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A history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean

Nicaragua - A Country Study

More on Nicaragua



America in Nicaragua: Not a New Story

Jen and her friend Kerri try out some Nicaraguan food
I have vague recollection of one of my history teachers talking about American Imperialism when I was in high school. I probably even read a chapter on it in my history book. Do I remember the significance of those two words or even to what they relate? Well, no. So when my boss Jeff told me I was to write about American Imperialism in Nicaragua and he stationed me in San Francisco, I was puzzled. Where would I begin? I couldn't exactly hop on a plane to Nicaragua to take some pictures and interview the locals. This was going to be a challenge.

As I began to research American Imperialism, it became clear to me that much has been written about countries such as Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. After the Spanish-American War, the annexation of these countries fits in with the timeline of history through which textbooks take us. However, less discussed is the fact that America was getting involved in Nicaragua long before the Spanish-American War even took place.

There are many examples of America's journey into Nicaragua before the turn of the century. As early as the 1850's, one of America's wealthiest men was building the Nicaraguan Pacific Railroad. During that same decade, William Walker was busy invading Nicaragua and declaring himself president . Can you imagine how great he must have thought himself to be? He was the only American to ever declare himself the head of state of a foreign country. At the end of the 1850s, the Cass-Irisarri Treaty was signed which allowed American businesses in Nicaragua, and even more importantly allowed for the use of force to protect American businesses and lives. Long before the Spanish-American war even began, America had its nose poked in the business of other countries.

Flag of Nicaragua
So what do nose poking and American Imperialism have to do with one another? Here is where I hope my history teacher would be proud , because this is what I do remember him telling us. After the westward expansion of the United States, the United States still had a policy of isolationism, the decision to not participate in the economic and political business of other countries. Once the internal frontier was conquered though, it seemed to the political leaders that it was in the best interest of America to expand its participation in the affairs of other countries. By focusing externally, we could gain greater power . "The end of isolationism, the beginning of expansionism and nationalism, all these "isms" meant one thing: America was no longer keeping its nose in its own business."

Why would other countries allow the United States to become so involved with their own affairs? America involved itself with other countries sometimes by force (as is the case of the Philippines) and sometimes by showing paternalism - another "ism." It was believed by American politicians that expansion overseas might appear appealing to other countries if we took on a fatherly, protective role , showing paternalism rather than force.

One of the many beautiful murals in San Francisco depicting Latin American life
It was with this in mind that American politics and business made its way into Nicaragua . Did you know that before the Panama Canal was built, there was a proposed canal in Nicaragua? In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt supported this project that began a system of loans with Nicaragua, which connected our countries economically. (Although the more famous Panama Canal eventually took its place and the project was abandoned, it was a significant beginning to the US's involvement in Nicaragua after the Spanish-American war.)

Most significant was the arrival of the US Marines into Nicaragua, arriving in 1912 to overthrow the existing regime . "Free Elections" were instituted with the marines guarding the polling places. Would you feel free to vote if you had a Marine standing over your shoulder? The marines stayed in place continuously for almost 13 years. Throughout this time, there was an ongoing battle between the US Marines and rebel forces led by the Liberal general Augusto Sandino. (Later in their struggles, the rebels would name themselves the Sandinistas after this general.)

The Mission District in San Francisco is home to many Latino Americans
Why were they there? Remember that the Cass-Irisarri Treaty allowed for the use of force to protect American interests. One example of the marine's employment was during the first uprisings of Unions in Nicaragua (which interestingly enough were occurring at the same time as the labor movement and union strikes in the US.) In 1920 there was an underground movement springing up to organize strikes against the American owned mining, lumber and banana companies . The first large uprising occurred in Bluefield but was squashed by the marines. Could our role there have been very paternalistic if we were exploiting the workers and not allowing the voice of the unions to be heard?


A Quest of My Own / Was there a Nicaraguan holiday that we didn't know about?

The argument for keeping the marines in Nicaragua again brought into play our paternalistic role in Nicaragua . The leaders of the United States questioned the country's ability to function politically and economically without US intervention. We had become its protectorate, but is that why we were really there? In America's quest for expansionism, it was in our best interest to enforce US policy and safeguard its own interests, both politically and economically. It had become the driving force behind expansionism, or as my history teacher explained, American Imperialism.

We finally find an open Nicaraguan restaurant. Que bien! (How great!)
As we made our presence known on their lands, eventually, Nicaraguans found a place on American soil as well. Living in San Francisco, California, I have always been aware of the multitudes of cultures that co-exist within this small city. I decided to head to the Mission District in San Francisco to find out more about the culture of Nicaragua, this place in which America had such a vested interest. The Mission District is a colorful place where the cultures of many different Latino backgrounds stand side by side and often converge into a series of restaurants, murals and tiendas (the Spanish word for stores.) As I walk down the streets I see Spanish writing and hear Spanish spoken by the people around me.

Jen meets Orlando for a face to face interview
As I was learning about Nicaragua, I got into contact with Orlando Murillo. He lives in Berkeley, California and his story could not have been more relevant to my research. We met at his house to videotape an interview. After talking for several hours, I learned about the life of this young Nicaraguan, American.

Orlando grew up in Nicaragua. He was born in 1974 and was only 5 years old when the Sandinistas overthrew the existing government and ended the Somoza dynasty that had been in power since 1936. Finally, the peoples' government was in place.

A Nicaraguan poster telling about the plight of the coffee workers
But it wasn't long until another uprising was ignited . Relations between the US and Nicaragua began to deteriorate. The US did not want to support the political decisions that Nicaragua was making, which included links to international terrorism and the movement towards Communism. In 1981, US President Ronald Reagan cut off aid to Nicaragua and began supplying arms to the campesinos (the peasant workers) in the mountains. It was a bloody battle, fought in the mountains and the city.

Orlando tells me of the time in 1985 when the army came to everyone's home, telling them to take up arms because there was going to be a great battle with the US. He remembers his grandmother holding a gun to protect the family. He said it was the most silent day he can remember.

Orlando and his grandmother who sent him to America
Orlando told me stories about how when he was just a child, he was helping make bombs for the Sandinistas. His brother and uncle both fought in the war. That would have been his fate too if it weren't for his grandmother who sent him to America . At the age of 15, not knowing any English, Orlando and his two younger brothers were put on a plane to Mexico City. From there, a coyote was hired. A coyote is someone who helps immigrants cross the border. Orlando tells of carrying his brother across the river and into Texas where they were safely met by his uncle.

This painting reminds Orlando of his family in Nicaragua
Eventually, I have to go back to my computer to put down all the information I have learned about Nicaragua and America's expansionist quest. There are a lot of facts to remember and I want to keep it all interesting. (So that maybe you, the reader, will remember more than I did from my history teacher.) What I take away most from these ideas is that there are always people involved, being affected. The US has created policies, enforced them, broken them, and created new ones to fit the political needs of the times. But always, there are the people they affect. Some of these people have left their country and come to ours. Some stay and live out their lives changed by the influence America enforces upon their country. When American politicians decided at the turn of the Century that we needed to expand our interests, they tied us forever to the rest of the world.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Sure, Puerto Ricans want a state of independence
Neda - A little taste of the Philippines - at the mall food court
Stephen - Cuba Libre! Freedom is intoxicating
Stephen - The Great Panama Canal Grab