Nicaragua, Relations with

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NICARAGUA, RELATIONS WITH. Nicaragua's 1838 declaration of independence from the United Provinces of Central America was originally of little interest to U.S. officials. Yet by the late 1840s, growing interest in building a transoceanic canal across Central America caused American diplomats to devote closer scrutiny to Nicaragua. American officials quickly identified rising British influence in Nicaragua as a major obstacle to U.S. control of an isthmian canal. Yet since both Washington and London concluded that achieving supremacy in Central America was not worth an armed conflict, both nations agreed to joint control of a future canal by signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850.

As the debate over slavery expansion in the United States became more contentious during the 1850s, individual American adventurers, called filibusters, attempted to conquer parts of Central America and turn them into new slaveholding states. In Nicaragua, the site of sporadic warfare since independence, one political faction recruited the filibuster William Walker to Nicaragua in 1855, only to see Walker push it aside, declare himself president, and legalize slavery. Walker, who enjoyed the unofficial support of the American President Franklin Pierce, quickly alienated neighboring Central American leaders, the powerful financier Cornelius Vanderbilt, and most Nicaraguans, who together forced Walker to flee Nicaragua in 1857.

The birth of the Nicaraguan coffee industry in the 1860s fueled an economic boom that financed many improvements in transportation, communication, and education. Although the rise of the coffee economy also exacerbated poverty and widened the gap between rich and poor, Nicaraguan elites viewed the future with optimism, expecting that an American-financed isthmian canal would further accelerate Nicaragua's economic progress. Unsurprisingly, U.S.-Nicaraguan relations soured after Washington selected Panama as the site for an isthmian canal in 1903. When the Nicaraguan president José Santos Zelaya decided to attract non-American capital to finance a Nicaraguan canal, U.S. officials supported an anti-Zelaya coup in 1909. But the new government, lacking both political clout and popularity, soon turned to its American patron for support. At the request of the Nicaraguan government, the United States invaded Nicaragua in 1912, crushed the antigovernment insurgency, assumed control of Nicaraguan customs, and began a military occupation that would last intermittently until 1933.

In response to renewed violence in Nicaragua in 1927, the American diplomat Henry Stimson negotiated a peace settlement acceptable to all, save for the highly nationalistic Augusto Sandino, who recruited a peasant army and spent the next five years fighting a guerilla insurgency against the American marines. In 1933, the marines withdrew in favor of the National Guard, a native police force trained by American officials to provide internal security and political stability to Nicaragua. U.S. officials hoped that the guard would function apolitically, but Anastasio Somoza García, the commander of the guard, instead used his position to assassinate Sandino, his main rival, in 1934. Somoza proceeded to use the National Guard to create a political dictatorship and amass considerable personal wealth.

Although many American officials frowned upon Somoza's corrupt and authoritarian regime, they nevertheless supported him because he created a stable environment for U.S. investments and opposed communism. After Somoza was assassinated in 1956, the United States continued to support his sons Luis and Anastasio, who continued both the family dynasty and the low living standards and political repression that characterized it. Opponents of the regime founded the National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN or Sandinistas) in 1961, but the Sandinistas remained isolated and ineffective until the 1970s, when rampant government corruption and the increasingly violent suppression of opposition leaders turned many urban, middle-class Nicaraguans against the government.

President Jimmy Carter spent the late 1970s searching desperately for an alternative to Somoza, yet determined to prevent a Sandinista victory. After the FSLN took power on 17 July 1979, the Carter administration shifted tactics and attempted to steer the new revolutionary junta toward moderate policies. But the defection of prominent moderates from the revolutionary junta, the postponement of national elections, and the FSLN's support of leftist rebels in El Salvador ensured the hostility of Ronald Reagan, the winner of the 1980 presidential election. Shortly after assuming office, Reagan approved plans to sponsor an opposition army, known as the Contras, to overthrow the Sandinista government. The U.S. Congress, fearing that these policies would invite a replay of the Vietnam War, responded in June 1984 by prohibiting all lethal aid to the Contras. The debate over Contra aid, a hotly contested and controversial issue during the mid-1980s, culminated in a major political scandal after revelations in late 1986 that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and a small cadre of officials had secretly and illegally diverted funds from Iranian arms sales to the Contras.

Although the Sandinistas still controlled Nicaragua when Reagan left office in 1989, the Contra war left Nicaragua war-weary and economically devastated. Sandinista leaders subsequently agreed to free elections in 1990 as part of a broader peace initiative proposed by the Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. To the surprise of many, the opposition leader Violeta Chamorro defeated the Sandinistas on a platform of restoring a free market economy and liberal democracy. Although U.S. officials widely approved of these developments, American entrepreneurs have yet to match Washington's political endorsement with their own, as ongoing conflicts regarding the ownership of property confiscated by the Sandinistas during the 1980s have led U.S. investors to avoid the country.


LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1993.

Langley, Lester D., and Thomas Schoonover. The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880–1930. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Pastor, Robert A. Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Schoonover, Thomas. The United States in Central America, 1860– 1911: Episodes of Social Imperialism in the World System. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

H. MatthewLoayza

See alsoIran-Contra Affair ; Nicaraguan Canal Project .

Nicaragua, Relations with

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The Soviet Union had no diplomatic or economic relations with Nicaragua before the Somozas' fall in 1979. Contacts were through Communist Party organizations such as the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), founded in 1937 and illegal until 1979. While not opposing revolutionary violence in principle, the Communists believed that conditions in Nicaragua were not ripe for armed revolt. A member of the Party who had visited the USSR in 1957, Carlos Fonseca Amador, broke with the PSN on this issue. He called for insurrection and founded the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) in 1961.

The Sandinistas led the revolutionary upheaval that overthrew the Somozas in 1979. They took full control of Nicaragua and ignored the communists (PSN). Unlike other Soviet satellites, the Sandinistas left about half of the economy in private hands, and agriculture was not collectivized. The FSLN leader, Daniel Ortega, lacked the authority in the Council of State that Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev had in the Soviet Politburo.

In spite of the fact that the Sandinistas' success meant defeat for the local Communists, Moscow quickly established good relations with the Sandinista government. Soviet economic and military aid approached billions of rubles, far less than to Cuba. While offering political, economic, and military support, Moscow sought to limit Nicaragua as an economic and strategic burden. Cuba actively supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and abroad.

Meanwhile, the Reagan administration was backing an armed paramilitary force, the contras, which sought to overthrow the Sandinistas. The United States also aided a right-wing regime in El Salvador besieged by revolutionary forces supposedly encouraged by the Sandinistas. Both U.S. efforts were inconclusive.

Early in 1990 President George Bush and General Secretary Gorbachev began cooperating in the region, as they were in Eastern Europe, to end these conflicts. Central American countries, the United Nations, and the two great powers negotiated a regional settlement. The United States stopped supporting the contras, the Sandinistas agreed to free elections, and the USSR mollified Cuba. Later Ortega was defeated in the elections for the Nicaraguan presidency, and Moscow was no longer an actor on the Central American scene.

See also: cuba, relations with; united states, relations with


Blachman, Morris J.; Leogrande, William; and Sharpe, Kenneth. (1986). Confronting Revolution: Security through Diplomacy in Central America. New York: Pantheon.

Blasier, Cole. (1987). The Giant's Rival: The USSR and Latin America. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Cole Blasier