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The International Writers Magazine
: Central America : Reality in Nicaragua

Making It Happen
Roger Smith in Chinandega

Father Ruy Montealegre, a diocesan priest, is showing off his latest project. It is a large rectangular building, right now just four high cinderblock walls, that will become a club house for the local youth of his parish, slums just south of Chinandega in northwestern Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the New World after Haiti, and even by Nicaraguan standards Chinandega is poor. The sprawling slums, in comparison, make Chinandega proper look brisk and prosperous. Father Ruy wants to give the kids and teenagers a refuge from the slums’ poverty, squalor, hopelessness, violence, and drugs.

Over there, he says, pointing to a corner, will be the café, where they can have soft drinks and snacks during dances and after classes. And over there—he sweeps his hand toward one entire end of the building, a space fifty feet wide—will be the basketball court.
Is basketball popular here in Chinandega?
Padre Ruy is a tall man with broad shoulders and close-cropped black hair. He is dressed in priestly clothes—white shirt and black trousers—but has the bearing of a military officer, his movements authoritative, brusque. At the question, he turns and glares.
I will make it popular.

Father Ruy was raised on a large farm near Chinandega, his family from the country’s landed class, but he spent much of his young adulthood in other countries, principally the U.S. He earned a degree in accounting from a Nicaraguan university, because his father insisted on it, and then left to take master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and then theology from American universities. Now he is returned, forty and well educated. A head taller than most Nicas, he could easily pass for an Mid-Westerner. Until, that is, he talks for a while. Then he reveals himself to be a disconcerting mixture, a chimera: He sounds of the United States, but he says things that would not be said there.

I met Father Ruy by accident—or maybe it’s a bit more accurate to say, in the Nicaraguan manner. I was taking a turn through the scruff central park of Chinandega with a friend, Dora Cortés, when after having seen the two captive caimans and the Sandinista monuments there, we began to feel oppressed by the midday sun, so she suggested that we have a look at the altar paintings in the cathedral across the street where it was shady and cool. Dora knows everyone in town, practically, and introduced me to the cathedral priest, a squat man with the uneasy jollity of a scholar out of his element. By the time we left the cathedral, the priest, who noted our fatigue, had made arrangements. He brought Father Ruy to us, who offered to drive Dora home and me back to the grain factory where I was staying. It was a ten-minute drive. I got there four hours later.

First he has a small errand to run, taking educational materials from the cathedral to his office, so off we go. En route he decides to take me on a tour of his diocese, and he swings the car off the León-Chinandega highway and into a warren of low huts, cobbled together for the most part from graying planks and corrugated tin. Open sewers line the dirt streets, and there are short poles carrying narrow gauge power lines, but they end not far into the settlement; the newer streets continue without them, petering out into what had once been farming land. That’s just the problem, that land. The region’s cash crops have largely disappeared. Cotton, peanuts, and even sugar, which once supported an agrarian economy, are no longer profitable. Nicaraguan agriculture is hard pressed to compete in world markets—markets that are fed by countries, like the United States, which subsidize their farmers. It is cheaper to import foods that had long been Nicaraguan staples, and so local farms are abandoned. With the fields lying fallow now, campesinos have migrated to cities to find work, and with those cities crowded to begin with, slums grow rapidly on the outskirts to house them.

Padre Ruy looks around, almost proudly, but admits, "It’s an ugly place." He decided to change things soon after his bishop sent him here (he also admits with a sigh that he had requested a rural diocese, a small town in the mountains, nice and quiet, but orders are orders). He shows me the first step of his master plan: new churches for each of five neighborhoods of the slums, as delineated by him. Altogether, there are twenty to thirty thousand residents, but he cautions that is only an estimate. People arrive and depart daily. Life here is provisional, and the people unrooted.

