After becoming its own country, Nicaragua had civil wars between León (mostly liberal) and Granada (mostly conservative) about who'd get to dominate the country and - more importantly - where the capital would be located. In the end neither got the capital (which was instead placed in Managua) but the Conservatives of Granada held the presidency for most of the 19th century. A particularly absurd story is that of William Walker, who was invited into the country by the Liberals who were once more on the losing side of a power struggle. Once in the country Walker and his fellow Americans declared him President and proceeded to invade the rest of Central America in order to unite it under his benevolent heel. Walker even wanted to reimpose slavery and annex Nicaragua to the South. At the end, Walker was driven out and later found himself in front of a British firing squad in Honduras.
After that the Liberals would be out of power for three decades until a liberal general - José Santos Zelaya - orchestrated a coup against the conservatives in 1893. That general in turn was ousted in 1909 and the resulting chaos provided the justification for the US to launch an almost constant military occupation of the country. The occupation met the resistance of some liberal generals, but ultimately the US Marines were able to win most of the battles. As has been famously said, all liberal generals eventually handed over their weapons - all but one. That one is the next to mythical figure Augusto Cesar Sandino (yes, the Sandinistas are named after him) a liberal general and famous wearer of a Nice Hat. He managed to conquer half the country and made the Marines withdraw but ultimately the US had left behind a trusted leader for the (US trained) National Guard - one certain Anastacio Somoza Garcia. In 1934, Somoza invited Sandino to a peace dinner in his honor. Sandino accepted and came to Managua, but on the way back from the dinner Sandino was assassinated on the orders of Somoza, who two years later would formally take the presidency.
The country is more infamous for being one of the prime examples of American intervention on neighboring soil. Besides the interest on a inter-oceanic waterway canal, later aborted (see below), the U.S. invaded and controlled the country during most of the 20th century, putting meat puppets loyal to the United States as presidents. The most famous of these would be the Somoza dynasty, composed by Anastasio Somoza García and his sons, Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, which combined would stay 43 years in power, but their influence went beyond that, because when none of them were the Presidents of Nicaragua, it was one of their lackeys.
Though the country was developing during the Somozas regime, their dictatorial ways, along with the lack of help of the government for an earthquake that hit the capital in 1972 hastened the downfall of the government to leftist guerrillas known as Sandinistas, named after Augusto Sandino, a resistance leader against the first American intervention. The Sandinistas established control and imposed Marxist land reforms. This didnt suit former elements of Somoza's National Guard and other anti-Sandinista groups, who formed a coalition of counter-revolutionary militias called the Contras (shorthand for contrarrevolucionarios). Money and weapons from Cuba, the Soviet Union and the United States flowed into the country, and in the ensuing proxy war, Nicaragua turned from being one of the fastest developing countries in Central America to be one of the slowest. The issue of war crimes and human rights abuses carried out by the opposing sides or rogue elements thereof was heavily politicized by the international community. Make no mistake as to the composition of either side: There were impoverished peasants that hated the Sandinistas and relatively well to do urbanites that gave their life for them and the same applied for the Contras. Brother fighting against brother (or sister against sister) was as common in this civil war as it was in the American Civil War. Today, three decades later, the rifts have mostly healed but new rifts have appeared, with some former Contras now supporting President Ortega and some former Sandinistas now among Ortega's fiercest critics.
Though hesitant, the Sandinistas promised that national elections would come, and after some waffling, they delivered in 1984. They won, but that wasn't surprising as several opposition groups boycotted the elections due to the 'state of emergency' stipulations. International observers declared the elections fair, but Ronald Reagan disagreed and kept sending the Contras money despite a Congressional ban and an International Court of Justice ruling, leading to the infamous Iran-Contra affair. When the time came for the 1990 elections, the war-weary civilians decided to collectively vote the Sandinistas out of office just to placate the United States. They elected Violeta Barrios de Chamorro,note the first female president democratically elected in the Americas, though her government was still staffed by Sandinista bureaucrats, hampering her ability to govern effectively. Barrios de Chamorro stepped down in 1996 after her single term ran out (the constitution disallows reelection) and was succeeded by former Managua mayor Arnoldo Aleman, who more or less openly courted the "not everything was bad under Somoza" vote. Aleman proved to be incredibly corrupt, so when he was replaced by his erstwhile Vice President Enrique Bolaños Geyer (yes he is of partial German descent) parts of his party - including the President - would turn against Aleman and try to get him jailed for corruption. This however split the party and Ortega made "El Pacto" with Aleman to exchange some political favors, paving the way for Ortega's return to power. Ortega had never, since 1990 come close to winning 50% of the vote, but with the (center-) right splitting the vote and the second round eliminated thanks to "El Pacto", Ortega won with just 38% of the vote and less in absolute votes than he had obtained in 2001.
After sixteen years of economic turmoil and political scandal, the Sandinistas were elected again despite strong US criticism (including an attempt to link them to Middle Eastern terrorism), though most of the party's Marxist flavor had been steamed out in favor of social democracy with a hint of conservative Christian morality. The current President is Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader and former President of the 1980s. Well, at least he was elected democratically... just like Hugo Chávez. In fact, Chávez and Ortega are BFFs, along with another 'democratically elected' anti-US crusader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Make of that what you will.
