No other country in the world has been so extensively and repeatedly invaded by the U.S. as Nicaragua. Soon after the country’s formal independence from Spain, the U.S. and England began squabbling over who had the right to control Nicaragua. Rooted in a belief in Manifest Destiny, U.S. Marines were sent in to occupy the country for most of the period from 1912 to 1933. Ultimately, the U.S. created Nicaragua’s National Guard, through which dictators were made and cast aside on the whim of American presidents and corporate interests. The National Guard facilitated the dictatorship of the Somoza family that lasted from 1936 to 1979, and during this period it was the most heavily U.S.-trained military corps in Latin America. Soon after the Sandinista-led civil war ousted the Somoza regime, the U.S. launched its illegal Contra counter-revolution. The Contra War of the 1980s took the lives of over five thousand Nicaraguans and was the subject of fierce international debate and condemnation. Throughout the decade, both the FSLN (the Sandinistas) and the Contras received large amounts of aid from the Cold War super-powers. The Soviet Union and Cuba became the largest funders of the new socialist Sandinista government in Managua, while the United States was the primary funder of the ragtag Contra “army.” When Reagan finally realized the Contras could not win, the U.S. increased its program of economic strangulation and disinformation that ultimately undermined the new government of Daniel Ortega. This led to him being voted out of power in 1990 by a desperate electorate in the second free election held during the post-Somoza period. The three post-Ortega presidencies, those of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños, owed their existence, in large part, to heavy-handed U.S. involvement in the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections. Once in power, these leaders were pressured to implement economic and social polices approved by Washington, and largely enforced by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Over this period, Nicaragua’s place among the nations of the world on the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index plummeted. In 2006, the U.S. again tried to influence the outcome of the presidential elections. However, the dismal performance of the three post-Sandinista, U.S.-backed governments led to Daniel Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2007.
By the spring of 2018, in the middle of President Ortega’s third consecutive term, the country had still been unable to recover from a century of U.S. manipulation and inadequate leadership. When Ortega implemented deep new financial cuts in public services, including social security, student protests broke out on university campuses, quickly spreading to all sectors of the country. The government’s repression of dissenters grew brutal, and in October of 2018 Ortega outlawed all political demonstrations. Police began beating and arresting demonstrators and the country’s universities had to shut down. By the end of the year, more than 300 protestors had been shot and killed and at least as many arrested, some charged with terrorism. Tens of thousands more had gone into hiding or exile. Police raided offices of independent newspapers and nongovernmental organizations (including human rights groups). The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report stating that students had become one of the most imperiled groups in the country. The National University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua was forced to fire more than 40 professors and expel nearly 100 students who had demonstrated or expressed support for the free-speech movement. Efforts by the Catholic Church to mediate an end to the struggles were also met with violence from Ortega’s security forces. Like the Somoza family, Ortega’s primary goal was to stay in power, at any cost. Also as in the Somoza era, masked armed civilians, or goon squads, working in coordination with the police began patrolling the streets of Managua. Ortega vowed to remain in office until the end of his term in 2021.