As early as 1519, the Spanish Conquistadores reached the lowland from Panama. They discovered an area located on the south-western shores of Lake Nicaragua that was comparatively densely inhabited by peaceful Indians who lavished gold ornaments on them. Colonies at Granada and Leon were founded some 5 years later but most of the Spaniards moved elsewhere when the flow of gold dwindled. Both colonies were placed under the jurisdiction of Guatemala in 1570. Leon was chosen as the capital, despite being economically inferior to Granada, subsisting on crops of maize, beans and rice compared to the lucrative crops of sugar, cocoa and indigo. Leon’s geographical position was the reason why it was chosen over Granada to be the capital as it was more easily accessible from the Pacific. Later, in 1858, Managua was chosen as the capital as a compromise following violent rivalry between Granada and Leon.
The US has been involved in the politics of Nicaragua over the centuries and in 1909 the Nicaraguan Conservative leaders were helped by US Marines in their successful uprising to overthrow the Liberal president, Jose Santos Zelaya. In exchange for US help in securing a loan in 1911, Nicaraguan Conservative leaders agreed to hand over control of Nicaraguan customs to an American board. The US dispatched Marines to Nicaragua to enforce the control and remained there until 1933. The last five years of American occupation saw a relentless guerrilla war waged against the US Marines by the nationalists under the command of General Augusto Cesar Sandino. This led to American withdrawal in 1933 and President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the ‘Good Neighbour’ policy and pledged non-intervention. The Nicaraguan National Guard, an American-trained force, remained behind, under the leadership of Anastasio Somoza Garcia. In February 1934, General Sandino was assassinated by Somoza’s men and in 1936, Somoza, himself, took over the presidency. He remained in power until he was assassinated in 1956. Both of his sons served a presidential term and General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the younger of the two, dominated the country from 1963 until he was deposed in 1979. He was later assassinated in Paraguay.
Extensive damage and casualties (estimated at over 30,000) in certain parts of the country, especially in Managua, Esteli, Leon, Masaya, Chinandega and Corinto. were the result of the 1978-79 revolution against the Somoza Government by the Sandinista guerrillas. General Somoza finally resigned on the 17th July 1979 after heavy fighting and the Government was taken over by a Junta representing the Sandinista guerrillas and their civilian allies. In May 1980, a 47-member Council of State was created and following elections for an augmented National Constituent Assembly, held on 4th November 1984, The Sandenista Liberation Front won 61 out of a possible 94 seats. Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who had headed the Junta, was elected President. The failure of the Sandinista Government to meet the demands of The Democratic Coordinating Board (CDN), a right-wing grouping, led to this coalition boycotting the elections. The US administration, in turn, declared the poll a ‘sham’.
Anti-Sandinista Guerrillas (the ‘contras’) had no significant success in their war against the Government despite substantial official and private US support. The Sandinistas and the contras met in 1988 for the first time to discuss the implementation of the Central American Peace Plan drawn up by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan government made a number of political concessions to comply with the Plan and the contras, following a stream of desertions added to a lack of funds and diminished numbers, appeared to be a spent force.