Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. It is also arguably the largest receiver of American interference in a region that has historically endured repeated disruption by those in Washington, DC. Like its neighbors, Nicaragua has a long, ugly history with the United States, going back to the middle 19th century, when the California Gold Rush first drew US interest in building a canal across Central America to shorten ocean voyages from one American coast to another. US involvement expanded in the early 20th century to include invasions by US Marines and American support for the Somoza family of dictators. The Somozas’ grip on Nicaragua came to an end in 1979 when the leftist Sandinistas overthrew the regime and set about on a series of reforms and political alliances with communist countries that alarmed the Reagan administration. Unwilling to accept a Soviet- and Cuban-backed government in Central America, the US trained and supported a right-wing guerilla movement known as the Contras that attempted to destabilize the Sandinista government.
Lay of the Land: Largest of the Central American countries, Nicaragua has three distinct geological areas – the Pacific coastal hills and lowlands, the central highlands rising to as much as 7,000 feet, and the wide Caribbean lowlands, swampy and mosquito-infested. Most of the people live and work on the Pacific coast or in the highlands. The Caribbean lowlands, hot and rainy, are nearly uninhabited, though they comprise nearly half the nation's territory.
Nicaragua got its name from Nicarao, the leader of an indigenous community inhabiting the shores of Lake Nicaragua when the Spanish arrived in 1522 and conquered the area. Nicaragua was lumped together with Guatemala as part of Span’s regional governance. After declaring independence from Spain in 1821, Nicaragua was briefly part of the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide and then a member of the Central American Federation.
United States interest in Nicaragua began during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, when Americans sought a shortcut through Central America to avoid long voyages around South America. At first Nicaragua welcomed a US presence, thinking it would counterbalance the British presence in the area. In 1849, US diplomat and businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt signed a treaty with the Nicaraguan government which gave exclusive rights to the Accessory Transit Company (which Vanderbilt owned) to build a transisthmian canal across Nicaragua. The agreement also gave Vanderbilt and his company exclusive rights to land and water transit across Nicaragua while the canal was being built. In exchange, the US promised to protect Nicaragua from other foreign intervention.
On April 1, 2006, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) entered into force for Nicaragua. In 2008, the United States imported $1.7 billion worth of goods from Nicaragua. Leading imports from Nicaragua include apparel and household goods ($1.1 billion); green coffee ($140 million); meat products, poultry, and edible animals ($102 million); fish and shellfish ($80 million); notions, writing, and art supplies ($62 million); and nonmonetary gold ($52 million).
US Suspends Aid Program to Nicaragua
Nicaragua defies US with Iran trade deal (by Rory Carroll, The Guardian)
In October 2008, Human Rights Watch wrote that the “Nicaraguan government should take steps to ensure that human rights defenders are free to promote and protect women’s rights without harassment or intimidation.” They claim that Nicaragua’s blanket abortion laws are incompatible with international human rights law because they infringe on the protection of rights to life, health, and nondiscrimination. In summary, Human Rights Watch advocates protection from women’s rights defenders who have been subject to intimidation that includes threatening phone calls and acts of anonymous vandalism. Since the enactment of the blanket abortion law, dozens of women with medical conditions that require therapeutic abortion or emergency obstetric care have died or suffered sever disabilities. Amnesty International is in agreement with Human Rights Watch’s stand and has promoted a letter-writing campaign to express concern for women’s rights defenders who have been targeted for their human rights work.
Note: Not commissioned; nomination withdrawn before the Senate acted upon it.
Ambassador from Nicaragua: Who is Francisco Campbell?
Robert J. Callahan was sworn in as United States ambassador to Nicaragua on July 24, 2008. Callahan has a BA in modern European history from Loyola University in Chicago and an MA in American history from DePaul University, also in Chicago. He was an editor at Loyola University Press in Chicago before joining the Foreign Service. He speaks Spanish, Greek, and Italian.