U.S. Department of State 
Background Notes: Nicaragua, April 1997 
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Nicaragua



Area: 130,688 sq. km. (50,446 sq. mi.); slightly larger than New York 
Cities: Capital--Managua (pop. 1 million). Other cities--Leon, Granada, 
Jinotega, Matagalpa, Chinandega, Masaya.
Terrain: Extensive Atlantic coastal plains rising to central interior 
mountains; narrow Pacific coastal plain interrupted by volcanoes.
Climate: Tropical in lowlands, cooler in highlands.


Noun and Adjective: Nicaraguan(s).
Population: 4.4 million (1995). Annual growth rate--2.9 (1995). Density-
-33 per sq. km..
Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) 69%, white 17%, 
black (Jamaican origin) 9%, indigenous 5%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 85%.
Languages: Spanish (official), English and indigenous languages on 
Caribbean coast. 
Education: Years compulsory--none enforced (28% 1st graders eventually 
finish 6th grade). Literacy--75%.
Health: Life expectancy--62 yrs. Infant mortality rate-- 50/1,000.
Work force (1.7 million): 16% are unemployed and 36% underemployed


Type: Republic.
Independence: 1821. 
Constitution: The 1995 reforms to the 1987 Sandinista-era Constitution 
provide for a more even distribution of power among the four branches of 
Branches: Executive--president and vice president. 
Legislative--National Assembly (unicameral). 
Judicial--Supreme Court; subordinate appeals, district and local courts; 
separate labor and administrative tribunals.
Electoral--Supreme Electoral Council, responsible for organizing and 
holding elections.
Administrative subdivisions: 15 departments and two autonomous regions 
on the Atlantic coast; 145 municipalities. 
Major political parties: Liberal Alliance (AL), Sandinista National 
Liberation Front (FSLN).
Suffrage: Universal at 16.


GDP (1996): $2.3 billion
Annual growth rate: 5.5%.
Per capita GDP: $452. 
Inflation rate: 12%.
Natural resources: Arable land, livestock, fisheries, gold, timber.
Agriculture (35% of GDP): Products--corn, coffee, sugar, meat, rice, 
beans, bananas.
Industry (20% of GDP): Types--processed food, beverages, textiles, 
petroleum, and metal products.
Services (45% of GDP): Types--commerce, construction, government, 
banking, transportation, and energy.
Trade: 1996 Exports--$671 million (FOB): coffee, seafood, beef, sugar, 
industrial goods, gold, bananas, sesame. Markets-U.S. 43%,
European Union 33%, Central American Common Market (CACM) 17%, Mexico 
1996 Imports--$1,024 million (FOB): petroleum, agricultural supplies, 
manufactured goods. Suppliers-U.S. 32%, CACM 21%, Venezuela 11%, 
European Union 9%.
Exchange rate (March 1997): 9.1 cordobas=US$1.


Most Nicaraguans have both European and Indian ancestry, and the culture 
of the country reflects the Ibero-European and Indian heritage of its 
people. Only the Indians of the eastern half of the country remain 
ethnically distinct and retain tribal customs and languages. A large 
black minority (of Jamaican origin) is concentrated on the Caribbean 
coast. In the mid-1980s, the central government divided the eastern half 
of the country -- the former department of Zelaya -- into two autonomous 
regions and granted the people of the region limited self-rule. The 1995 
constitutional reform guaranteed the integrity of the regions' several 
unique cultures, and gave the inhabitants a say in the use of the area's 
natural resources. Roman Catholicism is the major religion, but 
Evangelical Protestant groups have grown recently, and there are strong 
Anglican and Moravian communities on the Caribbean coast. Most 
Nicaraguans live in the Pacific lowlands and the adjacent interior 
highlands. The population is 54% urban.


Nicaragua takes its name from Nicarao, chief of the indigenous tribe 
then living around present-day Lake Nicaragua. In 1524, Hernandez de 
Cordoba founded the first Spanish permanent settlements in the region, 
including two of Nicaragua's two principal towns: Granada on Lake 
Nicaragua and Leon east of Lake Managua. Nicaragua gained independence 
from Spain in 1821, briefly becoming a part of the Mexican Empire and 
then a member of a federation of independent Central American provinces. 
In 1838, Nicaragua became an independent republic.

