That Was Miami, This Is Managua

I shook my head, closed my eyes, and wondered if the blazing tropical sun -- that hadn't changed, anyway -- had temporarily fried my brain. Slowly I let my eyelids slide back up. I was still standing in the lobby of Managua's Inter-Continental Hotel, and for a moment the newsstand looked normal again. The Collected Speeches of Fidel Castro...Qaddafi's Green Book...Maurice Bishop Speaks..."Penis Sizes of the Hollywood Stars." No matter how hard I blinked, it was still there, emblazoned in preposterous orange letters across the cover of Penthouse.

The revolution, I thought to myself, really is over.
Remember Nicaragua? The final battleground of the Cold War? The place that made Ollie North a household name and wrecked the Reagan presidency? The erstwhile banana republic that was either a snake-eyed Soviet juggernaut or a bucolic socialist utopia, pick one? The country that converted Hollywood mermaids and coke-addled rock stars into foreign-policy authorities? The nation that master spy William Casey, no matter how hard he tried, could never call anything but Nicawahwah?

Since Violeta Chamorro deposed Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1990 presidential elections, Nicaragua has dropped off all known political and journalistic trade routes. The American right, with no commies to bash, has gone in search of new targets; the left isn't interested in the poverty and disease of peasants who are so embarrassingly Politically Incorrect. They've all passed on now, the spooks, the glitterati, and the rest of the gringo interlopers, the camera crews trailing behind them. The New York Times keeps its bureau open only by renting out rooms for the night. Even that may be coming to an end; the bureau staff was surprised one recent morning by a grinning, gnomic Japanese in a silk guayabera who strode into the office with a briefcase and a portable phone. "Ahh, so," he observed. "You are still here?" The staff, watching him scurry away, remembered a time when we sent Marines to Nicaragua to cold cock a Japanese plan to build a canal across the country.

That was in 1909 and barely rates a mention in most history books. Already the most recent U.S. adventures in Nicaragua are fading to a dim memory for most Americans, a tantalizing deja vu answer to a question in the next edition of Trivial Pursuit.

But of course Managua is still there, as dusty and broken and sweltering as ever. So are its people, slightly bemused by their turn on the world stage and even a little nostalgic for it. And so, too, are the contras and the Sandinistas, who, it turns out after all, were not cooked up in basement laboratories at Langley or the Kremlin. They may have their next war all by themselves.

Of Turtles and Tummy-Trimmers
"Tortugas ninjas!" the little boy cried ominously, leaning in the window of my taxi as we waited at a stoplight. Ninja turtles! I jerked my head around, wondering what new plague this signified. The tropical stream-of-consciousness conversation of Nicaraguans baffles even themselves. Contra leader Eden Pastora once kept a group of his top commanders mystified for an hour while he railed about los taburetes chingados, the fucking chairs. Finally someone made the same word association as Pastora; taburete is the Spanish word for chair, but so is silla, which is pronounced just like CIA. Reporters covering Nicaragua must not only speak Spanish, they also need the free-association ability of a parrot on mescaline.

Within moments, however, I realized that ninja turtles turtles. The boy was selling brand-new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jigsaw puzzles, still shrink-wrapped. He was followed by a procession of peddlers, hawking briefcases, socket wrenches, and electric extension cords. The weirdest of all was a set of exercise pulleys called the Tummy-Trimmer with a succulent blond aerobics queen smiling coyly from the cover of the box.

For a decade, a glimpse of any new consumer goods in Nicaragua was the equivalent of a UFO sighting. Battered by not only the war but the loopy economic policies of a government that actually believed nine men could sit in a room in Managua and dictate the country's toilet-paper consumption for the next year, Nicaragua was a basket case. At Christmas in 1986, when the government announced that it had imported a shipload of toys and that members of Sandinista labor unions would be allowed to buy two apiece, the lines stretched for blocks. (Not every Sandinista bonanza was so popular. The next year, when the government obtained a couple of shiploads of Soviet-bloc potatoes in a barter deal, Nicaraguans refused to touch them: Everyone was convinced they were contaminated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Sandinista newspapers, in desperation, began running recipes for potato pizza.) The only place new imported goods could be found was the hard-currency store for party elites.

Macroeconomically, Nicaragua is still brain-dead. But at the bottom of the economic food chain, there are faint stirrings of life. All over Managua small shops and businesses are opening, from a shack where a ragged croupier takes bets in front of a homemade roulette wheel to a parlor where a former Sandinista bureaucrat lets kids play his Nintendo game for 60 cents a pop.

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