When we drive down the widest of the narrow streets, several people wave to him, and most smile as well. But not all of the residents are friendly. Some glare from doorways and then slip inside as we pass, and the majority are simply impassive. He explains that in addition to the gangs, drugs, alcoholism, unemployment and underemployment (which approaches 80 percent), and violence, there is little permanent family structure to provide continuity to daily life. In fact, there are few married couples. Instead, a man and woman cohabit, have children, and then the man leaves. The woman takes up with another man for protection and a modicum of financial support, and they have more children. Before that man in turn leaves, the children of the previous liaison are neglected or abused, driven to the in-group safety of gangs. Without family stability, the sense of the slum as a community—something more meaningful than a mere place—doesn’t exist. This acculturation extends even to religion, here in a land that is overwhelmingly conservative Catholic. Only about 3 percent of slum dwellers are regular communicants.

Padre Ruy’s task is large, but he is a man of innovation who knows how to make things happen here, starting with the youth center and the churches. These he designed to fit the environment. Made of stuccoed cinderblock, the churches are open along their longest walls, so any breath of wind can cool worshippers, and surrounded by a covered veranda to keep the rain from blowing in during the rainy season. Wrought iron grids replace the walls in order to frustrate vandals and thieves, who are a big problem. Padre Ruy had to include two locked storage rooms for each church or else all the alter adornments would disappear at once. There are no glass windows because, he says, local protestant boys come and break them out of spite. He laughs after saying this: "I did the same to their churches when I was a kid."

But what does disturb him about the Protestants is the unwillingness of ministers to join him in a common effort to improve living conditions here. Trust is not ecumenical in the Nicaraguan slums, so he is on his own. To encourage a community spirit he has named each church after a saint, chosen to be representative of time, gender, and race—one medieval saint (St. Thomas Aquinas, his personal favorite), one modern and black (St. Benedict of Palermo), and three biblical, including two women—but also so that the feast days are spread throughout the year. That way each church and its neighborhood can hold a separate celebration and invite the other four parishes to join them. Nicas love fiestas. Plenty of them fosters a more cohesive community.

After a tour of one church, which has a medical-dental clinic nearby and community hall, we at last reach his office. Of all his construction projects it is the tiniest, just two small rooms of cinderblock, and he only built it because his bishop ordered him to do so. He wanted the use the funds allotted to him for community projects. He takes us to one of these, an open-air tile and brick factory nearby, which supplies building materials for yet further projects, all of which are intended to provide some regular jobs to his parishioners. The bricks made in the factory are just nondescript red bricks, but the tiles are lovely. They have a variety of dichromatic, swirling patterns, stylish and pleasant rather than bold: black and deep burgundy; pale green and cream; deep blue and rusty brown. The stacks of tiles in the yard contrast as much with the dusty greenery of the countryside as birds of paradise.

During our wanderings Dora and the cathedral priest trail behind us nonplussed by our non-stop discussions. We argue and laugh and gesture through topics no one would expect to hear in one of the hemisphere’s poorest slums, on the edge of overgrown fields and under eucalyptus trees where long-tailed grackles screech down at us. For each problem, Padre Ruy has a simple, radical solution. Political weakness in the face of Mexico and the U.S.?—Central America should band together into a single country, or at least a federation. Problems from the entrenched militaries?—disband them and reemploy the soldiers as park rangers and coast guards. The looming threat of energy shortages?—no problem at all, just build more atomic generating plants.
When I demur that radioactive waste is a significant problem, he scoffs, then takes out a pad of paper and draws a flow diagram to illustrate the typical power plant radiation levels and what they mean to health (remember, he holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering). "It’s a myth," he says of the peril of radioactive waste, so feared in the U.S. "Listen, if I were president of Nicaragua, I would invite every nation in the world to send their nuclear waste here." He elaborates the economic benefits: money earned from fees for disposal first of all but also from reprocessing to extract usable metals and radioactive isotopes and selling these for use in medicine, the power industry, instrumentation, and manufacturing. "Probably only one percent would have to be buried," he claims, which he would do by embedding it in glass and inserting that into bore holes in stable rock.
A tall order, I say wryly, so when will he get started on it? He laughs at my skepticism and replies, "One thing at a time."

People Have to Live
We are on the narrow country road between Chinandega and the Pacific coast in a Toyota SUV bound for a restaurant and a dinner that the local hospital aid association is hosting in honor of the visiting medical team. Our driver is one of the association directors, a wealthy businessman and farm owner who is prominent in Nicaraguan agricultural affairs, and he is a worried man.