Much of Nicaragua's politics since independence has been characterized 
by the rivalry between the Liberal elite of Leon and the Conservative 
elite of Granada, which often spilled into civil war. Initially invited 
by the Liberals in 1855 to join their struggle against the 
Conservatives, an American named William Walker and his filibusters 
seized the presidency in 1856. The Liberals and Conservatives united to 
drive him out of office in 1857, after which a period of three decades 
of Conservative rule ensued. 

Taking advantage of divisions within the Conservative ranks, Jose Santos 
Zelaya led a Liberal revolt that brought him to power in 1893. Zelaya 
ended the long-standing dispute with Britain over the Atlantic Coast in 
1894, and reincorporated that region into Nicaragua. However, due to 
differences over an isthmian canal and concessions to Americans in 
Nicaragua as well as a concern for what was perceived as Nicaragua's 
destabilizing influence in the region, in 1909 the United States 
provided political support to Conservative-led forces rebelling against 
President Zelaya and intervened militarily to protect American lives and 
property. Zelaya resigned later that year. With the exception of a nine-
month period in 1925-26, the United States maintained troops in 
Nicaragua from 1912 until 1933. From 1927-1933, U.S. Marines stationed 
in Nicaragua engaged in a running battle with rebel forces led by 
renegade Liberal general Augusto Sandino, who rejected a 1927 negotiated 
agreement brokered by the United States to end the latest round of 
fighting between Liberals and Conservatives. 

After the departure of U.S. troops, National Guard Commander Anastasio 
Somoza Garcia outmaneuvered his political opponents, including Sandino, 
who was assassinated by National Guard officers, and took over the 
presidency in 1936. Somoza, and two sons who succeeded him, maintained 
close ties with the U.S. The Somoza dynasty ended in 1979 with a massive 
uprising led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which 
since the early 1960s had conducted a low scale guerrilla war against 
the Somoza regime.

The FSLN established an authoritarian dictatorship soon after taking 
power. U.S.-Nicaraguan relations deteriorated rapidly as the regime 
nationalized many private industries, confiscated private property, 
supported Central American guerrilla movements, and maintained links to 
international terrorists. The United States suspended aid to Nicaragua 
in 1981. The Reagan Administration provided assistance to the Nicaraguan 
Resistance and in 1985 imposed an embargo on U.S.-Nicaraguan trade.

In response to both domestic and international pressure, the Sandinista 
regime entered into negotiations with the Nicaraguan Resistance and 
agreed to nationwide elections in February 1990. In these elections, 
which were proclaimed free and fair by international observers, 
Nicaraguan voters elected as their president the candidate of the 
National Opposition Union (UNO), Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

During President Chamorro's nearly seven years in office, her government 
achieved major progress toward consolidating democratic institutions, 
advancing national reconciliation, stabilizing the economy, privatizing 
state-owned enterprises, and reducing human rights violations. In 
February 1995, Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) Commander General Humberto 
Ortega was replaced, in accordance with a new Military Code enacted in 
1994, by General Joaquin Cuadra, who has espoused a policy of greater 
professionalism in the renamed Army of Nicaragua. A new police 
organization law, passed by the National Assembly and signed into law in 
August 1996, further codified both civilian control of the police and 
the professionalization of that law enforcement agency.

The October 20, 1996 presidential, legislative, and mayoral elections 
were also judged free and fair by international observers and by the 
ground-breaking national electoral observer group Etica y Transparencia 
(Ethics and Transparency) despite a number of irregularities, due 
largely to logistical difficulties and a baroquely complicated electoral 
law. This time Nicaraguans elected former-Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman, 
leader of the center-right Liberal Alliance. Seventy-six percent of 
Nicaragua's 2.4 million eligible voters participated in the elections. 
The first transfer of power in recent Nicaraguan history from one 
democratically elected president to another took place on January 10, 
1997, when the Aleman Government was inaugurated. 


