A republic in Central America. Nicaragua was conquered by Spain in 1522 and was attached to the Captaincy-general of Guatemala for four centuries. Briefly under Mexican rule (1822-1823), Nicaragua became independent of Spain as a member of the Central American Confederation. In 1838 Nicaragua became an independent republic. Its subsequent political history has been turbulent. The British controlled the eastern coast from the 17th century until 1893, and the United States effectively controlled the country from 1912 to 1933. During 1934-79, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua. The Somoza regime brought order and considerable economic progress to the country. It also brought widespread corruption and ruthless political repression. In 1974, in response to the activities of the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas, the government imposed martial law. The subsequent excesses of the National Guard alienated virtually all elements of Nicaraguan society, and in August 1978, civil war erupted.
The United States, which had unsuccessfully attempted to moderate the Somoza regime's policies, withdrew its support. In May 1979, a Sandinista force invaded Nicaragua and, by July, had overthrown the Somozas. The Sandinista regime maintained close ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union and supported leftist rebels in neighboring El Salvador. In 1981 anti-government rebels, the Contras, began a war to overthrow the Sandinistas. Covert U.S. support of the Contras brought an intensification of the civil war in 1986-1987, and in 1989 an accord between the two sides ended hostilities and led to a free election in 1990. Violetta Chamorro, owner of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, led a broad anti-Sandinista coalition to victory in this election, ending more than a decade of Sandinista rule. She soon encountered opposition from both the right, which criticized the slow pace of reform, and the left, which felt that positive Sandinista reforms were being thrown out in a rush to privatization. The continuing presence of Sandinista officials throughout the government and in the military, as well as charges of corruption in the new regime created conflict within the government. In 1996 a new government was elected, committed to continuing reform, while investigating the previous regime.