Nicas; formally known as the Republic of Nicaragua.
Identification. Officially identified as the Republic of Nicaragua, the origin of the country's name is attributed to more than one source. According to one story, it was Nicarao, an indigenous chief at the time of the Spanish invasion, for whom the Spaniards named their conquest. Nicarao is a Nahuatl name, Nahuatl being the language of the Aztecs. A related story traces the origin back further, saying that chief Nicarao took his name from his own people, who derived the name based on the geographic location of their land. Nicaragua may be a combination of nic-atl-nahuac meaning "next to the water" in the Arawak language.
Regardless of the origins of the country's name, the people's pride rings out in the national anthem which begins "Hail to thee, Nicaragua," in acknowledgment of the country's independence from its centuries of colonizers.
Location and Geography. As the largest country in Central America with an area of 51,000 square miles (129,494 square kilometers), Nicaragua is about the size of New York State. The country is bounded by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, with Honduras bordering it at the north and Costa Rica at the south. Nicaragua has three major geographic regions: the Pacific lowlands in the west, the Caribbean lowlands in the east, and the central highlands located between these two. Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua are the country's largest lakes.
The climate varies more from elevation than from the seasons. Rainfall fluctuates greatly in Nicaragua and is seasonal; the rainy period runs from May through October. The Caribbean lowlands are the wettest section of Central America, receiving between 98 and 256 inches (250 and 650 centimeters) of rain annually. The east receives heavy annual rainfall and can even see serious flooding during the rainy season, while the west is drier year-round.
Demography. The Nicaraguan government has not conducted a national census since 1971, although since then it has collected demographic data through periodic sample surveys of the population. In 1990, an estimated 3.87 million people lived in Nicaragua. The population in 1993 was estimated at 4.08 million. Population growth rates have soared, and the median age is only about fifteen since so many adults were lost in the revolution and then in the hurricane of 1998. The population density in 1990 was 83 persons per square mile (32 per square kilometer), making it the lowest in Central America aside from Belize. The population is 55 percent urban, with most people concentrated in the Pacific lowlands because of the fertile land there. The Caribbean lowlands are more sparsely settled.
Linguistic Affiliation. When the Spaniards landed in western Nicaragua in the early 1500s, they encountered three main tribes each led by a chieftain, each with its own culture and language. Spanish is now the official language of Nicaragua and is spoken by more than 70 percent of the population. Most Spanish speakers live in the Pacific lowlands and central highlands. Grammar and usage follow Central American forms, which has some distinct differences from formal Spanish. The British presence in Nicaragua introduced many English words to the Spanish speakers, particularly in western Nicaragua. Likewise, American slang from the periods in which U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua has made its way into the vernacular of Spanish speakers.
The Creoles, the black people of the Caribbean region, are the descendants of colonial-era slaves, Jamaican merchants, and West Indian laborers. The Creoles are English-speaking, although many speak Spanish as a second language. Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean lowlands, the Miskito, Rama, and Sumu, preserve their own tribal languages. However, the English-speaking Miskito have resisted being absorbed into the Spanish culture. They refer to Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans as "los Espanoles" or "the Spanish," clearly differentiating themselves from their western compatriots. The Creoles share this resentment of the western Hispanic culture. Black Carib, also known as Garifuna language, is an amalgam of an Arawak language, African vocabulary, and some English additions.
Symbolism. Volcanoes dominate the landscape of Nicaragua, as well as the art and consciousness of Nicaraguans. A volcano is featured in the country's coat of arms that is centered on its flag. From most places in Nicaragua, you can look up and see one, two, or three volcano cones. The most notable formation is the twenty-five major volcanoes in a line that runs parallel to the Pacific coastline in western Nicaragua.
One particular volcano captures the attention of Nicaraguans and dominates the Managua skyline. Momotombo, which means "ruling above the waters" stands at 4,100 feet (1,230 meters). Momotombo is an active volcano that smokes continuously. In fact, the gases have been harnessed by a geothermal power station erected on the side of the volcano; the station generates one-fifth of Nicaragua's electricity.
