Emerging From the Shadow of the Eagle


By Thomas W. Walker

By Christine J. Wade

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Nicaragua: Emerging from the Shadow of the Eagle details the country's unique history, culture, economics, politics, and foreign relations. Its historical coverage considers Nicaragua from pre-Columbian and colonial times as well as during the nationalist liberal era, the U.S. Marine occupation, the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista revolution and government, the conservative restoration after 1990, and consolidation of the FSLN's power since the return of Daniel Ortega to the presidency in 2006.

The thoroughly revised and updated sixth edition features new material covering political, economic, and social developments since 2011. This includes expanded discussions on economic diversification, women and gender, and social programs. Students of Latin American politics and history will learn the how the interventions by the United States—the “eagle” to the north—have shaped Nicaraguan political, economic, and cultural life, but also the extent to which Nicaragua is increasingly emerging from the eagle's shadow.


When, in 2002, coauthor Walker first decided to change the subtitle of the fourth edition of this book from The Land of Sandino to Living in the Shadow of the Eagle, there was some concern that the subtitle should more appropriately stress some outstanding characteristic inherent in Nicaragua. Stressing the influence of Augusto César Sandino—as in the original title—had been a way of doing that. However, Walker defended his proposal for the new title with an analogy: If one is describing a Japanese bonsai tree, is it best to focus mainly on the inherent characteristics of the species being discussed? Wouldn't it be better to emphasize the external factors affecting the morphology of that organism—indeed, that affect the nature of all bonsai trees regardless of species? The unusual aspect of a bonsai is not its species but rather the environmental stress to which humans have deliberately subjected it in order to achieve a different beauty.
The bonsai analogy, of course, is not perfect. In some senses, a plant can be made more graceful and interesting by stressing it. However, when a nation-state is subjected to the prolonged external interference of a regional hegemon—no matter how well intentioned—its social, economic, and political systems are often hurt and deformed. The result is not usually beautiful.
Nicaragua shares with most Latin American countries a centuries-old experience of U.S. intervention and interference. But few countries have been so extensively and repeatedly intervened in as Nicaragua. This edition, like earlier ones, shows how U.S. interference inexorably led to the Sandinista Revolution of the late twentieth century. First, after the country's formal independence in the nineteenth century, England and the United States squabbled over control of Nicaragua. At one point in the 1850s, U.S. filibuster William Walker actually took over the country and made himself president long enough to be recognized by Washington. Later, U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua for most of the period from 1912 to 1933. Then, the U.S.-appointed head of the U.S.-created "Nicaraguan" National Guard, Anastasio Somoza García, created a dynastic dictatorship that was passed on to two of his sons and lasted until 1979. During this time, the Somozas' corrupt National Guard came to hold the distinction of being the most heavily U.S.-trained military establishment in Latin America. Finally, on July 19, 1979, a massive national uprising coordinated by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew West Point-educated dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle—often referred to as "the Last Marine."
We also detail the history and nature of the subsequent nationalist government led by the FSLN (1979-1990). The government's quite moderate social, economic, political, and international policies are carefully described. So, too, are the efforts by the U.S. government to bring this nationalistic experiment to an end. We show how U.S. programs of economic strangulation, low-intensity warfare, and disinformation were ultimately successful in so undermining the Sandinista experiment that it was voted out of power by a cowed and desperate electorate in the second of two free elections held during the period.
The updated annotated bibliography includes the scores of books published about the country since 1990. Most chapters now include sections on the nature and impact of the U.S.-orchestrated conservative restoration (1990-2007) and return of Daniel Ortega (2007 onward). We see how the three administrations in this period—those of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños—owed their existence, in large part, to heavy-handed U.S. involvement in the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections. Once "in power," these leaders were then pressured to implement economic and social policies approved of by Washington. The result of the new social and economic policies—enforced by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank (in which the United States has controlling interests)—was a reversal of the old Sandinista "logic of the majority." Instead, the new administrations pursued neoliberal economic policies, which, though they eventually brought growth to the economy, created such a regressive distribution of income that Nicaragua's place among the nations of the world on the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index (measuring social as well as economic factors) dropped from 60th at the time of Chamorro's inauguration to 116th ten years later.
By the early twenty-first century, Nicaragua had come nearly full circle. True, it was more democratic than it had been before the overthrow of the Somozas. So too, however, were most Latin American countries at that point; unlike during the cold war, formal democracy was now a part of the U.S. formula for Latin America. Of greater importance to the common citizen, however, was the fact that Nicaragua was once again as fully under U.S. control as it had been in the days of the Somozas. U.S.-approved economic and social policies were being implemented and—though they resulted in modest growth—were causing poverty and maldistribution of income to be as great as they had been in the dark days of the Somozas.
In 2006, U.S. officials tried once again to influence the outcome of the presidential elections. However, by that time, the dismal social performance of the three post-Sandinista governments and a split in the forces that had brought them to power allowed Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to return to the presidency. Though Washington had no choice but to formally accept the results of these internationally certified elections, it would, as we will show, continue to meddle in the affairs of that tiny country. Thus, considering Nicaragua's recent history in light of its past, we feel very justified in having changed the subtitle of the book to the more realistic, if less upbeat, Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. For Nicaragua, there long has been—and probably always will be—an "eagle" on the northern horizon.

