Run by Ex-Gunrunner : Nicaragua's Tourism Up Despite War

Times Staff Writer

It might sound like an undesirable job--minister of tourism in a poor and steamy republic at war. But for Herty Lewites, the official in charge of tourism in Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution and the civil war have meant success.

Rather than repelling tourists, the war between the Sandinista government and Washington-backed rebels is drawing thousands of Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans who say they want to support the Sandinistas or to see the leftist revolution at first hand. As a result, the dollar-earning Ministry of Tourism has become a thriving element in an otherwise crippled economy.

"When I travel abroad and say I am minister of tourism, no one believes me," Lewites said the other day. "They don't believe a Tourism Ministry can exist in Nicaragua. Tourism in war?"

5 Tourist Centers Built

In fact, Lewites' ministry has built five tourist centers at beaches, lakes and lagoons and has developed airport duty-free shops into a chain of "dollar stores" that did $10 million in business last year. The ministry runs a total of 42 state enterprises, including restaurants and hotels and the Tur-Nica travel agency.

Tourism officials, like spokesmen for the U.S. Embassy, say they are unaware of any travelers who have been hurt in the war with the rebels, the so-called contras, who are confined largely to the northern and southern border areas.

According to Lewites, 100,000 foreigners visited Nicaragua last year, 40% of them from the United States. President Reagan declared a trade embargo against Nicaragua in April, prohibiting direct commercial air service between the two countries, but he did not impose a travel ban.

25,000 in Industry

Lewites declined to specify how much money his government nets from tourism, but he said that tourism was the country's fifth-ranking foreign exchange earner, after coffee, cotton, fish and sugar, and he hopes to raise it to third. He said 25,000 people work directly or indirectly in the tourism industry.

Some here attribute the growth in tourism to Lewites as much as to interest in the revolution. Lewites, the son of Polish immigrants and one of the few Jews in Nicaragua, was a successful candy maker and gunrunner to the Sandinista guerrillas before they came to power in 1979.

Lewites, 47, said he learned English at Liberty Candy School in Los Angeles, where his father sent him in 1956 to prepare to go into the family business. Later he spent a year in the federal prison at Terminal Island for arms trafficking.

Now he is a Sandinista party militant, and despite the war he is planning ahead. He is building a resort at the old beach house of Anastasio Somoza, the late dictator, and dreaming of a national zoo.

The income from tourism is reinvested in tourism and can be measured in the recently remodeled ministry building, one of the most attractive structures in Managua, Nicaragua's ramshackle capital.

Many Tourist Spots

While many Sandinista leaders are forced to explain shortages and hardships to struggling Nicaraguans, Lewites is in the enviable position of offering the public new, low-cost entertainment spots financed largely by tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism, Inturismo, has developed Jiloa, a scenic volcanic lake site with boardwalks, cabanas and small-boat facilities about 10 miles outside of Managua. On weekends, the waterfront, some of it confiscated from wealthy Nicaraguans, is crowded with thousands of Nicaraguans who pay a penny to get in.

Similar to Jiloa is El Trapiche, a series of spring-fed streams funneled into natural pools that are surrounded by restaurants, picnic grounds and an amphitheater, also about 10 miles from the capital. The ministry also has paved a winding road up to the volcano Masaya, where sightseers stand at the mouth of the steaming crater and watch flocks of screeching parrots circle overhead.

Using Old Somoza Site

Lewites has begun to develop Montelimar resort on about 40 acres confiscated from the Somoza family. Montelimar, expected to open next year, eventually is to include a 130-room hotel, 80 cabanas and a casino.

"Somoza's house will be a restaurant and casino," Lewites said.

Most of the foreigners who visit Nicaragua, however, come not to see the natural beauty but to get a look at the Sandinista revolution. Most of them, Lewites said, are connected with churches, unions and universities, groups generally sympathetic to the Sandinistas, or curious professionals, politicians and political aides.

"It's not necessarily your average vacation," said Paul Wessel, 26, a paralegal from San Francisco visiting his sister, Lois, who works here as a translator.

"I wanted to see what life was like here," he said. "We've seen coffee and cotton farms, traveled by thumb, train and flatbed truck. We met North Americans working here, people from the National Assembly, a Nicaraguan woman teaching law students and people giving polio immunizations.

