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Central America, Nicaragua

Nicaragua, republic and largest nation in Central America. Called “the land of lakes and volcanoes,” Nicaragua contains regions of thick rain forests, rugged highlands, and fertile farming areas. The largest lakes in Central America and a chain of volcanic peaks dominate its western heartland, the center of its population and economy. Severe earthquakes destroyed Managua, its capital and largest city, twice in the 20th century.

With a population of 5 million, Nicaragua is the most urban country in Central America. Its people are mostly mestizos (people of of mixed European and Native American descent) but include ethnic minorities of Native American, African, and European background. Nicaragua's economy is based largely on agriculture, especially on crops grown for export. Coffee is the most important of these products, while corn is the major crop grown for domestic consumption. In the 1990s Nicaragua was among the poorest nations in Central America, after suffering from years of corrupt dictatorships, natural disasters, revolution, and civil war.

Internal conflicts and intervention by other nations, especially the United States, have shaped much of Nicaragua's history. Its indigenous people were mostly killed or enslaved after the Spanish conquest of the area in the early 1500s. Nicaragua remained a minor part of the Spanish colonial empire until Central America gained independence in 1821. Disputes and warfare between Liberal and Conservative factions were constant during the country's first century, and 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, Nicaragua's government and economy were controlled by the Somoza family dictatorship, which enriched itself and its supporters at the nation's expense. The Somozas, who enjoyed strong U.S. support, were overthrown in 1979 by Marxist revolutionaries known as the Sandinistas, who promised social and economic reforms. Their government attempted to change Nicaragua's economic and political structure, and it made some progress on social issues. However, these efforts declined as the government 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. In the 1990s the Sandinistas lost presidential elections, a peace settlement with the contras was reached, and democratically elected governments succeeded each other. Nevertheless, the nation continues to struggle with serious problems of damage to its economy, disagreements among political factions, and social inequalities.

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