Acronyms and Abbreviations
ALBABolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America
ALNNicaraguan Liberal Alliance
AMNLAELuisa Amanda Espinosa Association of Nicaraguan Women
AMPRONACAssociation of Women Confronting the National Problem
ANSSandinista Children's Association
APREAlliance for the Republic
ASTCSandinista Association of Cultural Workers
ATCRural Workers' Association
BCLsLight Hunter Battalions
BLIsIrregular Warfare Battalions
CAFTACentral American Free Trade Agreement
CDCCivil Defense Committee
CDRSRamiro Sacasa Democratic Coordinating Committee
CDSSandinista Defense Committee
CEBChristian Base Community
CENICentral Bank's Negotiable Investment Certificate
CEPADEvangelical Committee for Developmental Aid
CONDECACentral American Defense Council
COPPPALPermanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America
CORDENICCommission on the Recovery and Development of Nicaragua
COSEPSuperior Council of Private Enterprise
CPCCitizens Power Councils
CSESupreme Electoral Council
CSTSandinista Workers' Central
CTN(Social Christian) Confederation of Workers of Nicaragua
CUSConfederation of Labor Unity
DNSandinista National Directorate
ENABASNational Foodstuffs Enterprise
EPSSandinista Popular Army
FADDemocratic Armed Forces
FAOBroad Opposition Front
FARCRevolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
FDNNicaraguan Democratic Forces
FIRInternational Reconstruction Fund (Nicaragua)
FPRRevolutionary Patriotic Front
FMLNFarabundo Martí National Liberation Front
FSLNSandinista National Liberation Front
FSMNNicaraguan Teachers' Union Federation
GPPProlonged Popular War (faction)
IDBInter-American Development Bank
IMFInternational Monetary Fund
INCAECentral American Institute of Business Administration
INPRHUInstitute for Human Promotion
INSSBINicaraguan Social Security and Welfare Institute
JGRNGoverning Junta of National Reconstruction
JMRsMunicipal Juntas for Reconstruction
JS-1919th of July Sandinista Youth
MAP-MLMarxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement
MDNNicaraguan Democratic Movement
MINVAHMinistry of Housing and Human Settlements
MPSSandinista Popular Militias
MRSSandinista Renovation Movement
MURUnited Revolutionary Movement
OASOrganization of American States
PCConservative party
PCDDemocratic Conservative party
PCNNicaraguan Communist party
PETRONICPetroleum of Nicaragua
PLCConstitutional Liberal party
PLIIndependent Liberal party
PPSCPopular Social Christian party
PRIInstitutional Revolutionary party (Mexico)
PSSandinista Police
PSCN or PSCNicaraguan Social Christian party
PSDSocial Democratic party
PSNNicaraguan Socialist party
PUCACentral American Unity party
RAANNorth Atlantic Autonomous Region
SISocialist International
SSTVSandinista Television System
TPProletarian Tendency
TPAsPopular Anti-Somocista Tribunals
UNAGNational Union of (Small) Farmers and Ranchers
UNONational Opposition Union or (beginning in 1990) National Organized Union
UPANICUnion of Nicaraguan Farmers
USAIDU.S. Agency for International Development
WHISCWestern Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation

I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other Land.
OCTOBER 15, 1900


