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Nicaragua's capital is 'a ghost town in a ghost country' as protests paralyze economy

Kyra Gurney and Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Trying to add momentum to widespread public demands for the ouster of President Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's main business association has called a one-day national strike for Thursday, with every company in Nicaragua shutting its doors for the day. For a lot of Nicaraguans, that raises the question: How will we tell?

"I don't know what difference a strike will make," said 20-year-old Fernando Sanchez, one of the leaders of the student organizations that have led the protests against Ortega. "Everything is already closed. Bars and restaurants are dark. Supermarkets are running out of stock. The economy is a wreck."

Two months of bloody clashes between police and anti-Ortega protesters have killed more than 150 people. But the most significant casualty may be the country's economy, which is grinding to a halt. Streets -- not just in the capital but most of Nicaragua's major cities -- look half-empty by day and deserted after sundown.

The goods on supermarket shelves seem paltry and picked-over, and many of the kiosks in the usually bustling Huembes open-air market in Managua are empty of everyone but their glum owners. "We're only coming so that thieves don't come," said Maria Aguiluz, 60, a vendor standing in front of her deserted shoe stall.

One product that's still hot at Huembes: suitcases. Nicaraguans anxious to escape from what feels to them like a tightening noose have created a booming market in anything related to travel. Customers "are going to Costa Rica, to Panama, to rest a little bit" and wait out the crisis, said vendor Maria Gonzalez, 70, who now hawks luggage in front of the stall where she used to dish up food. "We're all selling suitcases."

The travel, however, is mostly outward-bound. Tourists have abandoned Nicaragua, and foreign businesses nearly so. The general manager of one international hotel confided to a U.S. businessman last week that on the previous day, his combined receipts from rooms, two restaurants and four bars amounted to only about $1,000.

Many airliners arrive in the capital less than half full -- American Airlines has suspended one of its three daily flights between Managua and Miami -- but the outgoing flights are crowded. So is the government office that dispenses Nicaraguan passports.

Nicaragua's economy has been one of the hottest in Central America, expected to grow 4.5 percent this year. But one think tank, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, FUNIDES, reported earlier this week that the political violence has already halved that growth. If unrest continues throughout the year, the foundation predicted, the economy might actually shrink 2 percent in 2018.

For the hemisphere's poorest country after Haiti, that kind of economic contraction would be disastrous. But financial analysts say the FUNIDES report is smiley-faced optimism.

"I've spent a lot of time watching the economies of developing countries over the years, and I can tell you the losses will be at least double that," said Francisco Aguirre, a retired World Bank economist and former Nicaraguan foreign minister. "The damage to the economy is already devastating."

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