua’s social conditions and structures have much more in common with the rest of Latin America than it does in many aspects of culture. This is not particularly surprising, since most social phenomena are at least partly the product of fairly universal economic and political factors. Nicaragua shares with the other Latin American countries the twin legacies of Iberian colonialism and dependent capitalist “development.” Throughout Latin America, the human exploitation and rigid social stratification institutionalized during the colonial era were intensified by the income-concentrating tendencies of modern dependent capitalism.

In the Eagle’s Shadow

This book deals with the history of the Nicaraguan people and their social, economic, and political reality, past and present. It also examines the programs and policies—domestic and foreign—of the revolutionary government. The themes of elite exploitation, foreign manipulation, national resistance, revolutionary redirection, and counterrevolutionary resurgence receive special attention. We hope this approach will help the reader not only to appreciate the origins of the revolution and the various programs that the revolutionary government implemented but also to understand the social polarization, bitterness, opportunism, and cynicism that set in during the period that followed the end of that unusual experiment.

The roots of Nicaragua’s problem lie in a phenomenon that many social scientists refer to as dependency. Most countries in the world are dependent to one degree or another on other countries. Interdependence does not necessarily imply dependency. Dependency refers to a specific situation in which the economy of a weak country is externally oriented and the government is controlled by national and/or international elites or classes that benefit from this economic relationship. Whereas the dominant elites in an industrial country usually have an interest in maintaining a healthy society and, therefore, a citizenry capable of consuming at high levels, the rulers of a dependent society have no such interest because their markets are largely external. For them, the common citizen is important not as a potential consumer but rather as a source of cheap and easily exploitable labor. In such societies the means of production and income tend increasingly to be concentrated in a few hands. Though impressive growth in the GNP often occurs, significant benefits almost never “trickle down” to the people, no matter how long the process goes on and no matter how much development takes place.[2]

Except briefly during the Sandinista Revolution (1979–1990), Nicaragua has been an extreme case of this common phenomenon. From the days of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, the Nicaraguan economy had always been externally oriented, and the people who exercised power had been the beneficiaries of this relationship. First, hundreds of thousands of Indians were exported as slaves. Later, when that “resource” was used up, the elites exported timber, beef, and hides. During the late nineteenth century, coffee became an important product on the world market. In the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War, the country developed a diversified repertoire of exports ranging from cotton, coffee, and sugar to beef and gold. Throughout Nicaraguan history, a small elite controlled most of the means of production and garnered most of the benefits. The country’s rulers—whether openly dictatorial or ostensibly democratic—almost always governed on behalf of the privileged few.

Paralleling this history of domestic exploitation—and frequently an essential ingredient of it—was a history of foreign intervention and control. During the colonial period, the Spanish faced sporadic challenges from the British government and English pirates for control of Nicaraguan territory. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the country was actually ruled by a U.S. citizen for a brief period. In the twentieth century, the U.S. government imposed its dominion over Nicaragua first by direct armed intervention (from 1912 to 1925 and from 1926 to 1933), later through the client dictatorships of the Somoza family (from 1936 to 1979), and finally through subservient conservative democracies (from 1990 to 2007).

Yet if dependency, exploitation, and mass deprivation constitute recurrent themes in Nicaraguan history, so, too, do the ideas of nationalism and popular resistance. Nicaraguan history and folklore are replete with nationalist heroes and martyrs: the Indian cacique (“chief”), Diriangén, who fought against the Spanish at the outset of the colonial period; Andrés Castro, who took a stand against the forces of the North American filibuster-president, William Walker, in the mid-nineteenth century; the liberal dictator José Santos Zelaya, who defied British and U.S. imperial designs at the turn of the century; Benjamín Zeledón and Augusto César Sandino, who fought the U.S. occupiers in the early twentieth century; and Carlos Fonseca Amador, a cofounder of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN), who died in the guerrilla struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in 1976.

By their actions, these men preserved and reinforced in the Nicaraguan people a stubborn strain of irrepressibility and national pride. Finally, catalyzed into action early in 1978 by the brutal assassination of a prominent and beloved opposition newspaper editor, Nicaraguans of all classes rose up against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the system he represented. Eighteen months later, at a cost of approximately 50,000 dead, the Nicaraguan revolution had triumphed. A brutal and selfish dictator had been overthrown, and a revolutionary government representing the aspirations of countless generations of Nicaraguans had finally come to power.

The Nicaraguan people were aware of the historic significance of their victory. In spite of the tremendous cost of the war, the mood in the country in July 1979 was one of near universal ecstasy. On July 20, the largest crowd ever assembled in Central America greeted the new government in the central plaza. A few days later, one young woman, after detailing the loss of various family members, exclaimed, “That [the death and destruction] doesn’t matter. The revolution triumphed! I feel as if I had just been born! Like a little baby with a whole life ahead of me!”

In a sense, the people of Nicaragua had just been born. Almost immediately the new government took steps to reverse the centuries-old patterns of elite control and dominance. A substantial segment of the economy was nationalized, exports were put under strict government control, a massive literacy campaign was launched, and new ideas in health, housing, and public education were generated and put into practice. However, these changes alarmed conservative politicians and policy makers in Washington, who, two years later, began to sponsor a counterrevolutionary war and implement other destabilizing policies in a broad program of “low-intensity conflict” against Nicaragua. These efforts eventually caused so much death, destruction, and economic hardship that paradoxically, in 1990, a Nicaraguan population desperately craving peace and an end to its economic woes voted into office a conservative government openly sponsored by the United States.

From 1990 to 2006, under heavy U.S. pressure, conservative governments dismantled the social advances of the revolution, implementing neoliberal policies popular in Washington, D.C. By the mid-2000s, Nicaraguans were increasingly disappointed with these policies and, in 2006, returned former FSLN president Daniel Ortega to the nation’s helm. Ortega’s return to office, though not without its controversies, was shortly followed by a new administration in the U.S. that appeared to have little interest in meddling in Nicaraguan affairs. Without the specter of the Cold War looming over it and a with a distant U.S. administration in office, would this time be different? Could Nicaragua emerge from the eagle’s shadow?


[1] World Population Data Sheet (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 1979).

[2] For a good discussion of dependency, see Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, “Alternative Perspectives of Development and Underdevelopment in Latin America,” in their edited work Latin America: The Struggle with Dependency and Beyond (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974), 1–87.

Chapter 1

Early History: The Pre-Columbian Period to the Mid-1930s

The history of Nicaragua is among the most turbulent and interesting in all of the Americas. If, on the one hand, it ffeatures incredible elite exploitation, mass suffering, and foreign interference, it also includes a significant element of popular resistance, national pride, and human nobility.

