The TACA airline representative in Miami was all jokes as he spoke with passengers about to board the plane. Asked what TACA stands for he said, "Transporto Aereo Central America. In English it means 'Take A Chance Airline.' " He was jokingly asked if there is a frequent flier program. "No. Once you fly TACA, you never fly TACA again."
It is 6 a.m. in the Managua marketplace and chickens are squawking profusely. A seller diminishes the noise slightly by wringing one chicken's neck.
The market is but a few blocks from the Inter-Continental Hotel -- Managua's finest hostelry, overrun these days with touring delegations and journalists. But the market could be in any Third World rural area -- barefoot children in dusty streets, women carrying wares in baskets on their heads.
The Sandinista government has built up a large army by Central American standards, and President Reagan has said it could "spread its poison throughout this free and increasingly democratic hemisphere." But to a visitor, Managua looks like it would have trouble spreading anything except, possibly, cholera.
Nicaragua is poor, politically divided, and running to its own slow drum. Anyone who forgot the hotel's warning to fill the bathtub or sink the night before awakened to no water -- as an energy-saving measure, there is no water on Tuesday or Friday. In the bathroom at the U.S. Embassy, huge buckets are at the ready for those who want to wash their hands. The mail service is so slow that Americans staying on beg departing visitors to take their letters to the States.
It is a country too poor to restore the gutted hulks of buildings that crumbled during the 1972 earthquake, a country where corrugated shacks are in close proximity to downtown Managua and buses are packed because hardly anyone has other transportation except by foot.
A cab driver sighs as his taxi, apparently liberated of shock absorbers, bounces over potholes. If anything breaks he has to find an abandoned car for parts. There is no place to buy U.S. parts.
Part of the squeeze comes from mismanagement by the Sandinista government, but the United States has applied extraordinary economic pressure, and the mining of Nicaraguan ports by U.S.-backed rebels restricted imports of such key goods as oil and exports of sugar. The United States also has opposed international loans, and recently Secretary of State George P. Shultz personally intervened with the president of the Inter-American Development Bank in what bank officials called an unprecedented attempt to block a vote on a $58 million loan.
Meanwhile, on the streets here, the banks and the United States are as remote as the moon. In a country with 50 percent illiteracy, many in the arketplace don't even know that the United States has backed the rebel "contras."
They are, predictably, angry at their own government -- first because of the economy and secondly because it is drafting their sons.
A woman with dangling earrings and a ruffled apron, selling coffee in cheap plastic bowls, scowls and says, "Everything is expensive these days." The man next to her is asked why and he shouts, "Because of Daniel Ortega's government." Another woman calls out, "A pair of pants costs 2,000 cordobas."
And now you hear a grumbling man say, "Things were bad under Somoza but now prices are high." A woman slaps at her worn-out shoes. "We don't even have enough to buy a sad skirt or shoes." A man shouts in indignation, "Wages are low. I have seven in my family and I make 8,000 cordobas a month."
A U.S. Embassy employe says, "Even living at the most disgusting level -- no water, no nothing, even trying to buy just one pair of pants -- you need 14,000 cordobas a month to survive."
How cordobas translate into American dollars is a sometime thing. The unknowing can find the city frightfully expensive. One American, exchanging money at the official rate of 28 cordobas per dollar, paid $124 for four T-shirts emblazoned with "Nicaragua." When you come here, every foreigner has to exchange a minimum of $60 so that the government is guaranteed an extra source of hard currency at the low official rate.
The result is chaos. A little green shack across from the hotel offers a much better deal -- 70 cordobas to the dollar. And there is the real black market where you can actually get 600 cordobas to the dollar. Eating can be astronomically, if not gastronomically different. At the official rate of exchange, breakfast could cost $20; at the "semiofficial," less than $5.
But in the marketplace, people are struggling with low wages and high prices, cordoba-style. Asked about the contras, a man says, "We don't know if they are good or bad. All I want is that they get rid of hunger." No one in the group congregating in the market knows about the battle in Washington over funding the contras. "We do not know where the money comes from but we do not want war."
An older man with a sad, drooping mustache says, "Look, we endure in a country when we're up to our necks in water. A more powerful country should give us a hand." He scoffs at aid from "socialist countries. They can't really help. They don't have any money either."
A farm worker says, "We can't get American tractors. We would have to get three Russian tractors for one because they break down."
By now a small crowd is gathering. These citizens don't seem cowed as they shout their rage. Nor, though the Sandinistas have at times flailed away with anti-American slogans, is there the feeling that Americans are disliked. Visitors are beseeched to tell their government to send money to ease the economy.
But there is a ferocity to the women's lament over the draft. "They are taking our sons off to the mountains to be killed," shouts one, managing to keep the basket on her head in place even as she vociferously shakes her head. Another says, "What food we have is going to the mountains for the fighters." The conditions are very bad in the mountains, says another. "They are sick," says one mother of a son who is there.
The impression is that they are confused by the fighting and disgusted with the economy, but show little interest in supporting the contras.
And, predictably, there is another side. Down a narrow row of tents, a woman is selling blankets and dresses. She is pro-Sandinista and works in her neighborhood on literacy and health programs. Her 29-year-old son is in the military police in Managua, her two daughters are traffic cops. "The health centers are working so that not one person will be left without vaccination for polio," she says proudly. Her 29-year-old has polio. Her husband just returned from cutting coffee in the mountainous war zone. "They cut the coffee and were able to get home, thanks be to God," she says. A contra tactic is to ambush coffee harvesters to further thwart Nicaragua's economy.
Asked what would happen if the United States continued funding for the contras, the woman says, "guerra mundial." War of the world. Nearby is a crude drawing of family and children telling them to "take your child to be vaccinated" in the marketplace that day.