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western lowlands, Somozas, Nicarao, Lake Nicaragua, land of lakes

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Nicaragua, largest country in Central America. Nicaragua is sometimes called “the land of lakes and volcanoes,” and the largest lakes in Central America and a chain of volcanic peaks dominate the western part of the country. Lakes also fill the craters of many of the volcanoes. Most of Nicaragua's people live in the country’s western lowlands, where most of the country’s economic activity also occurs. Managua, the country’s capital and largest city, lies along the shores of Lake Managua in western Nicaragua, on geologic fault lines. Severe earthquakes destroyed Managua twice in the 20th century. Nicaragua also has thick rain forests, rugged highlands, and fertile farming areas.

Nicaragua probably takes its name from Nicarao, chief of the indigenous people who lived around Lake Nicaragua at the time Spanish explorers and conquerors arrived in the early 1500s. Today, most of the people are of mixed European and Native American ancestry, but the country also has minorities of primarily Native American, African, or European descent. The total population is 5.8 million.

Nicaragua's economy is based largely on agriculture, especially on crops grown for export. Coffee is the most important agricultural export, while corn is the major crop grown for domestic consumption. Nicaragua ranks among the poorest nations in Central America, after years of corrupt dictatorship, natural disasters, revolution, and civil war.

Nicaragua has had a stormy history, marred by internal conflicts and intervention by other nations, especially the United States. Nicaragua remained a minor part of the Spanish colonial empire from the early 1500s until it gained independence in 1821. Ongoing conflict between liberal and conservative factions made political stability an impossibility during the country’s first century of independence. Armed U.S. forces intervened several times: in the 1850s, when an American mercenary took over Nicaragua, and between 1912 and 1933, when U.S. Marines were stationed there to impose order.

For more than 40 years, the Somoza family dictatorship controlled Nicaragua's government and economy, and enriched itself and its supporters at the nation's expense. The Somozas, who enjoyed strong U.S. support, were overthrown in 1979 by the Sandinistas, Marxist revolutionaries who promised social and economic reforms. The Sandinista government made some progress on social issues but fought a devastating civil war through the 1980s against rebels known as contras, who were supported by the United States and Nicaragua's neighbor Honduras. A peace settlement was reached in 1990, and since then democratically elected governments have succeeded one another. Nevertheless, the nation continues to struggle with severe economic problems, disagreements among political factions, and social inequalities.


For younger readers

Haverstock, Nathan A. Nicaragua in Pictures. Lerner, 1987. For readers in grades 5 to 8.

Morrison, Marion. Nicaragua. Scholastic, 2002. For readers in grades 6 to 9.


Luciak, Ilja A. The Sandinista Legacy: Lessons from a Political Economy in Transition. University Press of Florida, 1995. An assessment of the economic consequences of the Sandinista regime.

Paige, Jeffery M. Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. Harvard University Press, 1997. The coffee elite and political influence as exercised in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

Plunkett, Hazel. Nicaragua in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture. Interlink, 1999. A guide to Nicaragua's people and struggles.

Prevost, Gary, and Harry E. Vanden. The Undermining of the Sandinista Revolution. St. Martin's, 1999. A retrospective look at current conditions and the gains won by the Sandinista revolt.

Ramirez, Sergio.Trans. Darwin J. Flakoll. Hatful of Tigers: Reflections on Art, Culture, and Politics. Curbstone, 1995. Nicaraguan culture as it emerged out of the Sandinista revolution.

Sabia, Debra. Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua. University of Alabama Press, 1997. A study of the role of the Christian church in Nicaraguan society and politics.


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