The Pre-Columbian Period

Even before the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, the territory that we now call Nicaragua was not a land of human tranquility. A demographic outpost of various Meso- and South American Indian groups, Nicaragua was an ethnically complex region. The most obvious dissimilarities were between the various indigenous tribes related to South American peoples who lived in the rain forests and savannahs to the east of the Central Cordillera and the Meso-American groups that inhabited the more hospitable western regions. The former, though primarily hunters and gatherers, also engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture, as do some of their descendants today. The more culturally sophisticated inhabitants of the western regions, on the other hand, were sedentary agriculturalists who raised corn, beans, and vegetables and lived in established towns with populations sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands. The western tribes spoke a variety of Meso-American languages reflecting several distinct waves of settlement from what is today Mexico and northern Central America. Though the western Indians rarely had anything to do with their more primitive counterparts across the mountains, contact and conflict among the tribes of the west were common. Warfare, slavery, and involuntary tribute by the weak to the strong were among the basic ingredients of pre-Columbian life in the west. In a sense, then, many of the traits that characterized colonial rule existed long before the first conquistadores set foot in the land.

The Colonial Period: 1522–1822

The Spanish conquest of Nicaragua was an extension of the colonization of Panama, which began in 1508. Plagued by internal conflict, disease, and Panama’s inhospitable natural environment, the Spaniards were not in a position to expand their control to the immediate north for well over a decade. It was only in 1522 that Gil González, commanding a small band of explorers under contract to the Spanish crown, finally set foot in Nicaragua. The purpose of his expedition—like that of other conquistadores—was to convert souls and to obtain gold and other riches from the native population. Considering that he managed to convert close to 30,000 Indians, carry off nearly 90,000 pesos worth of gold, and discover what appeared to be a water link between the Caribbean and the Pacific, González’s venture into Nicaragua was a clear success.

When the Spaniards arrived in western Nicaragua in the early sixteenth century, they found a relatively advanced agrarian society. The approximately 1 million native inhabitants of the region—descendants of colonizers and refugees from the Mayan and Aztec civilizations to the north—lived in villages and cities ranging in population from a few hundred to tens of thousands. This was a feudal society, with chiefs, subchiefs, and commoners, in which tribute flowed from the lowly to the lofty. However, land was held collectively and each inhabitant of the villages and cities had access to a designated plot nearby. The rich soils of the region yielded agricultural products in abundance ranging from corn, cassava, and chili to beans, tobacco, and a variety of vegetables. Each population center had one or more local markets at which agricultural products were sold. Though periodic crop failure and intertribal warfare undoubtedly inflicted occasional acute hardship, the economy in general was relatively self-sufficient and self-contained. The market system, intraregional trade, and general access to rich agricultural lands provided the material wherewithal to satisfy basic human needs.

Though at first submissive, some Indians eventually decided to resist the bearded strangers. One of these was the legendary chief Diriangén, from the region around what is today the city of Granada. Several days after an initial meeting with González, in which he promised to bring his people to the Spaniard for conversion, Diriangén returned to attack the outsiders with several thousand warriors, causing them to retreat overland to the Pacific Ocean. To make matters worse, before they reached the safety of their Pacific fleet, González and his men were also set upon by warriors under the command of another chief, Nicarao. It was 1524 before the Spanish, under Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, returned to Nicaragua and imposed their control over the region.

The early years of the colonial period had a profound and lasting impact on the nature of Nicaraguan society and politics. The most important and tragic result of the conquest was demographic—the near total destruction of the large Indian population of the region. Incredible as it seems, it appears that Spanish chroniclers and early historians may have been fairly accurate when they reported that an original native population of around a million was reduced to tens of thousands within a few decades of the arrival of Gil González.[1] This incredible depopulation was the result of several factors. The outright killing of natives in battle, probably accounting for the demise of a few thousand, was the least significant factor. Death by exposure to diseases brought to the New World by the Spaniards was much more important. The fact that Indians had little natural immunity to such common ailments as measles and influenza resulted in an immediate and dramatic reduction in their numbers throughout the Americas. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan Indians perished of disease within a few decades.

Slavery was a third important factor that reduced Nicaragua’s native population. Claims by writers of those times that 400,000 to 500,000 natives were gathered and exported into bondage during the first two decades of the colonial period seem to stand up to close scholarly investigation. The archives of the times show that there were enough slave ships of sufficient capacity making frequent enough trips to have accomplished this exportation.[2] The demand for slaves throughout the Spanish colonies—and especially in Peru in the 1530s—was very high. Though the Spanish themselves captured some slaves, many more were turned over to them by “friendly” Indian chiefs as a form of obligatory tribute. The life expectancy of these unfortunate souls was short. Many—sometimes 50 percent or more—died during the sea journey from Nicaragua to their intended destination. Most of the rest perished in slavery within a few years. As a result, supply never caught up with demand and, although the Spanish crown tried unsuccessfully to stop this lucrative trafficking in human life, the slave boom came to an end only when the resource was all but depleted.

By the 1540s the Indian population of western Nicaragua appears to have plummeted to between 30,000 and 40,000—and it declined gradually for several decades thereafter. The result of this demographic holocaust is that Nicaragua today, instead of being a predominantly Indian country, is essentially mestizo in racial type and almost exclusively Spanish in language and other aspects of culture. Though most of the cities and towns of the country bear Indian names reflecting the culture of their founders, few of the people who walk their streets today are aware of what the names mean or who the original inhabitants were.

Additionally, the near total destruction of the native population through death by contact with European diseases and the export of slaves created a severe manpower shortage that all but destroyed the labor-intensive agricultural base of the region’s economy. To be sure, some lands remained under intensive cultivation throughout the colonial period, providing some export products such as corn and cacao, as well as food to meet the region’s much reduced internal demand. But for the most part, the rich lands of Nicaragua reverted to jungle or were exploited for the raising of cattle to produce hides, tallow, and salted meat for sale to other colonies.