Emergence of the Nation. From 1823 until independence, Nicaragua had been included in Provincias Unidas del Centro de America, a federation of Central American provinces annexed to Mexico. Nicaragua formally declared independence on 30 April 1838.
In the 1850s, the nation's independence became vulnerable as a result of the gold rush in California. Thousands of hopeful prospectors from the United States made their way to California through Nicaragua; this route was quicker and safer than crossing the continental United States. At this time, Nicaragua became the subject of a rivalry between the United States and Britain. Both foreign powers wanted to control an interoceanic transit route, be it by land or via a new Caribbean to Pacific canal.
By 1852, the Accessory Transit Company of American tycoon Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt was providing transportation for 20,000 United States citizens per month via Nicaragua. Soon after, he supported the expedition of William Walker who wanted to take over Nicaragua as a slave state annexed to the United States. William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and gained a reputation as a buccaneer and United States adventurer. In 1855 he entered Nicaragua with a small band of mercenaries armed with a new type of quick-action rifle. There, with the help of his Liberal allies, Walker was able to surprise and capture the conservative capitol of Granada and establish a coalition government. In June 1856, a new regime was formed and Walker was elected president. On 22 September, he suspended the Nicaraguan laws against slavery in order to gain support from the southern states in America and declared English to be the country's official language. His government was formally recognized by the United States that year. Then, in a reversal of alliance, Cornelius Vanderbilt backed a coalition of Central American states who fought against Walker. In 1857, Walker returned to Tennessee briefly and then sailed to Nicaragua again with more followers. There he was taken prisoner by the British and turned over to Honduran authorities, who tried and executed him on 12 September 1860.
Managua replaced the city of Leon as the capital in 1858, in an attempt to neutralize the vicious rivalry between Leon and Granada. Leon had served as the capital from its founding in 1610, but the capital was moved to Managua because it was halfway between the fervently liberal intellectual city of Leon and the ardently conservative city of Granada. Managua remains the capital city to this day.
In 1936 Anastasio Somoza, the head of the National Guard, staged a coup to bring down President Sacasa. Five months later, he became president of Nicaragua. He started a dictatorship, with the support of the United States, that lasted until his assassination in 1956. He was succeeded by his two sons Luis and Anastasio. The Somoza dictatorship ended in 1979 when the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) successfully waged a campaign against the National Guard, which was loyal to the Somoza family, and wrested control from the Somoza family. Because the Somoza family was plagued by corruption, many of their colleagues and beneficiaries, fearing prosecution for their actions, fled the country. The United States, concerned about the collectivization efforts of the Sandinistas and their acceptance of aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union, began to covertly arm the Contra opposition.
The Contra war of 1990 left Nicaragua highly divided. In the ensuing election, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua that year. She had become a prominent leader after the 1978 assassination of her husband, Pedro Chamorro, a respected publisher and editor of the daily newspaper La Prensa who consistently investigated the corruption of the Somoza family. Violeta Chamorro founded her administration on the principle of national reconciliation. She is credited with leading the country through the transition from war to peace, stabilizing the economy, and initiating a market economy.
In 1997, Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo became the president of the Republic, running under the Liberal Alliance party.
National Identity. Like other Latin Americans, Nicaraguans place a great importance on family and the protection of personal dignidad, or dignity. This extends outward to a collective feeling of national pride among the Nicaraguan people. This nationalism is represented by heroes and martyrs in the history and folklore—especially the leader fighting against colonial influences.
Ethnic Relations. Three Indian cultures lived in pre-Columbian Nicaragua, each living in a distinct region and speaking an indigenous tongue. According to the Constitution of 1987 of the Republic of Nicaragua, all of the indigenous Atlantic coast communities enjoy the right to preserve and develop
Some of the most beautiful buildings in the major cities of Managua and Leon are the existing examples of colonial architecture, in particular the Roman Catholic cathedrals. Buildings illustrative of colonial architecture can be found in Managua, in the Palacio de los Heroes de la Revolucion (previously called the Palacio Nacional ) and the old Cathedral; the Cathedral is currently in ruins. In Leon, the former capital of Nicaragua, the architecture is also colonial, with a traditional charm due to its narrow streets, red tiled roofs, and stout buildings.
