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In the Beginning

People have been traversing Nicaragua since before 18,000 B.C., when the first Asian tribes crossed the Bering Strait and ventured south. Evidence of human life on the isthmus dates back 8,000 years, in the form of shells collected by a tribe called Los Concheros on the Caribbean coast. Ten-thousand-year-old footprints can be viewed at the Museo Las Huellas de Acahualinca in Managua, and there are ceramic remnants from as far back as 4000 B.C. The Maribio tribe traveled from California and settled in northwestern Nicaragua, while the Miskito and Rama peoples settled on the Caribbean side. In the 13th century, the Corotega and Nicarao tribes also settled in the country when they fled south from Aztec Mexico and found refuge around the country's two great lakes. Here, they prospered, building sophisticated societies that benefited from being at the crossroads of two giant continents. These same people gave the Spanish a taste of their fighting spirit when the Europeans first landed in 1519. The tribal leaders Nicaroa and Diriangén engaged the conquistador González Dávila in a brief battle in 1523, after which the Spanish retreated.

The Spanish explorer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba returned a year later with a well-outfitted army. The tribes were defeated and, despite the occasional rebellion over the next century or so, were eventually subdued and subjugated by the Europeans. Córdoba established a permanent colonial foothold in the country and founded the cities of Granada and León in 1524. Merciless strongman Pedrarias Dávila was installed as the first governor, and Nicaragua became the domain of the Spanish Empire for the next 300 years.

Maya History -- Before the arrival of the first Europeans, Mesoamerica was the land of the ancient Maya. Here, mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, astronomers developed a solar calendar accurate to a single day every 6,000 days, and scribes invented an 850-word hieroglyphic vocabulary that scholars consider the world's first advanced writing system. Some of this civilization's practices were less than civil: The Maya built extensive ball courts to play a game called "pok a tok," where the losing team could be executed.

Evidence of human presence in the Maya region dates as far back as the 10th millennium B.C. Maya history is often divided into several distinct periods: Archaic (10,000-2000 B.C.), Pre-Classic (2000 B.C.-A.D. 250), Classic (A.D. 250-900), and Post-Classic (900-1540). Within this timeline, the Classic period itself is often divided into Early, Middle, Late, and Terminal stages. At the height of development, as many as 10 million Maya may have inhabited what are now Guatemala, Belize, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. No one knows for sure what led to the decline of the Classic Maya, but somewhere around A.D. 900, their society entered a severe and rapid decline. Famine, warfare, deforestation, and religious prophecy have all been cited as possible causes. (Try Jared Diamond's bestseller Collapse [Penguin, 2005] for information and speculation.)

Unlike the Incas of Peru, the Maya had no centralized ruler. Instead, the civilization consisted of a series of independent city-states, usually ruled by hereditary kings, often at war with one another. The most famous Maya ruin in El Salvador is at Tazumal and includes a temple pyramid, ball court, and other structures considered to be classic examples of Maya architecture and similar to those found in other parts of Central America.

According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred Maya book of creation myths and predictions, the world as we know it will end on December 21, 2012. While some New Age analysts have dire predictions for the date, more optimistic prognosticators foresee a day of positive human evolution.

A Province of Spain

The conquest almost wiped out the local population. When the gold ran out, the invaders traded in slaves, shipping the people south to work in Panama and Peru. Despite Spain outlawing slavery in 1542 and granting the Indians equal rights, the reality on the ground was one of cruel exploitation. Eventually, cattle were introduced to the area, and agriculture became the main activity. A brisk trade in beef, leather, and indigo began, and Granada became a major merchant city because of its access to the Atlantic. León gained in importance as the administrative and religious center of the country. As in other parts of the region, Nicaragua's prosperity led to frequent raids from British, French, and Dutch pirates sailing up the Río San Juan in search of loot and fortune, using the Atlantic coast as their base, where the Spanish had little or no presence.

Nicaragua won independence from Spain in 1821, along with the rest of Central America. It was not a hard-fought war, but more a gradual assertion of power by the criollos (Spanish descendants born in Nicaragua who, despite being only 5% of the population, owned everything) bristling against the monopoly economics of the Empire and taking advantage of a Spain in turmoil after the invasion of the French in 1808. Independence did, however, create a power vacuum and unleashed a period of anarchy and civil war in the region as different interests jostled for power. Nicaragua was briefly a province of Mexico before becoming a part of the short-lived Central America Federation. Political infighting and regional rivalries meant it eventually emerged as an independent nation in 1838. The English still retained their presence in the Caribbean, however, controlling the San Juan estuary from the port of Greytown until 1860. In that year, the British signed a treaty surrendering the Caribbean territory to Nicaragua, though in fact, the region remained largely autonomous until 1893.

