Managua is home to one third of the Nicaraguan people, and growing. It’s also one of the revolution’s most difficult problem children, chaotic and growing, run down and a tremendous drain on resources. envío talked with Carlos Carrión, its new mayor, about the city’s political history, the problems he and his city face, and his hopes for the future.
Carlos Carrión has lived all his life in Managua. He first got involved in the country’s political life in 1971, joining the FSLN in 1973. In the first year on the National Secretariat of the party, then national coordinator of the Sandinista Youth organization from 1980 to 1985. From August of 1985 to the beginning of 1988 he was both the coordinator of the party’s Regional Committee and the Delegate of the Presidency for Region III—Managua and its environs. A year ago he became mayor of the city he says he loves, and would trade for none other.
Envío: Managing Managua has always been a problem for the government. What specific policies or actions have been used to try to discourage the increase in the capital’s size, and what results have there been?
Carlos Carrión: The first thing to say is that until now Managua hasn’t had a mechanism to carry out planning policies.
In 1933 there ceased being local government in Managua because the President at that time was afraid of losing a municipal election, municipal control. The municipality of Managua was virtually abolished. From that time on, the Ministry of the National District, which was controlled by the President, ran Managua. It took care of Managua's public works—cleaning, drainage, ditches, bridges, streets, etc., your basic public works. That's what the revolution inherited.
Throughout the country's history, everything has been centralized, everything has revolved around Managua. The very existence of the central government in Managua, of such centralized power here, is precisely the reason a strong local government is needed. But there's a long history to deal with.
There was no experience in the FSLN of administering a municipality, before 1979. The first thing the revolution did was to change this ministry into a Governmental Junta for National Reconstruction, but it had the same functions, the same nature—essentially taking care of public works. The region of Managua was the last where a Delegation of the Presidency was set up. It didn't happen here until 1985, although in other regions these administrative bodies had existed since 1982.
We're also talking about a national history, but particularly a Managua history, with no experience of active municipal government. There's no experience of active participation at a local level, no history of democracy in this sense. Remember that the revolution has to transform realities that have been with us for centuries; it too has tended to be rather centralized and to direct the transformation process from the top down.
So all these historic and revolutionary tendencies went against Managua. The good and the bad, the old and the new, they all worked against Managua.
The closest thing we have had to an organization concerned about Managua was the Sandinista Front, because it did have a regional structure. That regional structure began to see a clear need for local government. In Managua's case, this starts from the need to develop a consciousness that the city exists. Three years ago, we set a political goal of developing this consciousness—within the FSLN, within the government. We wanted people to understand that Managua exists as a city, apart from its function as the capital of the nation; that it has its own specific problems, separate from the problems of the central government; and that Managua has its own set of policies.
In 1985, a Delegation of the Presidency was finally established here in Region III. These regional offices of the presidency have the advantage of being multilateral organizations. They're interested in working toward integrated and harmonious development, rather than just concentrating on one specific sector.
But because the Delegation of the Presidency here in Managua was the last one to be established, it was the weakest one in the country, from the point of view of both the resources and technical expertise it has available to it.
Very early on, we conducted a study with the National Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER), the mayor's office and the Ministry of Housing, along with the Agricultural Ministry (MIDINRA). This study set out very clearly what we already knew, that policies toward Managua were incoherent, were internally contradictory. It was also clear that Managua was not a priority for the government.
But we also believed that Managua's poverty and the scarcity of resources could be a unifying factor because it would give us a way to bring everyone together—all the different institutions, sectors, and grassroots organizations. Our very poverty required us to unite, to search for creative alternative solutions to the problems that we shared.
As we began to understand better what was happening in Managua, we rapidly came to the conclusion that the anarchic, disordered and accelerated growth of the city had become, well, we started to refer to it as "the chronicle of a catastrophe foretold." Managua's situation is now very grave. If we can't put a brake on its growth, it can only become a catastrophe.
The analysis concentrated on the urban problem, since we couldn't take on everything at once. But it's important to understand that Managua's problems don't spring only from factors here in Managua, but from the situation of the country.