Another legacy of the colonial period—this one primarily political—was the rivalry between the principal cities of León, to the northwest of Lake Managua, and Granada, on the northern shore of Lake Nicaragua. Though both were founded by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524, they differed from each other in important cultural, social, and economic characteristics. As it was originally felt that Granada would be the political capital of the colony, the more “aristocratic” conquistadores chose to settle there. Spanish soldiers of lower rank and social status were packed off to León to defend the colony against incursions and claims by other Spanish adventurers from the north. As it turned out, however, León, not Granada, became the administrative center of the country, and Granada found itself forced to submit to the rule of a series of corrupt administrators based in what it considered a culturally inferior city. The Catholic Church hierarchy, though stationed in the administrative center in León, sympathized with the aristocrats in Granada. There were significant differences in the economic interests of the two cities. The wealth of the self-styled aristocrats in Granada was based largely on cattle and on trade with the Caribbean via Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River. Though cattle also were important in the region around León, many of the Leonese were also involved in such middle-class occupations as shipbuilding, the procurement and sale of pine products, and government service. International trade in León was oriented almost entirely toward the Pacific. Mutual jealousy and suspicion between the Leonese and Granadinos festered in a controlled form until independence allowed it to boil over into open warfare.

Curiously, the most flamboyant and prosperous years of the colonial period in Nicaragua were the first few decades, the time of the conquest and the slave trade. Once the Indian population had been depleted, the colony became an underpopulated backwater. Indeed, the severe manpower shortage forced some gold mines to close and caused landowners increasingly to switch from labor-intensive crop production to cattle raising. The economic foundation of this now underdeveloped colony was adequate to support the lifestyle of the landowning aristocrats in Granada and the merchants of León, but insufficient to provide for general prosperity.

To make matters worse, from the mid-seventeenth century on, the debilitated colony was frequently plagued by pirate attacks. The underpopulation of the colony and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the privileged classes of León and Granada made Nicaragua a prime target for attacks by pirates from England and elsewhere in Europe. As a result, trade via both the Caribbean and the Pacific was restricted and at times interrupted. By the mid-eighteenth century, the British, who were openly supportive of the pirates, became so bold as to occupy and fortify parts of the Caribbean coast. They maintained some claim over that region for well over a century.

Within a few decades the economy essentially had become externally oriented. The tiny Spanish elite accrued wealth through the sale of corn, cacao, and cattle products, the exploitation of forest products, shipbuilding, and intermittent gold mining—all to meet external rather than internal demands. Frequent pirate attacks further contributed to the region’s status as a colonial backwater. The process of underdevelopment had begun.


Nicaragua won its independence in stages: first as a part of the Mexican empire of Agustín de Iturbide in 1822, then as a member of the Central American Federation in 1823, and finally as an individual sovereign state in 1838. Throughout this period, the Leonese, who eventually came to call themselves Liberals, and the Granadinos, who championed the Conservative cause, squabbled and fought with each other over the control of their country. Mutual resentment between the two cities had flared up in 1811, a decade before the expulsion of the Spanish. When León, after first leading Granada into an insurrection against the crown, reversed its position and supported the royal authorities, it left the Granadinos in miserable isolation to receive the brunt of Spanish revenge. The end of colonial rule in Central America simply added to the woes of the common Nicaraguan, for it meant the removal of the one external force that had kept the elites of León and Granada from sending their people into open warfare against each other. After 1838, the chaos and interregional warfare intensified. Presidents came and went as one group or the other imposed temporary control.

The partial interruption of foreign dominance resulting from the disintegration and eventual collapse of Spanish colonial rule in the early nineteenth century was reflected in important changes in the Nicaraguan economic system. It is true that British traders were quick to provide the landed elite with an outlet for their traditional export products, but the relative political anarchy and international isolation of the first half century of independence also encouraged the growth of a number of other types of economic activity. There was a rapid growth in the number of self-sufficient peasant farms or huertas. A fragile indigenous marketing system was reestablished. And in the villages and cities, various types of cottage industries began to develop. For most of the Nicaraguan people this economic system, though certainly not highly developed, was fairly benign. Although he may have been exaggerating slightly, one observer writing in the early 1870s noted that “peonage such as is seen in Mexico and various parts of Spanish America does not exist in Nicaragua. . . . Any citizen whatever can set himself up on a piece of open land . . . to cultivate plantain and corn.”[3]

This break in foreign dominance would not last long. With Spain out of the way, other foreign powers began to interfere in Nicaraguan affairs, with the objective of dominating the interoceanic transit potential of the infant country. The British had long maintained a presence on the east coast. In the eighteenth century they had actually set up a form of protectorate over the Miskito Indians in that region. In the 1840s U.S. expansion to the Pacific coast of North America and the discovery of gold in California stimulated intense U.S. interest in Nicaragua as the site for an interoceanic transit route. Therefore, when the British moved to consolidate their control over the Miskito Coast by seizing the mouth of the San Juan River, the United States became alarmed and protested vigorously to the British. In 1850 the two countries attempted to diffuse the potential for conflict by signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in which both sides forswore any unilateral attempt to colonize Central America or to dominate any transisthmian transit route.

The Walker Affair

The treaty, however, failed to bring peace to Nicaragua. By the mid-1850s the two emerging themes of Nicaraguan political life—foreign interference and interregional warfare—converged to produce an important turning point and one of the most bizarre episodes in Central American history: the Walker affair. In spite of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, the clearly conflicting interests of Britain and the United States in the area had kept tension between the two countries at a high level. Both countries frequently took sides in Nicaraguan domestic politics—the British tending to support the Conservatives, and the Americans, the Liberals. Finally, in 1854, the Liberals, who were at the time losing in a struggle to unseat the Conservatives, turned for help to a San Francisco–based soldier of fortune named William Walker.[4]

Though often depicted as a simple villain, Walker was an extremely interesting and complex individual. The son of a pioneer family from Tennessee, he graduated from college and earned a medical degree while still in his teens. He then pursued a law degree, practiced that profession for a short while, turned to journalism, and finally became a soldier of fortune—all before he had reached his mid-thirties. In some senses he was an idealist. As a journalist he championed the cause of abolition, and like many people of that era, he was a firm believer in manifest destiny—the imperialist expansion of Yankee ideals, by force if necessary, beyond the boundaries of the United States.

In accordance with his pact with the Liberals, Walker sailed in June 1855 from California to Nicaragua with a small band of armed Californians. After some initial military setbacks, he and his Liberal allies took Granada in October and set up a coalition government under a Conservative, Patricio Rivas. Almost from the start, the real power in the government was Walker himself, who rapidly began to implement a series of Liberal developmentalist ideas that included the encouragement of foreign investment and the increased exploitation of Nicaraguan resources. In July 1856, Walker formally took over the presidency.

