The Last Gringo

And then there was just one U.S. daily reporter left to report from Managua.

The hot news in Nicaragua these days? The escalators at Managua’s first two shopping malls are besieged by kids, who, enthralled by this new technology, go up the down staircase. Then there’s the saga of the dozen crummy border villages that tried to secede and join Costa Rica, where gasoline is cheaper. (Thanks, but no thanks, said the Costa Ricans.) Or political dirty tricks, Nicaraguan-style: Did the Sandinistas really sic a swarm of killer bees on an enemy campaign rally?

If these stories didn’t make your newspaper’s front page, it’s probably because there’s hardly anyone left here to report them. A decade ago, when the contras and Sandinistas were willing proxies for the final great showdown of the Cold War, a Daniel Ortega press conference could easily draw 100 foreign reporters–double that if he had a captured American spy or some other bauble to show off. Everybody had a correspondent here. I remember one reporter identifying herself as the bureau chief for Dance magazine as she asked a question at a press conference. I guess she was checking out reports that the Soviets were using Nicaragua as a base to smuggle Bolshoi ballerinas to the guerrillas in El Salvador.

Today, as the chief of the Miami Herald’s bureau, I’m practically the last gringo journalist left in Managua. (The only other U.S. daily with a Central American bureau is the Los Angeles Times, with an El Salvador office.) Sometimes the isolation makes me feel like I’m trapped in one of those post-holocaust movies from the ‘50s, where the lead character wakes up to discover that everyone else has been wiped out by killer robots from Venus.

Not that there aren’t consolations. In the old days, reporters begged in vain for interviews with the nine top Sandinista comandantes. And correspondents who wrote unflattering stories about the Sandies–I was one–could find themselves tossed aboard a plane bound for Costa Rica. These days, the average Nicaraguan official would stand on his head and eat a bug if that would entice a foreign reporter to do an interview. My fax machine fairly hums with offers of briefings from Cabinet ministers who can’t quite believe their country is no longer the lead item on the White House daily briefing. They are inevitably surprised that I don’t want to drive eight hours across the country to see the first shovel of dirt turned for a new road linking two villages that most people in Managua have never heard of, much less anyone in the United States.

I n part, my popularity may stem from the dread officials feel at dealing with the newly unchained local press. Nicaraguan journalists, muzzled under four decades of the Somoza dynasty and then 11 years of the Sandinistas, have become the most aggressive in Central America. They take the freedom to ask any question they want with a disconcerting literalness.

Last year, Tomas Borge, the sole surviving founder of the Sandinista Party, was being interviewed on a Managua radio station. After Borge droned on for a few minutes about the world economy, the reporter broke in: “Comandante, what everyone really wants to know is if the rumors all these years are true: Do you just have one ball?”

“What are you talking about?” Borge replied. “My wife just had twins. Here, you want to see them?” He wasn’t talking about his newborn infants. As I tuned to another station, the reporter was still pleading with Borge to keep his pants on.

Testicular journalism still isn’t part of my beat. But I have covered:

  • The opening of Managua’s first McDonald’s. (The vice president actually came out to dedicate it, pronouncing the occasion as nothing less than the attainment of civilization: “When foreign investors see that big M, they know we’re not running around in loincloths.”)
  • The controversy that led to a fistfight at the Miss Nicaragua pageant–“right in front of Miss Congeniality’s father,” as one scandalized local paper put it. (The winner was a blue-eyed blonde, naturally provoking protest that she was a gringa ringer.)
  • The resurgence of Nicaragua’s movie theaters, which practically croaked when the Sandinistas made them show an endless parade of odes to Soviet industrial workers. Nonetheless, Daniel Ortega and the boys deserve some credit for a censorship policy that prevented their countrymen from being exposed to Oliver’s Story, which they saw as an example of class betrayal (a heroic working-class girl takes a place in the ruling class) and Annie Hall (too occupied with the trivial problems of the petite bourgeoisie).

In the 1980s, you never traveled alone in the countryside if you could possibly help it–you wanted help handy if you blundered into a firefight or a minefield. Not that many of us would have known what to do in either situation–our attempts at self-protection were mostly laughable.

One regular precaution before driving out into the boonies used to be marking a giant “TV” with adhesive tape on the back and side windows, which we believed was easy-to-spot shorthand for “don’t shoot, I’m a reporter.” In 1987, Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times encountered a contra patrol in northern Nicaragua, chatted with the men amicably for an hour or so, and then got ready to leave. “Could I ask you a question before you go?” asked the contra commander. “What the hell does ‘TV’ mean, anyway?”

Lately, the only time reporters banded together to travel outside Managua was during Hurricane Mitch, and that had as much to do with crying on each other’s shoulders as it did with self-protection. Police reporters in the United States complain about having to call up families of murder victims, but try interviewing a kid who just saw 44 members of his family swallowed in a mudslide.

Happily, the memory of the hurricane is starting to fade–though it was rekindled in March when President Clinton came through Central America, scattering relief programs in his wake like victorious GIs tossing chocolate bars to school kids in 1945. As the last gringo reporter in Nicaragua, I naturally put in my bid for an interview with Clinton, which was politely declined by the White House handlers. “All American reporters care about is Monica Lewinsky, and we’re trying to get away from that,” one U.S. official told me. I wonder if he’d heard Tomas Borge’s radio interview.