We have a very basic plan to contain Managua's chaotic growth. One problem was that there were many different institutions to deal with; it was so confusing that you would have had to have been a magician to find your way out of this bureaucratic forest. But at the same time, the project didn't really belong to anybody. It was assigned to the Delegation of the Presidency in Managua, but that was really one of the weakest institutions at that time. That delegation plus the Regional Committee of the FSLN ended up being the only people pushing for and promoting some kind of a project for Managua. Other institutions should have been working on it, but they just weren't doing it, they had their own problems.
The plan had the following structural parts:
First, to work in the areas where people were leaving to come to Managua. That's Regions I, V and VI. There was publicity and information work in those regions to try and put a brake on the migration—people were leaving the most productive regions of the country and coming to the most unproductive, which is completely irrational.
Envío: How successful has this been?
Carrión: Many people were coming to the city with requests for urban lots and at least we’ve been able to get it across to people that they can’t get lots if they come, so the requests have diminished to a certain degree.
Second, we’ve said that institutions inside Managua should not be bringing in employees from other parts of the country except when it’s somebody for a specific technical need, or who has a special skill that can’t be easily filled by someone here.
Envío: Is this the policy of the central government now?
Carrión: Formally. But it’s never really been carried out. It’s all remained pretty much “in theory.”
Third was trying to create a consciousness among Managua’s people that the city was already over-saturated, at its limits. We tried to explain that the city could barely attend to 400,000 people and now has about a million.
Think of it as a house—what kind of a house could stand that kind of pressure? If a house that’s been built for six people has thirty people living in it—you have to eat in shifts, you have to use the bathroom in shifts, the lighting bill goes up, etc., etc. And it’s the same kind of thing in the city.
So in 1987/8 we mounted a big information campaign to explain the situation to the people of Managua. We said that people could not just benignly accept or sit back with their arms crossed as these so called spontaneous settlements continued to spring up in public areas, private areas, all over the city, as had been happening on a massive scale since 1984.
Envío: Your policy was not to accept spontaneous settlements?
Carrión: Yes. And it’s worked: in 1984 were some 25 land invasions in the city, the next year about 15. By 1986, because of our change in policy, there were only 2. In 1987, with the weakening of this effort, there were about 4 or 5 more. I don’t have the data for 1988 but I think there were very few, in any case many, many fewer than in the early years.
Envío: So what did you do when people did arrive and set up these “spontaneous settlements”?
Carrión: The Ministry of Housing says to people who just go and squat that they won't be given that land. The problem with this kind of policy is that it ignores the reality that the people are there on the land, and that they'll stay there. What we've proposed now is that we'll give people land, but on the outskirts of the city or relatively far away from it.
We quickly found that there were two myths about who was responsible for these spontaneous settlements. It wasn't people coming from the war zones, which is what we had always thought. Nor was it land speculators. About 60% of these people are salaried state workers, or work in state-related institutions and simply need a place to live. So 60% of these people are linked to the revolution, and most of them are just reacting to Managua's tremendous housing shortage. Only about 20% of the people actually came from outside the city, and about half of that 20% came from within this very region.
We began to think about how we could encourage the absorption of population in the area around Managua, in places like El Crucero, or Tipitapa, Mateare, or other areas that could serve as satellite population centers. But there are real problems. In Tipitapa, for example, there's the problem of the physical limit created by the volcano and there's a shortage of water.
We're building 40 houses up in El Crucero, and we had to put in a water tank though that's not really our business. We had to finance it because if we didn't, the houses wouldn't have had water. All the water ministry [INAA] had to do was to install it, but they didn't even do that, so we did it with the people who were living or working there.
We're doing this almost as a matter of principle to try and demonstrate that the poorer we are the more we have to act strategically, to be very careful of our scarce resources. If someone's very rich, it doesn't matter, they can afford to waste their resources, but we can't.
I say this because some people say that we're so poor, we're practically out in the street, and it makes no sense to be trying to design strategies, defining general policies. We believe just the opposite—the poorer we are, the more we need strategies, policies, clear vision. So although it may take us 100 years to get there instead of 10, whatever we do moves us in the direction we want to go.
Sometimes it feels like a dialogue with a deaf person. We think, for instance, that the Ministry of Transportation has to take into account that Tipitapa should be a satellite city and put in some sort of a transportation system, railways or buses or whatever, so that people can work in Managua and live in Tipitapa. If there's no transportation to Tipitapa, the plan falls flat.
Envío: So have you had any success working more closely with the Ministry of Transport, for instance?