Located at the geographic center of Central America, with Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, Nicaragua is the largest country in the region. Even so, its 57,143 square miles (148,000 square kilometers) of surface is only about that of Illinois (57,914 square miles), and its population of about 5.9 million actually made it slightly less populous than Missouri (5.98 million) in 2010. Nevertheless, Nicaragua is an extremely interesting and unique country with an importance that, at least for a while, far exceeded its size. Although there have been many revolts and coups d'état in Latin America, Nicaragua is one of only a handful of Latin American countries to have experienced a real social revolution, by which we mean a rapid process of change in social and economic as well as political structures.
The physical characteristics of Nicaragua have long drawn the attention and captured the imagination of outsiders. The country has abundant and rich agricultural lands, considerable potential for geothermal and hydroelectric energy, important timber and mineral resources, and conveniently located waterways that make Nicaragua an ideal site for an interoceanic canal.
Though located entirely within the tropics, this small country varies from one region to another in temperature and other climatic characteristics. Altitude, mountainous land barriers, and the differing meteorological influences of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean are the determining factors. As throughout the tropics, altitude rather than season determines temperature. On the lowlands of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, temperatures usually are quite high. In the central mountain ranges—or Cordilleras—that transverse the country from northwest to southeast, the climate is temperate. The mountains also influence Nicaraguan weather by acting as a natural barrier between the predominantly humid environment of the Caribbean and the seasonally dry patterns of the Pacific.
As a result of these factors, Nicaragua can be divided conceptually into three distinct regions: the Caribbean lowlands, the central highlands, and the western lowlands. Occupying nearly half of the country, the Caribbean lowlands are composed of hot, humid tropical rain forests, swamps, and savannahs. As the most appropriate type of agricultural activity in such an environment involves the primitive slash-and-burn technique, this vast region has never been able to support a large human population—at present less than 8 percent of the national total lives there.
Due to the more moderate and seasonal nature of rainfall in the central highlands and western lowlands, these regions are more inviting for commercial agriculture and human habitation. The temperate climate and rich soils of the highlands make an ideal environment for coffee cultivation. Indeed, some of the best coffee in the world comes from the highland department of Matagalpa. The western lowlands are appropriate for such crops as cotton, rice, and sugar. A chain of volcanoes running through the western lowlands from northwest to southeast enriches the soil of the region through frequent dustings of volcanic ash. The principal cities and most of the population of Nicaragua are in the western lowlands.
Another important physical factor is the position of certain large lakes and rivers. Even in the colonial period, explorers and settlers knew that interoceanic travel across Nicaragua was possible via water routes, taking advantage of the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and Lake Managua. The amount of overland travel required to complete the journey was small. As a result, Nicaraguan waterways were regularly used as commercial routes for transisthmian travel during the nearly three centuries of colonial rule. And in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the country's obvious potential as a canal site made Nicaragua the object of frequent foreign intrigue and intervention.
Nicaragua is blessed not only in natural resources and environment but also in certain demographic, social, and cultural characteristics. First, unlike some Latin American countries, it is not overpopulated. Indeed, although it has an abundance of arable land, Nicaragua's population is relatively small. Second, the people are relatively homogeneous and culturally integrated. There are no major racial, ethnic, linguistic, or religious divisions. Practically all Nicaraguans are Catholic, speak Spanish, and share a common cultural heritage. The majority are mestizo, a mixture of Spanish and Indian. And though there are some "pure" whites, Indians, and blacks, little racial prejudice exists. Finally, Nicaraguans are a congenial, outgoing people with every reason to be proud of things nica, such as their distinctive cookery, music, dialect, literary heritage, and sense of humor.
Ironically, in spite of its human and natural potential, Nicaragua is a poor country, and the majority of the people have endured great oppression throughout history. Even in the late 1970s the annual gross national product (GNP) per capita was only a little over US$800. Moreover, this statistic obscures the fact that income in Nicaragua was so unevenly distributed that 50 percent of the people probably had an annual disposable income of only $200. The average citizen lived in inadequate housing, ate poorly, and prior to the 1979 revolution, had little access to education, health care, or other public services. In 1979 the estimated life expectancy at birth for the average Nicaraguan was fifty-three years—ten years less than the average for Central America and eighteen years less than the average for the Latin American nation with the greatest longevity, Cuba.1
The roots of Nicaragua's problem lie in a phenomenon that many social scientists refer to as dependency. Most countries in the world are dependent to one degree or another on other countries. Interdependence does not necessarily imply dependency. Dependency refers to a specific situation in which the economy of a weak country is externally oriented and the government is controlled by national and/or international elites or classes that benefit from this economic relationship. Whereas the dominant elites in an industrial country usually have an interest in maintaining a healthy society and, therefore, a citizenry capable of consuming at high levels, the rulers of a dependent society have no such interest because their markets are largely external. For them, the common citizen is important not as a potential consumer but rather as a source of cheap and easily exploitable labor. In such societies the means of production and income tend increasingly to be concentrated in a few hands. Though impressive growth in the GNP often occurs, significant benefits almost never "trickle down" to the people, no matter how long the process goes on and no matter how much development takes place.2
Except briefly during the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990), Nicaragua has been an extreme case of this common phenomenon. From the days of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, the Nicaraguan economy had always been externally oriented, and the people who exercised power had been the beneficiaries of this relationship. First, hundreds of thousands of Indians were exported as slaves. Later, when that "resource" was used up, the elites exported timber, beef, and hides. During the late nineteenth century, coffee became an important product on the world market. In the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War, the country developed a diversified repertoire of exports ranging from cotton, coffee, and sugar to beef and gold. Throughout Nicaraguan history, a small elite controlled most of the means of production and garnered most of the benefits. The country's rulers—whether openly dictatorial or ostensibly democratic—almost always governed on behalf of the privileged few.
Paralleling this history of domestic exploitation—and frequently an essential ingredient of it—was a history of foreign intervention and control. During the colonial period, the Spanish faced sporadic challenges from the British government and English pirates for control of Nicaraguan territory. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the country was actually ruled by a U.S. citizen for a brief period. In the twentieth century, the U.S. government imposed its dominion over Nicaragua first by direct armed intervention (from 1912 to 1925 and from 1926 to 1933), later through the client dictatorships of the Somoza family (from 1936 to 1979), and finally through subservient conservative democracies (from 1990 to 2007).
Yet if dependency, exploitation, and mass deprivation constitute recurrent themes in Nicaraguan history, so, too, do the ideas of nationalism and popular resistance. Nicaraguan history and folklore are replete with nationalist heroes and martyrs: the Indian cacique ("chief"), Diriangén, who fought against the Spanish at the outset of the colonial period; Andrés Castro, who took a stand against the forces of the North American filibusterpresident, William Walker, in the mid-nineteenth century; the liberal dictator José Santos Zelaya, who defied British and U.S. imperial designs at the turn of the century; Benjamín Zeledón and Augusto César Sandino, who fought the U.S. occupiers in the early twentieth century; and Carlos Fonseca Amador, a cofounder of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN), who died in the guerrilla struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in 1976.
By their actions, these men preserved and reinforced in the Nicaraguan people a stubborn strain of irrepressibility and national pride. Finally, catalyzed into action early in 1978 by the brutal assassination of a prominent and beloved opposition newspaper editor, Nicaraguans of all classes rose up against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the system he represented. Eighteen months later, at a cost of approximately 50,000 dead, the Nicaraguan revolution had triumphed. A brutal and selfish dictator had been overthrown, and a revolutionary government representing the aspirations of countless generations of Nicaraguans had finally come to power.


