Country Listing

Nicaragua Table of Contents




Augusto Cesar Sandino


Triumphant Sandinstas greeted by crowds in Managua, July 19, 1979
Courtesy Susan Meiselas/Magnum

During a prolonged period of political turmoil after the collapse of the United Provinces of Central America in 1838, Nicaragua was rent by power rivalry between conservative and liberal political factions. The private armies of the main political factions, composed of white officers commanding illiterate mestizos pressed into service, were the only organized military forces in the country. The new country's main threat to its borders arose from Britain's continuing efforts to exercise domination over Nicaragua's Caribbean coast area, but the risk of armed confrontation with the United States persuaded the British to retreat from their attempts to formalize control of the area (see National Independence , ch. 1).

In 1855 bloody fighting between liberal forces, aided by neighboring Honduras, and conservatives, aided by a conservative government in Guatemala, provided an opening for the United States adventurer William Walker, who landed in Nicaragua with a small band of followers (see Foreign Intervention (1850-68), ch. 1). Walker's power quickly grew, but after he installed himself as president, both contending political factions joined together with the armies of other Central American nations to drive Walker out. The conflict was prolonged and bitter, but in 1857, finally facing defeat, Walker and his remaining followers were evacuated under a truce organized by the United States Navy.

The first effort to build a professional military establishment did not occur until the long administration of liberal president Josť Santos Zelaya (1893-1909). The plan was to raise an army of 2,000 regulars organized into sixteen infantry companies, augmented by cavalry, artillery, and engineering units. A flotilla of five armed vessels was also assembled. The envisaged strength was never reached, and the size of the army dwindled to fewer than 500 in the years following the arrival of United States Marines in 1912 to suppress a revolt.

After the marines' last contingent, the legation guard, was withdrawn in 1925, a small United States training mission was introduced to organize a National Constabulary intended to replace the army and National Police. However, a coup and the outbreak of full-scale civil war led to a revival of the Nicaraguan army. The renewal of fighting precipitated another intervention by the United States that lasted from 1926 to 1933 (see United States Intervention , ch. 1).

Data as of December 1993