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The 1972 Managua Earthquake – A City Destroyed

November 4, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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In 1972 an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 struck Nicaragua and destroyed its capital city, Managua.  The events following this devastating natural disaster contributed greatly to the Sandinista Revolution a few years later.

I visited Nicaragua at the beginning of the civil war.  My first inkling of trouble occurred at the border, where Customs officials treated travelers with rudeness and physical abuse.  My companion and I managed to enter the country without incident after paying a hefty “visa fee” but we were shocked at the behavior displayed by the border guards.  Normally in Central America visitors were greeted at international frontiers with a measure of tolerance, occasional friendliness, and at the worst, indifference.  But here, violence was already in the air.

Times were changing in Nicaragua.  We constantly met Sandinista supporters who informed us bluntly that they were about to overthrow the government.  We soon discovered their motives.

Downtown Managua, smashed by the earthquake six years previously, had never been rebuilt. Never cleared, fresh housing never constructed for the victims, nothing, nada.  We walked around the ruins of the central district like survivors of a post-apocalyptic future and marveled at the devastation.  Trees grew from swimming pools in residential districts, office buildings lay in crumpled heaps, and what few areas had been bulldozed free of wreckage were vast empty fields of weeds and grass.  It was as if the city had been bombed like Köln or Coventry during World War II.

Squalid shantytowns encompassed the central district,  where refugees lived in conditions of grinding poverty.  We stayed in a bad hotel outside the city center, one of the worst I ever encountered in Central America.

The reason the city had never been restored was explained to us by many Nicaraguans and was not difficult to appreciate nor to understand.  After the earthquake the Somoza government immediately appealed for and received substantial international aid to help its citizens rebuild; the politicians and their henchmen quickly stole almost all of the donated money.

As a reasonable person can imagine, the citizens of Nicaragua became increasingly angry.  During our stay in Managua we met a pharmacist who lived above the city in a nice neighborhood, not far from the Intercontinental Hotel made famous by the journalists who covered the civil war. While we ate dinner and looked down at the city, still mostly without electric light, the pharmacist and her husband – upper middle class folks who one would not normally associate with a radical revolutionary movement, explained that they and their peers planned to take down the government by force.  They had weapons and were getting ready to use them.  And so they probably did.

We met many other citizens who later became Sandinista fighters.  We would talk on street corners, in bars, and in public parks. I threw my support to them, encouraging these simple individuals to take up arms and defeat the rabid dictatorship that had ruined their country.

I have a personal connection to the theft of the aid money.  In my hometown of Lennoxville, a local elementary school that many of my friends attended, Ecole St. François, took up donations to send to Nicaragua to help the earthquake victims. The kids raised a few thousand dollars, a lot of money in rural Quebec for grade-schoolers in the 1970s.  Some months after forwarding the money directly to the Nicaraguan government, the school asked how the cash had been used to aid the earthquake victims.  The hubris of the response was astounding.  Not even bothering to make up a plausible alibi, the Nicaraguan embassy in Ottawa told the children that the money, alas, had never reached Managua but had been “lost.”

A German woman I met a few months after the revolution, with whom I became a close friend,  was with the revolutionaries who stormed the presidential palace.  A picture of her drinking champagne in Somoza’s bathtub was widely disseminated at the time in the international media.

I stayed with her a few years later at her apartment in Berlin. Unfortunately she became increasingly radical herself, to the point where she was reluctant to explore her own city with me, for fear of being perceived as supporting the bourgeois society that she believed Germany had become.  I haven’t seen her since 1980.

A lot of time has passed since 1978.  The Sandinistas, like so many idealistic movements who have won power in their homelands, were corrupted by their own success and fame.  Ronald Reagan decided they were terrorists and funded a long dirty war against them, adding to the endless misery constantly endured by average Nicaraguans.  Eventually Managua was partially rebuilt, and I understand that now luxury shopping malls and apartment buildings grace the city outskirts.  Even the central district has finally undergone restoration.

But I still wonder if the original refugees have benefited from these changes, or whether they have inherited the same abysmal economic conditions as their parents and grandparents suffered under the Somoza regime.

In 1978 I took many photos of the ruins of Managua.  Most have been lost, but a lucky three images have survived the years:

Managuaruins032

1) The Bank of America building in Managua. Locals told me that all the floors pancaked during the earthquake.  Luckily the quake happened at night when few workers would have been inside.  The other structures in the photo were uninhabited and dangerous wrecks

Managuaruins031

2) Managua’s cathedral.  Six years after the temblor authorities had yet to authorize workers to sweep the floor clean of debris


3) Inside the ruins of an upper-class establishment, complete with swimming pool

4)On the bright side, the Somoza family still created self-portraits during the waning days of their reign (I shot this photo somewhere en route to the Caribbean coast).

5) Another violent symbol: men clip the wings of a parrot, just as the government cut off the rights of their people (shot from the balcony of a simple hotel room in Bluefields)


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