Can Nicaragua emerge from the storms of its past?

THE ROAD FROM CHINANDEGA TO THE HONDURAN BORDER comes to an abrupt end in a hill rise over the largest of the flood demolished bridges that line the eastwest highway out of Managua. When you reach the Hato Grande River, a small power launch carries travelers and relief supplies in an uncertain diagonal across the river's flow to the other side and into Honduras.

Thirty yards downstream a 20-foot-long-square remnant of bridge pavement juts awkwardly from the river current, resting on the rock and silt tossed up by floodwaters into a torn and jumbled riverbank. Only the enormous mortar and rock pillars of the bridge remain standing in the swift current. Hurricane Mitch has washed away virtually every bridge between Managua and this crossing about 15 miles from the border

After his family was displaced by Hurricane Mitch, a boy plays in front of his new home in the shantytown of Nueva Vida in Managua.

The countryside on either side of the highway is a dismal spectacle of mud-washed fields and stormdug trenches. Children who survived the storm and now line the crumbling roadway seeking handouts of food or water from passing vehicles are covered in a fine brown powder of blowing silt left behind by Mitch, dried into dust by the tropical sun and kicked up anew by each passing truck and car.

The level of destruction around Chinandega and León is eclipsed in other districts of Nicaragua, even by the nearby site of what once were the villages of Posoltega, wiped off the map along with 2,000 to 3,000 people in one ferocious mudslide. But Mitch is only the latest calamity in a nation that has been a marvel of historical misery.

A 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua and killed 10,000; the brutal kleptocracy of Anastasio Somoza; the Sandinista Revolution; the Contra War; tsunamis and hurricanes—all these Nicaraguans have already endured.

The nation has suffered a degree of poverty that is surpassed in the Western Hemisphere only by the abject misery of Haiti. Somehow "Nicas," as they call themselves here, carry on with the tired persistence of people who seem capable of enduring anything because they have already endured so much.

The nation has picked itself up after previous natural disasters, Vice President Enrique Bolanos says, standing on the hot tarmac of the Managua airport watching a U.S. Air National Guard C5 Galaxy transport unload 150,000 pounds of food and medical aid. "I think we will be back to the [economic] levels prior to the hurricane perhaps in a couple of years," he says, adding without irony, "if we don't have another hurricane or earthquake."

It is not only natural disasters that Nicaragua will have to overcome in the future, but its own history. Nicaragua is a nation divided—by family alliances, by poverty and wealth, and perhaps most powerfully by its recent past. The scars that remain—not so much from the Sandinista Revolution, which enjoyed broad support, but from the U.S.-sponsored Contra War and Sandinista policies during the war—continue to divide the nation.

wash out
Nicaraguans wait to cross the Hato Grande River. The bridge at this major thoroughfare was washed out.

The new god
Father Daniel Monjes, C.M.F. is assistant pastor at Parroquia de Las Palmas on the north side of Managua, near the lake that gives the city its name. Driving through Managua's chaotic streets, Monjes maneuvers through clouds of street dust, decrepit Russian Lada taxis, and rusting, blaring school buses packed with Managua workers making a hot and uncomfortable journey home.

A strange, shiny parade of U.S. mercantile might marches past the passenger window: Texaco; Kodak; Subway sandwich shops; Domino's, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut restaurants.

Only a small percentage of Nicaraguans can afford to visit any of these businesses. U.S. franchisers are responding to a vast reverse migration that is bringing "Americanized" Nicas and their Americanized tastes for fast food and DKNY to Managua. They are the most obvious evidence that the nation's long ideological conflict with its superpower neighbor to the north has finally been resolved. The Yankee dollar is the currency on the streets; CocaCola is sold from every street corner. The Sandinista Revolution is truly over, and American franchisers seem to be the winners.

Monjes stops before a busy traffic circle peopled with those unfortunates who inhabit Nicaragua's "informal economy," the street vendors of plastic bags of cold water, apples, grapes, and automobile parts who haunt every major intersection of Managua.

Waiting for the light, he has time to regard a sign announcing the construction of a new hotel. "Hotel Plaza Real," it reads in Spanish, "the luxury that Managua deserves."

Monjes' face stops somewhere between a grin and a grimace as he gestures to the sign. "Here in Managua we have nothing to eat," he says, "but we have hotels." He makes his turn past the massive hole in the earth where the hotel will be constructed. "Neoliberalism has arrived," Monjes says. "The new god of neoliberalism," he adds with an ironic smile.

Under the leadership of Violeta Chamorro and Nicaragua's new president, Arnoldo Alemán, and his Constitutional Liberal Party, Nicaragua has become a nation that has embraced the dictums of neoliberalism, an economic philosophy of unrestrained trade and a minimum of government economic meddling and social intervention. The Nicaraguan economy is wide open; capital is free to move. Open to what and free to do what remain the questions Nicaragüenses will have to answer in the coming years.

The Americans have come to Nicaragua several times in this century. From 1927 until 1933, U.S. forces engaged openly in a drawnout military contest with Augusto Sandino. In the 1980s, the U.S. conducted a somewhat subterranean and ultimately illegal campaign as the financial and ideological force behind the Contras.