Nicaragua is a constitutional democracy with executive, legislative, 
judicial, and electoral branches of government. In 1995, the executive 
and legislative branches negotiated a reform of the 1987 Sandinista 
constitution which gave impressive new powers and independence to the 
legislature, the National Assembly, including permitting the Assembly to 
override a presidential veto with a simple majority vote and eliminating 
the president's ability to pocket veto a bill. Both the president and 
the members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 
concurrent five-year terms. The National Assembly consists of 90 
deputies elected from party lists drawn at the department and national 
level, plus the defeated presidential candidates who obtained a minimal 
quotient of votes. In the 1996 elections, the Liberal Alliance won a 
plurality of 42 seats, the FSLN won 36 seats, and nine other political 
parties and alliances won the remaining 15 seats. 

The Supreme Court supervises the functioning of the still largely 
ineffective and overburdened judicial system. As part of the 1995 
constitutional reforms, the independence of the Supreme Court was 
strengthened by increasing the number of magistrates from 9 to 12. 
Supreme Court justices are elected to seven-year terms by the National 

Led by a council of five magistrates, the Supreme Electoral Council is 
the co-equal branch of government responsible for organizing and 
conducting elections, plebiscites and referendums. The magistrates and 
their alternates are elected to five-year terms by the National 

Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the Nicaraguan constitution 
and vigorously exercised by its people. Diverse viewpoints are freely 
and openly discussed in the media and in academia. There is no state 
censorship in Nicaragua.

Other constitutional freedoms include peaceful assembly and association, 
freedom of religion, and freedom of movement within the country, as well 
as foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government also 
permits domestic and international human rights monitors to operate 
freely in Nicaragua. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on 
birth, nationality, political belief, race, gender, language, religion, 
opinion, national origin, economic condition, or social condition. All 
public and private sector workers, except the military and the police, 
are entitled to form and join unions of their own choosing, and they 
exercise this right extensively. Nearly half of Nicaragua's work force, 
including agricultural workers, is unionized. Workers have the right to 
strike. Collective bargaining is becoming more common in the private 

Political Parties In all, Nicaragua's 35 political parties participated 
in the 1996 elections, independently or as part of one of five electoral 
coalitions. With nearly 52% of the vote, the Liberal Alliance, a 
coalition of five political parties and sectors of another two, won the 
presidency, a plurality in the national legislature and a large majority 
of the mayoral races. The FSLN ended in second place with 38%. 

Most other parties fared poorly. A new political party, the Nicaraguan 
Christian Path (CCN), ended a distant third with 4% of the vote and four 
seats in the 93-member National Assembly. The traditional alternative to 
the Liberals, the National Conservative Party (PNC), ended in fourth 
place with slightly over 2% of the vote and three seats in the National 
Assembly. The remaining 24 parties and alliances together obtained less 
than 5% of the vote. Seven of these smaller parties control eight seats 
in the National Assembly. Only two of 145 mayors belong to third 

According to Nicaraguan law, those political parties that did not win at 
least one seat in the National Legislature automatically lose their 
legal status and must repay government campaign financing. There are 19 
parties represented in the National Assembly independently or as part of 
an alliance.

Principal Government Officials 
President-- Arnoldo Aleman 
Vice President--Enrique Bolanos 

Foreign Affairs--Emilio Alvarez Montalvan 
Finance--Esteban Duque Estrada 
Economy--Francisco Lainez 
Central Bank--Noel Ramirez 
Government--Jose Antonio Alvarado 
Agriculture--Mario De Franco 
Defense--Jaime Cuadra 
Construction and Transportation--Edgard Quintana 
Health--Carlos Quinonez 
Education--Humberto Belli 
Attorney General--Julio Centeno 
Labor--Wilfredo Navarro 
Ambassador to the United States--Francisco Aguirre 
Ambassador to the United Nations--Enrique Paguaga 
Ambassador to the Organization of American States--Felipe Rodriguez

Nicaragua maintains an embassy in the United States at 1627 New 
Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-387-4371).


Nicaragua began free market reforms in 1991 after 12 years of economic 
free-fall under the Sandinista regime. Despite some setbacks, it has 
made dramatic progress: privatizing 351 state enterprises, reducing 
inflation from 13.5% to 12%, and cutting the foreign debt in half. The 
economy began expanding in 1994 and grew a strong 5.5% in 1996 (its best 
performance since 1977). As a result, GDP reached $2.3 billion.