A lack of city planning is apparent in the current development of Managua. Its business district was leveled in a 1972 earthquake, and much of the later development took place outside the city's center. This has resulted in the tremendous growth of suburbs, spreading out from the city without a long-term plan.
Food in Daily Life. Nicaragua has a local cuisine that shares some flavors and ingredients with Mexican food, while it also bears a resemblance to the cuisines of Honduras and Guatemala. Corn and beans are staples of the diet, and garlic and onions season most dishes. Like other Central Americans, Nicaraguans consume corn tortillas with most meals. Nicaragua's version of the tortilla is large, thin and made of white corn. It is used as an edible utensil to wrap meat and beans. Beans are consumed daily as a necessary source of protein in a country where most people cannot afford to eat meat regularly. Nicaraguans are partial to a small red bean generally eaten refried in a dish called gallo pinto, or "spotted rooster." This is primarily a breakfast dish.
Nicaraguans also enjoy tamales, but their version—called nacatamal —has some unique characteristics. The entire meal of corn, rice, tomatoes, chili, potatoes, cassava root, and often a piece of meat, is wrapped in a leaf deriving from a banana-like plant.
The yucca root is a vegetable eaten for its vitamins; it is aptly named vigoron in Spanish, for its high percentage of nutrients. The yucca root is often served with pork rind and greens and sold at roadside stands. In addition, fruits such as mangos and plantains are popular in Nicaragua.
The favorite nonalcoholic drink is coffee. Nicaraguans drink coffee with hot milk at breakfast and black with sugar the rest of the day. Pinol, the national drink, is also nonalcoholic and is made from corn flour with water. Tiste, similar to pinol, is a beverage made from ground tortillas and cacao which can be served cool or at room temperature. Also popular is chichi, wine of the Indians, made from fermented corn. Beer is consumed as a typical light alcoholic beverage, while rum is the hard liquor of choice.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. At celebratory meals, Nicaraguans eat steak, either grilled steak called bistec a la parrilla, or grilled sirloin known as lomo.
Basic Economy. Nicaragua's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 1992 was $1.6 billion (U.S.). The Chamorro administration agreed to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank standards aimed at weaning the country off its dependency on foreign aid. One main aim of this plan was to halt the rampant inflation of the Nicaraguan currency, the cordoba. The plan was designed to stabilize the local currency, encourage foreign investment, and increase exports.
The economy began expanding in 1994 and grew 4.5 percent in 1996 (its best performance since before the Sandinista regime). As a result, GDP reached $1.969 billion. However, in the aftermath of political unrest as well as El Niño (1997) and Hurricane Mitch (1998), the GDP in Nicaragua has plunged. Nicaragua remains the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere with a per capita GDP of $438, which is lower than where it stood before the Sandinista conquest in 1979. Its economy suffers from persistent trade and budget deficits. Until agricultural efforts improve, the economy will continue to suffer and Nicaragua will remain dependent on foreign assistance (22 percent of GDP in 1996).
Land Tenure and Property. Much of the country's productive land was under the control of the Somoza family until 1979, when the Sandinistas redistributed land and organized farmers into cooperatives. However, the Sandinistas did not invest in improving farm equipment so harvests declined, leading many farmers to flock to urban centers in search of work. In 1981, the administration passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which defined the process of nationalization and stated what could be done with expropriated land. This law guaranteed property rights to those who continued to farm their land, but land that was underdeveloped or abandoned was subject to expropriation. Land ownership became an issue again in the 1990s as the Chamorro government redistributed the land, breaking up the state farms.
Commercial Activities. About 10 percent of Nicaragua's land is cultivated. The most fertile land is in the Pacific coast region, where volcanic ash has fertilized the soil. Coffee is grown in the Central Highlands and cotton is raised in the Pacific region. In addition, the country cultivates maize, sorghum, dry beans, soya beans and tobacco commercially. Rice is the country's most important food crop, while coffee, cotton, bananas, and beef are the country's principal exports.
