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.

So this was Nicaragua when democracy returned in 1990, a place where the currency literally wasn't worth wiping your butt with, a place where the only growth export was refugees, a place where the national motto was, "Thank God for Haiti"–because it was the only thing that kept Nicaragua from finishing dead last on every single economic trend chart in the hemisphere.

How do you rebuild a place like that? Obviously, the simple fact that 15 years of near-continuous warfare (first the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza dynasty, then the counterrevolution against the Sandinistas) had ended was a major step. Sweeping away the nuttiest of the Sandinista economic policies–SNOTS, the government purchasing and export monopolies in so many key industries, the collectivization of agriculture–was another.

But President Arnoldo Aleman, elected in 1996, has gone further, attacking not only the Marxist remnants of the Sandinista economy but the crony capitalism that has turned so many Latin American countries into family farms for a handful of swaggering plutocrats. He eased restrictions on foreign investment and hacked away at protectionist import duties–especially on what economists call inputs, stuff like seed and fertilizer and concrete, the building blocks of the economy.

And in a bold attack that was little noticed outside the country but made him plenty of powerful enemies inside, he did away with a law that granted a handful of Nicaraguan firms monopolies on importing those inputs. It worked like this: If you were the first guy to import, say, Kodak film into Nicaragua, then you were the only guy who could import it–no matter what Kodak thought about it.

Now, a monopoly on Kodak film, while it may be unfair and annoying, is probably not the end of the world–there's Fuji and Polaroid and lots of other brands. But holding the exclusive rights to import the only pesticide known to kill Nicaraguan boll weevils, or the only fertilizer suited to the soil in Nicaraguan coffee country, gives you a choke hold on a huge chunk of the economy. That's why Aleman's most relentless enemies in Nicaragua are not Sandinista die-hards but zillionaire oligarchs.

It's no accident that the Nicaraguan economy really took off after Aleman got his reforms in place. But Managua being located well off all known journalistic trade routes these days, you don't read much about any of this. The occasional foreign reporter who stumbles in by error inevitably mentions the new shopping malls and hotels only by way of pointing out that most Nicaraguans can't afford them. The jobs created by their construction–and the jobs that will be created by the tourists and business travelers they'll lure–are never noted.

The story, it seems, is never that life is improving, little by little, for most Nicaraguans, but that for a few, it's improving quickly and bounteously. It is only recently, watching the way other reporters describe Nicaragua now, that I have come to understand why the Sandinistas got such favorable press in the 1980s, when they were wrecking their own country. What mattered to the journalists was equality, and if the Sandinistas achieved it only by plunging the entire country into poverty, well, it was still equality.

Despite their degrees and lofty places of employment, the foreign journalists ultimately draw a picture of this country that is no more accurate, and considerably less interesting, than that drawn by their Nicaraguan counterparts, who gleefully specialize in tales of exorcisms, vampires, and doctors who counsel female patients that gastrointestinal distress can be quieted by oral sex. Certainly no foreign journalist would break into a long discourse on the International Monetary Fund, as a Nicaraguan radio reporter did last year, to ask the grizzled Sandinista comandante Tomas Borge if he still had both his testicles.

Actually, the remarkable thing is not that the reporter was more interested in Borge's testicles than in his views on economics–Borge's expertise on the latter stems from having spent the Sandinista party newspaper into a bankruptcy so profound that even the workers' social security payments were lost–but that anyone wanted to talk to him about anything at all. The Sandinista party, once considered the blueprint for the leftist future of Latin America, has withered away into irrelevance.

With their guerrilla days behind them, the Sandinistas have never really gotten the hang of electoral politics, losing four national elections in a row by overwhelming margins. They've tried to restyle themselves as a center-left party, even abandoning the old Sandinista hymn ("We fight against the yanqui, enemy of humanity") for well-known socialist Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." That's not to say that they've turned away completely from the old school: At a party congress last year, there was prolonged applause for observer delegations from Libya, China, and Vietnam, and a moment of silence in honor of recently deceased Cuban spymaster Manuel Piñeiro.

But many of the Sandinista leaders have in fact jumped ship. Jaime Wheelock, the central committee member who authored scathing tomes of Marxist history such as Imperialism and Dictatorship, is now writing cookbooks. Humberto Ortega, once the head of the armed forces, has dropped out of sight to manage his multimillion-dollar business portfolio. (You've got to love those revolutionary pension plans.) Daniel Ortega is still head of the party, but spends most of his time fighting his stepdaughter's attempts to force him to face trial on charges that he sexually abused her for years, starting when she was 11. Those legal problems could eventually spread to the United States, where the stepdaughter says Ortega molested her during visits to the United Nations in New York. But in gringo territory, she says, Ortega insisted they take care of business inside hotel-room closets, the better to avoid the CIA spy cameras he was certain were present.

When they ruled the country in the 1980s, figuring out what the Sandinistas were up to was a maddening and mostly fruitless task for journalists. Interviews with top party officials were virtually impossible to come by, and as the years went by, even their public appearances dwindled to a few carefully managed events where questions were impossible. By contrast, the staff of the current president is constantly begging him to stay away from reporters, because he can't resisting arguing with (and occasionally bellowing threats at) the cantankerous Managua press corps.

President Aleman is a hard-drinking, back-slapping pol who would have been at home in Mayor Daley's Chicago. When I interviewed him at his coffee farm outside Managua last year, he made breakfast and then told me a slew of unprintable Bill-and-Monica jokes he had read on the Internet. He once threatened to use a bulldozer to tear down the wall around Daniel Ortega's "house," a one-square-block compound that Ortega confiscated from the previous owner and then sold to himself at a five-fingered discount price of $1,000 as he was leaving office in 1990. Aleman is only marginally fonder of journalists. Once, as reporters surged into a room for a press conference with him, he thrust his fingers at them in the sign of a cross and yelled, "Back, you paparazzi!"

