Earthquakes, Mud Slides, & Sandinistas

Nicaragua is finally recovering from natural and man-made disasters. So why is it still so crazy?

I can feel Nicaragua clawing at my brain. With just a couple of months to go before I finish out my four years here, I'm losing the struggle. I knew it was getting a toehold in there when I didn't even consider it weird to discover that the new TGI Friday's here had a secret menu. "Well, yes," the waitress confirmed, her voice dropping a conspiratorial octave. "It's true, you can get a steak cooked in Jack Daniels, the North American whiskey. Or chicken. Or beef ribs. But we don't advertise it." Why not? I wondered aloud. She rolled her eyes at my ignorance and flounced away to the kitchen. Yet another mystery of this country that will never be solved; and one more cluster of my brain cells addled probably beyond recovery.

I will not be the first gringo to have gone nuts here. It's been happening at least since the 1850s, when the American adventurer William Walker declared himself emperor, made English the official language, and celebrated by burning down what was then the country's largest city. The most recent acclaimed case was that of actor Gary Merrill, who took up residence in Managua's Inter-Continental in the 1980s and liked to wander the lobby in pre-dawn hours wearing a dress.

Merrill was carrying on a grand tradition of gringo insanity at the Inter-Con, which hosted, for a time, the loopiest American of them all, the billionaire Howard Hughes. It's probably not fair to say that Nicaragua drove Hughes crazy--his brain supposedly had been ravaged by untreatable syphilis for more than four decades before he arrived in 1972--but he set what would become the gold standard for loony-tune behavior by American guests.

Hughes rented the entire top floor of the Inter-Continental and spent four months there, lying naked in a BarcaLounger chair and watching old James Bond movies around the clock. Aside from a single meeting with Nicaragua's military strongman Anastazio Somoza ("Say, you speak pretty good English for a foreigner," he told Somoza), his only other diversion was testing the vegetable soup he ordered in vast quantities from room service.

The Inter-Con chefs had to cook three batches separately from everyone else's; Hughes would sample them, choose one, and the rest had to be thrown away. The chefs were given precise measurements of the maximum size of peas to be used, and Hughes kept a slide-rule nearby to measure any suspiciously large legume that found its way into his room.

Thus diverted, Hughes might have lived out an idyllic existence here, but for the brutal earthquake that shook Managua nearly to pieces on December 23, 1972. Once aides found his underwear--which hadn't been seen for months--they toted him down eight flights of stairs. This being Managua, the stairwell was being used to store the hotel's spare furniture, and Hughes had to be dragged over piles of sofas and beds, not to mention a dozen naked airline stewardesses who were hiding there after being rousted from bed by the quake.

Nicaragua's lunatic streak is the great constant in its history. I wrote about this place in the 1980s, when it was an economically brain-dead Marxist enclave in which the only growth industry was the money supply, inflating so explosively that waiters stopped counting the vast piles of bills that it took to buy lunch. ("A little more, give me another stack...Yeah, that looks about right.") I write about it now in the 1990s, when privatizations, cell phones, and hookers are all the rage. I've studied its history, going back to the times when Spanish explorers put up crosses at the mouth of the Santiago de Masaya volcano in an attempt to keep Lucifer himself from roaring out of what was obviously the very mouth of Hell. And I can tell you that this place has always been tiptoeing along the ragged edges of sanity.

Even now, they warn visitors to Masaya to get off the streets before noon on Good Friday, when the carved figure of Gestas, one of the thieves crucified along with Jesus, climbs down off his cross at the Calvary Church of Masaya and runs through the streets smacking people. His favorite targets are sinners and blasphemers, but righteousness is no shield; Gestas' work ethic is so potent that pretty much anybody is fair game. One year he supposedly hanged a local painter who dared to touch up his colors in anticipation of Holy Week. Masayans with grudges against their neighbors leave upside-down candles in front of Gestas early in the week in hopes that he'll use them to burn down their enemies' homes.

Given this sort of work hazard--where are OSHA and personal injury lawyers when you really need them?--you can perhaps understand why I'll soon be leaving Nicaragua for a rest. And if the place is still more than a little nuts, I'll nonetheless be leaving behind a country much changed from the 1980s.

It pains everyone in the chattering classes to say it, but Nicaragua, which reeled backward a century or more under the Marxist rule of the Sandinistas, is moving forward again. The economy has expanded 5 percent or more for three consecutive years, the longest growth surge in recorded Nicaraguan history. The construction industry sets new records for consumption of sand, gravel, and cement every year, as new hotels, factories, and shopping malls reshape the skyline every day.

To understand how remarkable that is, you have to have been here in the 1980s, when Nicaragua was the economic equivalent of a Nazi medical lab, where nobody cared how much the patient screamed. The nine Sandinista comandantes sat around a table each morning and planned.

They decided it was neither fair nor orderly for so many different employers to pay so many different salaries for so many different jobs. So they set 28 different salary levels, then spent endless weeks assigning every single job in the country to one of them. I've forgotten now what the formal name of the salary table was, but everybody called it by its Spanish acronym, SNOTS, which as the years rolled by began to seem appropriate in more ways than one. Interestingly, it turned out that if you paid electrical engineers the same as gas station attendants, they all left the country. Who knew?

That sort of thing happened over and over again, as the comandantes made economic terms like fluidity and fungibility and globalization spring to life in a way that my college economics textbooks never could. The comandantes decided competition among slaughterhouses was distorting the price of beef, so they nationalized them and set one universal price. The cattle walked across the border to Costa Rica. The comandantes saw no reason that shrimp should be so expensive, and soon the shrimp boats began docking in Honduras.

There were fun and games, too, with production levels. As a young reporter in the United States I went to countless city council meetings where frustrated bureaucrats raged on and on about how their town had too many T-shirt shops, or video game parlors, or whatever. But their power to do anything about it was always circumscribed by some vexatious judge or law.

The comandantes, however, had no such constraints. In the mid-1980s, looking over the numbers on toilet paper, they discovered Nicaraguans were using too damned much. Who had authorized this? Who had proven a need for all that toilet paper? The percentage of gross domestic product being flushed away each year could be put to better use, the comandantes decided, and just like that--God, the city managers would have died if they could have seen it--they cut it. Pretty soon toilet paper disappeared completely from public restrooms and was carefully rationed even at the Inter-Con, where it might take a full day or even two to haggle for a new roll when the one in your room ran out. I knew the toilet paper crisis had finally bottomed out when some peasants who did a little work for a reporter friend of mine asked to be paid in toilet paper rather than cordobas.

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