MANAGUA — When Eduardo Chamorro visited Haiti nine days after the earthquake, it all looked horribly, heart-breakingly familiar: the precarious heaps of rubble, the bodies strewn about like broken dolls, the faces dazed with fear and incomprehension.
"It was total desolation," the Nicaraguan architect says quietly. "It looked like no hope — the pessimism, the dust, the corpses. It looked like 1972 Managua, multiplied by 10."
No country in the Western Hemisphere has been as transfixed by the harrowing images of Haitian death and destruction as Nicaragua, which suffered its own cataclysmic earthquake in 1972. And no country knows better that the aftermath could be even more terrible than the quake itself if relief and reconstruction efforts are mishandled.
"Our country suffered two civil wars, a decade of Marxist dictatorship and political instability that continues to this day," says Chamorro, echoing a widely shared sentiment in Nicaragua. "And you can trace it all back to the Managua earthquake of 1972."
Like Haiti in 2010, Nicaragua in 1972 was a poor and politically polarized country; like Haiti, it suffered overwhelming loss of life and property when the quake struck; and like Haiti, it found itself awash in international aid to help rebuild.
But Nicaragua squandered the world's generosity in an orgy of government corruption and political power plays. Swollen by national outrage, what had been a tiny, almost ludicrous insurgency in the far reaches of the country's jungles turned into a full-scale revolution that toppled the government and was quickly followed by a counterrevolution.
Nicaragua hemorrhaged money and people to its neighbors as citizens of every socioeconomic stripe fled the chaos and bloodshed -- the country lost as much as 10 percent of its population and virtually all its economic capital. Instead of moving forward past the earthquake, the country reeled backward for the next two decades.
"I think we lost much more than 20 years," corrects Nicaraguan historian Aldo Diaz. I think we're still losing ground to this very day."
The tremor that destroyed Managua a little past midnight on Dec. 23, 1972, wasn't that powerful -- a magnitude of 5.6, compared to the 7.0 quake in Haiti. But with the epicenter so close to the Earth's surface -- less than four miles underground, compared to 25 or more for the average quake -- Managua shook like a mouse trapped in the teeth of a predator cat.
Moments later, much of the city burst into flames as broken gas lines ignited. With the water system wrecked, the fire department buried in rubble and an eerily unseasonable wind pushing the blaze forward, Managua burned for days. By the time U.S. Marines flown in from Panama brought the fire under control by dynamiting hundreds of buildings, the city was a bleak panorama of destruction.
More than 74,000 homes, about three-quarters of Managua's housing supply, had been obliterated. Eleven major factories, 18 churches and four hospitals were gone. So were the presidential palace and the U.S. Embassy. Managua's modern, bustling downtown was little more than a massive open grave marked by the haunted ruins of the city's 300-year-old cathedral, where a tower clock was forever stopped at 12:35 a.m.
The word grave is anything but metaphoric. The quake's official death toll was around 11,000, but many believe it was much higher.
Danilo Lacayo, general manager of Managua's mostly undamaged Esso petroleum refinery, had rushed to work that night to dispatch tanker trucks out to fuel emergency vehicles. As he drove home at daybreak, he was greeted by a macabre sight: long lines of cars and trucks stacked high with corpses. ``I'll bet there were 5,000 burials that morning before the government even started counting,'' Lacayo recalls. ``It looked like the whole city was dying.''
Another thing that made a precise count of the dead difficult was that so many people fled Managua. Nearby cities doubled and tripled in size overnight as refugees abandoned the devastated capital. By January, more than a third of Managua's 420,000 residents were dead or gone, many of them pushed out by the government's decision to close off 640 blocks of the city center.
With the city hopelessly wrecked and shrinking by the day, Nicaraguan officials thought the unthinkable: Perhaps they should shut down Managua and rebuild it somewhere else. Criss-crossed by at least five major seismic faults and nearly a score of minor ones, Managua had already been destroyed by earthquakes twice before, in 1881 and 1931.
Some foreign experts counseled Nicaragua to give up Managua: "The entire city must be blown up,'' urged a Venezuelan seismologist brought in as a consultant.
Instead, the government made a fateful decision: Managua would be rebuilt, but the 640 square blocks downtown lying along the major faults would be razed and left empty.
