MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- As foreign visitors arriving at Managua's Sandino International Airport quickly find out, Nicaragua is printing money these days as if it were going out of style.
And, in a way, maybe it is.
The bundles of crisp new cordoba bills that visitors receive when they change an obligatory $60 at a tourist exchange rate at the airport attest to a money supply policy that is helping to fuel an estimated 700 to 1,000 percent inflation rate this year.
This inflationary explosion is becoming so serious, economists say, that the Nicaraguan currency is starting to lose its "transaction value," meaning that it physically takes too many cordobas to buy something and too long to count them.
The poor state of Nicaragua's economy is believed to have been a major consideration in the Sandinistas' decision to accept internal "democratization" as part of a Central American peace plan signed Aug. 7 in Guatemala. The plan is designed to end a five-year-old war between the Sandinistas and Nicaraguan rebels, called contras, as well as conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala.
The economic effects of the U.S.-financed rebellion against the Sandinista government have combined with poor management, runaway inflation, declining exports and a number of other factors to bring the Nicaraguan economy to the brink of ruin, Nicaraguan and foreign analysts say.
This has pushed the Sandinistas toward democratic changes -- on which they previously had refused to negotiate -- such as lifting a state of emergency and allowing full press and political freedoms. Whether such changes will be implemented remains to be seen, and in any case will depend on further negotiations on the details of the regional plan.
According to the plan's author, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the Sandinistas need peace badly to rescue their economy, which he described as "a mess."
In Managua, one of the nine comandantes on the ruling National Directorate, Victor Tirado, reportedly has been telling Sandinista groups that the government is politically strong enough to handle a revived domestic opposition and has the military strength to cope with the contras, but will face a crisis within two years if the economy keeps deteriorating.
As it is, it seems that almost everyone is complaining. The most common grievances are shortages of everything from food to spare parts, incompetence among those running the economy, continuing land seizures and widespread pilferage.
A huge disparity has emerged between wages and prices, which increased last year at rates of 50-100 percent and 700-800 percent respectively. The value of Nicaragua's exports has declined from $646 million in 1978 to $218 million last year, while imports have risen from $594 million to about $830 million over the same period. Money in circulation has skyrocketed from 3.5 billion cordobas in 1979 to 58.4 billion in 1985, according to government statistics.
In addition, Nicaraguans must grapple with chaotic U.S. dollar exchange rates. For some international trade items, such as Soviet oil deliveries, the dollar is pegged at 70 cordobas, but tourists legally change money at a somewhat more realistic rate of 6,200 to the dollar, and on the black market a dollar now fetches around 10,000 cordobas.
"The situation is very bad now here," said a pro-Sandinista businessman well connected to government leaders. "I don't know where we're going. Food is very scarce and prices are high."
He blamed these conditions on both the contra war and Sandinistas' handling of the economy.
According to Enrique Bolanos, the president of the opposition Superior Council of Private Enterprise, "Economically we are now down to the level of Haiti." He estimated that gross domestic product per capita was "back to the levels of close to 30 years ago."
Bolanos said that while the $100 billion foreign debt of Mexico is considered huge, it amounts to five years of that country's exports, whereas Nicaragua now owes the equivalent of 50 years of exports.
He cited a June 12 article in the Sandinista newspaper Barricada that put credits to Nicaragua since the 1979 revolution at $9.8 billion, in addition to a $1.6 billion debt inherited from the ousted regime of Anastasio Somoza. However, the U.S. Embassy here estimates Nicaragua's total foreign debt at about $6.7 billion.
The debt, although large for a country of about 3.2 million people, is not considered a major factor in Nicaragua's economic performance since it is not being paid back. In fact, Nicaragua's 1987 economic plan specifically says that the government's debt policy is to make payments only when these will release credits and financing larger than the service payment itself. As a result, few lenders are willing to offer the Sandinistas credits these days.
Illustrative of the popular dissatisfaction with the Sandinistas' management of the economy was a July 10 meeting between Agriculture Minister Jaime Wheelock, one of the nine comandantes, and associations of both pro-Sandinista and private-sector cattlemen. Members of both groups banded together in denouncing land confiscations and other government policies, according to an account published by the Superior Council of Private Enterprise.
One member of the Sandinista-controlled cattlemen's association publicly accused military men of involvement in pilferage of agricultural products and supplies and rustling cattle for sale to Honduras. The account said Wheelock reacted by warning the rancher that these were serious charges that he had better be able to back up.
The Soviet Union, Nicaragua's main aid donor, has been showing signs of exasperation with Nicaragua's economic mess. The Soviets reportedly are particularly unhappy with a system of unrealistic price controls that, for example, limit the cost of rationed gasoline to 5 cents a gallon at the free-market exchange rate.
Nicaragua earlier this year announced it would need about 750,000 metric tons of oil and oil products for 1987, but Moscow said it could ship only 630,000 metric tons, the same as last year, and that the Soviet portion would amount to 305,000 metric tons, diplomatic sources said. The rest would have to come from other East Bloc countries out of their own allotments of Soviet oil. Some are said to balk at idea.