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republic, Central America, largest of the region, bounded on the N by Honduras, on the E by the Caribbean Sea, on the S by Costa Rica, and on the W by the Pacific Ocean. The area of Nicaragua is about 130,000 sq km (50,200 sq mi).
LAND AND RESOURCES
The Nicaraguan highlands, with a mean elevation of about 610 m (about 2000 ft), cross Nicaragua from the NW to the SE. Several mountain ranges, the highest of which, the Cordillera Isabelia, reaches an elevation of more than 2100 m (more than 6890 ft), cut the highlands from E to W. In the W is a great basin, or depression, containing two lakes, Nicaragua, the largest in Central America, and Managua. The two are connected by the Tipitapa R. A chain of volcanoes, which is a contributory cause of local earthquakes, rises between the lakes and the Pacific coast. In the E, the Caribbean coastal plain known as the Costa de Mosquitos (Mosquito Coast) extends some 72 km (some 45 mi) inland and is partly overgrown with rain forest. The four principal rivers of the country, the San Juan, Coco (Wanks), Grande de Matagalpa, and Escondido, all empty into the Caribbean Sea.
The coastal regions of Nicaragua have a tropical climate with a mean average temperature of 25.6° C (78° F). In the higher altitudes in the interior, the temperature varies between 15.6° and 26.7° C (60° and 80° F). The country’s rainy season is from May to October, and along the Caribbean coast annual rainfall averages 3810 mm (150 in).
The natural resources of Nicaragua are primarily agricultural. Deposits of volcanic material have enriched the soil, which is extremely fertile. About one-fourth of the land is covered with forests. The country has some deposits of gold, silver, and copper.
Plants and Animals.
The vegetation of Nicaragua is of a tropical and subtropical nature. Dense rain forests are found along the Caribbean coast and on the E slopes of the highlands. The country also has numerous types of trees including oak, pine, cedar, balsam, mahogany, and wild rubber trees, and some 50 varieties of fruit trees.
Nicaragua’s wild animals include puma, deer, several species of monkeys, and alligators as well as a variety of other reptiles. Parrots, hummingbirds, and wild turkeys are abundant.
About 69% of the Nicaraguan population is mestizo (people of mixed white and Indian descent), about 17% is white, and the remainder is black (9%) and Indian (5%).
The population of Nicaragua (1994 est.) was 4,210,000. For 2003 it was estimated at 5,466,000, yielding an overall density of about 42 persons per sq km (about 109 per sq mi). A majority of the population is concentrated in the W part of the country, and about 60% is urban.
Political Divisions and Principal Cities.
Nicaragua is divided into 15 departments and two autonomous regions. Managua, with a population (2001 est.) of 1,039,000, is the capital and commercial center. León (1999 est., 123,865) is an important religious and cultural center.
Language and Religion.
Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua. Nearly 90% of the Nicaraguan people are Roman Catholic; most of the remainder are Protestant.
In the early 1990s primary education was free and compulsory for children in Nicaragua; many did not attend secondary school because of a lack of facilities. About 674,000 pupils were enrolled in the country’s primary schools but only about 180,100 pupils attended secondary and vocational schools. Nearly 35,000 students attended Nicaraguan institutions of higher education, including the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (1812) in Managua and León; and the Central American University (1961), the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (1967), and the National University of Engineering (1983), all located in Managua.
As in other Latin American countries, the culture of Nicaragua reflects Spanish culture, influential since the colonial period, combined with an ancient Indian heritage. The National Museum of Nicaragua (1896) containing archaeological, ceramic, and natural history collections, is located in Managua.
Nicaraguans hold many colorful celebrations to commemorate local saints’ days and ecclesiastical events. The marimba is extremely popular, and ancient instruments such as the chirimía (clarinet), maraca (rattle), and zul (flute) are common in rural areas. Dances from colonial times survive, as do fine examples of architecture.
Nicaragua’s gross national product (GNP) in the early 1990s was estimated at $1.4 billion, or only $360 per capita. The economy grew at a substantial rate until the late 1970s, when civil unrest disrupted economic activity; subsequently, between 1980 and 1992, the GNP shrank by a yearly average of 5%, the inflation rate exceeded 600% annually, and the foreign debt quintupled. Hurricane Mitch dealt the nation a further blow in 1998.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, but several modern manufacturing industries have been established, especially in and near Managua. Gold is the main mineral resource. The government of Nicaragua plays a major role in the economy, which is highly dependent on foreign aid and burdened by foreign debt. The annual government budget in the mid-1990s included revenues of $390 million and expenditures of $550 million.
In the early 1990s agriculture in Nicaragua employed about 30% of the labor force. The principal commercial crops are coffee, cotton, sugarcane, and bananas. Other crops include maize, sorghum, rice, beans, and oranges. Nicaragua is one of the leading cattle-raising countries in Central America. In the early 1990s the country had about 1.6 million head of dairy and beef cattle.
Forestry and Fishing.
About 25% of Nicaragua is forested, and the annual roundwood harvest was about 4.2 million cu m (about 148 million cu ft) in the early 1990s. Lumbering is carried on along the principal rivers that flow into the Caribbean.
