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Expat Life

Many expats head for the exits as political violence spreads in Nicaragua

By Allison Nance

As the death toll mounts in Nicaragua’s anti-government protests, one casualty may be this country’s reputation as a prime destination for U.S. retirees. In early 2017, a popular live-overseas website estimated that as many as 20,000 North Americans live in Nicaragua and ranked it among the top ten foreign destinations for retirees.

Thousands of U.S. expats have been drawn to colonial Nicaraguan cities like Granada.

At the very least, the country’s reputation as an expat hot spot is temporarily on hold as many foreign residents pack up to leave.

“Most of my friends want to get out but many of us own real estate and are afraid to leave,” says Granada resident Helen Sanders who moved here nine years ago. “I’m lucky. I have good Nicaraguan friends who will take care of my house while I’m gone. It’s impossible to sell right now, at any price.”

Online Nicaraguan expat forums have been abuzz for months about the dangers that the protests pose to foreigners. Many have argued that the violence was restricted to the larger cities, especially Managua, and had little impact on expats. In recent weeks, however, that view is in the minority.

A protest last month in Managua.

“I’ve been saying that the danger to gringos has been overplayed and that the protests were mostly an inconvenience,” a forum poster who calls himself “beachbum” wrote last week. “Today, I have to say that the inconvenience has gotten worse and worse to the point that it’s hard to live here anymore.”

In a previous comment, “beachbum” said life in his gated coastal development continued as usual but getting in and out of Managua for doctors’ visits had become dangerous.

Like most foreigners, Sanders said she expected the political protests to be peaceful and short-lived. “This is basically a peaceful country even though most people are poor. We never expected it would get this bad and we didn’t expect the violence to spread beyond Managua. We didn’t expect it to affect places like Granada and León but we were wrong.”

Randy Ellis who, like “beachbum,” lives in an upscale oceanside development for foreign residents, agrees with Sanders and blames the government for much of the deadly escalation. “We assumed the police and military would keep order but instead, they are destroying the peace, hunting down people and killing them,” he says. “The government calls it a coup which seems to justify anything they want to do.”

Ellis is unsure of his future in Nicaragua. “I have an investment here so I can’t just pick up and leave,” he says. “On the other hand, how can we go on living like this?” he asks. “It’s dangerous to go into Managua and Granada to shop and see friends and we have no idea how long this will go on. We used to go every couple weeks to the market in Masaya, but today people are dying there.”

He adds: “We thought the protests would die down when the government backed down on the big issues but they’ve only gotten worse. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. What everyone worries about is whether we will become another Venezuela.”

For many of the expats who plan to leave Nicaragua, the big question is where to go next. Some say they are returning to the U.S. but others prefer to live out of the home country.

“I was considering Mexico or Colombia but the drug violence is getting worse there,” Sanders says. “I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. I have a friend in Medellin (Colombia) who tells me that some parts of that city are now controlled by drug gangs and that the violence is getting worse in the better neighborhoods. So, where do I go now?”

Sanders says she’ll probably move to either Ecuador on Panama. “Those seem to be the safest options. I hate to leave Granada. I have some wonderful memories here but circumstances tell me that it’s time to move on.”

For more about the political violence in Nicaragua, click here.