Poor Pay, Inflation Spur Exodus : Nicaraguans Leaving in Droves as Economy Sinks

Times Staff Writer

When an aunt offered to help Luis Jiron flee Nicaragua with her own sons to dodge the draft, the architecture student said no. “The country needs people to build it up, not to abandon it,” he told her that day in 1983.

But after surviving the Contra war as a Sandinista soldier, Jiron lost the battle to sustain himself with the ideals and income of a young draftsman. Last month, he sold his drawing table, slide rule and stencils for $300, packed his clothes and headed for Miami, joining a burgeoning exodus of emigrants from this economically devastated country.

“I worked day and night at that table, burning my brain and feeding my body only beans,” the energetic 22-year-old told a guest in his bare living room before leaving. Breaking into laughter over the absurdity of his plight, he added: “What good can I do as an architect if I starve first? I would rather sweep the streets of Miami and have something to eat.”

Hundreds of Nicaraguans who line up daily for passports and exit visas, under the glare of Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s portrait on the migration office wall, have reached the same conclusion. Twelve of the 14 other architecture graduates in Jiron’s class of 1987 are gone, as are growing numbers of white-collar professionals, unskilled workers and farmers.


The migration office says 15,459 Nicaraguans left legally in the first six months of 1988, a record rate. Thousands of others, perhaps just as many, are slipping away without visas as the Sandinista revolution slides deeper into poverty.

Massive emigration was unknown in Nicaragua before the Sandinista takeover in 1979. Most of those who trickled out during the next four years were political dissidents and peasants who formed the U.S.-backed Contra movement. The trickle turned to a flood in the mid-1980s as teen-agers scrambled to avoid Sandinista army conscription.

A cutoff of the rebels’ U.S. military aid and a shaky, informal truce have stopped most of the fighting since March. But instead of abating, the outflow of Nicaraguans has increased.

Squeezed by Austerity Plan


While thousands of the new emigrants are Contra sympathizers who fear consolidation of Sandinista rule, the vast majority are squeezed out by government measures that have slashed wages and eliminated 11,000 jobs this year in a failed effort to curb the war’s legacy of hyper-inflation.

The destruction left by Hurricane Joan last month has stepped up the exodus. Within two weeks of the storm, more than 500 refugees from Nicaragua’s hard-hit Caribbean coast turned up in Costa Rica, officials there said.

“The typical emigrant today is not a political refugee but a Nicaraguan who would like to work in his country, independent of any political system,” said former Managua Mayor Moises Hassan. “He is simply overwhelmed by economic hardship and tension over what the future holds.”

Leadership Worried

This shift in the nature of emigration is starting to worry the Sandinista leadership, which had long regarded the process as a safe escape valve for political discontent.

A recent Planning Ministry study said the growing shortage of skilled professionals, who leave at a rate of nearly 1,000 each year, is “cause for deep concern.” One reason: Some fleeing professionals are defectors from the Sandinistas’ own ranks.

The number of Nicaraguans in exile is estimated to be at least 300,000, nearly a tenth of Nicaragua’s population. Most live in Costa Rica. But the flow has now turned toward the United States, where it is relatively easy for a Nicaraguan--even one who has entered illegally--to gain asylum and a work permit.

Busy Bus Route


At least two dozen private companies have started here in recent months to bus the growing emigrant traffic to Guatemala, the only Central American country to which a Nicaraguan can travel legally without an entry visa. There the travelers pay up to $1,500 to be guided by coyotes, or refugee smugglers, on an illegal trek across Mexico and into Texas, where most catch a bus to Miami or Los Angeles.

One Managua-Guatemala City bus line, Sambar Excursions, made its final run this month. On board was the owner, Carlos Munoz, 26, himself bound for a new life in Houston after collecting $40 per trip from 300 passengers over the past year.

“If I had a jumbo jet I could fill it with Nicaraguans who want out,” said Jose Luis Gutierrez, 32, a coyote who drives immigrants from Managua to the Texas border in his van. “The market in this business is inexhaustible.”

Flights to Guatemala on Aeronica, the Nicaraguan airline, are filled by Nicaraguans who arrive at Managua’s airport with teary eyes, huge suitcases and one-way tickets. Of 3,000 passengers on the northbound flight last month, only 500 returned to Managua, Guatemalan officials said.

Another measure of the exodus is the growing number of applications for asylum by Nicaraguans at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Harlingen, Tex. From fewer than 200 a month in the first four months of 1988, it swelled to 475 in August and 1,136 in September. Another 2,296 Nicaraguans have sought refugee status in Canada this year.

Along Nicaragua’s borders, groups of peasants regularly sneak into Costa Rica and Honduras without visas. Thousands who back the Contras have joined rebel troops withdrawing from Nicaragua in recent months.