Carrión: Well, it's got better. Since the restructuring, we’ve worked more closely together. We're working together on the urban transportation strategy.
The regional component is vital in the planning process. The country's investment process has been very much by sector, very compartmentalized, with no coherent relationship with the region or municipality.
Envío: Projects have tended to be of a sector, not of the nation?
Carrión: Exactly. Here comes the tourism ministry or the army into Masachapa, and the town doesn't know anything about it. They have no way to make the best use of the development for their municipality or put it in their overall plan. They have no way to defend themselves from the central government.
This means that in the Sébaco Valley development project, for instance, you just assume that, well, some other organization will take care of the houses or some other institution will put in the water supplies. You don't have to plan your development in any integrated way because we're stuck in poverty. But it's exactly because we are poor that it's crucial we do things in a planned and integrated fashion.
Instead of building the biggest processing plant in Central America, it might be more sensible to make a medium-sized one and with the money left over build the houses, the schools, the health center, the water supply.
It's not a fault of the revolution, in my opinion it's a fault of underdevelopment. You see it to different degrees all over the Third World, in Africa, Latin America, right? The revolution is the possibility of changing it. What we're after is development that isn't just "vegetative," unconscious. We want development with a vision of the future and an ability to learn from the past.
Some projects began by being foisted on the region, but have later become integrated into the region's development. Though I don't have the most up-to-date statistics on the project at Rio Blanco, there's a dairy project there that was originally conceived of as a Chiltepe [state-run industrialized dairy project] on a grand scale, an enclave that wasn't going to be part of the region's economy or social structure. But it's been transformed, and is now part of the region, where the state guarantees technological transfer and improvement of the quality of life, which are some of the most important parts of our project as a revolution, as a nation.
The key policy of the revolution towards Managua today is to try to build local power. We're going against the traditional mentality of people here. They've seen the mayor's office as a street repair agency, and as part of the central government. The President sent us here to transform this ministry into a real municipal organization.
For example with the Purísima [a Nicaraguan religious festival dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, in which altars are constructed outside homes and now by government agencies, and groups of people sing at them and are given a gift]. The tradition is that the President's Office coordinates it and everybody just sets up their displays for giving gifts to the children of the city wherever they want. Nobody bothered to ask us permission for this, to use the communal public space.
Envío: Did that change this year?
Carrión: No, that’s what I’m saying. Nobody asked me if they could use it. And so we’ve fined them all, including the Office of the Presidency, because they didn’t get permission to use the city’s public space. The Ministry of Construction, the Voice of Nicaragua [radio station], the President’s Office, everybody. The Ministry of Construction actually built something permanent—a fountain—without even bothering to ask permission!
We’re trying to build up a sense of respect for the mayor’s office—not for the mayor’s office so much as local power.
The first thing is to transform people’s thinking. This is what we propose:
First, to undertake a process of decentralizing what was the mayor’s office and try to get people closer to the decision-making process.
The city has a million inhabitants, which is big in any country, even the developed world, but the work is much more difficult and complicated in a country as poor as ours. The ideal, in a city of this magnitude (in terms of both population and physical area) would be to have about 14 or 15 districts to be just manageable. But we don’t have the resources to spread ourselves so thin. What we did was develop five administrative units that had common interests, or common communication systems, or shared services.
We hope this new district structure will mean more rational use for the very few resources we have available to us, will make it possible to be more involved in community projects, and will work toward having the citizens of Managua really take hold of of this city’s reins.
These goals, in this country, with this history, are very, very difficult.
There's a much longer municipal tradition in such cities as Masaya, Granada, León. But not Managua. They've had mayors and elections and some level of participation for many years. But not Managua. Here, it's just been give me, give me, give me.
The new district structure aims to involve Managuans in the decision-making. Obviously this means a redistribution of power in this institution, which naturally creates some bureaucratic resistance. Some people don't want to create the districts.
A second decision was to separate the operational activities—construction, garbage collection, etc.— from policymaking and community development. The institution was a monster. It was very complicated to deal with. In 1984, this office had a staff of some 5,500 people. This year, when I came in, there were about 3,500, and we're going to begin January with a little more than 2,000. But in the central institution, we'll have only about 600 people and the rest will be in the districts and in the city's enterprises—sanitation, construction, etc.