A nation of poets?
We'd be amiss if we did not mention the most famous Nicaraguan of them all: Rubén Darío (1867-1916) who is considered among the most important poets of the Spanish language in ever, second only to the likes of Miguel De Cervantes. Darío was born in a city now called Ciudad Darío and his adopted León has both a street named after him (in a country where most streets have no name) and a quite grandiose museum in his honor in addition to many, many statues and busts. Ever since Darío, Nicaragua had a particular fondness for poetry and if you have met a handful of Nicaraguans, you will most likely have met someone considering themself a poet. Nicaraguan poets have often been politically active as well, whether it be Rigoberto López Pérez, who shot the first Somoza in 1956 killing him and subsequently being shot and killed himself or Leonel Rugama who is most famous for his last line, which he uttered upon being surrounded by Somoza's men and asked to surrender "Que se rinda tu madre" - Your momma surrender. He was of course killed aged not yet 21. Another famous Nicaraguan author and poet is Ernesto Cardenal, who is one of the most well known proponents of Liberation Theology and was a supporter of the Sandinistas in the 1980s. The best known female author is Gioconda Belli who was likewise a Sandinista activist in the 1980s but is more critical of Ortega today. However, despite all those literary advances, it is surprisingly hard to get books in the more rural towns of Nicaragua and despite the very successful alphabetization campaigns of the 1980s, Nicaragua still has rampant analphabetism, which can be seen by the - let's just say creative - orthography on handmade signage (e.g. "se bende yelo" instead of "se vende hielo")
We Want Our Canal Back!:
Once upon a time, the idea of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was in the mind of a lot of people (the other alternatives were through the bottom of South America; not only it was a longer trip, but also the strong winds complicated the navigation). When the United States decided to build a canal through the isthmus, initially the option was doing it through Nicaragua (using the Lake Nicaragua as a stopover), but alas, a civil war and the presence of filibustering in the area dissuaded them. Later, they decided to use the French option through Panama, abandoning the plans on Nicaragua, and the rest is history.
Nowadays, the option of building a canal is being reconsidered; not only it would boost their economy, but theres also the bottleneck that forms in the Panama Canal. After all, the ships that use it today are way more than the ones that used to.
Ortega and the Sandinistas have announced that a Chinese investor wants to build the canal and something is indeed being built, but it is unclear whether the Canal will be delivered on time or at all. Environmentalists both inside Nicaragua and outside of it fear for the environment of the country, whereas other point out the immense economic benefits a canal could bring.
All Kinds Of Languages, Including One Fabricated Out Of Thin Air:
As it was mentioned, the country is Spanish-speaking. Curiously, it also has a considerable English-speaking community, due to the British claimed the Mosquito Coast (east) from the Spanish colony as a protectorate during almost 200 years (it was given back to the now-independent republic in 1860, but it had an autonomous government until 1894). The Spanish spoken uses the voseo variety, that is "tu" (similar to "thou" in Ye Olde Butchered English) is usually replaced by "vos". Vosotros (similar to "ihr" in German) on the other hand is never used. A particular feature of Nicaraguan Spanish is the propensity of many speakers to "swallow the s", meaning that "s" may either be pronounced like Spanish "j" or not at all.
Besides Spanish, a lot of indigenous languages are spoken, including Miskito, Sumo, Rama and Garifuna. There were also some extinct languages that didnt seem to be part of any particular branch of the language tree (or at least they werent classified).
But perhaps the most interesting language is the Nicaraguan Sign Language. Because of a lack of deaf people in Nicaragua, there wasnt an established sign language for them to learn and neither an external sign language to borrow. But during the 70s and 80s, the deaf community arose and the kids, finding themselves without a language to speak between themselves, decided just to create it themselves, from the ground. Thus, it provides the linguists a unique opportunity to watch the creation of a new language, with verbal agreement and all that stuff, all this created by kids.
Fiction involving Nicaragua:
- Alsino and the Condor - by Chilean director Miguel Littin.
- Ballad of the Little Soldier (originally Ballade vom kleinen Soldate in German) - Werner Herzog film about Child Soldiers in the Miskito's "army", once ally of the Sandinistas, later enemy of them.
- Under Fire - Gene Hackman as a reporter covering the fall of Somoza's regime.
- Walker - Anachronism Stew about William Walker, one of those Southerners that, during the years of the Confederation, tried to expand the slaving territory to the countries below (he actually came to be President of Nicaragua for a short while, go figure). Every Nicaraguan today knows his name, but few Americans have heard of him.
- Sandinista! by The Clash was inspired by the 1979 takeover by the leftwing Sandinista rebels of the rightwing dictatorship of the Somozas.
- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker - involves Sandinista rebels in Costa Rica as well as having a crucial battle set in Nicaragua.
- Fury: My War Gone By: One chapter covers Fury's time in Nicaragua training local soldiers, where he runs into the other US-provided forces using the entire situation to smuggle drugs.
The Nicaraguan flag