Runners Keep Going

In September, 20 high school runners taking part in a “torch of freedom” relay to commemorate the anniversary of Central American independence passed the torch to Costa Ricans at the border and kept running--to asylum in Costa Rica.


Nicaraguan exiles who get jobs send $30 million to $48 million to relatives back home each year, nearly one-fourth the value of the country’s exports, according to several private estimates. But rather than boost the economy, this income tends to finance the travel of new emigrants.

“My circle of family and friends is disappearing,” lamented Gilberto Cuadra, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise. His physician and his car mechanic abandoned him last month.

Cuadra was even more surprised when two of his Sandinista adversaries--an economist schooled in Eastern Europe and a state security policeman--asked him for help in emigrating.

More Nicaraguan architects and engineers now live in Los Angeles than Managua, Cuadra says. While Nicaraguan medical schools graduate 380 students each year, 200 doctors leave the country, according to the Planning Ministry.

“Many skilled people understand that a revolution requires sacrifices, but they are coming under tremendous family pressures to leave,” said Freddy Cruz, Sandinista leader of the Confederation of Professional Assns. “There is a limit to revolutionary consciousness when wages fall at such an alarming rate.”

Doctors Earn $50 a Month

Senior doctors and university professors earn the equivalent of $50 a month from the state. Most other skilled workers earn even less. The meager pay scale has been eroded by cuts in government spending and by the estimated 12,000% annual inflation they were meant to curb.

Luis Jiron’s income as a draftsman shrank from $150 to $17 a month this year when five of the six companies he did business with went broke.

After top baseball salaries dipped below $15 a month--all players are paid by the state--an outfielder for the popular Boers team left to work on a Miami fishing boat. The Nicaraguan all-star team came home from a game in Honduras without its second baseman, who stayed to seek asylum.

“It is no longer just the middle and upper classes who go; it’s the workers too,” said the owner of a Managua dry-cleaning plant that just lost two steam press operators. “They sold the four little things they owned and left.”

For many who are struggling, the illusion of a better life here vanished last June. Talks between Sandinista and Contra leaders on a permanent cease-fire collapsed, along with any chance of getting the economy off an emergency war footing and attracting reconstruction aid from abroad. Days later, the cordoba suffered its second major devaluation of the year.

“What made life bearable was the hope that this war psychosis would soon end,” said Mireya Cajias, 34, a nurse. “Now that hope has fallen.”

Malnourished Children

In her clinic, Cajias treated a growing number of malnourished children suffering from tuberculosis and diarrhea, then decided she could do no more. “A doctor cannot make a child healthy unless that child eats right,” she said. No longer able to feed her own two sons on a $13-a-month salary, she quit and started packing for Miami.

For years, Sandinista leaders said good riddance to malcontents like Cajias. They brought in hundreds of Cuban doctors and Soviet Bloc technicians to fill the gap while sending the children of workers and peasants to study in socialist countries.

But many returning scholars have become restless, challenging the assumption that good revolutionaries can remain loyal and underpaid. A Moscow-trained chemical engineer left for Colombia this year after finding she could not afford Managua. The former head of a state tobacco company is milking cows in Costa Rica.

So far, the Sandinistas have taken few steps to halt emigration forcibly, except denying visas to draft-age youths. Instead, Cruz’s organization of 13,500 professionals has been allowed to lobby for, and win, some white-collar perks. Senior managers of some state companies are now paid on a par with counterparts in capitalist countries.

But party ideologues will not let this elitist trend go too far. When doctors at a Managua hospital went on strike recently to demand higher salaries, the health minister vowed to replace them, permanently, with Cubans. Faced with a similar threat, the entire hospital staff in the war-zone town of Juigalpa quit.

“In the short run, emigration softens the political pressures on the Sandinistas, but as the pool of skilled workers gets smaller, its impact on productivity becomes more serious,” said Francisco Mayorga, a former economic adviser to the government. “We are watching Nicaragua become a land of peasants, a place so poor that it resembles Haiti or the northeast of Brazil. The country is disintegrating.”


Year Emigrants 1979* 1,353 1980 6,201 1981 8,462 1982 6,868 1883** 21,458 1984 15,208 1985 23,865 1986 27,239 1987 29,412 1988*** 15,459

* (July to year end) ** (first year of military draft) *** (though June 30) Of The 140,066 who emigrated 1979-1987: 0.2% were unemployed 1.9% were shopkeepers and peddlers. 6.0% were professionals and technicians. 9.3% were pre-school children. 15.5% were housewives. 30.3% were students. 36.7% held other jobs. Source: Nicaragua Directorate of Migration