Out by the Managua airport a different sort of invasion is taking place. American and Taiwanese investors have begun building a maquila zone, not unlike those already providing low skilled manufacturing and assembly work in Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries.

Neoliberal "free market" strategies have been promoted by U.S. diplomats and IMF and World Bank bureaucrats as the best means to encourage economic growth and, thereby, the collateral effect of improved living standards. But the purported benefits of neoliberalism come with a price. Under Alemán, the health, education, and other social-service expenditures of the shortlived Sandinista regime have been drastically reduced or eliminated altogether.

The new society
Alemán's 3-year-old government has already disenchanted a sizable number of Nicaraguans. "The government is not worried about the problems of the poor; they only care about getting rich," says one cabdriver, wheeling his Lada through town and jerking his head around in animated conversation. "They don't open the opportunities to work to all the people; if you are a Sandinista, you are not going to get work. . . . It's like being under Somoza again. We need a president who thinks about the problems of the poor, the majority of the people."

"There is no justice in this land any longer," says Cecilia, a Managua teenager. "The government does what they want. All the people who work for the government get all the money. Not one person thinks they're [Alemán's administration] any good.

"Now the poor people are exploited; the people who are not exploited are the rich people who went to Miami when the Sandinistas had power. When Alemán won, now they are coming back, and they have a good life; they have a big house, and they have cars."

Vicente Chavez, the father of Cecilia's boyfriend, smiles indulgently but not without empathy. Outside of a small tavern by the Nicaragua University of Engineering, where the two are seated, a crowd is forming around a bandstand. Ex-Presidente Daniel Ortega's teenage sons are preparing to play what turns out to be a set of Spanish-accented speed rock. Chavez is a lawyer, business owner, and frustrated musician. He abandoned his rock-and-roll ambitions in pursuit of another dream when he joined the Sandinista Revolution while a student at the Jesuitrun University of Central America. He says he eventually achieved the rank of commandante with the Sandinistas.

A meeting a few days later at his home in a middle-class hillside community finds Chavez enjoying a bottle of rum in a well-equipped living room. Chavez acknowledges with a laugh his comfortable surroundings. Some of his neighbors, he says, were enemies during the revolution.

There is no denying that the revolution and its aftermath have been good to Chavez. The house he lives in was presented to him by the Sandinistas as a reward for his service, part of La Piñata, a still controversial property transfer conducted by the Sandinistas just after they lost the 1990 presidential election. Chavez is not unaware of the irony of the relative affluence of this onetime revolutionary in the face of the nation's overwhelming poverty. "We were idealists," he says of the Sandinista movement. "The majority of us were students. But most of us were middle class already. My father worked in shipping."

Chavez remembers fondly the years immediately following the revolution before the long agony and attrition of the Contra War wore down everyone's idealism. Chavez says that in those days "people's" pharmacies and health centers sprang up all over the city where Managuans could seek free health services. Now, pricey chain pharmacies and abandoned government health services lock out the poor from health care. "We were romantics; we dreamed of a new society without oppression, with freedom, and mostly we wanted to give the poor people food and homes and health care and a job. We wanted to make a new society."

The Sandinistas have succeeded in creating some kind of new society, but not one completely of their imagining. Adolfo McGregor is a young, U.S.-educated executive in Managua. McGregor blames much of Nicaragua's current economic woes on the mismanagement, corruption, and flawed ideology that he believes typified the Sandinista regime. He's upbeat about the future of Nicaragua now that the Sandinistas' socialist experiment is over.

"I think tourism could be a leading industry here. Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn and a couple of others are building hotels now. Fishing: I think the country has a lot of potential in commercial fishing."

McGregor duly notes the American and Taiwanese manufacturing sites out by the Managua airport. He agrees that similar maquila zones in Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American nations appear to have achieved little in alleviating the grinding poverty of the least skilled and educated of their citizens. "No, the maquilas are not the most desirable jobs, but when you don't have any real choice, that's an option you have to take."

According to McGregor, Nicaragua is in no fiscal condition to devote more money to its social problems, to health care and education. "Yes, the needs are there; the problem is the overall size of our economy. We have to look at the reality of what we can produce and afford. The only way we'll be able to mitigate [the problems of poverty] is growing the economy."

"That's like Reagan and his trickle-down effect," says Yamileth Sequeria, a community organizer for CEPAD, the Council of Evangelical Churches in Nicaragua. "But if the people at the grassroots level sit around waiting for the upper class to do something [about improving their living conditions], nothing will happen. They have to organize their own development or that trickle down won't happen."

This is a real challenge in Nicaragua, Sequeria admits. "It's difficult to organize people who are struggling just to get by."

La Nueva Vida
Metro Centro is a small mall being constructed near a row of Nicaraguan banks and the American Chamber of Commerce. Only a few shops are open now, but they are enough to draw the attention of some of the less economically deprived shoppers of Managua. Here Benetton, OshKosh, Radio Shack, Calvin Klein, and DKNY vie for the attention of the daredevil shoppers who pass under the workers swinging heavy construction tools above them on metal scaffolding and occasionally just a shaky ladder.