Granada vs. Leon

In addition to growing American influence, the 19th century was dominated by a vicious rivalry centered in the cities of Granada and León that continues, in some way, to this day. During this period, Granada emerged as the establishment capital, favored by landowners and merchants who had little desire to reform the feudal system that existed. León became the center for liberal bourgeoisie who were inspired by the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. Both cities declared themselves capitals in 1824, and civil war erupted in 1827. A new constitution was written in 1828, and the general chaos continued, exacerbated by Managua's declaring itself the true center of government. The country was rocked by a civil war that went on intermittently throughout the rest of the century. In 1854, the Granada-based general Fruto Chamorro introduced another constitution, and the León liberals decided to hire some outside help to remedy the situation.

William Walker & the National War

The country's political landscape was transformed when mercenary William Walker was hired by the León liberals to help in their latest skirmish with Granada. His private army of 300 roughnecks won the battle but had no intention of going home. Walker declared himself president in 1855 (with the support of the U.S. government) and soon instituted policies such as reestablishing slavery and declaring English the official language with the idea of colonizing the entire isthmus and transforming the whole region into a de facto territory of the United States, with Mexico squeezed in the middle. These policies did not go down well with the locals, and the Leoneses soon united with the conservatives and forces from Costa Rica to defeat Walker at the battle of San Jacinto in 1856. It was the one true case of national unity ever achieved in the country, and even the local indigenous people were engaged in the fight to repel Walker. He retreated to Granada, which he burned to the ground before abandoning the country entirely. The Hondurans captured him 4 years later and promptly executed him. The battle of San Jacinto is celebrated as a national holiday every September 14, and the Guerra Nacional holds more patriotic importance to the Nicaraguans than its somewhat messy independence from Spain.

American Intervention

The United States of America has influenced Nicaraguan history from the late 1800s on, with the country being of particular interest to the U.S. because it seemed like a good candidate for building a water channel between the Atlantic and Pacific. Plans for such a canal are still being considered to this day. When the steamship magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt pioneered a land, river, and sea route that saw thousands of North Americans passing up the Río San Juan as part of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, the country gained even more importance in the eyes of America.

After the debacle of William Walker, the disgraced liberal class surrendered to 36 years of mediocre conservative rule. The fishing village of Managua was declared the country's capital as a compromise. A nationalist general, José Santos Zelaya, took power in 1893 and marched his troops to the Atlantic coast to finally lay claim to what until then was Nicaragua's on paper only. The liberal-leaning Zelaya did much to improve the rule of law in Nicaragua and introduced a new constitution in 1893 that abolished the death penalty, separated church and state, recognized private property, and introduced universal education. He also improved the country's infrastructure with new roads, ports, a postal system, and a limited electric grid. However, he antagonized the Americans by insisting on national control of any waterway and threatening to rival the planned Panama Canal with a foreign-financed project of his own. He was ousted with the aid of American marines in 1909. Three years later, a rebellion led by Benjamín Zeledón was crushed by an invasion of American marines that basically took over the country. For the next 12 years, there were 10 such uprisings against American-backed, conservative governments. After U.S. interests acquired some of Nicaragua's main businesses, Nicaragua soon found itself in hock to the United States and locked into an agreement where no other country could finance a canal that would interfere with Washington´s plans in Panama.

A glimmer of hope came in 1924, when the liberals and conservatives finally agreed to a form of power sharing, and the Americans withdrew their military presence. But the pact collapsed when conservative Emilio Chamorro staged a coup d'état and the Constitutional War broke out. Fearing a liberal victory, the U.S. again stepped in and negotiated a settlement that was opposed by liberal general Augusto C. Sandino. He held out in the northern highlands despite an American offensive that included the first recorded bombing of a civilian town, Ocotal. American influence continued throughout the 20th century, including propping up the Somoza dictatorship and Reagan's support for the Contras.

Augusto C. Sandino & the Rise of Somoza

Sandino proved a more-than-capable adversary to the Americans, and he pinned the marines down in the northern highlands with successful guerrilla tactics. In 1927, the American-trained National Guard was formed with the idea of creating a neutral military force that would prevent any further civil conflicts. However, the new army was led by an ambitious general, Anastasio Somoza García, who had other plans for the new force. The Americans withdrew, handing power to Juan Bautista Sacasa. Sandino, noting that foreign intervention had abated, accepted the government's invitation to negotiate and signed a peace agreement. Caught off guard, he was kidnapped and assassinated by the National Guard in 1934 in Managua. The murder was followed by a vicious clampdown by Somoza, who eventually took complete control in 1937.