Initially Walker seemed to have at least the tacit support of the U.S. government. His entrance into the Nicaraguan civil war met with no serious resistance from Washington, which was quick to recognize the puppet government of Patricio Rivas. However, the British and the governments of the other Central American countries were appalled by this bald-faced Yankee attempt to create a U.S. outpost on the Central American isthmus. And many Nicaraguans of both parties became increasingly alarmed at the foreign takeover of their country. This was especially true in 1856 when Walker, the dictator-president, legalized slavery and declared English to be the official language. As a result, it was not long before the onset of a war in which Nicaraguans of both parties and, at one time or another, troops from all of the Central American republics (armed and backed financially by England, certain South American countries, and a variety of public and private interests in the United States) fought against the hated foreigners. In the spring of 1857, the U.S. government intervened to arrange a truce and to allow Walker to surrender and leave Nicaragua. (Walker returned to Central America in yet another filibustering attempt in 1860, but he was captured by the British and turned over to the Hondurans, who quickly tried him and put him before a firing squad.) So important is the war against Walker in Nicaraguan patriotic lore that the independence day that nicas celebrate on September 14 is a commemoration of a decisive battle at San Jacinto against Walker and his U.S. troops.

The Conservative Period: 1857–1893

For more than three decades following the defeat of Walker, the country enjoyed relative peace and stability. True, several thousand Indians lost their lives in 1881 in the tragic War of the Comuneros—a rebellion aimed at halting the takeover of their ancestral lands by wealthy coffee growers. But the elites of Nicaragua were temporarily at peace during this period. As a result of their association with the U.S. filibuster, the Liberals had been discredited. The Conservatives, therefore, were able to rule, without interruption and with only sporadic and halfhearted resistance from their traditional adversaries, from 1857 to 1893. A new constitution was adopted in 1857. Thereafter, “elected” Conservative presidents succeeded each other at regular four-year intervals, breaking the old tradition of continuismo (an individual’s self-perpetuation in power). The country was also blessed in this period with a relative lull in foreign interference, which came as a result of the completion in 1855 of a transisthmian railroad in Panama that temporarily took the pressure off Nicaragua as a focal point of interoceanic transit. And finally, during these decades, Managua, which had become the capital in 1852, grew and prospered as a result of a coffee boom that would have a broad impact on the Nicaraguan economy.

The Coffee Boom and Primitive
Dependent Capitalism

The relative isolation of Nicaragua and the gradual development of an internally oriented economy were abruptly interrupted by the coffee boom that hit Central America in the late 1800s. Coffee was probably introduced into Nicaragua as an exotic curiosity in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. By 1848 it was being produced commercially on a small scale. In the early 1850s it was a favorite beverage of the 20,000 or so foreign passengers each month who utilized Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company route across Nicaragua on their way to California.[5] But it was not until the 1870s that coffee really came into its own. By then the international demand was so strong that the country’s ruling elite were motivated to monopolize and redirect much of Nicaragua’s productive capacity toward the cultivation of that one export product.

Two factors of crucial importance to coffee production are fertile land in the right climatological setting and a large, essentially unskilled workforce that can be called upon to offer its services for a few months during the harvest season. In Nicaragua in the early 1870s both were in short supply. The coffee culture had already moved into most of the exploitable lands around Managua, and other promising lands in the northern highlands were occupied by independent peasants and members of Indian communes engaged in traditional subsistence farming. And as the rural masses had access to their own land, there was no pool of vulnerable and easily exploitable peons.

The traditional elite solved both of these problems with ingenuity and speed. In the late 1870s and 1880s they took the land they coveted and created the workforce they needed through a combination of chicanery, violence, and self-serving legislation. Individual squatter farmers and Indians working the land through communal arrangements were extremely vulnerable to legal manipulation because, in most cases, these people held rights to the land by tradition rather than by legal title. For several decades the agrarian elite had attempted, through legislation, to abolish communal and squatter landholdings. In 1877, under the presidency of Conservative Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, an agrarian law was passed that outlawed communal holdings and gave individuals the right to buy “unoccupied” national lands. The resulting massive dislocation of Indian communal farmers and individual peasants led to the War of the Comuneros of 1881 in the Pacific and north-central regions of Nicaragua. After a series of cruel battles in which as many as 5,000 Indians may have been killed,[6] the new order was imposed on the region. Coffee was free to expand into new land.

The laws that forced the small farmer off the land also helped create a vulnerable rural proletariat. To reinforce this phenomenon, the elite-controlled governments also passed laws against “vagrancy” and the cultivation of plantain—the banana-like staple food of the peasants.[7] Obliged to buy staples at high prices in the commissaries of the plantations where many now worked, former peasants were forced to rely on credit from these company stores. Before long they were trapped into a very effective system of debt peonage. In less than a decade, the self-sufficient peasantry of a large section of the country had been converted into a dependent and oppressed rural proletariat. Most rural Nicaraguans began to lead a life of insecurity, fluctuating between the good times of the coffee harvest, from November through February, and the hardship and unemployment of the tiempo muerto (dead period) between harvests.

The growth of the coffee culture also marked the birth of dependent capitalism in Nicaragua. Before this period the economy was based on traditional cattle ranching and subsistence peasant and communal farming. Neither involved a significant use of capital. Coffee, however, was different. First, years before the first harvest, the planter had to make a significant investment in preparing the land and planting and nurturing the seedlings. When the trees began to bear fruit, it was necessary to spend considerable sums of money on manpower and machinery. A large workforce was needed for the handpicking of the coffee berries, and more people and machinery were employed in weighing, pulping, drying, sorting, sacking, and transporting the product.

It is not surprising, then, that although some small farmers converted to coffee bean production, most of those who went into this new enterprise were large landholders, prosperous commercial speculators, and, in some cases, foreigners. The Conservative oligarchy used its control of the legislative process to pass the Subsidy Laws of 1879 and 1889, which gave planters of all nationalities cultivating more than 5,000 trees a subsidy of 5 cents per tree.[8] Among other things, these laws encouraged foreign colonists to seek their fortunes on the fertile slopes of the central highlands. With them came an infusion of new capital.

Once established as the cornerstone of the Nicaraguan economy, coffee held that position until the 1950s. This is not to say that other forms of agriculture were completely wiped out. Some peasants chose to flee the new coffee zones entirely, moving on to subsistence farming on land in other regions that were not yet coveted by the landed elite. In addition, the traditional precapitalist cattle hacienda (ranch) of the lowlands, though now less important, was by no means completely eclipsed. But overall, coffee was clearly the mainstay of the country’s economy.

