As our friends and associates know, we are highly supportive of Nicaragua. It is our chosen home and we are involved in many local and expat activities here. It is with regret that I find myself writing this story, which illustrates how corruption here takes many forms at many levels.
It is even sadder when a major company like our power company, Unión Fenosa, can act against a customer without conscience, fabricating unsubstantiated statements and assuming we will roll over and quietly pay because they said so. Let me go back in time and relate the events that require me to tell this story in hopes others will not be subjected to the same circumstances.
It all started last May, with a notice slipped under our door. It was from our friendly power company requesting our presence in Managua to examine our old electric power meter for irregularities. They had just replaced our old electric meter. They did not want to make any accusations without our presence. I took the notice to our lawyer who recommended we just ignore the request, which we did.
In our ignorance, we thought the problem would just go away. But apparently the power company was a little short on revenue and why not just go after a customer that could not fight back?
A couple weeks later, two men from the power company showed up at the door and said they were going to replace the power meter again since it was not showing enough power usage. They informed us that we are using much more power than their meter indicated. I asked a few logical questions like, “How can your meter not be showing the amount of power going into our home?” and “Are you suggesting we had somehow rewired our home to allow us to run a secret power connection to the street?” Or “Are you assuming we have another power source in the home, like a hydroelectric system or a small nuclear reactor?”
They did not understand our humor, and I was becoming upset when they were really suggesting we were cheating on our power usage.
It is true that we use very little power. We had not used our air conditioning in several years, and the only major usage we had besides the fans and lights was the refrigerator, pool pump and washing machine. Electricity is expensive here so we had learned how to be conserve power. Our normal monthly bill is around $100. For a large home, that is low here.
Anyway, we were on our third power meter, but Union Fenosa was still not satisfied. Several weeks later, they showed up again and requested to be allowed into our home. Wanting to satisfy any doubts they may have, we let them in. They proceeded to inventory every electrical device we had which filled up several pages, then they added entries from a table they had that showed average kilowatt hour usage.
You would be surprised how many 60 watt bulbs you have in a typical home. Adding all of this up they informed us how much power we must be using.
At this point I did not know if they were that stupid or thought that we were that stupid to believe their chaotic logic. We explained that a washing machine does not run 24 hours a day, nor do we have every fan and light on 24 hours a day, nor do we run the air conditioners 24 hours a day.
But it was like talking to the village idiots. To be fair, I knew they were only acting under orders from an overzealous supervisor who would probably pocket half the money if we had paid some ludicrous electric bill based on their speculations.
The scariest part was knowing these are the same people connecting power to the homes on our street. Perhaps I should consider more home insurance!
We thought our logic had prevailed, but we forgot we were living in Nicaragua. A special power bill arrived a couple weeks later showing we owed 72,000 córdobas (more than $3,000) for power that should have been used above and beyond what was showing on their power meter and our monthly power bill.
Non-payment would mean our power would be cut, both the actual power shown on their meter and the magical power we were generating or stealing in the home. We took the bill to our lawyer.
Our lawyer informed us that the power company does this time to time in the hopes someone would actually pay the bill. He immediately got a court order that prevented the power company from cutting off our electricity until the matter was resolved. The procedure required us to go through several levels of bureaucracy and judgments and eventually it goes to an equivalent of a consumer protection board.
At that point, it is usually ruled that the bill was bogus. But unfortunately, the process could take six months. We were given a court order to show power company employees that they could not cut off our power until the issue was resolved. Of course, our legal bill would be several hundred dollars.
Over the next few months, they tried to shut off our power but we just waved the court order in front them. Then one day in December, we came home to find we had no power. I looked outside the house and found the power cables to our home missing. When they mean cut the power here, they literally cut the cables. Sometimes we see our neighbors climbing up the power poles and reconnecting their cables so they have these same issues.
We called our lawyer who could not believe they disconnected us without notification (he must not be from Nicaragua). He immediately went to the power company and showed the court order and demanded they reconnect us.
Then we received another call from our lawyer. The power company refuses to reconnect the power until we paid their fictitious bill. He then went to the government agency that oversees the utility companies, but apparently one cannot challenge the power company because the Sandinista government owns 16% and so cannot rule against themselves. They suggest we have an independent contractor reconnect the lines, which sounds illegal to me, but since everything has been illegal so far, we thought what the heck?
The contractor showed up but it was a little difficult for him to reconnect us because the power company has removed the entire length of the old electric cables. And of course, the contractor must borrow my ladders because he does not have any. Anyway, we have power within a few minutes, and then it was just a matter of waiting for our ruling from the consumer board on Dec. 23.
Then on Jan. 17, eight months after all this began, our lawyer notified us that we lost the ruling against Unión Fenosa and they also state someone must have altered our power meters (remember, three different meters). But there is good news, they will reduce the 72,000 córdoba bill by 25% and allow us to pay in installments. How much fairer could they be? And all this time I had thought Unión Fenosa was being unfair!
We are now pondering what to do. Sure we could just pay the bill, but then we have admitted guilt and worse, indicating that Unión Fenosa can do this whenever they wish against anyone they wish. And how do we know they won’t just present another outrageous bill to us sometime in the future?
We do try to avoid confrontational situations, but we have no choice but to make waves this time. Remember that during this time, we still received our monthly power bills, which we always promptly paid and our meter had been replaced three times.
In the meantime we are notifying the various news organizations and possibly the embassy to see if anything can be done to stop this travesty. We may be naïve, but we are hoping they can be shamed into being reasonable and logical.
The saddest part is if they are that blatant in their fraudulent practices, how many monthly electrical bills are simply padded or are grossly inaccurate?
Remember, this is happening in Nicaragua, but Unión Fenosa is a Spanish company with Nicaraguan employees.
The author of this article asked that his real name be withheld for fear of more reprisals from Unión Fenosa. If you wish to reach him, put a comment below with your email address.