We're trying to have the operational enterprises work as any enterprise would, with criteria of efficiency, use of their equipment, profit, etc. For example, sometimes the person who drove the truck didn't worry if its engine was deteriorating. Another person was responsible for repairing it, and in any case they'd go on getting their wages, right? It's been very complex and there has been resistance, like I said. But we're getting there.
When I came here to the mayor's office there were only 15 or 16 trucks working. Now we have about 50 in operation. The workshops were in complete ruins. There were trucks with less than a year of operation, and they were already being used for spare parts—they were less than a year old!
By the end of this month, our garbage collection unit will be reorganized. We still need some machinery, but what we have will be used well. This will mean much more efficient collection of garbage. In July, August and September, 900 cubic meters of garbage were being collected a day, but more than double that amount—some 2,200 cubic meters—is being produced, which means obviously that more than half of the city's garbage stays in the streets, the houses, everywhere.
In October, we raised the rate to 1,400 cubic meters a day, and in November, we think it was 1,500. By the second half of next year, we think that for the first time in the history of Managua, we’ll collect 70-80% of the garbage. If we really can begin to collect most of the garbage for the first time, it will make a tremendous difference in the hygiene and sanitation conditions of those who live in this city.
It also gives people an incentive. If things are really dirty, they just get them dirtier, right? But if things are clean, people tend to keep them clean. I suspended some public service advertisements that the mayor's office was running because they didn't make sense to me. How could you say to people that they should be cultivating hygienic habits when there aren't even the most minimum conditions in the city to allow them to do it?
The third element has been to take on functions that we didn't have before. These came to us as a result of the new municipal law as well as the government restructuring that took place earlier this year. Some urban, housing and planning functions that had been taken care of by the Ministry of Housing came to us. Promoting culture, we've also taken that on.
Envío: Does this help with coordination? Right now, for instance, if you need buses and you need to repair drains, who makes the decision about which will get done?
Carrión: Right now it still depends on your ability to fight it out. Each person's ability to fight it out, right?
Theoretically, we have responsibility for planning transportation, but I have neither the resources nor the ability to do that right now. So what do we do? We make a sort of contract, where the Ministry of Construction and Transportation takes on the coordination and the financing of a study to design a transportation strategy. We, however, have the final say.
The idea of an association of mayors in Nicaragua is gaining support. It would be a way to defend municipal interests and promote local needs to the national government. So we would have some involvement in the decision-making process, the allocation of resources. Until now, municipalities have been the last of the last when decisions about resources are made.
Managua had four years of getting no credit lines, no foreign exchange and no national funds. Since Somoza's time, Managua has never put in more than 40% of its budget; 60% of the money that keeps us going has traditionally been transfers from credit lines or the national government or whatever. So to pretend that Managua has ever been self-financing—it just isn't so. In October, the monthly income for the mayor's office was the equivalent of 0.3% of the country's total income. It's not rational to expect to maintain basic services for 30% of the country's people with 0.3% of the country's income.
Envío: But this is an area of real contradiction, isn't it? You need an improvement of services in Managua, you want more resources—but at the same time, you want to discourage people from coming to the city.
Carrión: There's a lot of talk about that right now. I believe we have to discourage people from coming here. But remember, we're not talking about improving the situation here, we're talking about just saving and maintaining the infrastructure, which is national capital, a national investment we can't allow to be lost.
We've had a budget of zero, and that zero included basic maintenance, which has brought us to a very expensive situation. The budget that I presented to the Presidency for maintenance programs, just the emergency areas for city maintenance, repairing streets and drains, is four times the amount of money that we expect to be able to collect in municipal taxes.
It's expensive for two reasons. It's expensive because construction costs in this country have gone up a lot, but also just because of the magnitude of the work that has to done. For instance, the drainage ditches need repairs at 27 different points, including one major drainage ditch that has collapsed along virtually its entire length. So we're talking about completely rebuilding much of the drainage system—it's an expenditure that is unavoidable and is not productive.
I would much prefer to be investing the money in maintaining the streets or putting in sidewalks or new streets or beautifying the city, but I simply can’t. Responsibly, I just can’t do that.
Envío: These are the costs of not having invested in the past?
