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Nicaragua, People

Nicaragua has a population of 5,023,818 (2002 estimate). It is among the poorest nations in Central America, a legacy of years of exploitation by dictators, disasters, and devastating civil war. Its people are mostly mestizo (people of mixed European and Native American ancestry), but diverse minority groups include people of African, Native American, and European descent. Traditionally, a small upper class has controlled most of the nationís land and its economic and political power.

Nicaragua has a young, rapidly growing population, with 13 percent of its people under the age of 5 and 25 percent between ages 5 and 14. The birth rate (27 per 1,000 people) greatly outpaces the death rate (5 per 1,000), contributing to a population growth rate of 2.1 percent. Growth slowed during the 1980s as hundreds of thousands of people fled the country to avoid the civil war, but it returned to higher levels in the 1990s as the conflicts ended and some refugees and exiles returned. An estimated 3 percent of the population survives on less than $1 a day, with poverty levels highest in rural areas. Limited health care and nutrition contribute to a life expectancy at birth of 69 years, one of the lowest in the region.

Nicaragua has a population density of 39 persons per sq km (100 per sq mi), several times less than that of neighboring El Salvador, the most densely settled nation on the mainland of the Americas. However, Nicaraguaís Caribbean lowlands are very sparsely settled, while the population is quite dense in the Pacific coast region, where most of the cities are located.

Nicaragua is the most urban nation in Central America, with 56 percent of its population living in or around cities. Managua, the capital, had an estimated population of 1.2 million in 1996. It is by far the largest city and the center for government, communications, and industry. Managua is prone to earthquakes, which destroyed it in 1931 and again in 1972. The next largest city, Leon, with a population of about 100,982 (1995 estimate), is the home of the National University and the traditional center of the countryís Liberal Party, one of the major political forces. Masaya, a market town south of Managua famous for its handicrafts, has a population of 74,946. Granada, a commercial center on Lake Nicaragua and the nationís traditional Conservative Party stronghold, has a population of 88,636. Matagalpa, a coffee-producing center in the central highlands, has 36,983 inhabitants. Cities continue to grow as poor Nicaraguans pour in from rural areas, trying to escape violence and poverty in the countryside.

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