Political history of Nicaragua
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Much of Nicaragua's early politics following independence was characterized by the rivalry between the liberal elite of León and the conservative elite of Granada. This rivalry sometimes spilled into civil war. Initially invited by Francisco Castellon in 1854 to join their struggle against the conservatives, US-born adventurer William Walker arrived in 1855 and won the Liberals' war so easily that it seemed that he barely fought. As a result, he saw the chance to take over the country. He appointed himself president in 1856. Fearing his plans for expansion, several Central American countries united to drive Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857. They were supported by the United States industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had originally sponsored Walker in Nicaragua. Walker was executed in neighboring Honduras on September 12, 1860. Three decades of conservative rule followed.
Taking advantage of divisions among conservatives, José Santos Zelaya led a liberal revolt that brought him to power in 1893. He ended the long-standing dispute with the United Kingdom over the Atlantic Coast in 1894, and incorporated the Mosquito Coast into Nicaragua.
Nicaragua was the first country to ratify the UN Charter, and declared war on Germany during World War II. No troops were sent to the war but Somoza used the crisis to seize attractive properties held by German-Nicaraguans, the best known of which was the Montelimar estate. Today it is operated as a privately owned luxury resort and casino.
Because of the strategic importance of Nicaragua in the hemisphere, the United States (US) made numerous military interventions to protect what it believed were its interests in the region:
- 1894: Month-long occupation of Bluefields
- 1896: Marines land in port of Corinto
- 1898: Marines land at port of San Juan del Sur
- 1899: Marines land at port of Bluefields
- 1907: "Dollar Diplomacy" protectorate set up
- 1910: Marines land in Bluefields and Corinto
- 1912-33: Bombing, 20-year occupation, fought guerrillas
- 1981-90: CIA directs exile (Contra) revolution, plants harbor mines against government
Nicaragua has had numerous and lengthy periods when the country was ruled by military dictatorship. The longest was the rule of the Somoza family for much of the 20th century. The Somoza family came to power as part of a US-engineered Pact of Espino Negro in 1927; it stipulated the formation of the National Guard to replace the small individual armies that had supported separate fiefdoms in the country. The only Nicaraguan general to refuse to sign this pact (el tratado del Espino Negro) was Augusto César Sandino. He took refuge in the northern mountains of Las Segovias, from where he fought the US Marines for over five years.
After U.S. Marines withdrew from Nicaragua in January 1933, Sandino and the newly elected Sacasa government reached an agreement by which he would cease his guerrilla activities in return for amnesty, a grant of land for an agricultural colony, and retention of an armed band of 100 men for a year. There followed a growing hostility between Sandino and Anastasio Somoza Garcia, chief of the national guard, which prompted Somoza to order the assassination of Sandino. Fearing future armed opposition from Sandino, Somoza invited him to a meeting in Managua, where Sandino was assassinated on February 21 of 1934 by the National Guard. Following the death of Sandino was the execution of hundreds of men, women, and children.
With Sandino's death and using his troops, the National Guard, to force Sacasa to resign, Somoza had taken control of the country in 1937 and destroyed any potential armed resistance. Somoza was in turn assassinated by Rigoberto López Pérez, a Nicaraguan poet, in 1956. Luis Somoza Debayle, the eldest son of the late dictator, officially took charge of Nicaragua after his father's death.
Luis Somoza, remembered by some for being moderate, was in power for only a few years before dying of a heart attack. Then came president, Rene Schick, whom most Nicaraguans viewed "as nothing more than a puppet of the Somozas". Somoza's brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who succeeded his father in charge of the National Guard, held control of the country, and officially took the presidency after Schick. In 1961, a young student, Carlos Fonseca, turned back to the historical figure of Sandino, and founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The FSLN was a tiny party throughout most of the 1960s, but Somoza's hatred of it, and his repressive treatment of anyone suspected as a Sandinista sympathizer, gave many ordinary Nicaraguans the idea that the Sandinistas were much stronger than was the case.
Some Nicaraguan historians point to the 1972 earthquake that devastated Managua as the final 'nail in the coffin' for Somoza. Some 90% of the city was destroyed. Somoza's brazen corruption, mishandling of relief (which prompted Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente to fly to Managua on December 31, 1972, to try to help - a flight that ended in his death) and refusal to rebuild Managua, flooded the ranks of the Sandinistas with young disaffected Nicaraguans who no longer had anything to lose.