With the growth of the coffee industry, Nicaragua developed what is often loosely referred to as a “banana republic” economy—one based heavily on a single primary export product. Typically, the benefits of the system flowed heavily to a small domestic elite and its foreign trading partners. Taxes on coffee profits, which might have helped redistribute income to the impoverished majority, were virtually nonexistent. The common citizen was an abused instrument of production rather than a beneficiary of the system. The Nicaraguan economy also became subject to periodic “booms” and “busts” produced by the fluctuating world price of its single product. In good times the economy grew and coffee planters imported luxury goods and machinery, invested money abroad, and educated their children in the United States and Europe. President José Santos Zelaya, discussed below, was educated in France. The first of the Somoza dictators (discussed in Chapter 2) received his U.S. education as a result of such a boom. In bad times, such as those following the onset of the 1929 Depression, coffee prices plummeted and the economy stagnated. Planters hunkered down, lived off savings and investments, and imported fewer luxury items and less machinery.

Zelaya and Zeledón

In 1893 the Liberals, under the leadership of José Santos Zelaya, joined dissident Conservatives in ousting the Conservative government of Roberto Sacasa. Three months later, they overthrew the dissident Conservative whom they had initially placed in power and replaced him with Zelaya himself. For the next sixteen years Zelaya was not only the dictator of Nicaragua but also one of the most important figures in Central American regional politics.

Zelaya was a controversial and unjustly maligned figure. He is commonly described in U.S. textbooks on Central and Latin American history as a corrupt, brutal, cruel, greedy, egocentric, warmongering tyrant. In 1909 President William Howard Taft denounced him as “a blot on the history of Nicaragua.” Careful examination of the facts, however, reveals that this depiction has much less to do with the reality of Zelaya’s rule than with official U.S. frustration and resentment over the Liberal dictator’s stubborn defense of national and Central American interests in the face of burgeoning U.S. interference in the region’s affairs following the Spanish-American War.[9]

Zelaya would be described more accurately as a relatively benevolent, modernizing, authoritarian nationalist. Born in Managua in 1853, the son of a Liberal coffee planter, he was educated at the Instituto de Oriente in Granada. At sixteen he was sent to France for further studies, and there he became imbued with the positivist philosophies of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. When he returned to his homeland at nineteen, he immediately entered politics. Subsequently, as the young mayor of Managua, he set up a lending library and stocked it with the works of the French philosophers.

There is no doubt that, as dictator of Nicaragua, Zelaya used whatever means necessary to keep himself in power. Democracy did not exist; freedom of the press was often curtailed. It is also true that Zelaya was certainly no great social reformer. But there is little evidence of his alleged cruelty. His constitution of 1893 abolished the death penalty, and he apparently made a practice of granting amnesty, after a decent interval, to captured opposition insurgents.

What is more important, Zelaya initiated many reforms in Nicaragua. In the first place, he worked to secularize Nicaraguan society; his constitution separated church and state and guaranteed freedom of religion and free secular education, and he financed the opening of new schools and the training of Nicaraguans abroad. By the end of his rule, the government was devoting approximately 10 percent of the budget to education.

Like other Latin American positivist leaders of the time, he made a significant effort to modernize the economy. His government surveyed and opened new lands for the expansion of the coffee industry. It also fostered the collection and storage of information by setting up the National Archives and Museum, reorganizing the General Statistics Office, and conducting a national census. In addition, his government invested in the physical infrastructure of communication by purchasing steamships and building roads and telegraph lines. As a result of these modernizing efforts, there was, during the Zelaya period, a rapid increase in the production of such export commodities as coffee, bananas, timber, and gold. Zelaya helped the coffee industry by opening up “new” lands and improving Nicaragua’s transportation network. He also emphasized education, brought fiscal responsibility to the government, created the rudiments of a modern administrative structure, and insisted on national economic self-determination.

In foreign affairs, Zelaya worked to defend Nicaraguan interests and to promote Central American reunification. More effective in the former than in the latter, he is best known for his success in getting the British to withdraw once and for all from the Miskito Coast. Although they had essentially agreed to withdraw in the 1860 Treaty of Managua, they had not done so. In 1894, Zelaya sent troops to the city of Bluefields, accepted the Miskito king’s dubiously valid petition for incorporation, and expelled the protesting British consul from the territory. The British responded with a blockade of Nicaragua’s Pacific port, but the United States—anxious to enforce the Monroe Doctrine—pressured them to back down and to accept full Nicaraguan sovereignty over the disputed area.

Zelaya’s efforts at promoting Central American reunification, though unsuccessful, were significant. Capitalizing on a region-wide resurgence of Central American nationalism, stimulated in part by his own success in confronting the British on the Miskito Coast, Zelaya convened the Conference of Amapala in 1895, in which Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador agreed to form a confederation called the República Mayor (the Greater Republic). A diplomatic representative was dispatched to the United States and received by President Grover Cleveland, and a constitution for this larger political entity was written in 1898. Unfortunately, before it could go into effect, the incumbent government of El Salvador was overthrown and the new government withdrew from the union. The confederation subsequently collapsed.

Much is made in some accounts of the apparent fact that Zelaya was a disrupter of the peace in Central America. He did, indeed, invade neighboring Honduras on two occasions. However, it is equally true that he preferred to let the República Mayor collapse rather than send troops to El Salvador to hold it together by force. In addition, he settled boundary disputes with both of Nicaragua’s neighbors through arbitration rather than by force. In the case of the boundary dispute with Honduras, he peacefully accepted a settlement that went against Nicaragua’s claims.

Zelaya’s downfall in 1909 was largely the result of a mounting conflict with the United States. It is important to remember that in that country at the turn of the century, “imperialism” was not a dirty word. The Spanish-American War had given the United States a colonial empire, and many Americans felt that their country had a legitimate colonial role to play in Central America. Zelaya’s assertion as a regional leader and champion of Central American unity was, at least in part, a response to this threat—a response Washington resented. Zelaya also had the audacity to refuse to grant the United States canal-building rights that would have included U.S. sovereignty over certain Nicaraguan territory. As a result, the United States became involved in engineering Panamanian “independence” from Colombia and in 1903 signed the treaty it wanted with the new government it had helped create. A few years later, the Americans became alarmed at rumors that Zelaya was negotiating with the British and the Japanese to build a second—and potentially competitive—canal through Nicaragua.