Coupled with the growing success of relief efforts -- half a million people were receiving emergency rations, the water system was pumping 20 million gallons a day, and the city's army of unemployed had been put to work clearing rubble -- the government's seemingly plucky refusal to be cowed by the forces of nature won almost universal applause.
"The most tragic days were the first 15,'' remembers Lacayo, who became co-chairman of a private-sector relief and reconstruction operation. "But eventually, the fires were put out, the looting was controlled. Optimism took over. `We are back to normal,' people started saying at our meetings. There was a real note of optimism, more than was justified.''
The foreign press was even sunnier in its appraisal. Typical was a Miami Herald story headlined Hope, Faith Replace Despair In Managua that said of Nicaragua's military strongman Anastasio Somoza: "He appears to have emerged stronger than ever and, in the eyes of some, could go down as a national hero.'' As history would show, the only accurate words in that sentence were "go down.''
Anastasio Somoza was third member of his family to rule Nicaragua. For nearly five decades, the Somozas and their puppets had run Nicaragua like a family farm, sometimes from the presidential palace and sometimes from the headquarters of the National Guard.
With American support -- "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch,'' Franklin Roosevelt supposedly said of the first Somoza -- they governed with a canny mixture of political skill and military might, keeping their civic opponents off balance and crushing any number of banana-republic coup attempts and insurrectionary movements.
But in 1972, it appeared that the Somozas might be in their political twilight. Anastasio Somoza had resigned the presidency, turning power over to a three-man committee -- though Somoza still retained a huge share of power through his command of the National Guard, the country's army.
But Nicaragua's nascent dreams of a Somoza-free future were buried in the rubble of the quake. His control of the Guard and its logistical capabilities put Somoza back in control.
Somoza began directing reconstruction efforts from a family estate on the outskirts of Managua. Cabinet ministers, businessmen, foreign officials and international relief bosses -- many of them addressing Somoza as "Mr. President'' -- trooped in and out all day long. It was Somoza with whom foreign diplomats negotiated aid packages; it was Somoza who decided Managua would be rebuilt.
Yet there were signs of discontent from the first moments of the earthquake. Managua's National Guard units, rather than joining rescue efforts, dissolved as soldiers ran off to aid their own families. Worse yet, they joined mobs of looters.
"The National Guard looted everything,'' remembers Frank Arana, who owned a chain of radio stations. "After the mobs of poor people grabbed all the food, the National Guard came in big trucks and took things like refrigerators and stoves. Later you would see a lot of it for sale.''
Seeing looted goods for sale in the market -- including cartons of milk clearly marked DONATED BY USAID -- roused quiet but furious anger among Nicaraguans.
"People who never before had thought of opposing Somoza said, 'This guy is profiting on donated milk for poor children,' '' said Marta Sacasa, vice president of Channel 2, Managua's leading television station. "Donated milk for poor children! It changed everything.''
The pilfering of donated goods was probably much less common than Nicaraguans believed at the time. Later, 28 major audits, two congressional staff investigations and a GAO report had all concluded that there had been no significant theft or diversions from $143 million in international aid. And Somoza himself almost certainly played no role in any looting.: He fired four senior National Guard officers who confessed to pillaging damaged buildings.
But one of the important lessons Nicaraguans drew from the earthquake was that it magnified everything, especially corruption.
"It's bad enough to steal money from a rich country,'' says Nicaraguan banker and former presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre. "It's worse to steal from a poor country. And the worst of all is to steal from a poor country in dire need, which is what Somoza did.''
And he made off with a lot more than some cartons of milk.
It is hard to find a single architect or construction engineer or seismologist or urban planner or even just plain person in Nicaragua these days who believes the decision to leave Managua's downtown vacant was either wise or necessary.
"We are less than two miles from the fault that caused the earthquake,'' said Jaime Incer Barquero, a retired official of Nicaragua's government seismic agency, tapping the walls of his home in Managua's Los Robles neighborhood. "And this house came through it just fine. It's not a very heavy house, and it didn't suffer much damage. . . . The refrigerator banged open and the contents flew out; there was a crack in one wall. And that's all. It's all in how you build.''
Most of the buildings destroyed in 1972 were adobe-and-wood structures built following Managua's 1931 earthquake. Most of those that employed more modern seismic construction codes -- including, notably, the 14-story Bank of America building designed by architect Eduardo Chamorro -- survived.
Chamorro, along with most experts, believes downtown Managua could have been safely rebuilt using a better construction code.