Major Industries. There has been little urban industry in Nicaragua since the Sandinista revolution. In 1978, the industrial sector shrank due to political and economic problems. In the early 1980s, food processing plants, sugar mills, and vegetable oil refineries were operating at only 50 percent capacity. Prior to that, the country's industry was comprised of food processing plants and the manufacture of animal byproducts such as candles, soap, and leather.
The Miskito people generally eat the meat of the green turtle as a staple protein in their diet. But in the first half of the twentieth century, foreign demand for turtle meat increased and the Miskito discovered that they could earn more by selling the meat. Two foreign processing companies established operations in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas in 1969. The industrialization and export of turtle meat quickly depleted the turtle population. Motivated by conservation of the turtle, in 1977 the Nicaraguan government suspended the operations of these companies.
Trade. Today Nicaragua's economy is based on agricultural efforts, since the nation has very fertile land and a low density of population on that land. Export crops such as coffee, cotton, bananas, and sugar rose steadily from 1950 to 1975. In 1992, the country's largest coffee crop was exported. The Nicaraguans also raise livestock for local consumption as well as trade. The Spanish brought the first cattle in the sixteenth century, and Nicaragua has been successfully raising and exporting beef since about 1950. In fact, forty-nine thousand tons of beef are produced each year.
Division of Labor. Traditional Hispanic divisions of labor are the standard in Nicaragua. Men work in the fields or factories, while women carry out the domestic chores. Children in rural communities help out with the farming, often missing school during harvest seasons. Most workers of the urban lower class are self-employed and unsalaried workers in small business ventures. Workers in this informal sector include tinsmiths, seamstresses, bakers, carpenters, and peddlers. In a family where the male works in this sector, the wife may take in laundry or sell food in the street to supplement the family income.
Classes and Castes. Nicaragua has always been a society of classes in indigenous cultures, the priests and nobles ruled over the laborers and slaves. This is what the Spanish found when they arrived, and their domination didn't do much to affect this class system. For generations, there was no notion of social or economic mobility for Nicaraguans. Agricultural laborers were descendants of laborers, and expected their children to follow in this path. With few other options available, most did.
Only with the 1979 revolution of the Sandinistas was there a widespread attempt to level the
Symbols of Social Stratification. Land is the traditional basis of wealth and status in Nicaragua. Traditionally, landowners have prospered with the export of coffee, cotton, beef, and sugar, and land was concentrated in the hands of a few. Less than one-fifth of the population could be described as middle class or higher. Most Nicaraguans who have work still toil as migrants, following crops and working only during the harvest period. When the Sandinistas gained power, they seized the property of the Somoza family and instituted the Agrarian Reform Law, transferring land to peasant families and squatters on lands.
The telephone is another potent symbol of economic and social stratification, as evidenced by the number of telephones in the country and who has them. In 1993 there were approximately 60,000 telephones, only 1.5 per 100 inhabitants.
Government. Modeled on the democratic system of the United States, the Nicaraguan government is divided into three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The executive branch is made up of a president, vice president, and an appointed cabinet. The legislative branch, with a 92-member National Assembly, enacts the country's laws. As in the United States, the judicial branch is comprised of a supreme court and lower, local courts.
Leadership and Political Officials. Established by the Law on Municipalities in 1988 by the Sandinista National Assembly, the first municipal governments were selected in 1990. An effort was made to decentralize the political power which had been so abused in Nicaragua for decades. Under this system, citizens vote directly for council members in Nicaragua's nine regions; the number of members depends on the size of the city. The constitution details the responsibilities and powers of these municipal governments; they are primarily responsible for control of urban development, sanitation, environmental protection, construction and maintenance of roads, parks, and bridges, and the creation of museums and libraries.
Social Problems and Control. Poverty is the most pressing social problem in Nicaragua, and has been for decades. In 1994 the United Nations identified poverty and unemployment as the two reasons why Nicaraguans do not believe in the salve of democracy. The report asserted that 75 percent of Nicaraguan families live in poverty, and that unemployment hovered at 60 percent. Because of the uneven distribution of wealth, as well as the economic and political upheavals of recent decades, the poor have even suffered during periods of economic growth. In the 1970s, 30 percent of personal income flowed to the richest 5 percent of households. During the agricultural export growth in the Pacific lowlands and central highlands, many peasants were pushed off their land and ended up as low-wage migrant laborers.