Commercial fishing was taken over by the government in 1961. In the early 1990s the annual catch of both freshwater and saltwater fish was only about 5700 metric tons.
Manufacturing and Energy.
About 23% of the country’s annual gross domestic product is contributed by the manufacturing sector, which provides cement, chemicals, petroleum products, and consumer goods. The country has coffee-processing plants and sugar-refining mills, as well as textile mills that process domestic cotton.
In the early 1990s Nicaragua had an installed electricity-generating capacity of about 395,000 kw, and annual production was some 1 billion kwh. About 47% was produced in conventional thermal facilities, 25% in hydroelectric installations, and 28% from geothermal resources.
Currency and Foreign Trade.
The gold córdoba, consisting of 100 centavos, is the basic monetary unit of Nicaragua (15.09 gold córdobas equal U.S.$1; Sept. 2003). Annual exports in the early 1990s were valued at $267 million. Exports included coffee, cotton, meat, sugar, bananas, and gold. Imports, including fuels, raw materials, machinery, and consumer goods, were valued at about $727 million. Main trading partners included the U.S. and members of the Central American Common Market.
Transportation and Communications.
Nicaragua has about 15,290 km (about 9500 mi) of roads, of which 384 km (239 mi) are part of the Pan-American Highway. The national railway system was shut down in 1994. Steamers operate on Lake Nicaragua. Domestic and international air travel is provided by Aerolíneas Nicaragüenses (Aeronica), the state airline.
In the late 1990s, Nicaragua’s telecommunications network encompassed about 150,000 main telephone lines, 44,000 cellular telephone subscribers, 40,000 personal computers, 20,000 Internet users, 1.2 million radios, and 340,000 television sets. Major daily newspapers included Barricada, El Nuevo Diario, and La Prensa, all published in Managua.
In 1979 the newly formed Government of National Reconstruction abrogated Nicaragua’s 1974 constitution and issued a bill of rights. Elections in November 1984 brought a return to civilian rule; a new constitution came into effect in 1987.
Nicaragua was governed by a junta from 1979 until November 1984, when elections for a president and vice-president were held.
Under the Government of National Reconstruction, the main legislative organ was the 47-member Council of State. A new National Assembly took office in 1984; the assembly had 92 seats in the early 2000s.
The highest tribunal of Nicaragua is the supreme court, which sits in Managua. The country also has several lesser courts.
In the 1980s Nicaragua’s leading political party was the Sandinista National Liberation Front, founded in 1960. Most other parties that contested the 1984 elections were Sandinista allies; some opposition groups boycotted the voting. In the elections held in February 1990, an anti-Sandinista coalition known as the National Opposition Union (UNO) won a decisive victory. The leading political groups in the early 2000s included the Liberal Alliance and the Sandinistas.
Health and Welfare.
Health care in Nicaragua has improved in recent decades. In the early 1990s, life expectancy from birth averaged 66 years for women and 60 for men; the infant mortality rate was 57 per 1000 live births.
In the early 1990s Nicaragua had an army of 13,500 members, a navy of 500, and an air force of 1200. The anti-Sandinista government elected in 1990 drastically reduced the nation’s troop strength as the guerrillas of the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance, known as the contras, demobilized.
The coast of Nicaragua was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1502, but the first Spanish expedition of conquest, under Gil Gonzáles Dávila (1470?–1528?), did not arrive until 1522; it established several Spanish settlements. Francisco Fernández de Córdoba (1475–1526) founded Granada in 1523 and León in 1524.
Nicaragua was governed by Pedrarias Dávila from 1526 to 1531, but later in the century, following a period of intense rivalry and civil war among the Spanish conquerors, it was incorporated into the captaincy-general of Guatemala. Colonial Nicaragua enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity, although freebooters, notably English navigators such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Hawkins, continually raided and plundered the coastal settlements. In the 18th century the British informally allied themselves with the Miskito—an Indian people intermarried with blacks—severely challenging Spanish hegemony. For a period during and after the middle of the century the Mosquito Coast was considered a British dependency. The so-called Battle of Nicaragua at the time of the American Revolution, however, ended British attempts to win a permanent foothold in the country.
Agitation for independence began at the start of the 19th century, and Nicaragua declared itself independent of Spain in 1821. A year later it became part of the short-lived Mexican empire of Agustín de Iturbide, and in 1823, after Iturbide’s downfall, it joined the United Provinces of Central America (with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica).
Factional strife between the Liberals, centered in the city of León, and the Conservatives, centered in Granada, became characteristic of Nicaraguan politics. The Liberals fought to establish an independent nation and in 1838 declared Nicaragua an independent republic. Civil strife continued, however, and in 1855 William Walker, an American adventurer with a small band of followers, was engaged by the Liberals to head their forces. He captured and sacked Granada in 1855 and in 1856 became president of Nicaragua. By seizing property belonging to a transport company controlled by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Walker incurred the latter’s enmity. Vanderbilt backed the conservative opponents of Walker, who fled the country in 1857.