Finds No Animosity

"Before I came, I was concerned that I might encounter anti-American sentiments, given what our country's foreign policy has been toward Nicaragua, but I found it wasn't so. People have been very friendly and willing to talk to us."

Most of the travelers come on Tur-Nica's organized tours that include visits with Sandinista officials, union leaders, mass organizations, opposition politicians, newspaper editors and cooperative farmers--as well as a trip to one or more of the tourist centers. Many stay with Nicaraguan families; a growing number of people have opened their homes to visitors.

Managua is not the most pleasant of vacation spots, nor is it the most beautiful. The center of the capital was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972 and never rebuilt. Its streets are unpaved and pot-holed, without a hint of name or number. Water is shut off two days a week, food shortages are frequent, soldiers prevalent. And the poverty, common in Latin America, is shocking to some tourists.

Countryside Beautiful

But the countryside is lush and dotted with lakes and volcanoes. Many foreigners stay for weeks or months, working with an agricultural or rural construction brigade. They not only volunteer their labor but pay to do so. Often they are Sandinista supporters who work with Nicaraguan solidarity committees in their own countries.

"We came as part of our solidarity work to help Nicaragua during the war," said Dorte Andersen, 27, a Danish architectural student who has spent the last three months building rural schools. The project is funded by the Danish government and the European Communities. "The United States is destroying the country, so we're building the country," Andersen said.

Cindy Marshall, 28, an Australian who lives in England, said she had a "great, wonderful" time picking coffee for six weeks. "We got the chance to be with Nicaraguan campesinos and to see the revolution for ourselves," she said. She paid about $500 for her transportation and expenses.

Many Pay to Work

The Nicaragua Exchange, a New York-based nonprofit group, has been sending in Americans to pick coffee and cotton for three years. Carol Ungar, director of the group here, says that this year, by the time the harvest ends this month, they will have brought in about 350 people.

The Americans pay their own air fare plus $300 each for three weeks in a bunkhouse and three meals a day of beans, rice and tortillas.

"It's rustic," Ungar said, "exactly the way a Nicaraguan who does that work would be living."

TecNica, a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization, sends welders, mechanics, computer specialists and other people with technical skills on two-week tours to help train Nicaraguans. They pay about $900 each, including air fare.

Casa Nicaraguense de Espanol, a private language school here, has had about 850 foreign students, most of them from the United States, since its founding in 1983. Student coordinator Amy Bank said the $225-a-week course includes language instruction, social and political activities, trips out of town and room and board with a Nicaraguan working-class family.

'Nicaraguan Reality'

"The idea is to get to know the Nicaraguan reality," Bank said.

Many visitors join the U.S. residents here who demonstrate outside the U.S. Embassy every Thursday to protest U.S. policy toward Nicaragua.

Hundreds of Americans live in Nicaragua, working for international agencies or government organizations, often for free or for low pay.

Prices in Nicaragua are low for Americans with dollars, and many of them change money on the black market. Consequently, there are many long-term tourists who simply hang out in guest houses and restaurants, earning the derogatory nickname "Sandalistas," after their footwear.

"It is a problem because of the shortages we have here," Lewites said. "People come for 15 or 20 days to get to know the revolution, and with dollars it's very cheap, so they stay three to six months. It is difficult to control."

Americans Need No Visa

Residents of Central American and most European countries do not need official Nicaraguan permission to visit the country. The Sandinista government eliminated the visa for U.S. citizens in 1983 after President Reagan closed Nicaragua's consulates in the United States.

Lewites said it has been difficult to persuade the Sandinista leadership to use scarce resources for tourism projects during a costly war, but he is adamant that the Sandinistas must provide Nicaraguans with what Somoza did not.

Clearly he delights in his success and his defiance of President Reagan, and he recognizes the propaganda value of tourism. The more Americans who see the Sandinista revolution, the better it is for Nicaragua, he thinks.

"The tourist who comes here is a spokesman for what is happening in Nicaragua," he said. "It is the tourists who make more tourists come."

He chuckled, and added: "Reagan is going to read about this and decide Americans can't come here any more. That's OK. He'll declare a travel ban, and twice as many will come."

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