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LOCATION: Nicaragua
POPULATION: 5,785,846 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; indigenous dialects
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism (Moravian church)


The Spanish conquest of Nicaragua in the 1520s was a tragedy for the locals. The native population plummeted from more than a million to a few thousand due to the spread of Old World diseases and the mistreatment of the aborigine inhabitants after the imposition of slavery. During the colonial period, Nicaragua was weak and neglected, subject to destructive earthquakes, and plagued by raids from English, Dutch, and French buccaneers. The Caribbean coast was effectively under British control from 1687 until 1894. Nicaragua was one of the five provinces of Central America that declared independence from Spain in 1821. In 1838 it declared its independence from the federation that followed. William Walker, an American adventurer, exploited internal rivalries to briefly install himself as president during the 1850s. A half-century of peace and relative prosperity, during which many coffee and banana plantations were established, followed Walker's execution in neighboring Honduras.

In 1893, José Santos Zelaya, a fervent liberal, was elected president of the country. Zelaya was convinced that the reunification of Central America under one administration would bring peace and development to the region. He also was reluctant to allow international capital because it could undermine Nicaraguan sovereignty. Consequently, he refused to grant the United States canal-building rights on concessionary terms, thus encouraging Americans to choose Panama for the project.

In this tense environment, the United States backed up the conservative opposition in order to destabilize Zelaya's government. U.S. Marines landed in Nicaragua in 1909 and were kept there almost continuously from 1912 to 1933 to support a series of conservative regimes such as Emiliano Chamorro's (1917–1921) and Diego Chamorro's (1921–1923). The Bryan-Chamorro treaty gave the United States exclusive canal rights and allowed it to establish naval bases on Nicaraguan soil. Augusto César Sandino, the principal liberal leader, fought the U.S. occupation. Sandino won popularity in the Americas and in a few months became not just a national but also a regional hero. Sandino led guerrilla warfare against the government. Sandino was kidnapped and assassinated in 1934 and Anastasio Somoza attained power.

The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua with an iron hand from 1936 to 1979. Nicaragua experienced high economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s, largely as a result of industrialization, and became one of Central America's most developed nations despite its political instability. In 1972 a major earthquake destroyed 90% of the capital city of Managua. While the population was in a precarious situation, Somoza and his allies profited privately from international aid programs. In response to this governmental behavior, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was able to overthrow the Somoza administration in 1979, following a struggle that killed an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people. The new administration inherited a devastated country.

Alarmed by the Sandinistas' warm ties with the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the insurgents in El Salvador, the United States imposed a trade embargo and sent money and arms to resistance groups known collectively as the Contras. The Contras established its main bases in the border of Honduras and Costa Rica, and in the mid-1980s they reached the astonishing number of 15,000 soldiers. Some 30,000 people died in the decade-long struggle. A 1989 cease-fire was followed by elections in which the Sandinistas were defeated and surrendered political power to the UNO opposition coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Chamorro's main contribution was the disarmament of groups in the northern and central areas of the country, which provided the necessary stability to allow the country to follow an institutional path toward democracy.

In 1996, Arnoldo Alemán won the presidency backed by the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). The PLC won the 2001 presidential race, this time with Enrique Bolaños in the ticket. During Bolaños administration, former president Alemán was charged with corruption and money laundering, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2006, Daniel Ortega —former guerrilla leader and member of the junta that took power in 1979—was elected president of Nicaragua.

Economically, Nicaragua has experienced with widespread underemployment. About 48% of its population was living under the poverty level in 2005. Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world and the lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere.


Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, at about the size of New York State. It is bounded on the north by Honduras, on the south by Costa Rica, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The central highlands, including a belt of mountains, 25 of them volcanic, separate the Pacific lowlands from the more extensive Caribbean lowlands (the Miskito Coast), which occupy the eastern half of the country. Lake Nicaragua in the southwest is the largest lake in Central America and has the unusual distinction of being the only lake inhabited by freshwater sharks.

More than 50% of Nicaraguans live in the Pacific lowlands and about 33% live in the central highlands; fewer than 10% live in the hot and swampy Caribbean lowlands. Some 69% of the people are mestizo, of mixed ethnic Spanish and indigenous descent. About 17% are of European descent, about 9% are Black, and 5% are native Amerindian.