He talks about Nicaragua’s economic and business woes during the entire half-hour drive, and at times it is a harangue, for many of the problems are systemic, critical, and in part of international origin. Government price supports in other countries, primarily the U.S. during the 1980’s, enabled foreign exporters to undersell Nicaragua exporters, while at the same time imposing import quotas on Nicaraguan goods, so because of reduced domestic and foreign markets Nicaragua has seen its cash crops shrink or disappear altogether: nursery trees, sugar cane, sesame, soy beans, cotton, bananas and other tropical fruit, rice, and peanuts. (It is now cheaper to import sugar than to produce it, a disconcerting irony in a country whose rum, Flor de Caña, "Flower of the Sugarcane," is a point of nationalistic pride.) With a huge foreign debt and the economy in such straits Nicaragua had to accept austerity reforms dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Our host rails at the exorbitant fees charged by the IMF consultants who whisk into Managua from Europe and throw their weight around. He argues that Central America needs to confederate in order to survive, but even then he’s not sure there would be much improvement. A recent trade treaty with Mexico provides a dismal precedent. The Mexicans, he complains, always find a way to throw up barriers to Nicaraguan exports and manipulate the treaty to their sole advantage. "They always say one thing and do another," he says.

Suddenly, he breaks off and points to a group of poor men and women walking along the roadside. "Look at them. They used to be field workers, probably. Now there is no work for them. Nothing. They get by mostly from dribbles of foreign aid. The country is full of people like them, and they are tired of waiting for things to improve. Something’s got to be done for them and soon. People have to live. Period." This comes from a man who is a staunch conservative, so much so that he fled the country after the Sandinistas came to power. His worries do not arise from a egalitarian political sympathy. They are practical.

Here’s what he is afraid might happen. The radical left will come to power again. Widespread unemployment destabilizes socio-political systems, increasing the chance for social upheaval and the election of reactionary liberals who want to redistribute wealth and land. He’s seen it happen before, he says, referring tacitly to the Sandinistas, and now he’s seeing it happen again in Venezuela. He despises its president, Hugo Chávez, whom he considers a middle class-suppressing rabble-rouser, and he fears the increasing power of the left in the other Latin American countries that comes from a swelling popular demand for jobs and economic improvements. But there is more to it than jobs and economic prospects; the divisions between rich and poor are deeper, more personal in Central America. We pass another group of people at roadside as the dusk gathers (which in the tropics comes with startling swiftness), and when they turn to stare at us, their faces are broad and dark, the hair thick and black, the expressions curious but undemonstrative. They are Indians. They are the poor people. Our host points at these too. "If the poor people here see a white person, they think he's rich. They think all white people have a lot of money." The remark isn’t simply a challenge; he is as white as we are. Perhaps thinking he has gone too far, knowing how notoriously dense North Americans like us can be about racial matters, he changes the subject, and soon we reach the Restaurante de España, a gorgeous open-air establishment beside the wide waterway separating Corinto from the mainland. His point is clear, however: Another leftist revolution might not be so restrained as that of the Sandinistas. However bloody its civil war was, at the upper echelons of power, it was something of a family quarrel.

In The Jaguar Smile Salman Rushdie quips that the people on either side of the civil war had dated each other in high school; they were from the same class. The sides were ideological rather than racial. Next time, our host implies, having white skin—the immanent symbol of privilege and difference—might become a liability.
At the dinner, back among his peers—prominent doctors, hospital administrators, association officers, and other business people—our host’s ebullience is reinvigorated. He talks more about the country’s agricultural problems. There’s no lack of talent, he claims, but development money from the government and NGO’s has a way of going astray. Projects are started, but corruption stifles them. (The president then serving, Enrique Bolaños, had just imprisoned his predecessor, Arnoldo Alemán, for corruption.) Others around the table look at him a little askance, but nobody contradicts him. The day before he met with the ministers of agriculture and commerce to demand that something be done to improve employment opportunities northwestern Nicaragua, and now he fumes while relating the answer he got: There is too little money to go around. Chinandega might get nothing. I try to steer the conversation back to specifics, but when I ask about the details of local production, he shrugs and says he’s not sure. He takes out his cell phone, dials a number, speaks briefly, and hands the phone to me: "Here." I find myself talking to a peanut exporter in Managua, who gives me the statistics for the last year: 50,000 metric tons of peanuts produced, $35 million worth of exports to the United Kingdom, Holland, and Mexico, also a tiny amount permitted into the United States. The exporter agrees that Nicaragua could produce much more for sale abroad if growers could find new markets; however, some of the exporter’s details do not appear to square with what our host said during the drive here. The increasing gusto of the dinner party prevents me from questioning him further, although afterwards he speaks to me privately. Yet it's not for further discussion. He just wants to insist on one point, that I not use his name in anything I publish.

