Months of unrest devastate Nicaragua

A woman walks past the gutted remains of Nicaragua's National University building in Leon, Nicaragua, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. The university building, a Sandinista bastion, was burned down during the protests that erupted in April, against the government of President Daniel Ortega. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga)

LEON, Nicaragua — Two days after protests began in Nicaragua in April, a foreign auto components company was meeting at a hotel in the city of Leon when smoke from a burning university building just a block away billowed above the hotel’s colonnaded courtyard.

The visitors quickly cut short their event and began changing their travel plans to exit Nicaragua. Within three months, the El Convento hotel itself was forced to close for lack of business, as a sister hotel in the same city had in June.

Nicaragua’s economy has been devastated by the nearly five months of unrest sparked by cuts to social security benefits that quickly evolved into calls for President Daniel Ortega to step down.

In June, the country’s economic activity was down 12.1 percent compared to a year earlier, according to the central bank. Economists estimate 200,000 jobs have been shed, including as many as 70,000 in the tourism sector, which has become Nicaragua’s top source of foreign currency in the past two years.

Revenue at hotels and restaurants plunged 45 percent in June compared to 2017, according to Nicaragua’s central bank. Similarly, construction suffered a 35 percent drop and retail 27 percent. Some $900 million in deposits fled Nicaragua’s banks. They responded by tightening their lending to preserve liquidity, thus also contributed to the economic slowdown.

Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers says more than 12,000 acres of private land have been occupied by government supporters in what business leaders have called confiscations in revenge for their support of the protesters.

The producers say 91 percent of the land occupied by squatters was used for farming and livestock.

Victor Hugo Sevilla, the general manager of both Leon hotels, continues checking email, but said “I haven’t gotten any requests from foreigners for reservations. We have received five, maybe eight, rate inquiries from domestic (travelers), but no firm reservations.”