Nicaragua is rich in natural resources. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing support 40% of the labor force. In addition, the country has important deposits of gold, silver, zinc, and cooper. Moreover, the forest supplies vast quantities of hardwoods and softwoods and the long, coastal waters contain abundant fish. Cattle are also a significant resource for basic staples, such as meat and milk. During the mid-1990s, Nicaragua's main export products were coffee, seafood, beef, and sugar.


Spanish is the official and predominant language spoken in Nicaragua. Speech tends to be "aspirated," especially in words ending with the letter "s." As in some other Spanish American countries, vos tends to replace as the singular familiar pronoun, with corresponding changes in verb conjugations. Nicas, as the people call themselves, are known for the quantity and variety of irreverent and off-color jokes in their everyday speech.

English is the predominant language in the Caribbean half of the country, as well as in the capital city, and is the native tongue of the Creoles, Blacks who came from Jamaica and other British West Indies islands as laborers on banana plantations. The Miskito, Nicaragua's main indigenous group, also live in this region. Of mixed Indian, African, and European ancestry, they speak an Indian language related to the Chibcha of South America.

As in many Latin American nations, people have two family names: the mother's family name, which acts as a surname, followed by the father's family name. For example, Mario Garcia Sanchez would be addressed as Señor Garcia.


Spanish folk practices survived in Nicaragua in combination with Amerindian folklore, which attributed the very creation of the world to magic. A lively traffic in witchcraft developed from these roots. Love potions, for example, can always find customers. Folk medicine relies both on knowledge of plants native to Nicaragua and on superstition that derives from the Indian and Spanish past. The cuadro, or picture of a saint found in most households, is often credited with magical powers derived from native cult idols. Feasts for local patron saints are often held at the times of planting and harvesting and reflect folk beliefs that divine intervention will result in bountiful crops.

In the Indian mythology found in Nicaragua at the time of the Spanish conquest, the Corn Goddess Cinteotl was an aspect of the Mother Goddess Chicomecoatl. A feast called Xóchitl was held annually in honor of Cinteotl. Soups and fermented drinks derived from corn preserve some of the ritual significance once attributed to that most basic, and hence sacred, grain.

Nicaraguan folk literature abounds in tall tales and fantastic heroes, such as Pedro Urdemales. In fables, the jokester and trickster Uncle Rabbit constantly outwits Uncle Coyote.


Approximately 90% of Nicaraguans are Roman Catholic. City dwellers and those from the middle and upper classes are most likely to attend Mass and receive the sacraments. The lower classes tend to be less religious. There is a shortage of priests, and the Church's ability to reach people in rural areas is limited. During the civil war, the bishops were hostile to the ruling Sandinistas, but some priests and nuns have been activists who employ Marxist terminology in what has been described as "liberation theology."

The 10% of the population that are Protestant chiefly live in the Caribbean part of the nation. The Moravian Church is dominant in this region; almost all Miskito and many Creoles are Moravian. Pentecostal churches have made important gains among Nicaragua's poor. The Assemblies of God is the largest of the Pentecostal denominations.


La Purísima is the most important holiday in Nicaragua. Th is is a weeklong celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. Elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are erected or decorated in homes and workplaces, and people, especially children, go from altar to altar singing songs and reciting prayers.

The posadas are nine consecutive nights, ending on Christmas Eve (December 24), dedicated to nightly caroling processions commemorating the Holy Family's wanderings in search of shelter in Bethlehem. Holy Week (Easter, in late March or early April) processions are most impressive in Leon and Granada. Managua holds a fiesta in honor of St. Dominic, the city's patron saint, between August 1 and 10. Masaya has a notable feast to St. Jerome on September 30, complete with Indian dancers in costume, and a pilgrimage on March 16 in which the Virgin of Masaya and the Christ of Miracles of Nindirí is taken down to Lake Masaya, whose waters are blessed.

An important secular holiday is Independence Day on September 15, which commemorates the 1821 Central American declaration of independence from Spain. Liberation Day on July 19 marks the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza regime.


