Nicaraguans fight for food, buses

In Nicaragua’s capital, daily battles are fought over inadequate transportation and food shortages. Rebel Contras are of little concern.

Home to an estimated one million people, Managua is a city where you can wait more than an hour for a taxi. And once one arrives, be prepared: they’re crowded and in such poor condition it’s amazing there aren’t fewer on the streets.

Public transportation offers no good alternative to getting around in the sprawling city. Buses are jammed to twice their capacity 95 percent of the time. Two or three riders routinely cling to the doorways perched on steps inches from the road. Everyone in the streets seems to be either waiting for a bus or running to catch one.

These are a few of the more visible characteristics of the Central American capital of a country at war with itself. The ongoing conflict between the ruling Sandinista government and the American-supported Contra factions began in 1982. The leftist Sandinistas consolidated their power following an independent revolution in 1979 that deposed the former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

I recently visited Managua for two weeks. I drove there because my budget couldn’t handle the cost of an airline ticket. A tired 1975 Chevrolet Nova took me 3,000 miles from Allston to southern Mexico. From there it was more practical to switch to train as far as the Guatemalan border, and then onward by bus to Managua. The southbound trip lasted twelve days.

Any traveler crossing over from Honduras on the Pan American Highway quickly realizes that something is wrong in Nicaragua. The first checkpoint facility resembled a 1950s drive-in restaurant that didn’t make it to the 1960s.

All foreigners entering Nicaragua are required to exchange 60 U.S. dollars for domestic currency. When they handed me a stack of paper money I was reminded of post-World War I Germany and its wheelbarrows of worthless cash.

The first Nicaraguans I met were soldiers. A uniformed kid looked over my passport and a half-dozen of his heavily armed mates rode with me in a microbus to our next stop. All this foreshadowed what I was to find in Managua: the military was everywhere.

Armed soldiers walked among the people while drab green vehicles of all types accounted for half the city’s traffic. Even the unmarked passenger cars, especially the Soviet built Ladas, carried a large number of uniformed personnel.

If a populace ever had reason to dislike Americans, it’s the Nicaraguans. A librarian at the American University in Managua told me everyone he knew had been affected by the revolution and civil war. Before I left the States several friends warned me that I would wind up on the receiving end of incessant anti-American emotions. But the only animosity shown to this gringo was from merchants who got impatient with my Spanish. And they usually laughed.

One businessperson I talked with was an English-speaking 30-year-old man selling records and tapes. All the albums he displayed in a booth space at the Robert Huembes Market were by Latin artists. A good number had revolutionary themes, but his major concern appeared to be profits, not politics. “No comida,” he said when the conversation turned to the big troubles. He was another in a long line of Nicaraguans to tell me about the food shortage.

That day I ate a big meal at the Huembes Market. For the equivalent of a dollar, I bought a plate of rice, potatoes, noodles and chicken. For a few cents more I got soup and a soft drink. Before I could finish a small boy walked up, said something in Spanish and pointed at my plate.

I ate my meals in the markets and restaurants. Except for once, each time I wound up trying to avoid the young stare of an old expression, hunger. I always believed that to understand and record a powerful event like a war, a journalist had to be in a jungle, by a trench or on a beach. But the effects are more widespread. In addition to the food, the price of the meal here also bought me a close encounter with some of Nicaragua’s non-combat victims.

Op-Ed Page, December 21, 1987 The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA).
Illustration from poster announcing rally on November 5, 1987.