The drug problem in Nicaragua was considered quite modest as of 1993, despite the country's position along a drug transit route from South American to the United States.
Military Activity. Nicaragua has a land force, a navy, and an air force. During the Sandinista regime, military service was mandatory but conscription was ended when Violeta Chamorro became president. As the country stabilized, the armed forces were downsized. The police organization, together with the Customs Organization, is considered to be exceedingly corrupt. Favors can easily be bought for the cost of a bribe.
The bulk of social welfare programs coincided with the 1979 Sandinista triumph. Declaring 1980 the year of literacy, the Sandinista government successfully launched a volunteer literacy campaign, focused on the countryside, to teach anyone over ten years old to read. At that time, this meant about 800,000 people. Young people of the more privileged class volunteered with parental permission to spend several months living and working with peasants, teaching entire families to read. The youth also taught political literacy based on Paulo Freire's concept of consciousness-raising.
Nicaragua has long been dependent on foreign aid. Principle donors have been the United States, the USSR, and Canada, all of whom have been concerned about stabilizing Nicaragua because of its geopolitical positioning. From 1990 to 1998, the United States invested $983 million in economic assistance. In the 1960s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded local programs aimed at improving regional infrastructure, particularly improving highway routes that would assist industrial development by improving interregional trade routes.
After the 1972 earthquake, foreign aid poured in to Nicaragua. The corrupt Somoza regime, however, managed to extort a significant amount of that aid for themselves, rather than using it to rebuild the country.
USAID now has three program areas operating in Nicaragua: strengthening democracy, creating jobs for sustainable growth, and promoting primary education and nutrition classes for healthy families. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch brought additional foreign aid dollars to Nicaragua to help deal with the damage from the worst national disaster in two centuries in the region. The destruction of Hurricane Mitch, combined with the devastating drought of El Niño in 1997 and 1998, resulted in a dreadful economic setback for the country.
Division of Labor by Gender. The roles of most men and women in Nicaragua are shaped by traditional Hispanic values. Women are most respected in the role of mother, but more women have been entering the workforce since the 1980s. Men are typically not involved in childrearing.
Relative Status of Women and Men. The status of men and women has changed since the revolution of the 1980s. As the revolution sought to liberate poor Nicaraguans, it also managed to liberate women from their subordinate role in the Hispanic culture. Women established neighborhood committees to organize urban resistance. Women gained the respect of male soldiers when they fought, and died, alongside them. Estimates are that women comprised about 25 percent of the Sandinista Front of the National Liberation Army.
Marriage. The minority of couples who are not Roman Catholic, outside of the upper and middle classes, formalize their marriages through ceremonies officiated by another church or the state. Many common-law unions exist, but Roman Catholics abide by the church's emphasis on marriage. Because of poverty and a shortage of affordable housing,
Domestic Unit. Like many Hispanic cultures, family relationships are highly valued and include relatives beyond the nuclear family unit. The word compadrazago, which literally means copaternity, indicates the bond among children, parents, grandparents, and godparents. With a high fertility rate, households are large—generally comprised of six to eight persons—and include grandparents and aunts and uncles. In rural areas, large families are regarded as a blessing: parents have help with chores and farm work. In urban settings, large families with extended kin allow for creative ways in which to house entire families, despite the space constraints of city living.
Inheritance. Land is the lifeblood of Nicaraguan farmers. It is a source of pride and dignity for a farmer to own the land he cultivates. And land can be a means of escaping the poverty that plagues so many Nicaraguans. Inheritance of land in Nicaragua has been complicated by the fact that most of the land was in the hands of a few privileged families. The peasant families who farmed this land had no claims to land ownership. This changed with the Sandinista government as it awarded and distributed land to rural families. Now, however, relatives and allies of the Somoza regime who emigrated in 1980 want to reclaim the thousands of acres they owned. Disputes over resettlements remain a controversial national issue, one that is being watched by the international community.
