MANAGUA AIRPORT, NICARAGUA—A group of Russians strolled by accompanied by a Nicaraguan military minder, as I sipped one last Toña—the country's refreshing if not watery national beer, waiting for the flight home.
Russia shipped 50 T-72 tanks last year, raising eyebrows in the United States.
With 30% of the population living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and a change of the country's constitution that allowed ex-Sandinista leader, President Daniel Ortega Ortega win a third term in 2016, one could be forgiven for anticipating Nicaragua to go the way of Honduras, its troubled northern neighbor, rather than Costa Rica on its south.
It won't serve Nicaraguans if their country, Central America's poorest (absent Haiti), reenacts the Cold War theater it once was in the 1980s. Neither seems to help the current constitution-changing president Daniel Ortega. "No es Sandinista, es fascista," observed a young artist in Grenada about her country politics. Some expats we met regard key sectors, like energy, as the preserve of Ortega and his entourage. They feel safe with their entrepreneurial ventures as long as they stay outside these preserves.
Travelling by car through Nicaragua earlier this month, we met a few foreigners from Canada and France who opened restaurants and hotels on the northern coastline. They come across as pioneers, gambling on the relative success of tourism in the south to propagate. While there, in the south, pockets of economic activity around tourism, such as Saint Juan del Sur, seem to rely on surfers, in large part, who don't mind the scrubby landscape and poor infrastructures as long as the waves are "working", as they say.
Asked how reliable are property rights from their land acquisition, completed without referring to the local government, the pioneers in the north seem to have internalized the weakness of the country's politics. "I'm building a house by the ocean on land I paid $30,000. If I spend 3 years here and my family come visit every vacations, it will be worth it," said a tattooed middle-age man from New Jersey, one night at El-Frances' bungalows and restaurant overlooking the Pacific coastline, half an hour from Chinandega.
Perhaps the best hopes for Nicaragua are young bi-nationals, like Chema. Educated in America, the thirty something returned to run his grandfather's banana business. I asked him if there was anything learned in America that he has been applying here, in his business.
"Yes, to be the best. When I came back, I traveled the world and searched for the best and cutting-edge banana plantation practices. We have dramatically increased outputs as a result."
If you pay a visit to El Frances, up north, make sure to order fish, fresh from the ocean. It is delicious.
Flavius Mihaies is an independent journalist and World Bank consultant. In April 2017 he traveled to Nicaragua, where he toured the Northern and Southern regions on the Pacific Ocean side and visited the country's main cities of Managua, Leon, Grenada and Saint Juan del Sur.