That Was Miami, This Is Managua

The most visible ex-contra is Alfredo Cesar, a slick, cunning, Stanford M.B.A. who this year was elected president of the Nicaraguan congress. Nicknamed "Seven Daggers" for all the political backs he's stabbed, Cesar, who owns a town house in Kendall, has gotten a piece of the action in every political game played in Nicaragua in the past fifteen years. The Sandinistas made him president of the Central Bank when they first took over. The job was a little more rough-and-tumble than Alan Greenspan's. During one meeting of the bank board, Sandinista comandante Henry Ruiz got so furious at Cesar that he slammed his briefcase on the conference table, opened it, and pulled out a folding-stock AK-47. Cesar slammed his briefcase on the table, opened it, and pulled out a 9mm Makarov pistol. There was a widely supported motion to adjourn.

Cesar left the Sandinistas in the early Eighties to form his own imaginary contra group. But his king-size ambition was so apparent that almost no one trusted him, except perhaps Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. She was so smitten that she managed to have $5 million of the $100 million contra aid package approved in 1986 reserved for Cesar's army -- which then could have afforded to buy each one of its twenty soldiers his own tank. Later Cesar wangled his way onto the political directorate of the main contra organization. The high point of his tenure was the night during peace talks with the Sandinistas in Managua when Cesar was caught sneaking over the wall of the contra hotel at 4:00 a.m. by a guard who nearly blew his head off. Cesar had been at a secret midnight meeting with Sandinista military leaders, the subject of which is unknown to this day.

In 1989 Cesar left the contras to support Violeta Chamorro's presidential bid. The Chamorro campaign represented a return to the traditional way Nicaraguans practice politics, along clan lines. Although there was a fourteen-party coalition behind Chamorro, the group's officials were completely frozen out of the campaign. Instead, every detail was managed by a tightly knit family circle: Chamorro's daughter, Cristiana; Cristiana's husband, the MIT-educated Antonio Lacayo; Lacayo's sister, Silvia; and Silvia's husband, Cesar. When Chamorro won the election, the family council became Nicaragua's real government. (Chamorro's vice president, by contrast, wasn't even given a government office.)

That was the case, anyway, until a few months ago. But both Cesar and Antonio Lacayo want to be president of Nicaragua in the year 2000, so a break was inevitable. The first public clue was when, in front of an astonished but appreciative audience of houseguests, Silvia screamed at Cristiana: "You ungrateful bitch, we made your mother president!"

Such unrefined language will never be heard from yuppie graduates of Stanford and MIT. Instead, Cesar and Lacayo manifest their hostility for one another through the so-called War of the Shirts. On Monday Cesar appears in an Armani. Tuesday Lacayo returns fire with a Romeo Gigli. Wednesday Cesar strikes back with a Ralph Lauren. The presidential election is not until 1996, by which time things will undoubtedly have escalated to gold lame jump suits and diamond-studded codpieces.

Miami Vices
They're called los miamiboys. A few thousand of the Nicaraguan professionals and technicians who fled to Miami during Sandinista rule have begun trickling back into Managua. Many of them have spent the past decade despising their exile home, longing to return to Nicaragua. But the homecoming hasn't been easy.

"There's a very cold feeling here towards us," one miamiboy told me. "There's an attitude that only the people who stayed are true Nicaraguans. I also think there's a lot of financial jealousy -- an anger that we were successful in the United States."

The miamiboys are time travelers. They come bearing goods from a future that most Nicaraguans have only been able to dream of: Volvos, satellite dishes, microwave ovens, CD players, fax machines, personal computers, all the fruits of the Western industrial society that the Sandinistas rejected. Small wonder that Managua burglaries have skyrocketed during the past year.

But the miamiboys also bring alien customs and attitudes that they unknowingly picked up during their long sojourn among the gringos. One glaring difference is that many of them no longer operate on "Nica time." That is, a 10:00 a.m. appointment means 10:00 a.m. to them, not 11:30. Another is their impatience with inefficiency. They've grown accustomed to reliable telephones and electricity, to paying bills by mail, to being able to get in and out of a restaurant in less than an hour. By contrast, anyone who has lived in Managua for the past ten years abandoned all those ideas or went completely crazy. Appointments had to be made in person rather than over the always-dysfunctional phone; you were grateful if a restaurant had food at all, never mind the service; and anything that was lucky enough to arrive by mail would have been read twice by the secret police and picked over by starving postal clerks.

In some ways the miamiboys are changing Nicaragua. Managua now has three 24-hour gas stations, which is little short of revolutionary. And someone with admirable entrepreneurial spirit, if deplorable business ethics, has opened a fast-food place called "Gabe's Burgers," its name and logo, not coincidentally, identical to that of the popular Miami chain. Gabe's owner Lewis Goodman admits that the fact that he's registered the chain's name as a trademark probably doesn't carry much weight in Nicaragua. (Actually, fast food is not new to Nicaragua. A McDonald's opened in Managua in 1972 and, forgotten by its corporate masters in the North, continued to operate even during the war. But the jig was up in late 1986, when novelist Denis Johnson set a scene in his book The Stars at Noon there: "With the meat shortage you wouldn't ever know absolutely, would you, what sort of a thing they were handing you in the guise of beef.... It's the only Communist-run McDonald's ever. It's the only McDonald's where you have to give back your plastic cup so it can be washed out and used again, the only McDonald's staffed by people wearing military fatigues and carrying submachine guns." Shortly afterward McDonald's revoked the Managua franchise and demanded that its name come off the building. The owner obediently pulled down the Mc, but even today the place serves a Don Mac.)

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