The baptism ceremony for the newly born is important. Godparents are responsible for the ceremony and the festivities that follow, and they are expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the child and to provide aid in times of hardship. A child receiving First Communion, usually at the age of nine, is given many gifts. A girl's 15th birthday is often celebrated as denoting that she has come of age. Among the middle and upper classes, dating does not begin until later. Among adults, birthdays have little importance, but the person's saint's day may be marked. Death may be accompanied by a novena for the deceased as well as by the funeral ceremony.


The Hispanic style of greeting is generally more demonstrative than in the United States, and among Hispanic Nicaraguans it tends to be more gregarious and demonstrative than most. Friends almost always shake hands when greeting and parting and often embrace. Women often kiss on one or both cheeks as well as embracing. People often stand closer to one another in conversation than is customary in the United States. A common casual greeting, especially among teenagers, is "Hola" ("Hi").

Visitors may drop in on friends without previous arrangement. Calling cards are often exchanged in social situations as well as in business relations. People of some social standing are greeted with respectful titles, such as Señor, Señora, and Señorita (Mr., Mrs., and Miss, respectively). Older people are often addressed by the respectful titles of don or doña. Titles reflecting professional attainment are also in common use.

The concept of honor is important in Nicaragua and is upheld vigorously. Personal criticism is considered to be in poor taste. Urban residents are more cosmopolitan, adopting "modern" values, but people in rural areas tend to be more traditional. The concept of machismo, in which men are seen as more important than women, is still common in rural areas.


The civil war of the 1980s left a bitter legacy as Nicaragua plunged to last place among Central American countries in national income. Indeed, the standard of living fell to that of 1960 or even before. In the mid 1990s, some 75% of Nicaraguans were living below the poverty line.

The Sandinista regime substantially increased spending on health care, broadening and equalizing access to services. There was a substantial drop in infant mortality and the transmission of communicable diseases. However, the system was increasingly strained by shortages of funds and the need to treat war victims. Because health care was subsidized under the Spanish, the economy suffered great damage. In the mid 1990s, most people had no choice but to rely on public facilities that were inadequately staffed, under equipped, and often mismanaged. Most people were malnourished, taking in well below the minimum recommended allowances of calories and protein.

Most people are also poorly sheltered. The national housing deficit, according to a 1990 estimate, was 420,600 units. In rural areas, the most basic dwelling is a dirt-floor straw or palm-frond hut supported by poles and sticks. Its counterpart in towns and cities is a low adobe structure with a tile roof. Squatter settlements are found on the outskirts of the cities. The more substantial homes of the middle and upper classes, of Spanish or Mediterranean style, are nevertheless sparing in ornament, their restraint perhaps reflecting the national vulnerability to earthquakes.


Nicaraguans turn to the family for support because community and church ties tend to be weak. Individuals are judged on the basis of their families, and careers are advanced through family ties. The nuclear family of father, mother, and children is fundamental, but the household may be augmented by a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or orphaned children. Newly married couples may take up residence with one or the other set of parents. Godparents, although unrelated by blood or marriage, are also important to the family structure.

Except for the middle and upper classes, marriage is not often formalized, although both civil and church ceremonies have the force of law, and common-law unions were given legal status in the 1980s. The birth rate is high, with the average woman giving birth to nearly six children during her child-bearing years. Abortion is illegal except to save the woman's life, but it is not uncommon. Women have major representation in the government, unions, and social organizations, but not in business. Many are heads of households and, in addition to their domestic duties, have joined the labor force in small-scale commerce, personal services, low-wage sectors such as the garment industry, and, to an increasing degree, in harvesting plantation crops.


Typically, women wear simple cotton dresses, while many men wear work shirts, jeans, sneakers or sandals, and straw hats. Even businessmen will often wear sport shirts, or doff their jackets in hot weather in favor of the guayabera—a long cotton shirt.

Traditional dress for women varies. In Masaya it consists of a long, loose cotton skirt and short-sleeved cotton blouse, in red, blue, green, or yellow. The fringes of the skirt and blouse and the waistline are embroidered. A shawl is thrown over the shoulder, and a necklace and earrings are worn, with flowers in the hair. For men the native costume is blue cotton trousers, a long-sleeved collarless white cotton shirt, a sheathed machete strapped to the waist, a high-peaked straw hat, and sandals. (Women go barefoot.) More elaborate costumes are worn only for folk dances.