I Did It My Way
"We used to live so simply," says my friend Dora plaintively, a wistful protest that I hear repeatedly among educated Nicaraguans. "Now look at all this." Her husband, Loreto, is driving us to a fancy Mexican restaurant, Maria Bonita, in one of Managua’s fashionable districts, and he frowns in agreement. The traffic is dense, swift, and frightening because no one pays the least attention to lanes or signals a change in direction. It is the exuberant driving of people for whom using a car daily is still a fresh, liberating, competitive experience. Loreto is continually accelerating then slamming on the brakes to match the general herky-jerky pace.
The cars are almost universally small Japanese- or Korean-built models, many in tatty shape, but every once in a while we pass a large glittering SUV of American or European manufacture, and at the sight of them Dora seethes. A lot of narcotrafficking money is coming into the capital, she explains, and as she speaks, she looks both disgusted and worried. The drug money is producing a class of sudden wealth for the drug runners themselves and for corrupt officials, who all like to show it off. The drug money is also coming in during a time of swiftly increasing crime, helping to fuel it. When another of my Nicaraguan friends learned that I was leaving for Managua, he told me, "Here in León it is safe. You can leave your front door open, and nothing will happen. But Managua is not safe. You must be careful." When I told him that I was going to fly from Managua to Puerto Cabezas on the northeast coast, he was aghast. He told me darkly not to go out on the streets there alone, not to let it be seen that I have anything of value. Yet another friend complained of the kidnappings and brazen highway robberies in broad daylight in Managua; at first he blamed it on Costa Rican gangs but later admitted that Nicaraguans are likely to be involved too. He sighed, "Managua’s becoming like Mexico."

Today, when we stop for a light, the superficiality of the prosperity becomes glaring. Hawkers of all ages, some dressed in the merest rags, stream among the stopped cars offering to wash windows or to sell packets of water, juice, cookies, or cigarettes. At every stop Loreto hands out coins.

At Maria Bonita, the prosperity reasserts itself. The patrons enjoy the touch of Mexico very much, even though most Nicas, who prefer mild fare, are cautious with these spicy foreign dishes. The dining area is spacious, open-air, and well guarded; the interior decor tries hard to capture the atmosphere of the Old Mexico of filmdom (1950’s-style): thickly stuccoed walls, wooden balcony with flower pots, sultry lighting, and bright posters, most featuring the restaurant’s movie star namesake. Soon after we are seated, the remaining tables fill up quickly with expensively, conservatively dressed families and fashionably turned-out couples on dates. There is the continuous hubbub of clattering dinnerware and talking, the owner circulates through the room chatting with his customers, and then the first musical act of the night takes the stage on the edge of the dining area. It is a mariachi band: guitar, guitarón, violin, and trumpet.

Their music, brassy and frenetic, takes me back a year to a bemusing episode. On that occasion, at this same restaurant, I was sitting beside a Managuan poet, Juan Velásquez Molieri, and we were listening to the same band. He arrived with his wife soon after our party was seated. Dora, who knew him, invited him to join us, and we struck up a conversation of mixed Spanish and English while his wife looked on glumly. Learning that I was a writer and had once published poetry myself, Velásquez rose to excuse himself, promised to return, and led his wife away. A half hour later he was back without his wife, and he handed me a gift, a thick collection of his poems, Los Esplendores Vividos. I was touched by the gesture, yet he waved off my expression of gratitude. "Life is intensive here," he said of Managua, and then tapped a forefinger on the book: "You’ll see."