Carrión: Exactly. For instance with the drainage system. It’s fallen apart for two reasons. One, because this has been one of the wettest rainy seasons in history. But beyond that, during the last four years the whole maintenance program has been at a very low level, so the system was already run down before it got hit by the flood.
There are 1,300 kilometers of roads in Managua, and of that total, we’re hoping to repair 700 km. Obviously, that has a huge cost. If we’d been able to invest rationally in the past, maintenance this year would have cost maybe a quarter of what we’re going to have to spend. Now we just can’t do it, but if we don’t repair them now it’ll only get worse because we’ll have to rebuild them from scratch.
It’s a real pity we had to spend a lot of money repairing the drains; it would have been much more sensible to be investing in watershed management. If I had the 9,000 million córdobas we need to repair the drainage system, I could do marvelous things, and Managua wouldn’t be flooded again. The land would be more productive, the micro-climate would improve.
In spite of everything, we are putting a little bit of money into watershed projects, and we’ve invested in a study of the watershed to give us an integrated plan for managing it.
This is in spite of the fact that it really isn’t our job. It should be financed by MIDINRA, or the central government, I’m not really sure who, but since we’re the victims we’re finding the financing.
Institutional centralization is one more factor conspiring against Managua. Centralization means, for instance, that if citizens want to solve a problem in their little town in Jalapa, they have to come to Managua.
Envío: So is the mayor’s office taking the position that the central government should decentralize?
Carrión: Yes. It’s not a position we hold on our own. The government wants to strengthen the municipal level gradually, so that most problems can be solved at a local level. This would clearly involve a transfer of budget resources or even a whole new fiscal structure. If the municipalities are going to take on more jobs, they've got to have the financial resources to do them well.
But there certainly is a political will to decentralize, a will that social and communal services should be organized at the local level.
When we win peace, when the country can begin national reconstruction, we should begin to see the resettlement of Managua's population.
Envío: How will that happen?
Carrión: Obviously it's a very complicated process. Migration is not the only problem. One of the main causes of growth in Managua is natural growth, because the birth rate is so high. I think internal migration right now represents about 2% of the city's overall growth, and natural growth is about 4.5%.
So even if we were able to stop the flow of internal migration from one day to the next, which is of course impossible, we would still have a tremendous problem.
Envío: Has the mayor's office considered a population policy? Have you addressed such things as sex education, contraceptive information and devices, abortion?
Carrión: Of course. In our 1986 plan we included a campaign oriented toward lowering the birth rate in the city of Managua.
You have to have a very coherent policy, because no matter what you do, Managua is going to continue to grow and continue to demand increasing services.
I think we're all agreed that a population policy is indispensable for Managua, that the birth rate has to come down.
We’re also pressuring for, or promoting, the decentralization of higher education. At the moment, anyone who wants a higher qualification or technical training has to come to the capital.
I don't see how we can avoid Managua reaching a population of about two million people within a relatively short time. That's with everything we've talked about, including lowering the birth rate. It's obviously a grave situation.
Perhaps the resettlement will have to be almost an organized gradual exodus from the city. And it's possible that we'll reach a point where we'll have to prohibit a change of residence, people coming in from the countryside to live in the city. Havana has done this, I think even Moscow has been doing it in the past couple of years. Other cities resolve it in an economic manner; they just make life unsustainable in the cities.
Envío: In any plan that tries to regiment where people live, there are political costs. In the past, you've moved those who set up spontaneous settlements, but you've moved them somewhere else, either in Managua or to a satellite city. If you're trying to limit the number of people in Managua, the options become much more restricted.
Carrión: Yes, there's a political cost, but the choices available are determined by the material base we have to work with. We have a thousand ideas, but no money.
For instance, Managua could take up about half its current area if people were living in multi-family dwellings. It's the sensible option in the long term, it's the most economical in the long term, but it's the most costly in the short term.
Higher density housing would be a big help. If we had about $15 million available to do some of this, we could just wipe five or six neighborhoods off the map, right? But our choices are really very limited because we just don't have the resources.
We also decided that we needed to create an escape valve. We can't really stop the growth of Managua in the short term, and we can't provide the basics to the population we have because of four years of no investment; all we can say now is "there isn't any of this," "there isn't any of that," "there just isn't any." An escape valve would help us justify the policy of not accepting the spontaneous settlements, because people would have at least the hope that someday they would have a lot.
The idea is to increase the population density, to give lots in places that are already urbanized, are designated for housing, already have some basic services, and are holes in the settlement of the existing urban area. In 1987, we gave away 1,800 lots; in 1988, we had no budget at all but we still managed to give away 600 lots and we've about 3,000 lots we plan to give out next year.
So going back to your question, almost any urban policy in a country that is so politically polarized has political consequences, but it seems to me that the reality that requires these policies is so urgent, so overwhelming, that we just have to carry on and do it.
We presented this plan to the various Protestant denominations because they kept asking, us for more land for more churches, churches, more churches. There’s a huge number of Protestant churches here. We explained the situation we were facing, that we had a plan, that we were trying to reach a reasonable balance of houses and churches. We couldn't have neighborhoods with churches and no school. We asked them to think about the city’s limits. And we got a good response from them. Their requests for land have dropped significantly. They understood.
Envío: With lots of problems and not many resources, the participation of Managua's people is crucial and the CDS [block committees] are the most obvious mechanism for organizing them. We've visited several neighborhoods and asked about the CDS. In a couple cases there seemed to be some activity, but most people said, "The CDS practically doesn't exist any more." Which tasks can the CDS take on? What's the limit to their role?
Carrión: Their limits are the same as mine. There’s a huge potential for what the CDS could do, if they can transform the energy there is in the community. It’s an ideological, moral problem more than a problem of material resources or organization per se. The CDS are really still a potential, they were a reality for a while, but they’ve grown weak, they’ve wasted away.
You said people say, “the CDS almost don’t exist now.” I’d put it the opposite way: look, now there are some. The situation used to be worse. There are now some cases where the community initiative, the search for community solutions, is having concrete results.
For example, a week ago I was in a small neighborhood where, without any outside help, they had raised the money, with community activities etc., to buy a water tank and all the necessary pipes. They installed it themselves and are digging the drainage ditches. All they are asking us to do is supply the materials for the tank’s foundations. Eighty percent of the material resources for this entire project came from the community itself.
Another barrio near the Oriental market also got organized. They went around to different local enterprises to get them to donate materials, and they raised money. By themselves, they paved four blocks; all they asked from us was that we lend them some five or six thousand of the paving blocks because the factory that had promised them was running late and they wanted to meet the date for their opening ceremony. We loaned them the paving blocks, and they replaced them later. A multitude of very, very small things are beginning to happen.
In January, we’re gong to strengthen the district assemblies and advisory groups. Although there aren’t elections until 1990, we can at least put in place these provisional means of participation. That way, people know what they can count on, what’s available to them, and they can set spending priorities for their area. What I want to do is to go to a district with realistic budget information. I could say, Look, we can finance 20 km of road repair or pave 10 km of dirt roads or put in 10 pedestrian bridges in your district. What do you want done?
In these district assemblies people will have, and know they have, influence in the decisions about the few resources available to that district or that community. This is a change from what happened before, when the planning department basically sat down, did its reckoning, and went out and did things. Nobody had any idea why, where the new road had come from, or had any involvement in the decisions.
We're trying to transform the mayor's office from the garbage collector and street repairer into a promoter of community survival strategies.
Envío: One last question. In a recent newspaper interview you said, "I'm in love with my city, in spite of everything.” What is it about Managua that you love?
Carrion: I love its people. Its people. I love their stubbornness.
When the hurricane hit, I was running all over Managua; we were obviously very worried. But when we saw people, we said, Hey, these are people who don't dramatize tragedies. We've been through a lot; there's not a generation in Managua that hasn't been through a tragedy, a cataclysm, natural or political.
We didn't see a lot of nervousness, and it worried us at first, seeing that people weren't going to the refugee centers. But at the same time we have to admit to being kind of proud of their courage, even if it seemed a little irresponsible. And we found that it wasn't such irresponsibility after all, because when the wind started to really blow people did come to the refugee centers and they were filled to overflowing.
The speed with which they organized themselves, well, it didn't depend on the few of us who were organizing. It depended on the thousands and thousands of people who were working like ants.
That's the kind of thing you just have to admire, you just have to love. I know other mayors, and I'm sure that none of them would want to trade their city for mine—but I wouldn't want to trade mine for theirs either. I wouldn't trade.