In 1893 a successful revolution brought the Liberal leader José Santos Zelaya (1853–1919) to power. He remained president for the next 16 years, ruling as a dictator. Zelaya was forced out in 1909, after Adolfo Díaz (1874–1964) was elected provisional president. Following a revolt against his government in 1912, Díaz asked the U.S. for military aid to maintain order, and U.S. marines were landed. According to the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, the U.S. paid $3 million to Nicaragua for the right to build a canal across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, to lease Islas del Maíz, and to establish a naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca (Gulfo de Fonseca). The agreement aroused protest in several Central American countries and resulted in anti-American guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua. A force of American marines remained in Nicaragua until 1925. Rebellions began when the marines left, and the American force returned in 1926. An election was held under American supervision in 1928, and Gen. José María Moncada (1871–1945), a Liberal, was chosen president. One Liberal leader, however, Augusto César Sandino, engaged in a guerrilla war against U.S. forces for several years. The marines were withdrawn in 1933, leaving Anastasio Somoza commander of the National Guard. Somoza had Sandino killed and was elected president in 1937. During the next 20 years, although not always president, Somoza maintained control of Nicaragua.
Somoza Family Rule.
Nicaragua declared war on the Axis powers on Dec. 9, 1941. In June 1945 it became a charter member of the UN. Nicaragua joined the Organization of American States in 1948 and the Organization of Central American States in 1951. In 1956 Anastasio Somoza, who had resumed the presidency, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his son, Luis Somoza Debayle (1922–67), who first served out his father’s term and was then elected in his own right. For four years after the end of his tenure, close associates held the presidency. Then, in 1967, Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925–80), younger son of the former dictator, was elected president. A military-minded autocrat, he repressed opposition with the aid of the National Guard.
In August 1971 the legislature abrogated the constitution and dissolved itself. In elections to a constituent assembly in February 1972, Somoza’s Liberal party won decisively. In May, Somoza stepped down to the post of chief of the armed forces; political control was assumed by a triumvirate of two Liberals and one Conservative. On Dec. 23, 1972, the city of Managua was virtually leveled by an earthquake; about 5000 were killed and 20,000 injured. Martial law was declared, and Somoza in effect became chief executive again. He was formally elected president in 1974.
In early 1978 Pedro Joaquín Chamorro (1924–78), editor of the Managua newspaper La Prensa and long the most vocal of Somoza’s opponents, was assassinated. Somoza was accused of complicity in the act, and the country was plunged into a period of violence that became a virtual civil war. The anti-Somoza forces were led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a guerrilla group formed in the early 1960s and named for Augusto Sandino. By April 1979 the country was in chaos. Trying to prevent another Communist regime (in addition to Cuba) in the hemisphere, the U.S. urged Somoza to resign in favor of a moderate coalition. He stepped down on July 17, flying to exile first in Miami, Fla., then in Paraguay, where he was assassinated in 1980.
The Sandinistas named a junta to govern the country. Facing enormous difficulties, they tried, initially with U.S. aid, to stimulate the economy, but the U.S. soon became wary of their left-wing policies and, accusing them of abetting rebels in El Salvador, cut off aid in 1981 and began to support an anti-Sandinista guerrilla movement, the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance, known as the contras. In 1982, Nicaragua signed an aid pact with the USSR. In elections held in November 1984, the Sandinista presidential candidate, Daniel Ortega Saavedra (1946– ), won by a large margin. Although the U.S. Congress suspended military aid to the contras in the mid-1980s, officials in the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan continued to channel aid to the insurgency; in November 1986 it was revealed that the contras had benefited from funds diverted from payments made by Iran to the U.S. in exchange for secret arms shipments (see Iran-Contra Affair). In March 1988, at their first face-to-face peace talks, the contras and the Sandinistas agreed to a temporary truce.
Nicaragua Since the 1990s.
In internationally supervised elections in February 1990, a U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista coalition, the UNO, won a majority in the National Assembly, and UNO’s Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (1929– ) was elected president, succeeding Ortega. Inaugurated in April, she launched a program of reconstruction that included demobilization of the contras, gradual reduction in government troop strength, and currency reform. The high rate of inflation subsided, but economic growth remained low, and unemployment soared. José Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo (1946– ), a conservative former mayor of Managua, defeated Ortega in the presidential election of October 1996.
Up to 2000 people died in late October 1998 when torrential rains from Hurricane Mitch caused a massive mudslide at the Casitas volcano in western Nicaragua; the hurricane also caused extensive property damage. U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the Casitas disaster site in March 1999, and the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for Nicaraguan disaster relief two months later. A severe drought and plummeting coffee prices dealt the country a further economic setback as the new century began. Enrique Bolaños Geyer (1928– ), a former business leader who was vice-president under Alemán, outpolled Ortega in the presidential election of November 2001. After Bolaños was sworn in as president in January 2002, his predecessor became leader of the National Assembly. Alemán was subsequently accused, along with several close family members and former aides, of having misappropriated up to $100 million in public funds while he was president; ousted from his leadership post and stripped of his immunity from prosecution in September 2002, he was convicted of money laundering, embezzlement, and other crimes in December 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.