Nation of Central America, with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It takes its name from an Indian chief. El Salvador and Honduras are to the N and Costa Rica is to the S. The Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez de Avila conquered Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica in 1522. The next year Francisco Fernand ez de Cordoba was sent to deprive Gonzalez de Avila of his claim to Nicaragua, and in 1524 he founded Granada and Leon. Under Spanish rule, Nicaragua was part of the captaincy general of Guatemala. In 1678 England declared a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, the eastern coast of the country, and made Bluefields the capital. Nicaragua won independence from Spain in 1821 and with the other Central American nations—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—became part of the Mexican Empire, over which Augustin de Iturbide ruled briefly as Emperor Augustin I. Between 1825 and 1838 the five nations formed the Central American Confederation, with Manuel Jose Arce as the first president. Rivalries brought about dissolution of the confederation in spite of the efforts of a liberal dictator, Francisco Morazan.
The British occupied the town of San Juan Del Norte (Greytown) on the Mosquito Coast in 1848, but a treaty of 1860 with Nicaragua gave this area autonomy. Later, in 1894, President Jose Santos Zelaya seized the region by force. As early as 1826 the United States expressed interest in building a canal across Nicaragua. No canal was built, but in 1851 Cornelius Vand erbilt, the American shipping and railroad magnate, opened a route from the Atlantic coast to California that included a system of land transit across Nicaragua. An American adventurer, William Walker, set out in 1855 to conquer Nicaragua, which he did, and proclaimed himself president in 1856. The next year he was ousted by other Central American countries, assisted by Vand erbilt.
The country enjoyed a period of quiet from 1857 to 1909, most of the time under conservative rule. In 1912, however, U.S. Marines were sent to aid the conservative side in a civil war. They were opposed by guerrilla forces led by Augusto Cesar Sand ino until the U.S. withdrawal in 1933. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916 gave the United States the right to build a canal, but the treaty was terminated in 1970. In 1936, with U.S. backing, Anastasio Somoza killed Sand ino and overthrew the democratically elected president Juan Batista Sacassa. Somoza became the nation’s dictator; he and two sons turned the country, for practical purposes, into the private property of the Somoza family, ruling by terror and repression until a revolution in July 1979 destroyed their power. The revolution was broad based and included factions from all parts of the political spectrum, including the Sand inistas, named for the guerrilla leader.
Though the original revolutionary government included all these factions, it has since late 1980 moved toward full Sand inista control but includes members of the Roman Catholic clergy. They were accused by U.S. officials of being communist-oriented and of receiving military aid from the USSR and Cuba. The United States has sought to isolate the country diplomatically and economically and to overthrow the regime. The Sand inistas, however, assert they favor pluralistic democracy and negotiated settlements to regional disputes. In 1981, the United States, suspended economic aid and began supporting counterrevolutionary military forces, or contras. After the U.S. Congress acted to cut off aid to the contras, the government continued to covertly support the Nicaraguan anti-Sand inistas, using revenue from arms sales to Iran. The United States continued to exert pressure on the Sand inistas, illegally mining Nicaragua’s principal export harbors in 1984, and instituting a trade embargo in 1985. Elections in 1984 confirmed the Sand inista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra, as president. Although the regime received substantial Soviet economic aid, the U.S. embargo destroyed the economy as the aid petered out with Soviet troubles at home.
In 1990 elections, held under a Central American peace initiative, the Sand inistas were defeated by an opposition coalition, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a political moderate, became the new president. The United States lifted its trade embargo, and the Chamorro government tried to revive the economy and promote reconciliation among the factions. In October of 1998 Nicaragua was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 4,000. In 2003 the new president Enrique Bolanos Geyer accused his predecessor of corruption, leading to a split in the governing Liberal Party. Managua is the capital and largest city; Leon is the second largest.