That Was Miami, This Is Managua

The quirkiest manifestation of all this is the street vendors who clog every Managua intersection. No one seems to know where they get their goods or how they determine that the capital's populace has a latent yen for Tummy-Trimmers.

"It's pretty strange," one American diplomat says. "It's like a shipment of stuff comes in from somewhere, and for a while you see it on every corner. A few weeks ago, everyone was selling screwdrivers. Then all of the sudden, all the screwdrivers were gone. Now the big thing is these small compressors that you can use to inflate a flat tire. I must have had three kids try to sell me one on the way in this morning."

Busting the Pinata
Not every new entrepreneur makes a go of it, of course, as the Sandinistas are learning. Most of the party's upper-echelon cadres are in their late thirties or early forties, and their job experience is pretty much limited to urban guerrilla skills and running a bloated government ministry. Those skills have limited application in the business world. A new Sandinista-backed airline that opened last year has already abandoned passenger service and is barely holding on in the cargo business. Their much-ballyhooed tourist resort (built at a beach estate they confiscated from Anastasio Somoza after toppling his government in 1979) is mostly empty. And their new TV station never went on the air because they couldn't sell any advertising. All the cameras and transmitting equipment are still sitting in their original cartons in a customs shed out at the airport. Businessmen can't conceal their glee.

"The Sandinistas have never been any good at producing things," one sniffed to me. "Their great talent has always been stealing things."

And, indeed, the airline, the resort, and the broadcasting enterprise were apparently financed in part with money looted from government bank accounts during the two-month transition period in 1990 between Violeta Chamorro's victory over Daniel Ortega and her inauguration as president. Those two months are known today as "the great pinata," after the candy-stuffed, papier-mache figures that children break open at parties.

And what a party it was! The outgoing Sandinistas pocketed everything that wasn't nailed down and a lot of stuff that was. They emptied a single Central Bank account of $24 million, equal to about 40 percent of all the currency in circulation in Nicaragua. The large villas confiscated by the government after the revolution were sold to individual party members for prices as low as $1000. So were immense coffee and cotton plantations and dozens of radio stations and movie theaters. Cars, tractors, photocopiers, typewriters, refrigerators, the Sandinistas took it all. They even sold themselves half an hour of time on the government TV station, every night for the next five years. The regular price would have been $9000 per night; the comandantes charged themselves $25 per night.

Among the few businesses to prosper under Sandinista direction were the movie theaters. Most of them were seized right after the revolution in 1979, and the Sandinista government operated them. There seemed to be little ideological content in programming; all through the war they continued to screen subtitled American movies, although as the government went bankrupt, the film selection got older and older.

Audiences didn't seem to mind that -- in fact, when one of the theaters got hold of an ancient print of Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not in 1987, it did boffo box office for weeks. But they did mind that nothing that broke in the theaters ever got fixed. The popcorn and soft-drink machines went first. Then the air conditioning gave out, turning the buildings into sweltering hellholes. And the primordial projectors made every film look like it was shot in Cokebottlevision. The only thing that kept the theaters alive was that Sandinista television was so stupefyingly boring. At one point it was promoting (I swear to God I am not making this up) Bulgarian sitcoms.

Part Two
But as television improved in the post-Sandinista era (well, relatively speaking; it now features Tour of Duty, Venezuelan soap operas, and The Wonder Years) and new videocassettes poured into the country, the movie theaters teetered on the brink of oblivion. Then, in a stroke of counterprogramming genius, they began screening soft-core porn. Now on any given night, most of Managua's dozen or so theaters are showing flicks titled Erotic Wives or something similar, and most of the theaters are full.

For the Sandinistas to be peddling porn is something of a role reversal; like most Marxist revolutionaries, they had a prudish streak, and most sexually oriented material was banned while they governed. (That didn't, however, stop Daniel Ortega from granting an interview to Penthouse in 1988. Sample question: "President Reagan once called Managua a `moral threat' to the hemisphere. Do you think it was because of your country's sexual freedom that he said that?" Ortega: "I don't think so.") Their new embrace of carnal matters has led to some strange political flip-flops.

For instance, Minister of Education Humberto Belli, a former newspaperman who fled Nicaragua in 1982 to escape Sandinista censorship, regularly denounces the porn films. (He's also concerned about the independent leftist Comic Weekly, a self-styled publication of "humor, Marxism, sex, and violence." The comic book frequently makes fun of the new cathedral the Catholic church is building in Managua, with pictures of priests kneeling before a cathedral cupola with a suspiciously phallic look to it.) Last month Belli called for the government to prohibit books and films that depict sex "as merely a pleasurable act."

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