Zelaya’s refusal to concede to the United States canal rights that would have diminished the economic and political sovereignty of his country and his subsequent negotiation with other powers for a more equitable canal treaty contributed to the U.S. decision to encourage, and then reinforce militarily, the Conservative rebellion of 1909. During the 1909 revolt in Bluefields, Zelaya’s forces made the tactical mistake of executing two confessed U.S. mercenaries. The United States used this incident as an excuse to sever diplomatic relations and to send troops to Bluefields to prevent the defeat of the Conservatives. Though he held on for a few more months, Zelaya was ultimately forced to accept the inevitable, to resign, and to spend the rest of his life in exile.

Before his resignation, Zelaya attempted to save the situation for his party by appointing a highly respected Liberal from León, Dr. José Madriz, to succeed him. The U.S. government, however, was determined that the Zelayista Liberals relinquish control. Washington refused to recognize the new government, and early in 1910, when Madriz’s troops succeeded in routing the rebel forces in an attempted thrust to the west and drove them back to Bluefields, the commander of U.S. forces in that town forbade government troops from attacking rebel positions. In the face of such foreign interference, it was impossible for the Liberals to win, much less to govern. On August 20, 1910, the Madriz government collapsed and was replaced by a puppet, pro-U.S. regime supported by the Conservatives and some opportunistic Liberal caudillos (strongmen).

For the next two years (1910–1912), the economic and political situation deteriorated rapidly. The rebellion had disrupted the planting of crops and disturbed other sectors of the economy, and although the Madriz government had left the national treasury with a favorable balance, the new government squandered this resource almost immediately and began wildly printing paper money. Washington arranged private bank loans to its new client regime, but much of the loan money almost immediately went into the pockets of corrupt politicians. It was necessary to renegotiate loans and to allow the United States to become involved in the supervision of customs collection and the management of payment of the foreign debt.

The abysmal situation into which the country had fallen offended the national pride of many Nicaraguans, among them a young Zelayista Liberal, Benjamín Zeledón. A teacher, newspaperman, and lawyer, Zeledón had served Zelaya’s government as a district judge in the newly liberated Caribbean territories, as an officer in the war with Honduras in 1907, as Nicaragua’s representative to the Central American Court of Justice, and finally, at the age of thirty, as minister of defense. Under the Madriz government, he had continued as minister of defense and been elevated to the rank of general of the armies. In July 1912, when a group of dissident Conservatives rebelled against puppet president Adolfo Díaz, Zeledón and a group of Liberals joined in the uprising to rid Nicaragua of “the traitors to the Fatherland.”

At first it appeared that the insurgents might win. Zeledón and his Liberal followers seized León and several other cities and cut communications to Managua. However, in the words of one U.S. observer of the time, “the U.S. could hardly permit the overthrow of the Conservative authorities. [If the rebels won] all of the efforts of the State Department to place Nicaragua on her feet politically and financially would have been useless, and the interests of the New York bankers . . . would be seriously imperiled.”[10] Therefore, under the old pretext of protecting U.S. lives and property, U.S. Marines were sent into Nicaragua. Though resistance by dissident Conservatives was quickly overcome, Zeledón not only rejected U.S. demands that he, too, surrender but also warned the U.S. commander that he, his superiors, and the “powerful nation” to which he belonged would bear the “tremendous responsibility and eternal infamy that History will attribute to you for having employed your arms against the weak who have been struggling for the reconquest of the sacred rights of [their] Fatherland.”[11]

Badly outnumbered by the combined U.S. and Nicaraguan government forces, Zeledón’s troops were besieged and defeated, and he was captured by Nicaraguan troops. Though the United States was in a position to save Zeledón’s life, Major Smedley D. Butler, in a telegram to his superiors, suggested that “through some inaction on our part someone might hang him.”[12] Butler’s advice was apparently taken, for, on the following day, the Conservative government announced that Zeledón had died in battle. Before the young patriot’s body was buried, it was dragged through the little hamlet of Niquinohomo. There, by historical coincidence, a short, skinny, seventeen-year-old boy was among those who witnessed government troops kicking the lifeless form. This seemingly insignificant teenager—who later commented that the scene had made his “blood boil with rage”—was Augusto César Sandino.

The U.S. Occupation, the National Guard,
and Sandino

For most of the following two decades, Nicaragua was subjected to direct foreign military intervention. U.S. troops were stationed there from 1912 to 1925 and again from 1926 to 1933, an intervention apparently motivated by a variety of concerns. Relatively unimportant, though not negligible, was the desire to protect U.S. investments. The involvement of U.S. bankers in Nicaragua has been mentioned. There was also a sincere, if naive, belief in some circles that U.S. involvement could somehow help bring democracy to the country. The most important motivations, however, seem to have been geopolitical. U.S. decision makers felt it imperative to maintain a stable pro-U.S. government in Nicaragua, a country that, in addition to being an ideal site for a second transisthmian waterway, was located in the center of the U.S. sphere of influence in Central America.

Nicaraguan History Mural. This mural in León represents key points in Nicaraguan history. In this image, the cannons represent the civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, the machetes refer to images of the assassination of Augusto César Sandino, and Sandino’s ever-present shadow looms tall. The checkered floor is an image from the dance hall where Somoza was assassinated by poet Rigoberto López Pérez in 1956, who wrote a letter to his mother saying that he wanted to “initiate the beginning of the end of this tyranny.” (Photo courtesy of Christine J. Wade.)

Nicaraguan History Mural. This mural in León represents key points in Nicaraguan history. In this image, the cannons represent the civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, the machetes refer to images of the assassination of Augusto César Sandino, and Sandino’s ever-present shadow looms tall. The checkered floor is an image from the dance hall where Somoza was assassinated by poet Rigoberto López Pérez in 1956, who wrote a letter to his mother saying that he wanted to “initiate the beginning of the end of this tyranny.” (Photo courtesy of Christine J. Wade.)

During the first occupation, from 1912 to 1925, the United States ran Nicaraguan affairs through a series of Conservative presidents—Adolfo Díaz, Emiliano Chamorro, and Diego Manuel Chamorro. The relationship was symbiotic. The United States needed the Conservatives, and the Conservatives—who had neither the military strength nor the popular backing to maintain themselves in power—needed the United States. They would never have succeeded in their rebellion against the central government in 1909, nor defeated Benjamín Zeledón’s nationalist forces in 1912, had it not been for direct U.S. military intervention. Accordingly, they learned to address their foreign protectors in a groveling and obsequious manner. For instance, after Zeledón’s defeat, a group of Conservatives of “the highest social, political, and financial standing” sent the local commander of the occupying Marines a message of thanks that was clearly tailored to appeal to the ethnocentric and chauvinistic interpretation of Central American reality prevalent in the United States at that time.

