A land of poetry and revolution, lakes and volcanoes, war and peace.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America.
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Nicaragua has one of the highest degrees of income inequality in the world. 82.3% of the population lives in extreme poverty — on less than $1 per day — and in many rural areas the poverty is much worse. Nicaragua’s location and climate have made it prone to a host of natural disasters including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and hurricanes. This, along with massive deforestation and a history of political and economic repression, accelerates the cycle of poverty.
National Debt: In 2000 Nicaragua’s external debt was $6.5 billion dollars (over $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in Nicaragua) due mainly to the payment of bonds offered to indemnify persons whose properties were confiscated in the 1980s, and to the bankruptcy of several private banks. The Nicaraguan government could not even keep up with payments on the interest, thus the debt has continued to grow steadily. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed "structural adjustment" programs on Nicaragua that diverted funds from education, health, and infrastructure programs to debt repayment. In early 2004, after finally meeting all of the requirements for entry into the World Bank's Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, 80% of Nicaragua's external debt was cancelled. However, the debt relief provided by Nicaragua's entrance into the HIPC Initiative did not free up funds for investment in public health and education, but to finance the remaining internal debt which still stands at 6.2 million dollars.
A Brief History of Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s name hints at its history. It is believed to be a combination of the name of the chief of the Nahuatl-speaking tribe which inhabited the shores Lake Nicaragua before the Spanish conquest of the Americas — "Nicarao", and the Spanish word "agua" representing the Spanish conquistadors special interest in it's two large lakes: Lake Nicaragua (pictured left) and Lake Managua.
By the mid-1800's the indigenous population had been all but destroyed and the Spanish conquistadors were being replaced by North American opportunities as the United States began to look seriously at building a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nicaragua, with its natural waterway provided by Lake Nicaragua, rose as the first choice for the location of that canal, and in the 1860s William Walker, a mercenary backed by US investors, invaded Nicaragua and proclaimed himself President. Shortly after that, the US Marines entered Nicaragua to protect Walker from the violent response of the people of Nicaragua.
The US Marines maintained a presence in Nicaragua for the next several decades. In the '20s, a small grassroots resistance movement began led by Augusto Sandino (statue pictured right). The movement grew, and the Marines were withdrawn from Nicaragua, leaving in their place a military dictator who had been trained in the United States — Anastasio Somoza. Within the first years of his ‘reign’ Somoza had Sandino assassinated, initiated a program of brutal repression against the guerilla movement, and began to amass significant wealth and land for himself. His two sons followed his presidency and furthered his reign of terror and oppression. In the 1960’s another resistance movement began to grow and took for itself the name of the earlier hero, Sandino: "Frente Sandinista Liberacion Nacional" (the FSLN, a.k.a. Sandinistas). One of the early leaders of this resistance movement was Carlos Fonseca. At the same time a grass roots movement was beginning in the Roman Catholic church in Latin America that came to be known as Liberation Theology. The two movements coalesced in Nicaragua and comunidades de base (base communities) began to form all around the country in response both to the church's lack of presence with the poor, and its clear affiliation with the military government.
As the revolutionary movement grew, so did the strength of the FSLN. The Somoza’s turned to the US for support. Both financial and military support was provided to the dictatorship until the outcry in the US became loud enough that in the late 1970s President Jimmy Carter finally withdrew the aid to the Nicaraguan government. By this time the Somoza family owned over 50% of the land in Nicaragua and an even greater percentage of the national industry and wealth.
On July 19, 1979, the Sandinistas finally overthrew Somoza and took over leadership of the country, naming Daniel Ortega President of Nicaragua. This new political group greatly threatened the United States and in 1980 President Ronald Regan created military force known as the "Contras" to begin a counter-revolutionary movement against the Sandinistas.
The Sandinistas began a “revolutionary renewal” of services for the people of Nicaragua. Literacy and Health clinics were established all across the nation. Land reform movements were initiated to confiscate unused land from “Somocistas” (wealthy Nicaraguans who had been part of Somoza’s support and had fled to Miami when he was defeated). The land was returned to compesinos to form cooperatives. Loans were made to help the compesinos establish these collective farms. Free elections were held in 1986 in which Ortega and the Sandinista Party were overwhelmingly re-elected.
However, the Contra movement was relentless, using the scorch and burn tactics developed in Vietnam to target schools and clinics, destroy farms and villages, and demoralize the population. The "secret war" included an economic embargo of Nicaragua, and mining Nicaraguan harbors — all efforts to economically destabilize the Sandinista government. The US-funded Contra war killed over 50,000 Nicaraguans, and literally crushed the fragile economy.
After 12 years of struggle, the US-backed candidate for president, Violetta Chamorrow of the UNO Party, was elected in 1990, and the Sandinista reforms came to an end. Over the next few years, the country returned to the pattern of an increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Many of the Sandinista reforms — including much of the land reforms — were reversed. Poverty and despair increased as a series of right-wing governments followed, and the hope of their revolution died.
In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, leaving thousands of people in Nicaragua homeless and destroying crops for the entire year. Devastating poverty and unemployment grew even worse as, in response, the Alleman government took a page from Somoza’s book by misusing and misappropriating much of the world economic aid that came to Nicaragua. At the same time, continued international moves toward “Free Trade” and deeper World Bank / International Monetary Fund (IMF) involvement have further strangled Nicaragua’s grossly overburdened economy. In 2007, despite strong US backed resistance, Daniel Ortega was again elected President of Nicaragua. However, in-fighting in the Sandinista party has caused huge political ruptures, and there is deep distrust and division in the country about Ortega's leadership.
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Various Other Facts
Population: 6,300,000 - one half under age of 16
Per capita income: $300 annually, making it the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere
Birth rate: 2.5% - one third born to women under 19
Mortality rate for children under 5: 66/1000 (higher in rural areas)
Life expectancy: 69.5 years
Malnutrition among children: 40% nationally; 60-70% in rural areas
Illiteracy: 20% nationally; 60% in rural areas. Primary schools are free but many families can’t afford clothes, shoes and school supplies. More than 15% of the population (800,000 children) does not attend school.
Unemployment: 60% nationally; 95% in rural areas