Nicaragua, it seems, has had an image problem for as long as it has had an image.
Part of Nicaragua’s eternal public-relations predicament is a monster of its own making, while the other half is due to the collective ignorance of the lumpish masses who think that Nicaragua is A) a country in Africa, B) a country in the grips of civil war, or C) all of the above.
Nicaragua’s extreme image makeover during the past decade, following years of revolution and counterrevolution, has recast the country as “the safest in Central America.”
The campaign has worked. It’s no longer uncommon to hear people repeatedly giving Nicaragua that badge of honor. But the problem with claiming to be the best at something is that there is little motivation for improvement. Worse yet, when you are basing your claim to greatness on comparisons to your basket-case neighbors, your concept of excellence is already a bit catawampus.
Now that 2012 is coming to an end, it might be a good time for Nicaragua to set its sights a little higher for the New Year.
Instead of endeavoring to defend its title as the safest country in one of the most violent regions of the world, Nicaragua needs to start thinking about putting on a few pounds and going up to the next weight class—something the tourism industry is already trying to do. Nicaragua, after all, could be a contender—it just needs to be more disciplined with its training regimen (less fritanga, more jump rope).
The worst thing Nicaragua can do right now is rest on its laurels by just repeating its claim to safety. Nicaragua has gotten all the miles it’s going to get out of the superlative of being the safest country in Central America. It’s time to get off that horse and work harder to make Nicaragua better than it is now, not just better than the rest of Central America.
But before the advent of 2013, Nicaragua first has to get through the Christmas Craziness. December is always the nuttiest month of the year, as every tin-pot thief and aspiring criminal in the country becomes filled with an addled urgency to “collect their aguinaldo” by robbing and stealing whatever can be carted off.
Nicaraguans, expats, tourists, rich and poor—everyone is a target in December. The craziness officially began last weekend, when four of my friends and colleagues were robbed and assaulted within 48 hours in Granada—everything from a knife-point cash-grab to purse-snatching.
Luckily, most of the crimes in Nicaragua are still non-violent, or “opportunistic.” But when you constantly find yourself consoling people with the words like: “It could have been worse…” or “just be thankful you weren’t seriously injured….” or “In Honduras, they kill people…” it’s a sign that things aren’t as good as they should be.
Tourists who come to Nicaragua can spend 10 wonderful days exploring volcanoes, walking the beach, shopping in artisan markets, and washing down fried cheese with a cold Toña. But if they get robbed on the street during their visit here, that’s what they are going to talk about when they go home. They won’t be talking about how Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America.
Yes, street crime can and does occur everywhere in the world. But quite frankly, that’s a tired excuse—a helpless shrug of surrender. People’s reaction to lesser crimes now should be just the opposite; now is the time to organize and take action to prevent crime from evolving to the frightening and violent levels found in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and even Costa Rica, for that matter.
If Nicaragua is really serious about trying to make a great leap forward to become a serious tourist destination and a standout in the region, it needs to try harder on several fronts. It’s not enough to just convince people abroad that Nicaragua is safe, “unique and original.”
After all, what good does it do to change people’s opinion about Nicaragua in other parts of the world if the country can’t clean up the streets of garbage and crime? There’s nothing “unique and original” about trash blowing around on the streets or pipeheads stealing your camera.
Nicaragua needs to stop worrying about its old image problem of being a war-torn violent nation, because that’s no longer true. People who still think that aren’t worth trying to convince otherwise. Instead, the country needs to start working on its emerging image problem as a filthy, lawless and chaotic place. A visit to Granada these days means treading through trash drifts piled up against the curbs, navigating a gauntlet of young prostitutes who aggressively ply central park to solicit every man unfortunate enough to make unintended eye contact, fending off glue-sniffing beggars with nipping fingers and faraway eyes, and plugging your ears as you run for cover from deafening din of Calle La Calzada.
For these reasons, the cruise ship companies that bring hundreds of bewildered-looking tourists to Granada each week are already threatening to cancel their excursions here. While cruise-ship shufflers might not be the ideal type of tourism for the city’s growth, Nicaragua isn’t yet in a position to be too picky about who comes here. If Granada starts scaring off the doddering older crowd, soon they’ll be left with only pinche backpackers, and some of them are undistinguishable from the glue-sniffing beggars.
After nearly 500 years of continuous existence and occasional prosper, it’s hard to imagine this is the best Granada can do. The city’s new Sandinista mayor appears willing to work with local business leaders who are trying to effect change after four years of embarrassing and sweaty leadership from the current guy, who will soon be sent back to the rice fields of Malacatoya. But, like every mayor who takes over Granada after four years of mismanagement from the previous yob, she’ll have her work cut out for her.
The good news is that Granada’s most pressing problems are still largely fixable. If the city cleans up the streets a bit, they’ll rediscover a lovely colonial city. If they regulate the noise a bit, they’ll find a charming old-world city with vendors calling out their wares, church bells chiming the hour and parrots chattering in the trees. If the government offers some social services for the drug addicts, street urchins and teenage prostitutes (after all, they number in the dozens, not the tens of thousands) they’ll clear the way for sidewalk café tourism, where visitors can enjoy a peaceful meal or an ice cream in the park.
This is not about cleaning up Nicaragua for the foreigners, this is about cleaning it up for the Nicaraguans so the country can aspire to develop, grow and prosper as an orderly and healthy tourism destination. The locals have more to gain or lose in this equation than anyone else. Tourists can always go elsewhere—and indeed they might if Nicaragua doesn’t get serious about keeping them here.
Granada’s private sector is stepping up to address part of the mess. CANATUR, the business chamber of local tourism businesses, is organizing efforts to combat commercial sexual exploitation of minors and clean up the garbage. Local police are onboard, and INTUR is along for the ride. So good things are starting to happen.
But much more needs to be done in the New Year. If Nicaragua is so proud of its citizen security and growing tourism, why does Granada only have four tourist police charged with patrolling the entire historic center on one motorcycle with no gas? Though they are dedicated and hard-working bunch, four cops to attend to the needs of an industry that sends hundreds of thousands of wallets to the city each year hardly seems sufficient—especially considering that’s about the same amount of police protection assigned to every knavish and whiskey-breathed government official who farts around the country with the pretention of nobility. Plus, every nitwit government apparatchik is given a gas subsidy by the government, while the cops are always parked on an empty tank.
In San Juan del Sur, the situation is even more troubling—and the crime is more brazen. The police’s capacity to serve and protect in the popular beach town is so deficient that one expat has started a private security force of motorized security guards that zip around town to protect their clients from break-ins and other robberies. The success of that business speaks to the failings of public security.
The police are, however, giving adequate protection to those who matter most to the government. “There are as many police officers protecting Roberto Rivas’ two mansions at the top of the hill as there are patrolling the entire town of San Juan del Sur,” said one foreign resident, referring to Nicaragua’s disreputable electoral boss, who is simultaneously building two palatial compounds above town—somewhere to unwind when he’s not misplacing ballots. “This is just another one of the ironies of living in the third world; all the police are protecting one guy while everyone else has to hire private security.”
While the country works hard to promote its image abroad and change the way people who never think about Nicaragua think about Nicaragua, it would be wise to focus more effort on improving the reality that visitors and Nicaraguans experience here every day.
Nicaragua is on the brink of a genuine tourism revolution. The country has all the tools it needs to succeed. It just needs to focus on the task at hand. After all, the best way to fix Nicaragua’s new image problem is to address the actual issues that are causing it.