The lamentable situation of these countries, perturbed by constant uprisings, is all the sadder when we consider their proximity to the great American nation, which, founded on wise institutions and inspired by the spirit of liberty and justice, marches at the head of the destiny of humanity. Thus the presence of the American troops among us marks an era of peace for this Republic because she now has spread over us the protecting influence of her altruistic policy.[13]

The Conservative elite also ingratiated itself to the Americans by taking loans with private U.S. banks, allowing the occupiers to run many aspects of the country’s public finances, and giving their protectors almost exactly the type of concessionary canal treaty Zelaya had vehemently rejected as injurious to the national interest.

The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, signed in 1914 and ratified in 1916, allowed the United States to corner the rights to a Nicaraguan canal, thus ensuring that the new U.S. waterway through Panama would continue to operate without competition. By the terms of this document the United States acquired exclusive rights, in perpetuity, to build a canal in Nicaragua, a renewable ninety-nine-year lease to the Great and Little Corn Islands in the Caribbean, and a renewable ninety-nine-year option to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca. The United States had no intention of building a Nicaraguan canal. It simply wanted to buy up the rights to preclude the possibility that any other country would do so. In return, Nicaragua was to receive payment of $3 million. In reality, however, the U.S. officials who ran Nicaraguan financial affairs channeled much of that paltry sum into payments to foreign creditors. The aspects of the treaty dealing with the Corn Islands and the Gulf of Fonseca were hotly contested by El Salvador and Costa Rica, and the Central American Court of Justice decided in their favor. Though the United States had originally played a principal role in the creation of the court, it now chose to ignore its decision and, in so doing, contributed significantly to its collapse a few years later.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops had maintained an active presence in Nicaragua since 1912. By the mid-1920s, U.S. decision makers had convinced themselves that the Conservatives were ready to carry on without the presence of U.S. troops. They were wrong. Within a few months of the first U.S. withdrawal in August 1925, conflicts flared up among the ruling Conservatives, and in 1926 the Liberals seized the initiative and staged a rebellion. The inevitable outcome was that the Conservatives were forced to turn again to Washington for salvation, and U.S. troops returned to Nicaragua.

During the second occupation, Washington showed greater skill and imagination in manipulating Nicaraguan affairs. It arranged a truce between the Liberals and the Conservatives that, among other things, provided for a U.S.-supervised election in 1928. The Liberal elite also came to realize that its class interests could best be promoted by cultivating a symbiotic relationship with the United States. All of the major Liberal leaders, except Augusto César Sandino, bowed to the inevitable and endorsed the U.S.-sponsored Peace of Tipitapa in May 1927. Though José María Moncada, the candidate of the majority Liberal party, won the 1928 contest, the United States was prepared to live with a Liberal president because, in the words of one scholar, the North Americans “controlled his regime from a number of points: the American Embassy; the Marines . . . ; the Guardia Nacional, with its United States Army Officers; the High Commissioner of Customs; the Director of the Railway; and the National Bank.”[14] Under the circumstances, it no longer mattered whether the chief executive was a Liberal or a Conservative. Increasingly secure in this fact, the Americans in 1932 oversaw yet another election won by yet another Liberal—this time, Juan B. Sacasa, ironically the same person who had led the Liberal uprising of 1926 that brought about the second occupation.

The behavior of the Liberal and Conservative client governments that nominally ruled Nicaragua during the second U.S. occupation (1926–1933) was obsequiously pro-American. One of the clearest examples of the subservient character of these governments can be seen in Nicaragua’s docile ratification of the very unfavorable Barcenas Meneses-Esguerra Treaty of 1928. As a result of this treaty, Nicaragua relinquished to Colombia the Providencia and San Andrés islands and certain keys off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Though even a cursory glance at a map of the Caribbean would tend to verify Nicaragua’s historic right to these territories, Colombia had long maintained a conflicting claim based on rather vague policing authority granted its colonial predecessor by the Spanish crown. While it was certainly not in Nicaragua’s interest to relinquish these possessions, the United States benefited in two ways. First, the treaty helped assuage long-simmering Colombian resentment over U.S. connivance and military involvement in the independence of the former Colombian province of Panama in 1903. Then, too, it voided additional Colombian claims that had tended to cloud the validity of certain U.S. rights under the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty.

The importance of this period lies in the fact that, during these six years, forces were being shaped that were to have a powerful and paradoxical impact on Nicaragua for at least the next half century. This was the time of the germination of the Somoza dictatorship, which was to rule Nicaragua for over four decades, and of the reinvigoration of a revolutionary nationalist tradition that would ultimately overthrow that dictatorship in favor of a radically new system.

The revolutionary tradition was dramatically resuscitated by Augusto César Sandino, who led a long guerrilla war against U.S. and government forces during the second occupation of his country. Sandino was a fascinating person. Born in 1895 of a common-law union between a moderately well-to-do landowner and an Indian woman, he was accepted by his father and nurtured philosophically in the high principles that were supposed to form the basis of Liberal practice. He worked for his father until he was twenty-five, when he fled Nicaragua after a fight in which he wounded a man who had insulted his mother. He eventually ended up in Tampico, Mexico, working for Standard Oil of Indiana. There he absorbed some of the ideals of the Mexican Revolution—in particular the emphasis on the dignity of the Indian. In 1926 he returned to Nicaragua and found employment in a U.S.-owned gold mine. When the Liberal insurrection broke out that year, he organized a fighting unit and joined the insurgents. In 1927, after the rest of the Liberals had agreed to the U.S.-sponsored peace settlement, he chose to continue the battle against the puppet Conservative government. This decision inevitably brought him into conflict with U.S. troops and quickly turned his partisan crusade into a war of national liberation.

