Nicaragua Table of Contents

Since the 1950s, Nicaragua has had a persistently high rate of population increase and rapid urban growth, both of which were expected to continue into the twenty-first century. The Sandinista revolution had little effect on these demographic trends. The Nicaraguan government has not carried out a national census since 1971, although it continued to register vital statistics and collect demographic data through periodic sample surveys of the population. A United Nations (UN) agency, the Latin American Center for Demography (Centro Latino-Americano de Demografía--Celade), has collaborated with Nicaraguan authorities to develop national population estimates.

In 1990 an estimated 3.87 million people lived in Nicaragua. The population had tripled in the preceding twenty-five years and was expected to double again in the following twenty-five. In the late 1980s, the population was expanding at a rate of 3.4 percent annually, far above the Latin American average of 2.1 percent for the same period.

This extraordinary growth reflects declining mortality and high fertility rates. Mortality rates have dropped steadily since the 1950s. By 1990 the death rate, which had been high by regional standards, had dropped to 8 per 1,000 inhabitants, close to the Latin American average of 7 per 1,000 inhabitants. Nicaragua's total fertility rate in the 1980s was 5.7, meaning that a typical Nicaraguan woman could expect to have almost six children in the course of her childbearing years, two more than the regional average. Although total fertility and crude birth rates are expected to decline, both, according to demographic projections, should remain above Latin American averages well into the next century.

Continuing high fertility rates, together with a long-term reduction in the infant mortality rate, have produced a very young population. In 1990 nearly half of the population was less than fifteen years old. The broad base and rapidly tapering shape of Nicaragua's age-sex pyramid is typical of high-growth, developing countries. Although the pyramid can be expected to broaden in the middle as the population ages and mortality and fertility rates drop, the pyramid will not assume the almost- diamond shape typical of high-income countries until well into the twenty-first century.

Life expectancy at birth in Nicaragua advanced from about forty-five in the late 1950s to sixty-two in the 1991. There are, nevertheless, considerable variations in these average figures. In general, women can expect to survive three years longer than men. Casual observation in Nicaragua and world experience suggest that city dwellers and more affluent segments of the population live significantly longer lives. The life expectancy of upper- class Nicaraguans was probably closer to the seventy-one-year average found in developed countries in 1988 than to the Nicaraguan national average of sixty-two.

In 1993 Nicaragua was rapidly turning into an urban society. The thickening bands of shantytowns surrounding the larger cities provide ample evidence of the hectic pace of change. The government defines as urban all cities and towns with more than 1,000 inhabitants. By this standard, 55 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 1990. Although birth rates in the towns and cities are significantly lower than they are in the countryside, large-scale internal migration to towns and cities has resulted in the faster growth of the urban population. From 1970 to 1990, the urban population expanded at an explosive annual rate of 4 percent, whereas the rural population grew at only 2.3 percent.

Much of the urban growth is concentrated in the capital city. The inhabitants of Managua constituted 7.5 percent of the national population in 1940, 15 percent in 1960, and 28 percent in 1980. By 1992 Managua's population was estimated at 1.5 million. No other Nicaraguan city was anywhere near that size. The country's second largest city is León, an important regional center with a population of roughly 130,000 in 1990. The other important provincial cities, all with populations that range from 50,000 to 100,000, are Matagalpa, Masaya, and Granada. Somewhat smaller are the principal towns on the Caribbean coast, Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. However, accurate estimates of populations of Nicaraguan cities have not been available since the 1970s.

Explosive population growth and rapid urbanization magnify many of Nicaragua's development problems. High birth rates strain the country's inadequate health and education systems, and the expanding population takes a heavy toll on the environment. Rapid urbanization requires expensive investment in transportation and sanitation infrastructures. Despite these problems, successive Nicaraguan governments (including the Sandinista administration) have declined to make population control a national priority. Nicaraguans are, in fact, divided over the issue. Although some people regard excessive demographic growth as an obstacle to development, others question the notion that their country, with the lowest population density in Central America (32 persons per square kilometer in 1990), should worry about overpopulation. In addition, the hierarchy of the Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church and other conservative Roman Catholics have repeatedly stated their religious objections to birth control.

Nicaragua's population historically has been unevenly distributed across the country. In pre-Columbian times, the Pacific lowlands, with their fertile soils and relatively benign climate, supported a large, dense population. The central highlands sustained smaller numbers, and the inhospitable Caribbean lowlands were only sparsely populated. This basic settlement pattern remained unchanged 500 years later. More than 60 percent of Nicaraguans live within the narrow confines of the Pacific lowlands. About half as many live in the central highlands, but the Caribbean lowlands, covering more than half of the national territory, hold less than 10 percent of the population. In 1986 population densities ranged from 137 persons per square kilometer in the Pacific departments to 28 in the departments of the central highlands and fewer than 10 persons in the two eastern autonomous regions.

Ethnically, Nicaragua is a relatively homogeneous country. In 1993 some 86 percent of Nicaraguans were ladinos--people of European or mixed European and indigenous descent, who shared a national Hispanic culture. In the nineteenth century, there was still a substantial indigenous minority, but this group largely has been assimilated culturally into the Hispanic mainstream. The country's racial composition is roughly as follows: mestizo (mixed indigenous-European), 76 percent; European, 10 percent; indigenous, 3 percent; and Creoles, or people of predominately African ancestry, 11 percent. Modern Nicaragua generally has been spared the bitter ethnic conflicts that other Latin American countries with large culturally distinct indigenous populations have suffered. In Nicaragua, friction has involved relations between the ladinos, who predominate in the west (the Pacific lowlands and central highlands), and the nonladino minorities (indigenous peoples and Creoles) of the east or Caribbean lowlands.

In social terms, the country is split into two zones: the economic and political heartland of the west, encompassing the Pacific lowlands and the central highlands; and the sparsely settled east or Caribbean lowlands. The west, containing the major urban centers, is populated by Spanish-speaking whites and mestizos, both of whom regard themselves as Nicaraguans and participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in national life. The east, historically remote from the centers of political and economic decision making on the other side of the mountains, includes a sizable indigenous and Creole population that has never identified with the nation or participated in national affairs.

Almost the entire population of the Pacific lowlands and central highlands is either mestizo or white. Although no distinct color line separates these two groups, social prestige and light skin color tend to be correlated, and the white minority is distinctly overrepresented among economic and political elites. Almost no culturally distinct indigenous enclaves remain in the western half of the country. Nicaraguans sometimes refer to the "Indian" barrio of Monimbó in Masaya, of Subtiava in León, and to the highly acculturated Matagalpan "Indians" in the central highlands, but the cultural patterns of these populations are almost indistinguishable from others who share their economic position.

Having escaped assimilation into the Hispanic majority, the eastern, or Caribbean, hinterland is culturally heterogeneous. In many ways, it is a completely different country from the Spanish- speaking nation to the west. The Miskito, a mixed Indian-Afro- European people who speak an indigenous language, have traditionally been the largest ethnic group in the region. There are also smaller indigenous communities known as Sumu and Rama, a large group of Creoles, and a rapidly expanding mestizo population fed by migration from the west. In 1990 the Miskito and Sumu composed most of Nicaragua's indigenous population.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Nicaragua.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress