MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The woman who sells cheese at Roberto Huembes' Market waved away the flies and nodded in rhythm with a customer's litany about scarce foods and rising prices.
"There's nothing here--no meat, no chicken, no bananas, no oil," the customer said, her voice rising with each item. "A pound of rice is 400 cordobas, a pound of beans is 250 cordobas, if you can find the beans."
Another customer, in an olive drab T-shirt, Sandinista militia issue, turned her head in disgust at this unrevolutionary tirade.
"Lady," she said, "there's room for you in Miami."
Such complaints and angry encounters are commonplace these days in Managua's markets, where discontent is rising in proportion to worsening food shortages and inflation of 330% and more. Poor and middle-class shoppers alike protest at having to cope with empty stalls and two-hour bread lines.
Chaotic Black Market
Food shortages, the most visible sign of Nicaragua's general economic crisis, have created a chaotic black market for meat, chicken and cooking oil. Managing to buy scarce foods often depends as much on whom you know as how much money you have.
Selling in the black market has become more profitable than working at a job because pay levels are set by the government. Many skilled workers and professionals supplement their eroding salaries by selling, and some have abandoned their jobs altogether.
The revolutionary Sandinista government blames most of its economic problems on the U.S.-backed rebel war and the U.S. economic boycott. But opposition businessmen say the blame rests primarily with the Marxist-led government's central economic planning.
In some cases, the causes are inseparable.
High-Protein Feed Lacking
Last month, consumers found out the reason for the scarcity of chickens: At least 200,000 chickens died because the government, lacking dollars, had not imported enough high-protein feed for them.
Under the front-page headline, "They Explain About the Chickens," the pro-government newspaper El Nuevo Diario said the chickens developed a nervous disorder from the lack of protein, began to cannibalize one another and had to be killed.
No Cartons for Beef
Another food scandal made it onto the front pages in May when 20,000 pounds of beef for export rotted because the government did not have enough cardboard for storage cartons--again because of the dollar shortage.
The head of the state meat packing company had the meat put in plastic bags to sell domestically, but with improper refrigeration the meat spoiled in the airless bags. The director was fired.
Consumers, already annoyed by the scarcity of meat, were angered by the waste.
"The only thing there's no shortage of here is shortages," the saleswoman at Roberto Huembes' said.
Food Is Expensive
What is available in the markets is expensive for the average Nicaraguan wage-earner, who brings home about 30,000 cordobas a month. A head of cabbage, a pineapple and a squash cost 500 cordobas each, a single carrot costs 200 cordobas and a one-pound fish costs 1,000 cordobas, a day's pay.
The cordoba's value varies. It is officially fixed at 70 to the dollar for buying approved imports, at 1,200 to the dollar on a legal parallel market and at 2,000 to the dollar on the black market.
The government's dual rate for exchanging dollars was meant to keep down the price of basic goods, but it has contributed to the havoc in the marketplace. To cope with inflation, some families rely on a few dollars sent by relatives in the United States.
The Sandinista government guarantees Nicaraguans a minimum of rice, oil, sugar, salt and soap at government stores, where prices are relatively low. Wage-earners are allowed to buy other fixed-priced basic goods at stores set up for them--a benefit designed to persuade people to get out of selling and back into regular jobs.
But most people in the cities depend on supermarkets and marketplaces where some prices are fixed and some are not. And fixed-price foodstuffs are found most easily under the counter or from a friend on the black market.
Half-Hidden Black Market
In typical Nicaraguan fashion, the black market in food, although illegal, is only half hidden. Illegal transactions often take place in the open in the marketplace.
"It's like dodging taxes in a capitalist country--it's perfectly respectable," said Trevor Evans, a British economist working here.
Occasionally, a seller will be caught without a required government license or will be detained for violating price controls. It is not unusual to hear of inspectors for the Ministry of Internal Commerce being showered with tomatoes and rotten fruit as they haul an offender away.
The government admits to some early mistakes in economic planning. For example, there used to be subsidies that made it cheaper to buy beans than to grow them.