  • Praise for Prior Editions

    “Few countries have been gripped so tightly, and for so long, by the talons of the eagle as Nicaragua. With meticulous scholarship and scrupulous care, this extensive updating of Thomas Walker's standard work provides rich insight into Nicaragua's courageous struggles for freedom and their fate, and into the motives and character of the eagle. It is a revealing case study that teaches lessons of great value for understanding the world.”
    —Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    “More than thirty years have passed since the FSLN came to power in a popular revolution, but the story of that special era and its meaning for contemporary Nicaragua and Latin America more generally is very much worth revisiting. Walker and the new coauthor, Christine Wade, do an excellent job of connecting the past with the present.”
    —Gary Prevost, St. John's University/College of St. Benedict

    “A succinct, thoughtful, multifaceted overview of Nicaragua by two excellent scholars of Central America. Rich in detail and insight, the fifth edition of Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle continues to serve as the best introduction to Nicaragua and Nicaraguan politics. It is ideally suited for undergraduate courses and beginning graduate courses, and for the general reader.”
    —Harry E. Vanden, University of South Florida

On Sale
Aug 2, 2016
Page Count
264 pages

Thomas W. Walker

About the Author

Thomas W. Walker is professor emeritus of political science and director emeritus of Latin American studies at Ohio University. His eleven books include Reagan versus the Sandinistas, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua, and Understanding Central America (Westview Press).

Christine J. Wade is associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Maryland. She is the author of Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador (Ohio University Press) and coauthor of Understanding Central America (Westview Press).

Learn more about this author