Despite this growing economy, Nicaragua remains the second poorest 
nation in the Hemisphere with a per capita GDP of $452 (below where it 
stood before the Sandinista take-over in 1979). Unemployment, while 
falling, is 16% and another 36% are underemployed. Nicaragua suffers 
from persistent trade and budget deficits and a high debt service 
burden, leaving it highly dependent on foreign assistance (22% of GDP in 

One of the key engines of economic growth has been production for 
export. Exports rose to $671 million in 1996, up 27% from 1995. Although 
traditional products such as coffee, meat, and sugar continued to lead 
the list of Nicaraguan exports, during 1996 the fastest growth came in 
non-traditional exports: maquila goods (apparel), bananas, gold, 
seafood, and new agricultural products such as sesame, melons, and 

Nicaragua is primarily an agricultural country, but construction, 
mining, fisheries, and general commerce have also been expanding 
strongly during the last few years. Foreign private capital inflows saw 
a net increase in 1996, totaling an estimated $215 million. The private 
banking sector continues to expand and now holds 70% of the nation's 
deposit base.

Rapid expansion of the tourist industry has made it the nation's third 
largest source of foreign exchange. Some 51,000 Americans visited 
Nicaragua in 1996 (primarily business people, tourists, and those 
visiting relatives). An estimated 5,300 U.S. citizens reside in the 
country. The U.S. Embassy's consular section provides a full range of 
consular services, from passport replacement and veteran's assistance to 
prison visitation and repatriation assistance.

Nicaragua now appears poised for rapid economic growth. However, long-
term success at attracting investment, creating jobs, and reducing 
poverty depend on its ability to comply with an International Monetary 
Fund (IMF) program, resolve the thousands of Sandinista-era property 
confiscation cases, and open its economy to foreign trade.

The U.S. is the country's largest trading partner by far -- the source 
of 32% of Nicaragua's imports and the destination of 42% of its exports. 
About 25 wholly or partly owned subsidiaries of U.S. companies operate 
in Nicaragua. The largest of those investments are in the energy, 
communications, manufacturing, fisheries, and shrimp farming sectors. 
Good opportunities exist for further investments in those same sectors, 
as well as in tourism, mining, franchising, and the distribution of 
imported consumer, manufacturing, and agricultural goods.

The U.S. Embassy's Economic/Commercial Section advances American 
economic and business interests by: briefing U.S. firms on opportunities 
and stumbling blocks to trade and investment in Nicaragua; encouraging 
key Nicaraguan decision makers to work with American firms; helping to 
resolve problems that affect U.S. commercial interests; and working to 
change local economic and trade ground rules in order to afford U.S. 
firms a level playing field on which to compete. The Economic/Commercial 
Section counseled 112 U.S. and 148 Nicaraguan firms in 1996 on trade and 
investment opportunities. U.S. businesses may access key Embassy 
economic reports via the Mission's Internet home page at 


The 1990 election victory of President Violeta Chamorro placed Nicaragua 
in the ranks of Latin American democracies. Nicaragua pursues an 
independent foreign policy. President Chamorro was instrumental in 
obtaining considerable international assistance for her government's 
efforts to improve living conditions for Nicaraguans (the country is the 
second poorest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti). Her 
administration also negotiated substantial reductions in the country's 
foreign debt burden. A participant of the Central American Security 
Commission (CASC), Nicaragua also has taken a leading role in pressing 
for regional demilitarization and peaceful settlement of disputes within 
states in the region.

The Aleman administration has expressed a commitment to follow the major 
tenets of its predecessor's foreign policy, to promote Central American 
political and economic integration, and to resolve outstanding boundary 
disputes peacefully. At the 1994 Summit of the Americas, Nicaragua 
joined six Central American neighbors in signing the Alliance for 
Sustainable Development, known as the Conjunta Centroamerica-USA or 
CONCAUSA to promote sustainable economic development in the region.

Nicaragua belongs to the UN and several specialized and related 
agencies, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund 
(IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO), UN Educational, Scientific, and 
Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO), Food 
and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Labor Organization 
(ILO), and the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Nicaragua is also a 
member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Non-aligned 
Movement (NAM), International Atomic Commission (IAEA), the Inter-
American Development Bank (IDB), the Central American Common Market 
(CACM), and the Central America Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).