Kin Groups. Loyalty to kin is strong and extended families often reside together, sharing the childrearing duties as well as any resources of the household. The notion of kin may be extended to those not related by blood or marriage with the tradition of naming godparents.
Infant Care. Infants are raised principally by the mother with the help of extended kin. In agrarian communities, families tend to be large since more children increase the number of workers, thus raising the family's farming productivity. Infant mortality is high in Nicaragua. This figure was reduced in 1980 from 121 to 59 deaths per thousand, due to the Sandinista governments' increase in health clinics. Even the reduced infant mortality rate, though, is high when compared to that of neighboring countries.
Child Rearing and Education. Nicaragua's education system is underfunded and inadequate; access to education improved in the 1980s with the introduction of free education, but a large majority of the population had not completed primary schooling in 1993. Literacy was estimated at about 50 percent at the end of the Somoza regime, while a literacy campaign in the 1980s reportedly raised the literacy rate to about 77 percent. In 1981, approximately 1,500 Cuban teachers were teaching in Nicaragua, and 1,300 Nicaraguan students were attending schools in Cuba.
Schooling is now free and compulsory for children from ages seven to twelve, but only 70 percent of primary age students actually attend classes. By law all schooling is in Spanish, even in the West where Spanish is not spoken in the home.
Higher Education. The intellectual and cultural city of Leon gave birth to the country's first university. The National University of Nicaragua has approximately 7,000 students at campuses in Leon and Managua. The Central American University, located in Managua, is a Roman Catholic institution. The private Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana is also located in Managua. Two separate independent institutions, Universidades Nacionales Autonomas de Nicaragua, also operate as an alternative to the leading universities.
Nicaraguans share a sense of respect and personal distance, which is apparent in language exchanges. Nicaraguans rarely use the familiar tu form of address, even though most other Latin Americans use this casual exchange. However, the Nicaraguans routinely address one another using the informal and nonstandard pronoun vos.
Religious Beliefs. Officially, Nicaragua is a secular state. Roman Catholicism arrived in Nicaragua with the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century and remained the established faith until 1939. Most Nicaraguans are Roman Catholic, but many blacks along the coast, belong to Protestant denominations.
Practicing Roman Catholics, those who attend mass and receive the sacrament, tend to be women and members of the upper and middle classes residing in urban centers. With a paucity of priests to reach more potential members, the Roman Catholic Church is relatively inactive in rural communities.
Popular religion revolves around the saints, and prayers directed to them usually make requests for the saint's intervention in an illness or particular problem.
Along the coast, blacks largely belong to the Pentecostal and evangelical churches which have been growing in the 1990s. The largest of the Protestant congregations are the Moravian Church and Baptist Convention of Nicaragua. Virtually all Miskito and many Creoles and Sumn are Moravians. Other denominations in the west include churches established by missionaries from the United States, such as the Assemblies of God, the Episcopal Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists.
Religious Practitioners. Roman Catholic priests lead mass and deliver the sacrament. In the mid-1980s there was only one priest for every 7,000 Roman Catholic Nicaraguans, approximately; this is a lower rate than in any of the other Latin American countries. The Roman Catholic bishops have sometimes offered tacit approval of the political leader, while at other times they allied themselves with the opposition. While started by foreign missionaries, most Protestant congregations are now lead by local Nicaraguan ministers who operate autonomously while maintaining a connection to their sister churches in the United States.
Rituals and Holy Places. As a predominantly devout Catholic country, Christian religious holidays are honored. Nicaraguans celebrate Holy Wednesday in March, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Maundy Thursday marks the transition through death and into life as experienced on Good Friday and Easter. In December, Catholics honor the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Holy Saint's days are celebrated regularly. Each city in Nicaragua has its own patron saint and some saints may be shared between towns. The people give gifts to these saints in exchange for blessings such as healing, a good crop, or a husband. Even more important than the miracles that the Nicaraguans request of the saints are the annual celebrations, known as fiestas, which are held for each saint. These fiestas are times of great joy and everyone in the city joins in the celebration. Fiestas may begin with a parade in which the statue of the saint is carried into the city, followed by a daylong party of eating, drinking, and dancing.
