My travels in Central America twenty-some years ago during the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and five years ago for the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, were instrumental in forming my worldview. Returning in December of 2010, I was excited to measure the changes and to see if my general sense of the dynamics of the scene was still accurate.
I didn’t anticipate such a striking sense of how things had changed with time. Even at the Managua departure gate at Houston International Airport, unexpected comparisons hit me. Boarding the plane on earlier trips, I had been struck by the mix of elites, roughnecks, and church and NGO (non-government organization) pacifists. In the 1990s, everyone seemed to be carting home cheap electronics. Now, with more prosperity and no more US embargo in Nicaragua, I saw no electronics. Maybe things were getting better down there.
But upon arrival in Managua, it was clear that the gap between rich and poor remains the context in which the story of Nicaragua is being written. The city has no front yards. Everything has been fenced, walled in, and topped with razor wire. The only people living without security are those with nothing worth stealing. As we checked into our Managua hotel, the woman at the reception desk said, with a mix of pride and sadness, “We live in a safe country. But, before going out, leave your valuables in your hotel room.”
The city of Managua has close to two million people…but I’ll bet there are fewer than 20 elevators. Its devastating 1972 earthquake left only two tall buildings of its once-impressive skyline standing. There has been some rebuilding, but the National Cathedral still stands empty and unusable on the main square, and the city is, in general, a two-story rambler. Standing where the Palace of Samoza once stood, crowning a hill overlooking the city, you see more trees than buildings, and hardly a skyline. You could fly over Managua and almost not notice it. At night, the stars are bright.
The thriving central market is filled with food: small people dwarfed by mountains of carrots, melons, coconuts, and beans. It goes on and on, with a romantic light filtering through holes in the corrugated tin roof. Beast-of-burden men lumber through the commotion of shoppers, with only gunny-sacks-of-rice heads and sweaty, dark-brown, muscular torsos showing. Shoppers here are generally from the low end ‘ guards, farm workers, and house cleaners who make $5 to $15 a day. If they buy their children a soda for a treat, the vendor pours it into a plastic bag with a straw sticking out of it, to avoid paying the bottle deposit.
For a contrast, we hike over to the modern shopping mall below the high-rise hotel. Stepping through a door with a “no-guns-allowed” decal, we find a world of people who’ve brought their kids here to spend half a day’s wages for people shopping in the other market for a photo with Santa Claus ‘ his face painted First World white. The core of the mall is a food court jammed with families enjoying a fine night out. A Happy Meal costs $5 ‘ close to what it does in the USA, but sold to locals lucky to make $15 a day. In the courtyard, kids play with skateboards, teenagers cuddle and kiss in corners, and photo boards with holes for your child’s head let parents take photos of their children posing as their favorite American superhero.
Much as things have changed ‘ former Sandinista revolutionaries now control the government ‘ it’s clear that one thing has remained tragically the same in this hemisphere’s second poorest country: the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots. I hope to find out why.