His life, however, turned out to be more intriguing than the living splendors he wrote about, and there was no reason to view it as an especially exceptional life for an educated Managuan of his generation. He came from a middle-class family and trained at university for a life of business. His business career was cut short by the Sandinista Revolution, however, and he turned to journalism. Writing news stories during the Sandinista days was risky. You dared not write in such a way to appear overly critical of the revolutionary government, he told me, and some topics were taboo. If you were accused of counterrevolutionary criticism, the consequences could be very grim. He had to be careful, and that caution and the hectic workload ground him down. But during the 1990’s life began looking better. He left journalism and became the public relations director for a cable company. At age sixty, he was just finishing law school and planning to open his own firm. He was enjoying life.

As was true of most of the restaurant’s patrons, he spoke with animation, expansively, while moving his head and body in rhythm to the mariachi music. It was engaging to be near such energy. At one point he caught the sleeve of a passing waitress and handed her a note that he had just written on a napkin. The note went to the leader of the mariachi band, a request for a particular song. Time passed, song after song was played, and Velásquez grew impatient, wondering if he’d been snubbed. Finally, though, a song began, and a broad smile broke out on his face. It was the song he had requested, and within two bars of its opening, the entire restaurant had fallen silent. It was not the national anthem, nor even the immensely popular "Nicaragua Nicaragüita," but rather a Spanish version of Frank Sinatra’s theme song, "I Did It My Way." Sinatra is a favorite among Nicaraguans, but even given that, "I Did It My Way" summoned a devotion from the diners so passionate that it seemed to verge upon desperation. As the mariachi singer, accompanied by single guitar, segued into the crescendoing refrain, they all joined in lustily: "in mi manera."

Now a year later, at the conclusion of dinner, a second mariachi band arrives to provide an even more curious surprise for us, arranged by one of the León physicians. The mariachis serenade us on our way out to the cars and persist in the parking lot until some of us agree to practice a Nicaraguan dance under the guidance of the band leader. We dance among the parked cars as security guards and passers-by look on. The band yet continues to play as we climb into our cars and drive out of the lot. Within a mile, however, the music and gaiety of Maria Bonita are a world away, and we are driving past shacks, go-downs, and sleazy bars.

Managua is less a city than the shards of a city left over from the earthquake that leveled it in 1972. Barrios have grown, seemingly at random, each in its own manner, so that now, thirty-two years later, the towering silhouette monument to General Sandino, built on a hill overlooking the city by the Sandinistas to honor their icon, looks down on a aggregation of gated communities, slums, rusting factories, glittering malls, and roadside tiendas—all spreading swiftly along the southern shore of Lake Managua, which is all but dead from pollution. It is a setting where politicians, government functionaries, NGOs and aid workers, narcotraffickers, the old-guard rich and the homeless, campesinos hunting for jobs and longtime residents inured to intermittent employment, businessmen and factory workers, shop owners, and university intellectuals exist in haphazard, discrete communities, like a dance floor filled with couples each dancing to a different tune.

As for those narcotraffickers, Dora and Loreto are far from alone in worrying about them. The national government feels the threat as well. Drug runners have made bases for themselves in the two major cities on the east coast, Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, and they use the offshore waters to smuggle with impunity. There are reports that increasing numbers of processing plants for cocaine and methamphetamines are cropping up in the countryside, and gang violence, the etiquette of the drug trade, has increased dramatically. In the summer of 2004, bowing to heavy pressure from the United States, General Javier Carrión, commander of the Nicaraguan army, destroyed 333 surface-to-air missiles in his arsenal. The U.S. government was afraid that the missiles might otherwise fall into the hands of terrorists in Al-Qaida. Hoping for a favor in return, General Carrión traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask for $80 million dollars in aid from the Pentagon so that he could buy planes and boats with which to fight the narcotraffickers, whose equipment is better than his army’s. The Pentagon turned him down, citing a lack of resources. The market for narcotraffickers is, of course, overwhelmingly the United States. The irony of this is not lost on Nicaraguans.
© Roger Smith
These pieces all written between 2003-2004

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