Violent protests in Nicaragua disrupt the retirement plans of many North Americans

Jul 26, 2018

By John Otis

After decades teaching social studies at a California high school, Noel Correa moved to Nicaragua, buying a home on the outskirts of this colonial city. Then, the country he chose as his retirement paradise began to unravel.

Also see Many expats head for the exit.

Protesters barricade a street in Managua.

“We were just getting settled when the fighting broke out,” said Mr. Correa, 67, who arrived here with his wife in December. “Now we are in limbo.”

So are many other expats caught up in a three-month-old uprising against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose crackdown in response has killed more than 300 people.

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Attracted by a tropical climate, low crime rate and seeming stability, thousands of Americans and Europeans moved here the last 15 years. Many viewed this country of 6 million as a cheaper alternative to the burgeoning foreign retirement communities in neighboring Costa Rica and Panama.

Now, however, the sound of gunfire and homemade mortars interrupts their sleep. Roadblocks and marauding pro-government paramilitaries discourage them from leaving their homes. Muggings and lootings are on the rise.

“I think I am going to pack up and get out,” said an American who operates a small gold mine in eastern Nicaragua that he has been unable to visit because of roadblocks. “When you can’t travel and security is in question, it makes things very difficult.”

A nighttime curfew leaves Granada streets empty.

Expats, many of whom refuse to be quoted by name for fear of government reprisals, aren’t the only worried foreigners. Tourists also have mostly stopped coming. One-third of the country’s hotels and restaurants have closed and about half, or 60,000, tourism jobs have been lost, according to the Nicaragua Chamber of Tourism. Tourism is Nicaragua’s top foreign exchange earner.

The U.S. Embassy has ordered nonemergency personnel to leave and advised American tourists to avoid Nicaragua “due to crime, civil unrest, and limited health care availability.” At the Managua airport, international flights land mostly empty and take off full.

“As soon as the violence hit, the tourists began to flee,” said Lucy Valenti, who heads the tourism chamber. “I can’t even begin to predict how bad this is going to get.”

The unrest began in April, with Nicaraguans protesting social security tax hikes. But as police and paramilitaries attacked them with deadly force, the street marches swelled with outraged Nicaraguans. They are now demanding that the Ortega government call early elections.

Mr. Ortega, 72, a former Marxist guerrilla who in the 1980s headed Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolutionary government, was voted out of the presidency in 1990. Returning to office in 2006, he has since taken control of nearly all government institutions while winning two more five-year terms. He accuses his opponents of coup plotting and rules out leaving office before his current term expires in 2022.

Calls to the office of Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is Mr. Ortega’s wife and handles press inquiries, weren’t returned.

As the crisis drags on, Nicaraguan towns and cities that depend on tourism and foreign retirees have been hit especially hard.

Chief among them is Granada, built in 1524 on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and no stranger to strife. Troops loyal to the American mercenary, William Walker, who had declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1856, set the city ablaze. The town—considered Nicaragua’s crown jewel for its Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and elegant central plaza—has been mostly peaceful since. Until recently.

When the current uprising began, several protesters in Granada were killed, and the city hall was burned down.

Now, Granada is a ghost town. Horse-drawn carriages sit idle at curbsides. Boat captains who used to ferry tourists to the islands in Lake Nicaragua say they haven’t had passengers for two months. The Hotel Plaza Colón, one of the city’s largest, is empty. Next door at a dance studio, salsa instructor José Obando said his American and European students have vanished.

“They all canceled and left the country,” he said.

Expats on Facebook groups speculate over road safety and the fate of the housing market. One recent posting asked: “Just to get an idea: Who left? Who stayed?”

But it turns out not everyone can afford—or wants—to leave.

A Florida native and retired music teacher said that she’s stuck here after plowing most of her savings into a home with a view of the nearby Mombacho volcano. She moved in last year with little sense of the brewing anger.

“I started hearing the word ‘dictatorship,’” she said. “I didn’t realize what Ortega had evolved into.”

Also caught off guard was a Houston lawyer who has spent the past 15 years snapping up property in Granada, including a small hotel.

“Real-estate values were going up,” the lawyer said, as he drank beer at one of the few bars still open. “I was going to start unloading some of my properties but then the government started shooting people.”

He and other foreigners are trying to adapt.

They walk or cycle to get around barricades. Happy hour has been moved up to 1:30 p.m. to avoid Granada’s nighttime curfew. Numerous expats insist on staying, content with the country’s slow pace of life and friendly people.

“Nicaragua puts a smile on my face just about every day,” said an American artist who moved here 13 years ago and gives painting classes. “Back in the U.S., people tell me that I should come home. But I tell them: ‘I am home.’”
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Credit: The Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com

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