What followed were 42 years of iron rule by a family dynasty that in the end owned everything worth owning in Nicaragua. The Somoza family became fabulously wealthy and all-powerful, with 50% of all productive lands and 65% of the GDP in their hands. They installed the occasional puppet president for appearance's sake and, with the help of the National Guard, rigged elections and repressed any dissent. A revolt by the conservatives in 1954 was quickly quelled, and street protests -- such as a student protest in 1959 -- were met with bullets. When Anastasio Somoza García was assassinated by the poet Rigoberto López Pérez in 1956, he was swiftly replaced by his son Luís "Tacho" Somoza Debayle, and the regime continued as usual. The only good things to come out of such ravenous, profit-driven rule were huge public works such as the Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Highway) and the Lake Apanás hydroelectric plant. There were several attempts on Somoza's life, including a Cuban-style insurrection in 1959 that petered out after 2 weeks.

The Somoza regime showed its gratitude for American patronage in 1961 by allowing its Atlantic coast to be used as the launching pad for the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Tacho lost an election in 1963 and retired from politics. The new president, Renée Schick, was soon ousted by Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza in 1967. This younger brother of Tacho proved to be the cruelest and greediest of all the Somozas. Somoza's support, even by the elite, was seriously undermined when he plundered reconstruction funds for the 1972 earthquake disaster that destroyed Managua. He then arranged the murder of newspaper editor and critic of the regime, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, in 1978. The stage was set for a revolution and an end to one of Central America's longest and most brutal dictatorships.

The Sandinista Revolution

In 1963, a new organization called the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) made its presence known by staging a thwarted uprising in the north. Led by the Marxist Carlos Fonseca Amador, the Sandinistas were to prove a thorn in the side of an increasingly repressive regime. They robbed banks and staged minor rural attacks throughout the '60s. An ambush by the National Guard in Matagalpa in 1967 wiped out much of the FSLN leadership, and the rebels found themselves on the back foot with many of their leaders either dead or in prison. In 1970, Carlos Fonseca and Humberto Ortega were sprung from prison by a daring airplane hijacking. In 1974, the movement collected a $6-million ransom and the release of Daniel Ortega when it held hostage a group of politicians in Managua. Fonseca was killed in an ambush in 1976, and the leadership of the movement fell into the pragmatic but authoritarian hands of the Ortega brothers, a position they retain to this day.

The assassination of popular conservative leader and newspaper editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro in 1978 ignited the country. A national strike was accompanied by days of rioting, with protesters targeting the many businesses owned by the Somoza family. Simultaneous uprisings occurred in Rivas, Nuevo Segovia, Monimbo, and Diriamba, often with little help or encouragement from the FSLN. The revolution had gained its own momentum, and ordinary people without any direct links to the rebels were engaging the National Guard, who fought back with increasing brutality. FSLN commandos staged a spectacular coup by taking over the national congress by force and held legislators hostage until the prisoners were released and a ransom paid. Attacks in Masaya, León, Chinandega, and Estelí were met by indiscriminate bombing by the authorities. The rebel forces swelled with new recruits, and the U.S. was compelled to persuade a stubborn Somoza to resign. Total insurrection continued into 1979, with thousands of casualties. Footage of ABC reporter Bill Stewart being executed by the National Guard was aired in the United States, and by the end of July, the rebels were in control of Masaya, eastern Managua, Masatepe, and Sebaco. León was liberated on July 9, and Somoza fled to Miami. The National Guard disintegrated, with many hijacking boats in San Juan del Sur to sail away from a war they had lost. Somoza had a short-lived asylum in Paraguay, where he was blown up by a rocket attack in September 1980.

The Sandinistas in Power & the Contra War

The Sandinista revolution created a Sandinista government that had little room for non-party factions, such as the conservatives, lead by Chamorro's widow Violetta Barrios de Chamorro. The Sandinistas were intent on building a newer and fairer society from the bottom up, and this meant radical land reform, interventionist economics, and party control of the army, police, and unions. These were policies that made the rich elite flee to Miami, taking their money with them. They also disaffected popular non-Marxist guerrilla leaders such as Edén Pastora and others who presumed democratic elections would take place after the revolution. While the economy collapsed, the poor became educated in a hugely popular and successful literacy drive that proved to be the Sandinistas' one lasting positive legacy.

