A land of poetry and revolution, lakes and volcanoes, war and peace.
Source: World Bank/United Nations World Food Program
- Population: 6 million - 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
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, the Nicarao, and the Spanish word "agua" representing the Spanish conquistadors special interest in it's two large lakes: Lake Nicaragua 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 1920s, a small grassroots resistance movement began led by Augusto Sandino. 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 his first years in power, 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, Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional (the FSLN; Sandinista National Liberation Front; a.k.a. Sandinistas). One of the early leaders of this resistance movement was Carlos Fonseca. At the same time a grassroots 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 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 as President. This new political group was not welcomed by Washington, and the U.S. played a leading role in financing, training, arming, and advising the counter-revolutionary movement, the Contras, throughout the 1980s. The Contras only became capable of carrying out significant military operations against the Sandinistas as a result of this support.
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 placing mines Nicaraguan harbors — all efforts to economically destabilize the Sandinista government. The US-funded Contra war killed over 50,000 Nicaraguans and crushed the fragile economy.
In 1990, after 12 years of struggle, the US-backed candidate for president, Violetta Chamorrow of the UNO Party, was elected, 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. 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.
Learn more about our Nicaragua partner cities here.
Click here for a great list of resources.
Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, by Nicaraguan songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, has become an informal national anthem. Click here for musical notation.