"The center of Managua was the pivotal issue in reconstruction. The new Managua is linear. They should have concentrated on centralizing utilities and water and transportation,'' he said. Instead, Managua's public utilities and roads meander inefficiently and expensively around a city that resembles an elongated doughnut with a hole in the center.
But the reconstruction unquestionably benefited one family: the Somozas.
As the city sprawled south, (Lake Managua blocks development to the north), it grew onto land owned by Somozas. Millions of paving stones were needed for the new roads to the south -- and the only Nicaraguan factory producing them was owned by the Somozas. Much of the rebuilding there was done by the Somozas' construction business, which got favorable terms from the Somozas' cement factory, the only one in the country. The company in turn gave its business to the Somozas' new bank and mortgage company.
"The reconstruction of Managua came to be the most dynamic sector of the economy,'' says Edmundo Jarquin, a former Nicaraguan diplomat and presidential candidate. "And Somoza tried to monopolize all sectors of the reconstruction. It created conflict -- with the private sector, with the middle class, with the Catholic church. For the first time, everybody was allied against Somoza. . . . People began to believe there was no political option in Nicaragua, only an armed option.''
And there was an armed option. Since the early 1960s, a small band of Marxist college students calling themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front had been stumbling around in the jungle, continually betrayed by the hostile peasants they hoped to lead in revolution.
But the widespread animosity toward the government following the earthquake provided the Sandinistas with an immediate infusion of money, guns and troops. Within two years, the Sandinistas had brought their war into the cities; within seven, they had toppled Somoza.
"When the earthquake destroyed Managua, we knew immediately it was our moment,'' says Aldo Diaz, the Sandinista historian. "An earthquake reveals what's been covered up and buried. . . . In normal conditions, the injustice of the system seemed `tolerable.' But in the face of the earthquake, it became intolerable. And it caused the population to explode.''
Many of the groups that supported the Sandinistas were soon appalled by the Marxist direction of the new government. By 1982, with U.S. government backing, they had launched a counterrevolution that would last until the Sandinistas lost internationally supervised elections in 1990.
"And by the end of it all,'' shrugs Lacayo, who after the quake became co-chairman of a private-sector relief and reconstruction operation, "there was nothing left of Nicaragua.''
When Nicaraguans talk about Haiti, as they often do these days, they feel a little bit like the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol, warning about shadows of things that might be if their warnings aren't heeded. The most important, they all agree, is that corruption is potentially poisonous, coloring every public perception. ``Even a little bit will grow giant in the public eye after a disaster,'' says broadcaster Sacasa.
More broadly, they argue that Caribbean countries must learn to accept earthquakes as a fact of life and work to minimize their impact, just as they have with hurricanes. "You have to learn to live with earthquakes,'' says Chamorro. "Managua should never have abandoned its downtown. Cities like Tokyo build on seismic faults; so can we. So can Port-au-Prince.''
Managua's 640-block forbidden zone decreed by Somoza outlived his government by decades. Only in the past five or six years has the city's empty center started to fill in with government buildings and a few low-cost housing projects. And even now, derelict buildings that somehow escaped the National Guard's dynamite dot the landscape, homes to hordes of squatters living on pirated electricity and water.
"The truth is, it's very dangerous here,'' says Karen Gard, 36, a sometimes-street-vendor who's the unofficial mayor of 24 squatter families living in a tottering five-story office building left standing -- barely -- by the quake.
Gard has been living in the building 19 years and can't believe it's still here. "I don't know why they don't tear it down -- it's completely ruined, inside and out,'' she says, eyeing the open airshafts and shattered stairwells. "If another earthquake comes, a lot of kids will be at risk.''
On a clear day, Gard's fractured building is just barely visible from the seventh-floor office of Lacayo, the man who 37 years ago helped run the private-sector reconstruction effort.
In the weeks after the earthquake, Lacayo was bullish on the prospects for a rebuilt Managua. It could be, he thought, a Central American version of Los Angeles or Miami. "We are trying to tell people that this is not a catastrophe but an opportunity,'' he told a reporter back then.
This month, as he fingered a yellowed copy of the newspaper story brimming with his optimistic quotes, Lacayo gazed out his window toward the blighted remnants of downtown Managua. What, he was asked, had Nicaragua made of its opportunity? "Oh, man,'' he replied wistfully. "Not so much. Not so much."