Managua: Stars Shine Bright over the Big City

You could fly over Managua and almost not notice it.

Beast-of-burden men toil in Managua's market. (Photo by Trish Feaster)

Managua's abundant market.

Dining out...a special meal at the mall.

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.


6 Replies to “Managua: Stars Shine Bright over the Big City”

  1. Rich or poor, the people of Nicaragua are passionate about politics. I have learned to listen to them well, but make no personal observations. The one common belief they seem to have is that it does not matter who is in power- they government is always corrupt and self serving.

  2. Rick, have you read Animal Farm? It just might shed some light on what happens when the revolutionaries (Sandinistas in this case) replace those in power. While I applaud your stated attempt to re-think your past biases and conclusions as it relates to Latin America (and the role of the US), I hope your deeply held convictions do not blind you to seeing the truth of what these root causes of poverty really are.

  3. This seems to be the plight of Latin America. When in Costa Rica, it struck me how rich the small resorts and area around were. But when we took a flight from San Jose to the West Coast, the amount of poverty was unbelievable. You could see all the tin sheds that many many people live in. I can only imagine how other Latin America countries are when Costa Rica is one of the progressive ones.

  4. I love your European guides but your political assessment of Latin America is biased and frankly pathetic. It is interesting to read your favorable reporting on poverty stricken Nicaragua while in previous posts you completely criticized my progressive El Salvador. To think that middle class people in a mall make 5 a day shows your ignorance. I think you should stick to Europe. 2 trips in 20 years to our countries does not make an expert. That being said I will use your resources for my trip to Paris in April.

  5. Rick: “I hope to find out why” Let me explain why to you. Communism in practice makes everyone equally poor except for those lucky (or violent) enough to be in positions of power within the communist government. They live like the kings of old. Communism and socialism as systems make a fetish out of equality of condition and fail to encourage excellence of any kind. Meanwhile, in a free market, capitalist society with an honest government, the people are free to do that which makes them happy. They can be loafers and earn very little or the can work very hard and earn a lot or they can work 40 hours a week and be middle class. People in capitalist systems are therefore free to rise as high as their work ethic and talents allow. Meanwhile, people in communist systems are like the serfs of old who do not own their own homes or even their own time. Communism is a truly monstrous system.

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