Nonetheless, Aleman continues the blizzard of ribbon cuttings and cornerstone layings that has continued nonstop since the day he took office. He is photographed at construction sites so often that some Nicaraguans have taken to referring to the presidential entourage as "The Flintstones."

His vice president, Enrique Bolaños, is almost as hyperactive and has an even sharper tongue. When Bolaños presided at the opening of Nicaragua's first McDonald's last year, he pronounced the occasion as nothing less than the attainment of civilization: "When foreign investors see that big M, they know we're not running around in loincloths." Not only that, he added, the french fries were pretty good: "Much better than the ones at the McDonald's in Moscow."

Actually, Nicaragua was one of the first Latin American countries to get a McDonald's franchise, way back in 1972. Unbeknownst to its corporate masters up north, the restaurant stayed open after the Sandinistas took over. Indeed, in late 1986, the author Denis Johnson published a novel set in Managua called The Stars at Noon. Some of the scenes took place in the McDonald's, which was described with stomach-curdling detail: "With the meat shortage, you wouldn't ever know absolutely, would you, what sort of a thing they were handing you in the guise of beef….It's the only Communist-run McDonald's ever. It's the only McDonald's where you have to give back your plastic cup so it can washed out and used again, the only McDonald's staffed by people wearing military fatigues and carrying submachine guns." When the suits at McDonald's headquarters saw that, the jig was up.

But all is forgiven now. Managua has three–count 'em, three–golden arches, to go with four Pizza Huts, two Subways, and now even that TGI Friday's with the mysterious menu. A major hotel opened late last year; two more, including a Holiday Inn, are due by the end of 2000. A glittering upscale topless bar has risen in the Managua neighborhood that once was home to so many American reporters and revolutionary camp followers that it was known as Gringolandia.

Broken to bits by the 1972 earthquake, ground to dust by nearly two decades of war and 11 years of Marxist economics, Managua is slowly, inexorably clawing its way into the 20th century, albeit just as the rest of the world is headed for the 21st. Not that there aren't some bumps along the way. The city's two new shopping malls have given Nicaraguans their first exhilarating, terrifying glimpse of an ominous new technology: the escalator. So many thrill-seeking kids crowd around the landings on the upper floors at the Mentrocentro and Plaza Inter malls, daring one another to bolt down the rising stairs, that the managers have been driven to near-homicidal distraction.

They should, perhaps, heed the advice of the son of the owner of the country's only previous escalator, which croaked during the big 1972 earthquake. His pop had the same problem, he told me, but came up with an effective low-tech solution: "He put an employee with a belt on the first floor to spank anybody who was caught coming down the wrong way."

The one thing that hasn't changed is Nicaragua's luck. Even when the place hasn't been at war (which is almost never), it's been nature's punching bag. Three times over a 150-year time span, earthquakes have leveled Managua; volcanoes, tidal waves–you name it, Nicaragua has had it. Latest manifestation: a plague of vampire bats. Driven by Hurricane Mitch from their caves in remote northern mountainsides, the bats have resettled in urban areas and have prompted deadly epidemics of rabies and cheap Dracula jokes.

The bats may seem vaguely comic, unless you awaken one night to find one fastened to your throat. But I don't begin to have the words to describe the meteorological bloodlust with which Hurricane Mitch dismembered the villages of northern Nicaragua, the way it left the countryside looking like it had been clawed by a giant cat. When I interviewed an 8-year-old boy who watched a mud slide barrel down a volcano during the hurricane and bury 44 of his relatives alive, I found I couldn't even write down his words. I just kept thinking of a character in Mark Harris' novel Bang the Drum Slowly who's found out his baseball-playing son is dying of a rare form of cancer. "My son," he says, "got one shit deal."

But where else but Nicaragua could you ever hope to find a character like the delirious Eden Pastora, the famous Commander Zero who was a hero of the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza dictatorship but then turned against his old compañeros to become a contra? Pastora, who always has time to explain to reporters that he is not only a military-political genius but also the most handsome man in Nicaragua, is still here, as lovably egomaniacal as ever. (If he is not absolutely the most handsome man in the country, he is nonetheless a very attractive one, having fathered 22 children by an indeterminate number of women.)

When the Nicaraguan electoral tribunal ruled him ineligible to run for president on a technicality, Pastora camped on the sidewalk outside its offices and staged a hunger strike. When I went over to interview him on his 30th day without food, I took along a photographer. No pictures until I put on my hat, Pastora insisted, taking several minutes to arrange his gleaming white sombrero just so. As he lovingly inspected the results in a hand mirror, he smiled and assured me, "Next to me, Errol Flynn looks like a piece of shit."

Whenever Nicaragua throws me a curveball–which it still does with disconcerting regularity after 16 years of covering it–I think of a story about Pastora from his contra days, when he fought with his putative allies at the CIA almost as much as his Sandinista enemies. The American spooks drove him half-mad. One day Pastora's aides sat silently by as he paced up and down, ranting and raving, for more than an hour. They couldn't figure out what the problem was. He kept screaming about the chairs, the damned chairs, the chairs would be the death of him. Chairs? Finally one of the men slapped his forehead in recognition. For chair, Pastora was using the Spanish word taburete. But a chair is also a silla. And silla is pronounced exactly like CIA in Spanish. Covering Nicaragua has been the only time in my life I've wondered if I shouldn't have taken more drugs in the '60s.