Death and the Afterlife. Traditionally, the spouse of the deceased prepares the body for burial. The
During the 1980s, health care improved as the Sandinista regime built public clinics in both urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, the people of Nicaragua continue to suffer from malaria, poor diet, and unhealthy sanitary conditions caused by inadequate water and sewage systems. In the early 1990s the life expectancy of a Nicaraguan was 62 years, among the lowest in Central America. Enteritis and other diarrheal diseases were among the leading causes of death. Pneumonia, tetanus, and measles accounted for more than 10 percent of all deaths. A high incidence of infectious diseases remains, with malaria and tuberculosis being particularly endemic.
The Somoza regime tried to curb population growth by making contraceptives available through public health clinics. It is estimated that only about 5 percent of women of childbearing age use birth control devices.
Nicaraguans celebrate New Year's Day on 1 January, Liberation Day on 18 July, and Independence Day on 15 September. The day before Independence Day, on 14 September, Nicaraguans commemorate the 1856 Battle of San Jacinto, in which Nicaraguans defeated William Walker and his Northern American mercenaries. Santo Domingo, the patron saint of Managua, is celebrated in a festival held from 1 to 10 August. This festival combines church ceremonies with horse racing, bullfights, cockfights, and a spirited carnival.
Since the early 1980s, the Ministry of Culture has worked to preserve folk art and train a new generation of artisans so that traditional crafts would not be lost.
Literature. Until the 1980s when the Sandinistas launched their literacy campaign, half of the Nicaraguan population was functionally illiterate. While few Nicaraguan writers have received international recognition, poet Ruben Dario is the noted exception. Dario is the pseudonym of Felix Ruben Garcia Sarmiento whose modernist poetry began a new movement in Nicaraguan literature. A nineteenth century poet, Dario lived from 1867 to 1916 and produced " Azul, " or "Blue." Dario lived as an exile outside of his homeland, but visited Leon for long periods and served as a diplomat representing Nicaragua. Dario's birthplace has been renamed in his honor and is preserved as a national shrine. Another author, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, published a volume of short stories and two novels before his assassination in 1978.
Graphic Arts. The Nicaraguan tradition of producing utilitarian and decorative ceramics and earthenware continues. Locally crafted earthenware still employs the shapes and motifs found in pre-Columbian pieces. Other local crafts include silverwork, woodcarving, embroidery, and sculpting. Gold filigree is practiced on the Atlantic coast.
Performance Arts. Folkloric dance is one of Nicaragua's enduring pre-Colonial art forms. Traditional dances are performed at festivals and fiestas, and children study this aspect of their heritage in after-school programs. Similar to folk dances in Mexico and Guatemala, Nicaraguan dance tradition features the palo volador, or flying pole, in which a performer is strapped to a rope wound around a pole and then unwinds, swinging farther into the air accompanied by the pounding rhythm of percussion instruments. The marimba, a kind of xylophone, is also part of Nicaragua's rich musical tradition. The city of Masaga is the primary performing arts center in the country.
Dances such as Las Inditas, Los Diabilitos, and Las Negras all involve masked characters. Another traditional dance theme is the re-enactment of the Spanish Conquest, parodying the conquerors by depicting them in pink masks with grotesque facial features. The farcical dance portrays the Spaniards and their conquest as clumsy, but inevitably triumphant.
Nicaragua has several functioning research institutes despite the country's unrest. The Observatorio Geofisico, founded in 1980 in Managua, concentrates on the study of geophysics, geology, seismology, and volcanology. The National University of Agriculture in Managua was founded in 1929. About two thousand students attend the university and study agronomy, animal sciences, and natural resource management. The faculty employs a dean for each of these areas of study as well as for distance education, and the facilities include a botanical garden that is maintained by students and used for agricultural research. The Polytechnical University of Nicaragua, also in Managua, is a technical school that was founded in 1968 by the Nicaraguan Baptist Convention. This university offers vocational degrees in engineering, nursing, banking and finance, architecture, and industrial arts.
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—S. B. D OWNEY