U.S. policy is to support the consolidation of the democratic process 
initiated in Nicaragua with the 1990 election of President Chamorro. The 
U.S. has promoted national reconciliation, encouraging Nicaraguans to 
resolve their problems through dialogue and compromise. It recognizes as 
legitimate all political forces that abide by the democratic process and 
eschew violence. U.S. assistance is focused on strengthening democratic 
institutions, stimulating sustainable economic growth, and supporting 
the health and basic education sectors.

The resolution of U.S. citizen claims arising from Sandinista era 
confiscations and expropriations still figure prominently in our 
bilateral policy concerns. Section 527 of the Foreign Relations 
Authorization Act (1994) prohibits certain U.S. assistance and support 
for a government of a country that has confiscated U.S. citizen 
property, unless the government has taken certain remedial steps. In 
July 1996, the Secretary of State issued a third annual national 
interest waiver of the Section 527 prohibition because of Nicaragua's 
record in resolving U.S. citizen claims as well as its overall progress 
in implementing political and economic reforms.

Other key U.S. policy goals for Nicaragua are:

Improving respect for human rights, and resolving outstanding high-
profile human rights cases;
Development of a free market economy with respect for property and 
intellectual property rights; 
Ensuring effective civilian control over defense and security policy;  
Increased effectiveness of Nicaragua's efforts to combat narcotics 
trafficking, illegal alien smuggling, international terrorist and 
criminal organizations; and 
Reforming the judicial system.

Since 1990, the U.S. has provided $1.2 billion in assistance to 
Nicaragua. Approximately $260 million of that was for debt relief and 
another $450 million was for balance-of-payments support. The levels of 
assistance have fallen incrementally to reflect the improvements in 
Nicaragua, and FY 1997 assistance is estimated at approximately $25 
million. This assistance is focused on promoting more citizen political 
participation, compromise, and government transparency; stimulating 
sustainable growth and income; and fostering better educated, healthier 
and smaller families. 


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides 
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are 
issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel 
to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all 
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency 
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and 
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in 
the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate 
information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-
term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of 
American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by 
calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-
on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information 
Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: 
http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). 
To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will 
accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-
8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. 
The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is 
required). The CABB also carries international security information from 
the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of 
Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication 
series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a 
safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, 
U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-
7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250. 

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be 
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-

Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-
day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. 
to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-
225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate 
of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648) 

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers 
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization 
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water 
safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information 
for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is 
available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 
20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and 
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to 
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's 
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see Principal 
Government Officials listing in this publication). 

U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous 
areas, are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a 
country (see Principal U.S. Embassy Officials listing in this 
publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an 

Further Electronic Information: 

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, 
DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy 
information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, 
the official weekly magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press 
briefings; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. 
DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://www.state.gov; this site has a 
link to the DOSFAN Gopher Research Collection, which also is accessible 
at gopher://gopher.state.gov. 

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a semi-annual basis 
by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the 
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of 
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact 
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. 
Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or 
fax (202) 512-2250.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of 
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information, 
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet 
(www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-
1986 for more information. 

Principal U.S. Officials:

Ambassador--Lino Gutierrez 
Deputy Chief of Mission--Frederick Becker 
Economic/Commercial Counselor--Sandra Dembski 
Political Counselor--Kevin Whitaker 
Public Affairs Counselor--Elizabeth Whitaker 
Defense Attache--COL Lynn Lanzoni 
Consul General--Robert Blohm 
Chief USAID Mission--George Carner 
Peace Corps Director--Howard Lyon

The U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua is located at Kilometer 4.5, Carretera 
Sur, Managua (tel. country code 505, phone 266-6010). Letters mailed in 
the U.S. should be addressed to American Embassy Managua, APO AA 34021. 
The Embassy Internet home page is found at 

Other contact information:
U.S. Department of Commerce 
International Trade Administration 
Office of Latin America and the Caribbean 
14th and Constitution, NW 
Washington, DC 20230 
Tel: 202-482-0704 202-USA-TRADE 
Fax: 202-482-0464

American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua 
Apartado Postal 202 
Managua, Nicaragua 
Tel: (5052) 67-30-99 
Fax: (5052) 67-30-98

Caribbean/Latin American Action 
1818 N Street, NW, Suite 310 
Washington, DC 20036 
Tel: 202-466-7464 Fax: 202-822-0075


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