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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 12:05 GMT
Nicaragua, land of contrasts
Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega lost in 1990 but wants to make a come-back
By the BBC's Laurie Margolis

The people of Nicaragua go to the polls this Sunday to elect a president. The choice is between incumbent Vice-President Enrique Bolanos, and the man who led the left-wing Sandinistas to power in the 1970s, Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua is the country that has it all - all the things no other country would want, that is.

They get earthquakes - bad ones. The capital Managua was devastated in 1972 and thousands died.

The whole downtown area was levelled and has never been rebuilt - what was the centre is now shanty towns and scruffy parkland, with a few new government buildings. There are two million people in Managua but they live in a surburbia without a centre.

The aftermath of Hurricane Mitch
Hurricane Mitch caused huge damage and left many dead
Earthquakes happen all the time. The gritty town of Masaya was badly damaged by a big jolt last year.

And then there are the volcanoes. Nicaragua is on the Pacific Ring of Fire and has several active volcanoes, some like Concepcion, in the south, looking like a child's drawing of a conical volcanic peak.

Then there are the hurricanes. The prosaically named Tropical Storm 15 has just dumped hours of torrential rain on the country. My hotel lobby in Granada was under six inches of water. Three years ago Hurricane Mitch roared through, one of the worst storms ever.

Man-made disaster

That is nature doing its worst - but man isn't far behind. Nicaragua has a violent history, attracting the attentions of Spanish conquistadors, British pirates and American adventurers.

Look at the last 30 years. The Somoza dictatorship fell to a leftwing revolution which brought the Sandinistas to power in the 1970s. That in turn was victim of the Reagan administration's near hysterical fear of communism in Central America, provoking a vicious nine-year civil war.

So Nicaragua is never dull, and neither is this election campaign.

There are pink flags, posters, walls, trees, telephone poles. It looks like the setting for a huge gay liberation rally

Enrique Bolanos leads a centre-right coalition, and if he wins, it'll mean capitalism, more foreign money, and hopefully the benign attentions of the gringos in Washington.

But Ortega, the Sandinista leader - known everywhere as Daniel - is back and fighting hard. Despite persistent allegations of sexual abuse, he enjoys considerable support from shanty towns and the rural poor.

The result, which polls show could be very close, will depend on whether those peasant farm-workers and shanty town dwellers feel that more capitalism, or a return to socialism, will benefit them.

Nicaragua's Castro?

Ortega, who - his opponents say - has pocketed millions of dollars, is nevertheless trying hard to shake off the image of a Nicaraguan Fidel Castro.

The traditional colours of his party are black and red - flags in those colours are everywhere, usually lashed to trees with bamboo poles.

Enrique Bolanos hopes to draw undecided voters
But his image makers fear this harks back too much to the revolution, and so his election material - and the country is plastered with it - is now a lurid pink-and-yellow, with the pink dominating.

There are pink flags, posters, walls, trees, telephone poles. It looks like the setting for a huge gay liberation rally.

So what will the victor rule? Nicaragua is one of the world's poorest countries. Everywhere there are unmade roads lined with foetid shacks made of packing cases and corrugated aluminium.

Land of contrasts

Extreme poverty exists within yards of substantial wealth. I was taken to a lane in a leafy area above Managua, where the well-to-do live in fine homes, often with stabling, while their neighbours live in squalor.

We visited an old lady living in a structure that could just about be called a cottage. She was being paid, actually quite well, to stay on a tract of land owned by wealthy people which they wanted to keep clear of squatters.

Immediately opposite, polo ponies trotted beside a Californian-style mansion.

Socorro Cajina places a candle over the covered body of her stillborn child in an impoverished neighborhood of Managua
A mother grieves for her still-born child in poverty-striken Managua
Granada is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, founded in the 1520s, and destroyed several times since. But if Nicaraguans are used to destruction, they are also good at restoration.

Granada is now a wonderful, atmospheric city of colonial houses around courtyards hidden behind pastel coloured walls.

There is a mass of small industries, from the traditional - leatherwork and ceramics - to the most modern. I've never seen so many internet cafes.

Crime is negligible and the police presence almost invisible.

Internet cafes and garden centres

American money has been pouring into Granada, doing up that colonial heritage. But that has been put on hold by the possibility of an Ortega victory.

Bill from San Diego runs a busy backpackers hostel, Steve from New York has a small café, Paul from London has restored a town house and, not wanting to be left out, opened an internet café inside.

Ortega's supporters
Many of the poor support Ortega's campaign
Tourists are coming. Granada looks, if not exactly prosperous, then open for business. Around Managua are gleaming shopping malls, admittedly with people living in chipboard hovels up the road.

There are modern petrol forecourts with convenience stores everywhere. The pretty mountain village of Catarina is surrounded by small nurseries and garden centres.

Countries on their knees tend not to be big on garden centres, shopping malls or internet cafes, so I conclude that Nicaragua is far from on its knees.

Laurie Margolis
"Nicaragua is the country that has it all."
See also:

01 Nov 01 | Americas
Nicaragua campaign draws to close
03 Sep 01 | Americas
Timeline: Nicaragua
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nicaragua
01 Sep 01 | Americas
Central America agrees peace pact
28 Nov 00 | Americas
Sandinista electoral wins confirmed
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