Meanwhile, trouble brewed in the north, and a new stage in U.S. intervention began. The new Reagan administration watched with dread at what it perceived as a new front in the Cold War. Aid was halted in 1981, and an economic embargo was imposed in 1985, putting the economy into free-fall. A new insurgency appeared. Its roots lay in the controversial death of one the FSLN's most capable non-Marxist commanders, Germán Pomares, who was killed just days before the end of the 1979 uprising by "friendly" fire. One year after Somoza's defeat, his troops turned on their old comrades and attacked a base in Nueva Segovia. The counter-revolution had begun. The Contras, as they became known, were a well-armed band of ex-Sandinistas and former National Guard members financed and trained by the CIA and led from Honduras. Edén Pastora opened a second front on the Costa Rican border. The Sandinista government had to divert badly needed money toward this new war, as well as impose unpopular policies such as a draft and rationing. It proved a dirty war, with both sides accused of atrocities, but the Contras in particular gained a reputation for slaughtering unarmed civilians and sabotaging the country's already weakened infrastructure.

By the end of the 1980s, both sides of this battle were exhausted. The Iran-Contra scandal had dried up support for the counterinsurgents, and the collapse of the Soviet Union was a serious blow to the revolution. Nicaragua's Central American neighbors proposed a peace accord (though opposed by the U.S.), and the Sandinistas accepted. Elections were held in 1990, and to the surprise of many, the government lost. An unpopular war, a failed agricultural program, and a general lack of freedom of speech meant many Nicaraguans were tired and ready for a change. A further surprise was a peaceful handover of power, with the Sandinistas relinquishing control, but not before a shameful last grab of property and assets that became known as la piñata (after the candy-stuffed party package beaten by children to reach its contents).

Peace, Reconciliation & Corruption

Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became the president of this new Nicaragua. The widow of the slain editor and leader of a loose coalition known as UNO, Doña Violeta introduced policies aimed at ending the war, reconciling all sides, and kick-starting the economy, with limited success. With two sons on opposing sides of the war, she had firsthand experience of the divisive nature of Nicaraguan politics and the need for reconciliation. Doña Violeta reduced the army to 18,000 and put it under civilian rule. Freedom of speech blossomed, and foreign investment returned, as did some of the exiles who fled the war. Her tenure was a rocky one, with many protests, failed uprisings, and accusations of corruption. She finished her tenure with low popularity ratings but with hindsight is now regarded as a great woman who miraculously united the country and put it on the path to recovery.

Meanwhile, the Sandinistas embraced democracy and became the main opposition party, led by Daniel Ortega. Despite strong support, Ortega lost the 1996 election to a corrupt, right-wing politician, Arnoldo Alemán, leader of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC). Alemán's tenure was rocked by endless kickback scandals and further tarnished by a disgraceful political pact with Ortega that basically divided power, pushed smaller parties out, and guaranteed immunity from prosecution for both leaders.

When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, wreaking havoc across the country and killing thousands, Alemán's appallingly slow reaction (he was more concerned with his upcoming wedding) sealed his fate as a one-term president. His vice president, Enrique Geyer Bolaños, came to power in 2002, trouncing Ortega with 56% of the vote. Once in office, Bolaños, acting on his anticorruption campaign pledges, turned on his own party, stripped Alemán of immunity, and had him jailed for 20 years for embezzlement and money laundering. Such justice is a rare thing in Central American politics, and Bolaños paid for his crusade by being virtually paralyzed in a congress made up of disaffected and begrudging colleagues in the pocket of Alemán, who retaliated by trying to convict Bolaños in turn for illegal funding.

In the 2006 election, the Sandinistas were able to capitalize on this infighting and a general downturn in the economy; Ortega won the election with 37% of the popular vote. The initial reaction was a sudden dip in foreign investment, as people feared the country would return to the 1980s-style economy of hyperinflation and debt default. An infamous pact with the convicted Alemán meant the corrupt liberal leader could serve his sentence from his luxury ranch while both parties sewed up the power structure to exclude any smaller parties. Ortega softened his Marxist image and declared himself to be market friendly. Nevertheless, his popularity is low, due to a stalled economy and rising food prices. Both sides of the political spectrum are currently disaffected, with members on the right saying that Ortega has become a crony of Hugo Chávez and members on the left accusing him of selling out. The next elections are due in November 2011, but Ortega has his work cut out for him if he wants to remain in power.

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