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History, Independence and the 19th Century

Jose Santos Zelaya, Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, unstable element, Iturbide, Lake Nicaragua

Independence came slowly to Nicaragua, as movements to break away from Spanish rule arose in many colonies in the early 1800s. An 1811 uprising was crushed by colonial officials, and only when Spanish authority collapsed in Mexico in 1821 did Nicaragua, along with most of Central America, break with Spain. After the region declared independence, it was briefly part of the Mexican Empire of Agustin de Iturbide, but when he fell in 1823, Nicaragua and four other states formed a federation, the United Provinces of Central America.

This effort to unite the region was doomed by conflicts between Liberals and Conservatives and by rivalries among the member states. Liberals and Conservatives advocated different political, economic, and religious policies. Liberals promoted free-market capitalism, a strong central government, and limited power for the Catholic clergy, while Conservatives favored the traditional economic and social structure, dominated by large landowners and the church. Facing these divisions, the federation began to break apart in 1838, when Nicaragua, along with several other members, seceded and became independent states.

In the 1840s and 1850s Nicaragua was dominated by rivalries between Leon’s Liberals and Granada’s Conservatives and by a struggle between the United States and Britain for influence over the transit route across Nicaragua. The discovery of gold in California motivated U.S. investors, led by the wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, to create the Accessory Transit Company to transport U.S. citizens across Nicaragua. The company’s network of carriages and boats took passengers from the Caribbean to the Pacific by way of the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. By 1852 a third of those traveling to California by sea used this route. To protect U.S. interests, the administration of President James Polk negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with the United Kingdom. In the treaty, both nations agreed not to take control over the transit routes across Nicaragua. This marked the end of U.S.-British rivalry over Nicaragua and the beginning of U.S. dominance.

Meanwhile, Conservative-Liberal rivalry had broken out in open civil war. The Conservatives were winning, so the Liberals asked an American, William Walker, to recruit a private army to aid them. Known as filibusters, Walker’s troops began arriving in 1855 and soon took control of the country, shoving aside leaders of both parties and installing Walker as president. This alarmed the rest of Central America. With support from the British and Vanderbilt, whose business interests Walker had opposed, the other countries in the region formed an army to drive Walker out, defeating him in 1857.

Walker’s fall brought the Conservatives back to power. Under their rule, which lasted until 1893, the capital was moved to Managua in an effort to dampen the rivalry between Granada and Leon. Coffee became the dominant export crop, and railroad construction was begun. United States interest in a possible canal grew slowly, but an 1884 treaty that would have given the United States exclusive canal rights was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In 1893 a Liberal general, Jose Santos Zelaya, seized power. He continued as president until 1909, putting down Conservative revolts and making Nicaragua a major player in Central America’s power struggles. He tried to improve public administration and develop the economy, promoting the beginning of banana exports. Railroads and ports were improved, schools were expanded, and the military was modernized. An agreement with the British led to their final withdrawal from the Caribbean coast. But hopes that the United States would build a canal were dashed when the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt selected a route through Panama instead. Relations deteriorated, and U.S. officials became convinced that Zelaya was an unstable element in the region who should be replaced.

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