It’s invigorating and astonishing to see how much economic progress has been made in Nicaragua over not just the eight years I’ve been living in and writing about Nicaragua but over the past two years in particular. The Nicaraguan government gets circumspect credit for some of the legislative reforms that have made this progress possible, but the lion’s share of the praise goes to Nicaragua’s increasingly vibrant private sector which has been responsible for an economic transformation that I find truly stunning. Here are ten things I saw in Nicaragua in January 2006 that tell me Nicaragua is economically better off than it was in 1998 when I first arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer.
- Cell phone coverage now reaches all the way out to my old Peace Corps site, San Diego Estelí. I used to have to walk an hour each way to and from Condega (about 7 kilometers) and wait on line at the ENITEL office to make a phone call. Those evening walks were a pleasant escape, but the easy communication is a big and positive change for the area. ENITEL was privatized not long ago and the improvements in service evident since that privatization make a good paean to careful privatization of formerly public services. I intend to write more about this elsewhere.
- Unparalleled commerce in Managua. Never mind the sheer number of billboards, new shopping centers, and luxury boutiques cropping up all over the southern half of the city, you can now purchase goods that were only a dream 8 years ago.
- Penetration of luxury goods. Managua now boasts both a BMW dealership and a Volkswagen dealership. At the new Plaza Siman shopping center the shelves glimmer with Louis Vitton, Gant, Benetton, and Armani. That’s fun for the nation’s economic elite but doesn’t affect the average campesino’s quality of life, but it is clear that the private sector has made great advances in bringing new products to market in an economy that every day seems less like a stagnant economic backwater.
- Construction everywhere. I’ve written elsewhere about the real estate boom underway in Granada and San Juan del Sur. But Managua is positively being reshaped as condominiums and apartment complexes rise out of the landscape, as bold new shopping centers boasting the latest architectural extravagances lift their heads above the skyline and as old concrete Soviet-era buildings are bulldozed for sumptuous modern structures.
- Vehicles on the road. Eight short years ago the nation’s taxi fleet was overwhelmingly composed of Soviet-made Ladas, which were by no stretch of the imagination luxurious. I only saw one Lada in over a week in Managua, while newer Toyotas, Fords, and Hyundais now rule the roads. A new taxi represents a substantial investment on the part of Managua’s taxistas. They are clearly investing in their futures individually. Once again, the rational consumer and free market forces come out on top.
- Credit card usage. Eight years ago a credit card was nearly useless, and a year later there were only a handful of establishments that accepted anything other than cold, hard cash. On this trip I was able to survive almost entirely on a credit card with very few exceptions in out of the way areas. The merchants in Mercado Huembes all take plastic now, as do even smaller restaurants and shops. Somewhere out there, the folks at Credomatic Nicaragua are making a fortune.
- Institutionalization of the service market. Real estate agents are an obvious first entry in this category, but I found a greatly expanded and professional insurance market and several companies who private services with regard to Nicaragua’s growing stock market. You would be hard pressed to gather up enough support for a socialist revolution these days, and if you are enough of a dinosaur to suggest something of that nature Nicaragua’s greatly expanded capitalist class would be likely to throw you out on your ear. Keep that in mind come November 2006 everybody.
- Infrastructure and engineering. The road from Managua to Granada has been greatly improved, though construction continues at a snail’s pace. The finished product is much improved over the old two lane asphalt strip however and will make the link between these two important population centers even more valuable over the next decade.
- Airline service: I was surprised to fly out of Managua on American Airlines’ gorgeous new Boeing A300 wide body aircraft (8 seats across, with two aisles). And the airport, quite possibly the world’s slowest construction project is largely improved, notably in the area of the ticket counters, which has always been miserably designed. Why it has taken 8 years to do 1 year’s worth of construction is beyond me, considering construction continues to this day (auditors, start your engines), but the new airport layout is much improved, and the larger aircraft bear witness not only to Nicaragua’s growing interest for travelers but for the nation’s airport infrastructure’s capacity to handle them.
- Obesity. Returning to the United States usually means the rude shock of realizing how big Americans are, physically, but Nicaraguans are increasingly suffering from obesity as well these days and enrollment in the country’s gymnasiums is growing steadily. With wealth and consumerism comes obesity, traditionally. There are certainly a lot of Nicaraguans that to this day continue to go hungry, but if this past week is any indication, growing numbers of Nicaraguans are no longer concerned with getting enough to eat.
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