Nicaragua Notes: The Watchmen, the Hunters and Gatherers, the Street Vendors

Published on New Politics, by Michael Kelly, April 19, 2013.

The Watchmen:

In Managua one finds uniformed guards in front of the banks, in the shopping malls like Metro Centro, in the grocery stores, and anywhere else there is likely to substantial amounts of money. These men have the status bestowed by a uniform and the authority commanded by carrying a pistol. One could say that they are the elite of their profession, but they are far outnumbered by the lumpenguardia found on every middle class street of the capital city … //

… Hunters and Gatherers:   

Hunters and gatherers roam the streets of Managua. Man, women and children drag through the streets huge nylon bags like those used by cotton harvesters in the countryside. The hunters stop at garbage cans and go through the trash looking for recyclable metal and plastic cans. They rifle through the refuse throwing what is salvageable into the sacks and move on through the streets to the next barrel. If they are lucky, they will make a dollar a day doing this. They are not so different from the men and women I have seen doing the same thing in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York … //

… The Street Vendors:

Thousands upon thousands of Nicaraguans prowl the streets of Managua selling goods and services to make a living. The lucky ones ride in carts pulled by horses—there are 15,000 horse carts in Managua—though many others without animals to pull their loads strain their own backs to push or pull carts through the city streets. They shout out their wares as they go: papayas, mangoes, plátanos, bananas, and a variety of other tropical fruits. I saw a woman the other day dragging a cart of pineapples through the streets, her small child asleep in the wagon amidst the fruit. Many children are raised in a cornucopia of fruit, but raised nonetheless in poverty and hunger. Some men and women go through the streets with baskets on their heads selling bread or tortillas. Today a man in my neighborhood was selling pork and sausages from a bag he carried in the 99 degree temperature, reaching in to draw a sample out with his hand. Where there is more pedestrian traffic there are the women and men selling lottery tickets, everyone a winner.

At the large intersections, as in so many other large cities throughout the world, young men and boys rush to squirt window on the windshield and then squeegee it off, hoping to earn a few córdobas. One corner I pass frequently has perhaps twenty fellows at the four corners competing to clean the cars windshields. Others, often younger ones, simply come to the window to ask for a handout, perhaps because they don’t yet have the capital to buy a squeegee or perhaps because they don’t yet have a long enough reach to do the windows. These window washers are almost universally friendly and polite, painstaking and proud of their work, and take their few coins as their well-earned pay. They seem to be proud to be working, to be earning their keep. Many of these youth should be in school, of course, but they know that finishing school, or at least going as far as they can, won’t guarantee them a job. These young men are willing and able to work, and this is the best work that their government and their society can give them.

Finally, we have those who have stands or stalls near the shopping malls and major bus stops or terminals such as that near the University of Central America. Displayed in the stalls are all sorts of little items: cell phone cases, plastic wrist watches, combs, hair clips, you name it. There are always a few electronics stalls selling speakers, power cords, and other items. Where the music is blasting they are selling pirate CDs of all the latest music from Latin America and some from the United States. Another stall nearby sells pirate DVDs of the latest films. The mark-up on these items is small, but in a day, in some of them, the vendors can make several dollars, which is more than one can make in most jobs available to them.

We should also add to this list the streetwalkers, those selling sex, in the “beauty salons” and “massage parlors” and in the “auto hotels,” all of them bordellos. In and around the casinos one see women dressed in provocative clothing and making suggestive remarks to signal their trade. They sell their sexual services at the risk of their safety and health, should they encounter a violent John or a man who failing to use a condom infects them with a sexually transmitted disease. Of course, there are also male prostitutes and transvestites and street sex vendors for all tastes, one simply has to look around. They can be found around the casinos and the nightclubs, but also in the neighborhoods, with services available to every preference and pocketbook.

The world of the watchmen, the hunters and gatherers and the street vendors is the world of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who live in the informal economy and some who can’t even find a place there. Unemployment in Nicaragua is hard to measure since so many have seasonal, part-time, or temporary employment. But any observer can see that many people’s lives are being wasted in underemployment, exploitative employment, or degrading employment which is tedious, trying, sometimes dangerous, and seldom rewarding. If there is someone left who still thinks Nicaragua has a left wing government, simply look around at this waste of human talent, energy, and possibility.
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