Somoza acquired monopolies in industries that were key to rebuilding the nation, not allowing other members of the upper class to share the profits that would result from the reborn economic activity. This weakened Somoza further since even the economic elite were reluctant to support him. In the 1950s a synthetic brand of cotton, one of Nicaragua's economic pillars of the epoch, was developed. This caused the price of cotton to decrease, placing the economy in great trouble.
These economic problems propelled the Sandinistas forward in their struggle against Somoza by leading many middle and upper class Nicaraguans to see the Sandinistas as the only hope for ridding the country of the brutal Somoza regime. The January 1978 assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of an important newspaper in Nicaragua and an ardent opponent of Somoza, is believed to have been the spark that that led to extreme general disappointment against Somoza. The intellectual planners and perpetrators of the murder were at the highest echelons of the Somoza regime and included the dictator's son, “El Chiguin”, Somoza’s President of Housing, Cornelio Hueck, Somoza’s Attorney General, and Pedro Ramos, a close Cuban ally who commercialized in illegal blood plasma.
The Sandinistas, supported by much of the populace, elements of the Catholic Church, and regional and international governments took power in July 1979. Somoza abandoned the country and eventually ended up in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in September 1980, allegedly by members of the 'Argentinian Revolutionary Workers' Party.
The key large-scale programs of the Sandinistas included a massive National Literacy Crusade (March–August 1980), social program], which received international recognition for their gains in literacy, health care, education, childcare, unions, and land reform.
United States President Jimmy Carter, who had cut off aid to Somoza's Nicaragua the previous year, initially chose to give aid to the new government, but the amount of aid lessened towards the end of his presidency and was completely cut off by President Reagan due to evidence of Sandinista support to FMLN rebels in El Salvador. Prior to U.S. aid withdrawal, Bayardo Arce, an FSLN politician, had stated that "Nicaragua is the only country building its socialism with the dollars of imperialism." The Reagan administration retorted imposing economic sanctions and a trade embargo against Nicaragua.
After a brief period of these sanctions, Nicaragua was faced with a collapsing economy (see: Economy of Nicaragua). The U.S. trained and illegally financed the Contras, which were a counter-revolutionary group, in neighboring Honduras to impose an American-friendly government and militarily oppose the current government and the Nicaraguan army. The Soviet Union and Cuba were also heavily funding the Nicaraguan army. On June 27, 1986, the International Court of Justice in the “Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities In and Against Nicaragua (NICARAGUA v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA)” acknowledged the nature of the conflict in Nicaragua as one of aggression directed by a foreign power against Nicaragua. In a twelve to three vote, the Court’s summary judgment against the United States stated that by:
...training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, the United States has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State.
The US support for the Contras sparked widespread criticism from many quarters around the globe including within Nicaragua and the U.S., Democrats in Congress included. When Congress moved to cut off aid to the Contras, Reagan aide Col. Oliver North concocted a clandestine and ingenious plan to continue funding the Contras terrorists see: Iran-Contra Affair.
Daniel Ortega was overwhelmingly elected President in 1984. The November 1984 elections were certified "fair" by some Western NGOs allowed into Nicaragua. Three right-wing opposition parties (Coordinadora Democrática Nicaragüense) boycotted the election, claiming that the Sandinistas were manipulating the media and that the elections might not be fair. The years of war and Nicaragua's economic situation had taken an unparalleled toll on Nicaragua. The US Government offered a political amnesty program that gave visas to any Nicaraguan without question. Nicaraguans (particularly those who could afford passage or had familial connections within the US) left the country in droves. This was the largest emigration ever seen in the history of Nicaragua.
"In 1984, controversy over U.S. assistance to the opponents of the Nicaraguan government (the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as the “contras”) led to a prohibition on such assistance in a continuing appropriations bill." [Congressional Research Service, Congressional Use of Funding Cutoffs Since 1970 Involving U.S. Military Forces and Overseas Deployments, January 10, 2001, pg. 6.] 
Nicaragua won a historic case against the U.S. at the International Court of Justice in 1986 (see Nicaragua v. United States), and the U.S. was ordered to pay Nicaragua some $12 billion in reparations for violating Nicaraguan sovereignty by engaging in attacks against it. The United States withdrew its acceptance of the Court and argued it had no authority in matters of sovereign state relations. In addition, the U.S. noted that Cuba and the Soviet Union also unfairly committed exactly the same alleged violation against Nicaraguan sovereignty by providing training and ammunition to Sandinistas while Somoza was in power. The U.S. government, standing on this arbitrary principle, refused to pay restitutions, even when a United Nations General Assembly resolution on the matter had been passed.
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