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Poor Pay, Inflation Spur Exodus : Nicaraguans Leaving in Droves as Economy Sinks

November 20, 1988|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — When an aunt offered to help Luis Jiron flee Nicaragua with her own sons to dodge the draft, the architecture student said no. "The country needs people to build it up, not to abandon it," he told her that day in 1983.

But after surviving the Contra war as a Sandinista soldier, Jiron lost the battle to sustain himself with the ideals and income of a young draftsman. Last month, he sold his drawing table, slide rule and stencils for $300, packed his clothes and headed for Miami, joining a burgeoning exodus of emigrants from this economically devastated country.

"I worked day and night at that table, burning my brain and feeding my body only beans," the energetic 22-year-old told a guest in his bare living room before leaving. Breaking into laughter over the absurdity of his plight, he added: "What good can I do as an architect if I starve first? I would rather sweep the streets of Miami and have something to eat."

Hundreds of Nicaraguans who line up daily for passports and exit visas, under the glare of Ernesto (Che) Guevara's portrait on the migration office wall, have reached the same conclusion. Twelve of the 14 other architecture graduates in Jiron's class of 1987 are gone, as are growing numbers of white-collar professionals, unskilled workers and farmers.

The migration office says 15,459 Nicaraguans left legally in the first six months of 1988, a record rate. Thousands of others, perhaps just as many, are slipping away without visas as the Sandinista revolution slides deeper into poverty.

Massive emigration was unknown in Nicaragua before the Sandinista takeover in 1979. Most of those who trickled out during the next four years were political dissidents and peasants who formed the U.S.-backed Contra movement. The trickle turned to a flood in the mid-1980s as teen-agers scrambled to avoid Sandinista army conscription.

A cutoff of the rebels' U.S. military aid and a shaky, informal truce have stopped most of the fighting since March. But instead of abating, the outflow of Nicaraguans has increased.

Squeezed by Austerity Plan

While thousands of the new emigrants are Contra sympathizers who fear consolidation of Sandinista rule, the vast majority are squeezed out by government measures that have slashed wages and eliminated 11,000 jobs this year in a failed effort to curb the war's legacy of hyper-inflation.

The destruction left by Hurricane Joan last month has stepped up the exodus. Within two weeks of the storm, more than 500 refugees from Nicaragua's hard-hit Caribbean coast turned up in Costa Rica, officials there said.

"The typical emigrant today is not a political refugee but a Nicaraguan who would like to work in his country, independent of any political system," said former Managua Mayor Moises Hassan. "He is simply overwhelmed by economic hardship and tension over what the future holds."

Leadership Worried

This shift in the nature of emigration is starting to worry the Sandinista leadership, which had long regarded the process as a safe escape valve for political discontent.

A recent Planning Ministry study said the growing shortage of skilled professionals, who leave at a rate of nearly 1,000 each year, is "cause for deep concern." One reason: Some fleeing professionals are defectors from the Sandinistas' own ranks.

The number of Nicaraguans in exile is estimated to be at least 300,000, nearly a tenth of Nicaragua's population. Most live in Costa Rica. But the flow has now turned toward the United States, where it is relatively easy for a Nicaraguan--even one who has entered illegally--to gain asylum and a work permit.

Busy Bus Route

At least two dozen private companies have started here in recent months to bus the growing emigrant traffic to Guatemala, the only Central American country to which a Nicaraguan can travel legally without an entry visa. There the travelers pay up to $1,500 to be guided by coyotes, or refugee smugglers, on an illegal trek across Mexico and into Texas, where most catch a bus to Miami or Los Angeles.

One Managua-Guatemala City bus line, Sambar Excursions, made its final run this month. On board was the owner, Carlos Munoz, 26, himself bound for a new life in Houston after collecting $40 per trip from 300 passengers over the past year.

"If I had a jumbo jet I could fill it with Nicaraguans who want out," said Jose Luis Gutierrez, 32, a coyote who drives immigrants from Managua to the Texas border in his van. "The market in this business is inexhaustible."

Flights to Guatemala on Aeronica, the Nicaraguan airline, are filled by Nicaraguans who arrive at Managua's airport with teary eyes, huge suitcases and one-way tickets. Of 3,000 passengers on the northbound flight last month, only 500 returned to Managua, Guatemalan officials said.

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