Beans, which provide the main source of protein, and corn tortillas, are the basics of the Nicaraguan diet. Nicaraguans like gallo pinto—small red beans with rice—for breakfast. The nacatamal, wrapped in a banana-like leaf rather than a corn-husk, is the local form of the tamale. In addition to cornmeal, it may contain rice, tomatoes, potatoes, chili, cassava root, and a small piece of meat. The Christmas Eve meal consists of nacatamales with a filling of turkey, chicken, or pork, and raisins, almonds, olives, and chili, served with sopa borracha ("drunken soup")—slices of caramel or rice-flour cake covered with a rum-flavored syrup. Another distinctive dish is vaho, slowly steaming salted meat and various vegetables piled in layers over banana-like leaves and then covered while heating. Charcoal-grilled steak in a peppery marinade is another favorite. Tiste is a beverage made from ground tortillas and cacao beans, with fruit and sugar added. A snack food, the tajada, is a deep-fried plantain chip.

Meals usually last longer than they do in the United States, complemented with pleasant conversation. The main meal isis eaten at midday, often followed by a siesta, or afternoon rest. The siesta allows people to rest or even sleep during the hottest time of the day, when work is difficult.

Glorious Bananas

2 ripe plantains (very soft)
2 cups (16 ounces) milk
cooking oil
4 Tablespoons grated cheese
¼ cup (2 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon powdered cinnamon

Slice the plantains and brown them in the cooking oil in a frying pan. In a bowl, mix the sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon; add the milk and mix well. Add the grated cheese and vanilla. Use half the butter (½ tablespoon) to grease a Pyrex pan. Pour half the milk mixture into the greased pan, then place the fried plantains on top. Cover with rest of the milk mixture and dot with the remaining butter. Bake at 350%f for 30 minutes, or until the milk is set. Note: Do not use small yellow bananas, but plantains, a sort that is used for cooking. They are called platanos verdes when green and platanos maduros when ripe, but they always need to be cooked.

[Recipe courtesy of Embassy of Nicaragua.]


By making spending on education a priority, the Sandinista government lowered the rate of illiteracy from 52% to 23% of the adult population. School is mandatory and free between the ages of 6 and 13. In the mid-1990s, nearly 80% of primary-school-age children were in school; however, only 39% of females and 44% of males were attending secondary school. Nicaragua's two principal universities are Central American University and the National University of Nicaragua. There are four others.


Nicaragua has rich cultural traditions. Native to Central America is the marimba, a kind of xylophone, which may have come from Africa. The son nica is a driving rhythm overlaid with instrumentals. In Masaya, the traditional capital of the country, the marimba is sometimes accompanied by the oboe, the asses jaw (played by running a stick along the teeth of the bone), and a single-string bow with a gourd resonator. In the east the music is typically Afro-Caribbean, with banjos, accordions, guitars, and drums.

Traditional dance is sponsored and patronized in Nicaragua more than anywhere else in Central America. There are many dance groups. Dances include Las Negras, Los Diablitos, El Torovenado, Las Inditas, and El Toro Huaco, all with masked characters, some of them pink and large-nosed to burlesque the Spanish. In La Gigantora, a giant woman is paired with a midget. In the pale volador, participants unwind from a rope wound around a high pole, swinging to the accompaniment of native Indian percussive instruments. The Caribbean coast also has a maypole dance.

An important specimen of folk drama as well as dance is El Güegüense, a farce going back to the 16th or 17th century that combines dance and pointed social satire. As in the nation's fables, the hero is a trickster who uses his wits to frustrate the powerful, in this case the wielders of royal authority.

Foremost of Nicaragua's writers was the poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916), whose innovative verse had a profound effect on Spanish literature. He is known as the "prince of Spanish-American literature." Other important writers have included the poets Azarias Pallais, Alfonso Cortés, Sálomon de la Selva, and Ernesto Cardenal, and the poet and dramatist Santiago Argüello.

The complex and dramatic political events experienced by Nicaraguan people through the 1970s and 1990s have influenced a flourishing group of artists. The paintings of Alejandro Canales, Armando Morales, and Leoncio Sáenz, as well as the poetry of Gioconda Belli and Ernesto Cardenal, are clear expression of this cultural trend. Unlike the Somoza regime, which promoted imported culture, Sandinistas encouraged what they call "democratizing, national, anti-imperialist" arts forms. A ministry of culture was established under the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal.