 Days after the relocation of about 1,500 displaced families to Nueva Vida, residents and municipal workers began digging latrines, garbage trenches, and laying a pipeline for municipal water.

Most of the shops are empty, and their keepers seem tremendously bored, waiting for the end of construction or an economic miracle of some sort to draw consumers with actual cash to spend. There is no business at the Radio Shack, although a few employees wait expectantly. The glass door leading into the store is the shabby product of a rushed job. It pulls clumsily away from the aluminum frame that borders it and refuses to close securely. The prices for some of the televisions and stereos on sale here, posted in Yankee dollars, equal or exceed the amount an average Nicaraguan will make in a year's labor.

A nearby clothing store features DKNY trousers for $70 and shirts for $60. Two young men browse the store in obvious discomfort before incredulously confirming the price on a pair of pants with a salesperson. They escape into the anonymity of the mall. They have had it with the Metro Centro, they say, and resolve to head for the Mercado Oriental, one of Managua's open markets where clothing and foodstuff can be had for prices these working men find more reasonable. But if the prices are that high at Metro Centro, which Nicaraguans are able to shop there? "Las bellas, los Alemánes," one man grumbles resentfully, the beautiful people, the supporters of President Alemán, the returnees from Miami.

About 20 minutes by taxi and a world away from Metro Centro is a newborn Managua barrio called Nueva Vida. Something approaching 1,500 families displaced by Hurricane Mitch have been resettled into this shantytown thrown together in a matter of days following Mitch. Most of the people being resettled here in about 50 acres of mucky fields once lived in barrios that traced the lakefront.

Many of the children playing in the muddy caminos that are forming around the rows of shanties here in Nueva Vida say this barrio is much better than their old one. Not only will they no longer be threatened here by flooding from Lake Managua, they will also be liberated from the sewage, mercury, and other contaminants of the lake itself. "It's better here," says one child. "It's much safer. It's dangerous to live by the lake."

What's perhaps most shocking about Nueva Vida is not the appalling conditions. Homes are being hammered together out of discarded wood and tin, old cardboard, and the emergency plastic tarp being distributed by relief workers. No, the most depressing aspect of Nueva Vida is how little its appearance differs from the homes these people used to have or from the impoverished homes of many of the people in Managua who didn't lose everything in the aftermath of Mitch. The people here plan to stay; the government has given them rights to the land. In a few years this refugee camp born out of desperation will evolve into just another desperately poor Managua barrio.

Nicaragua began free-market reforms in 1991 after years of economic freefall under the Sandinistas, who are blamed for many of Nicaragua's economic problems—its crushing foreign debt and the hyperinflation that the nation experienced while they were in power. But even critics allow that the Sandinistas had few resources to devote to improving the nation's infrastructure and economy while engaged in the often ugly Contra War.

Chamorro's 1990 election was a crushing blow to the true believers among the Sandinistas and interpreted in the U.S. as a rejection of their policies, but many Nicaraguans will tell you they were just tired—tired of the U.S. economic embargo, tired of the senseless killing of the Contra War. Electing Chamorro was correctly perceived as the quickest way to bring the ideological and military confrontation with the United States to an end.

Under Chamorro and Alemán, the nation has cut its foreign debt in half—to $6.5 billion—privatized 351 state enterprises, and reduced inflation to 12 percent. The economy began expanding in 1994. But the nation's improving economic profile has been accompanied by new charges of government corruption and crony capitalism. Unemployment in Nicaragua stands at 16 percent. An additional 36 percent of its population is described as "underemployed." Nicaragua remains the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere, with a per capita GDP of $438, and it may not be clear for years how badly Mitch has set Nicaragua back.

If Nicaragua has begun to create new wealth following the abandonment of the Sandinista economic and social experiments, how to distribute that wealth—how to find some balance between the worlds of Metro Centro and Nueva Vida—and raise the vast majority of its people out of extreme deprivation remains a profound challenge.

The future
Vicente Chavez is plainly not too optimistic about his Nicaragua's future.

"This government, this president," he says, "I don't see anything good in the future, in the economy. If you don't give people food, health, an education, you can't make nothing good. I think if the children can eat well and have an education, we will have a future."

Adolfo McGregor, on the other hand, thinks, "The problem of our people is they look for something to solve our problems from above—ideology or what have you. We have to look at the future; stop the political mumbo jumbo. Politics is not going to solve the problems of this country; hard work is going to solve them—a slow, painstaking process of development, of creating the right kind of development and creating the right laws to allow that development to take place."

If there is cause for optimism in Nicaragua, it is that now these two men can so profoundly and openly disagree without fear of recrimination, without fear of the knock on the door. And neither man seems to expect that their opposing visions of Nicaragua's future need to be administered at the prodding of a rifle barrel. With superpower attention drawn elsewhere, Nicaragua may finally be free to peacefully begin constructing a future of its own design.

By Kevin Clarke, social issues & public life editor for U.S. Catholic and Claretian Publications' managing editor for online products.

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