Though he wrote and spoke eloquently and profusely, Sandino was a man of action rather than a theorist. He did have certain ideas and opinions about the future of Nicaraguan politics and society. For instance, he advocated the formation of a popularly based political party and endorsed the idea of organizing land into peasant cooperatives. But more than anything else, he was a nationalist and an anti-imperialist. Quite simply, he found the U.S. occupation and domination of his country to be offensive and unacceptable. “The sovereignty and liberty of a people,” he said, “are not to be discussed, but rather, defended with weapons in hand.”[15]

In his struggle against the U.S. occupiers and their military allies, Sandino often used some of the brutal methods endemic to factional warfare in the rugged Segovias region where he was based. He was not above subjecting captured government and U.S. troops and their civilian allies to ritual mutilation before death.[16] In his own words, “Liberty is won not with flowers but with bullets, and for this reason we have been compelled to utilize the cortes de chaleco, chumbo, y blumer.” (The “blumer” cut, for instance, involved severing the hands and lower legs of the captive and letting him bleed to death.)[17] The purpose was to chasten the enemy and allied civilians. To his credit, though, and unlike his adversaries, Sandino also instituted a strict code against rape as an instrument of intimidation.[18]

At the same time and much more important, Sandino developed an effective set of guerrilla tactics through a process of trial and error. At first he used conventional military tactics, sending large groups of men into combat against an entrenched and well-equipped enemy. As a result, his troops initially took heavy casualties without inflicting serious damage. Learning from this mistake, he quickly developed the more classic guerrilla strategies of harassment and hit-and-run. In addition, he cultivated the support of the peasants in the regions in which he operated. They, in turn, served as an early warning communication network and as ad hoc soldiers during specific guerrilla actions.

For their part, the U.S. occupiers also played a very rough game. Upon his arrival in Nicaragua in 1928, one Marine wrote to his fiancée that “we got instructions to bring him [Sandino] in but not as a prisoner. . . . I wish I’d meet him. I’d bring him in the way they want him.”[19] And U.S. forces used tactics that would become familiar during the Vietnam War—the aerial bombardment of “hostile” towns and hamlets, the creation of what amounted to “free fire zones” in rural areas, and the forced resettlement of peasants to what, later in the century, would be called “protective hamlets.”[20] All this, of course, only solidified civilian support for Sandino. There were fluctuations in guerrilla activity and strength, but when the United States finally withdrew in January 1933, Sandino was still “as great a threat . . . as he had been at any previous point in his career.”[21]

Ironically, the threat Sandino posed dissolved almost immediately after the Americans left. Because his major condition for peace had been the departure of the Marines, Sandino signed a preliminary peace agreement in February 1933 with the Sacasa government. Calling for a cessation of hostilities and a partial disarmament of the guerrillas, the document also guaranteed amnesty for Sandino’s men and a degree of autonomy for those Sandinistas who wished to settle in the territory along the Río Coco. In 1934 there were further peace negotiations. In the long run, however, Sandino was deceived, captured, and executed. But his daring stand against the foreign occupiers had been an example and had legitimized a set of tactics that were to be successfully employed by the Sandinista Front of National Liberation in overthrowing a U.S.-client dictatorship almost a half century later.

The other force that came into its own during the second U.S. occupation and had a profound impact on the future of the country was the National Guard of Nicaragua. Washington had long felt that what Nicaragua really needed was an apolitical constabulary that could maintain stability and create a healthy environment for political and economic development. Although a halfhearted attempt to create such a force had been made toward the end of the first occupation, the concept was not effectively implemented until the late 1920s. By then the United States was becoming increasingly tired of directly running Nicaragua’s internal affairs. And, of course, there was the desire to “Nicaraguanize,” if you will, the war against Sandino. Top priority, therefore, was placed on recruiting, training, arming, and equipping the Guard. In the haste of the moment, safeguards aimed at maintaining the apolitical character of the Guard were set aside. As the Marines were leaving, command of this new “national” army passed from the Americans to a congenial, ambitious, English-speaking Nicaraguan politician, Anastasio Somoza García. Less than four years later, an elitist dictatorial system based on a symbiotic relationship between the now corrupted and thoroughly politicized National Guard and the Somoza family had come into being. This system was to plunder, degrade, and bring agony to the Nicaraguan people for more than four decades.


[1] For an excellent, scholarly examination of the early depopulation of Nicaragua, see David Richard Radell, “Native Depopulation and the Slave Trade: 1527–1578,” in his An Historical Geography of Western Nicaragua: The Spheres of Influence of León, Granada, and Managua, 1519–1965 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1969), 66–80.

[2] Ibid., 70–80.

[3] Paul Levy as quoted in Jaime Wheelock Román, Imperialismo y Dictadura: Crísis de una Formación Social (Mexico City: Sigo Veintiuno Editores, 1975), 29.

[4] No known relation of coauthor Walker.

[5] David Richard Radell, An Historical Geography of Western Nicaragua: The Spheres of Influence of León, Granada, and Managua, 1519–1965 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California–Berkeley, 1969), 77.

[6] Wheelock Román, Imperialismo y Dictadura, 77.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Radell, An Historical Geography, 202.

[9] For an excellent reexamination of Zelaya, see Charles L. Stansifer, “José Santos Zelaya: A New Look at Nicaragua’s Liberal Dictator,” Revista/Review Interamericana, 7, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 468–485. The interpretation and much of the information in my short treatment of Zelaya is drawn from this fine source.

[10] Dana G. Munro, The Five Republics of Central America (New York: Russel & Russel, 1967), 243.

[11] A handwritten letter from Zeledón to Colonel J. H. Pendleton, Masaya, October 3, 1912. Xerox copy courtesy of Zeledón’s grandson, Sergio Zeledón.

[12] Major Smedley D. Butler as quoted in Richard Millett, The Guardians of the Dynasty: A History of the U.S.-Created Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua and the Somoza Family (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1977), 32.

[13] A letter from sixty-one Nicaraguans to Major S. D. Butler, Granada, October 9, 1912. From folder 5 of the “Personal Papers” of Joseph H. Pendleton in the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington, D.C., Naval Yard.

[14] Ralph Lee Woodward Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 200.

[15] Though this is one of the best-known sayings from Sandino, we do not have the original citation.

[16] Michael J. Schroeder, “Horse Thieves, to Rebels, to Dogs: Political Gang Violence and the State in the Western Segovias, Nicaragua, in the Time of Sandino, 1926–1934,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 28, no. 2 (May 1996): 427–428.

[17] Ibid., 428.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Emil G. Thomas, Letter to Fiancée, April 1, 1928, p. 7, from a collection of the Thomas Letters in the Archives at the Ohio University Alden Library, Athens, Ohio.

[20] Michael J. Schroeder, “The Sandino Rebellion Revisited: Civil War, Imperialism, Popular Nationalism, and State Formation Muddied Up Together in the Segovias of Nicaragua, 1926–34,” in Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 208–268.

[21] Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty, 98.

We hope you have enjoyed this sample of:

Nicaragua: Emerging From the Shadow of the Eagle

Sixth Edition

by Thomas W. Walker and Christine J. Wade

Copyright © 2016 by WESTVIEW PRESS

Click here for more information
  • African Studies
  • Art and Architecture
  • Education
  • European Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Religion
  • Science and Advanced Math