Destitute, homeless Nicaraguans occupy previously vacant buildings


MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Amid the overgrown ruins of a capital city that has never recovered from an earthquake in 1972 and a revolution of 1979, thousands of destitute residents have found improbable niches and turned gaping concrete skeletons into homes.

They are unemployed mechanics and disabled war veterans, single mothers and families of 10, the urban flotsam of a desperately poor society whose weak government, even after a year of democratic rule, can do virtually nothing for them.

In the open shell of a former telephone company building, a housemaid named Maria del Pilar and her daughter inhabit a homemade wooden cubicle she has covered with religious pictures. Lizards scurry across the floor as she scrubs their clothes on a rock.

"We were so happy when Madam Violeta won, because it meant the war was over and our sons were safe from the draft," Ms. del Pilar said. She was referring to President Violeta Chamorro, whose centrist government succeeded the Sandinista government, bringing a halt to the country's internal war.

"But sometimes I have to go hungry to pay for my daughter's schoolbooks, and I wonder: Does this government care about the poor?"

Across the street, several families are camped on the ground floor of what was once the office of La Prensa newspaper. The walls are gone, and the families have strung up pieces of burlap and plastic to keep out the elements and gain a measure of privacy.

Three of the inhabitants are brothers, all disabled army veterans of the 8-year war between the Sandinistas, who gave up power a year ago, and U.S.-organized contras. The young men are angry, frustrated and not sure which side to blame for their plight.

"I was in the Sandinista youth, I did my patriotic service, my legs are full of shrapnel, and they left me with a pension of 18 cordobas a month," or $3.60, said Orlando Casteneda, 25. "Now the bourgeoisie is in power. The war of bullets has ended, but the war of hunger and sickness has come."

In the five abandoned blocks surrounding the phone company, 108 families live in similar conditions or worse, according to Rolando Moreno, a jobless auto mechanic who has been chosen community leader. He was collecting signatures to petition local authorities to build latrines and to supply low-cost tin roofing.

Amid a sea of squalor and despair -- a family of four lives in a canvas tent, for example -- Mr. Moreno has built himself a sturdy wooden shack against the wall of La Prensa. In the dirt yard, his wife tends a flourishing garden of banana trees, peppers, lilies, herbs and squash.

"We have worked hard to create something from nothing, but so many people become disillusioned and give up," Mr. Moreno said sadly. "I think the new government means well, but they should come out and visit neighborhoods like this to see how people are suffering."

Nicaragua's chronic poverty, which the Sandinista government had pledged to alleviate through social and land reform, only deepened during its decade in power, when private investment fell to zero and civil war drained scarce resources.

Since Ms. Chamorro took office, fiscal reforms and market-oriented economic policies have reined in inflation but brought extra hardship to poor people.

State jobs and wages have been cut back, aggravating the estimated 40 percent to 50 percent unemployment rate, and thousands of Managua residents must make ends meet by peddling trinkets or scavenging. Unable to pay rent, many have pitched camp on vacant lots or taken shelter among the ruins of Managua's once-thriving downtown.

In Ms. del Pilar's building, neighbors have formed a community, sharing water from a nearby tap and keeping an eye on each other's makeshift cubicles. One woman tends a pair of parakeets and has decorated her room with family portraits.

But in Mr. Casteneda's concrete campsite, some families have simply withdrawn into their misery, building fortified cardboard lairs and refusing to participate in Mr. Moreno's community survey. Half-naked children play in the rubble, smearing dirt on themselves.

"We are all surviving by our wits. There is nothing to hope for," said Mr. Casteneda, who studied sociology but now peddles used clothes. "If one of us dies," he mused, "who will pay for the coffin?"

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