Reflecting the dismal state of the economy, unemployment and underemployment were estimated at 60% of the work force in the mid-1990s, but reliable statistics are hard to come by because many people eke out a living as street vendors or are engaged in other aspects of the informal economy. Social class is based on whether or not one works with the hands, and on that basis 80% of the people are lower class (those who do work with their hands). Nearly 50% of the work force lives by farming, mostly with hand tools and oxen-drawn plows on small subsistence plots. Farm hands are even worse off, employed mostly by large estates only at planting time and harvest season. Most industrial workers are employed in food-processing plants.


In other Central American countries soccer reigns supreme, but in Nicaragua (and Panama) baseball is the most popular sport. Nicaraguans were playing in organized leagues in the 1890s and, by the early 1960s, even the isolated Miskito were playing regularly. The nation's most famous player, Dennis Martínez, was the first baseball player from Nicaragua to play in Major League Baseball. Also popular, besides soccer, are boxing, basketball, volleyball, and water sports. Children's games abound; one authority has put their number at no less than 134.


Fiestas are an important part of public life and include such diversions as cockfighting, bull-riding, and bull-baiting. Dancing in clubs is popular; Lobo Jack's, in Managua, is the largest disco in Central America. Most films are in English with Spanish subtitles. In 1993 eight towns had television stations, and there were about 210,000 television sets in use.

Even though the family is the most important unit of society, youth clubs for socializing are becoming more popular.


Locally made earthenware is decorated much as it was before the Spanish conquest. Other handicraft items include hammocks, baskets, mats, embroidery, leatherwork, coral jewelry, and carved and painted gourds and dolls. Masaya's Artisans Market has the nation's most extensive selection.


In spite of the fact that the civil war had ended, at least 270 people died in political violence between 1990 and 1994, with police, army, and Sandinistas killing demobilized Contras, and northern Contra bands committing similar acts, often because of land disputes.

Previously undeveloped tracts of rainforest are being cut down at an alarming pace to grow crops and gather fuel wood. Health care is suffering from shortages of food, medicine, and basic medical supplies. Malnutrition and tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, are serious problems.


With the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, Nicaraguan women acquired social and political rights that were not available during the Somoza dictatorship. During the Literacy Crusade in the early 1980s, over 45% of the teachers in the rural areas were female, and women made up 46.5% of the rural students who had passed the literacy course.

The participation of women in politics also increased dramatically during the years of the Sandinista government. After 1979, women occupied 32% of the leadership positions within the government and, throughout the 1980s, women held such positions as minister of health, ambassador to the United Nations, national police chief, minister of social welfare, supreme court judges and deputies to the national assembly.

Even though Nicaraguan women comprised 45% of the economically active population in 1989, they were still over-represented in lower paying and less stable occupations, such as domestic service (70%), market vending (84%), and informal sector work (65%). Prostitution, a common source of employment for women prior to the revolution, was outlawed in 1979.

Despite advancements in economic and political spheres, domestic violence against women and teen pregnancy have remained critical problems in Nicaragua. In 1998, 29% of all Nicaraguan women suffered some kind of physical or sexual abuse. In addition, Nicaragua has one of the highest teen fecundity rates in the world, where 10% of 15 year-old girls already have children. While abortion is illegal in Nicaragua, between 27,000 and 36,000 abortions are practiced every year, and two out of ten women die as a result of an unsafe abortion.


Cuadra, Pablo Antonio. El Nicaragüense. San José, Costa Rica: Asociación Libro Libre, 1987.

Glassman, Paul. Nicaragua Guide. Champlain, New York: Travel Line, 1996.

Luciak, Ilja A. After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Merrill, Tim, ed. Nicaragua: A Country Study. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.

Peña Hernández, Enrique. Folklore de Nicaragua. Masaya: Editorial Unión, 1968.

Smith, Calvin L. Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

Weber, Clare. Visions of Solidarity: U.S. Peace Activists in Nicaragua from War to Women's Activism and Globalization. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.

—revised by C. Vergara

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