The Writing On The Wall
issue 156 | February 1986
issue 156 | February 1986
The writing on the wall
THE guest house I'm using is in a smartish middle-class suburb of Managua. Some of the streets are lined with modern houses, many of them rebuilt after the earthquake. But there are other streets nearby that run through waste land or areas of rough wooden shacks where there's little to distinguish one corner from another. Having almost no sense of direction, I frequently get lost.
Eventually I learn to navigate by graffiti. Heroic portraits and strident slogans seem to be the hallmark of any revolution. And Nicaragua, while refreshingly devoid of advertising, is awash with spray-canned or billboarded messages. 'Fifty years on and Sandino still lives', 'We won't sell out and we won't give in' and (very occasionally) 'Reagan - son of a bitch'.
The slogans may be there to stiffen popular resolve, but they also help to guide me around. Starting from the bus stop, if I count three 'They shall not pass!'s and turn left by a 'Sandino lives' I can usually find my way home.
The doctors and the lawyers who live in this well-heeled enclave seem to have little love for the revolution and quite a few have voted with their feet.
'They have all gone now,' one elderly woman tells me, from her rocking chair on the patio. 'At least 80 people from this street and 50 from the next one - to Miami and Costa Rica. They were afraid their sons would have to go into the army. I'd have gone myself but really I'm too old to travel.'
The main elected opposition party, the Democratic Conservatives, have their office here. And while their name is boldly painted outside at the front, it clashes with an inevitable red-and-white Sandinista mural alongside. It's here that I speak with Clemente Guido - he was the runner-up to Daniel Ortega in the Presidential election of November 1984. The Sandinistas, having arrived by revolution, were confirmed as the governing party with 67 per cent of the votes in a democratic election. The Conservatives came second with 14 per cent.
Clemente Guido, in recognition of this, is a Vice-President of the National Assembly - and of the commission drawing up the country's new Constitution. He's an imposing figure, a doctor by trade and still in his white coat Throughout the interview (see box below) I have the feeling that he is about to hand over a prescription, which I suppose in a sense he does.
At first sight sandinismo does seem to have made life difficult, even unpleasant, for the middle classes. For one thing all the supermarkets, usually a brash celebration of consumer choice, now belong to the State. They are the 'People's supermarkets' and they look very strange indeed.
The first one I visit has an entire shelf, some thirty feet long, stacked with rainbow-coloured toilet brushes - indicating either a fixation on bathroom hygiene or a lack of anything else to put in their place. Many of the other shelves are completely empty.
But there is some variety. Worcestershire sauce fans will be pleased to know that in Nicaragua here you can buy six different varieties of 'English Sauce': more indeed than you will find in England - though one of them is called 'Mexican English Sauce', and must be considered a bit suspect.
The supermarkets are drab because their major role is to supply basic goods. Six of these, rice, beans, cooking oil, sugar, salt and soap, are rationed and their prices strictly controlled. But, as far as I could judge, these seemed to be available most of the time - though the queues that often form before the stores open in the morning are an indication that Managua's housewives do not share the official confidence.
For anything more exotic - the range of packaged goods you would see in a Western supermarket - the place to go is the Eastern Market. This is a vast sprawling area of stalls where the traders will sell you any quantity of rice or beans you want (at two or three times the controlled price) - or a car radio or a stereo system. I heard one government official lament that spare engines for army trucks were available for sale in the Eastern Market on the same day that the consignment arrived at the port of Corinto.
The shortage of essential consumer goods, and the flourishing black market it spawns, is at least partly a measure of the Sandinistas' success. Making the basic goods available to the campesinos, the peasant farmers, has increased demand enormously. Sugar, for example, was once a great luxury but now they spoon great piles of it into everything. A whole range of other goods like shirts, dresses and shoes are also sold at controlled prices; manufacturers must sell these to supermarkets and other official outlets at fixed prices.
But there are not enough to go round; certainly not enough to satisfy the new aspirations of Nicaraguans. When such goods leak out of the system the prices start to shoot up. Shirts might be sold from the back door of the factory; or, more commonly, they start life being sold through the official system but are subsequently sold and resold at progressively higher prices.
Enterprising workers have discovered that they can earn more by selling goods than by manufacturing them. So people are drifting out of the factories and into the markets. Only 20,000 people work in the factories of Managua. But there are 30,000 or more beavering away in the Eastern Market alone.
The people under most pressure in Nicaragua today are those on fixed salaries. Government workers, for example, are on a monthly pay-scale which stretches from 4,500 cordobas to 28,000. But a manager in a private firm could easily pick up 100,000 in the same period and even a soft drinks seller on a street corner can earn 40,000.
The soft-drinks sellers are a frequent object of complaint: not just because they can earn so much. But often because they seem to be able to get supplies of Pepsi and Rojita even when the shops and restaurants run out.
They also make sure that the thirsty visitor learns a new skill: drinking a fizzy drink out of a plastic bag. Bottles are so scarce that they are not keen to let the clients get hold of them. So a polythene bag is filled first with ice and then with the bubbling gaseosa and tied at the top. The drinkers have to bite their way into a corner of this frothing balloon and suck - or squirt - depending on how confident they are.
I've put off trying this for a couple of days. But now I'm sitting in a park talking to a couple of girls who offer me a few lessons on how to get most of it into my mouth.
They work for INE, the electricity company, as clerks. And now they're off for a Saturday night at the disco. Do I want to go too?... well why not?... feeling a bit tired in fact... maybe some other time.