MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — EIGHTY Nicaraguan businessmen living in exile returned briefly to their homeland last week to assess the country's business climate and changes expected once the incoming opposition government takes office April 25. While the economic situation in Nicaragua is grim, most of the businessmen say they are willing to assist in the recovery efforts of President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
``We came to say to Mrs. Chamorro that we are here; we want to come back and help,'' says Eduardo Montealegre, an investment banker based in Miami. ``We represent an association of approximately 500 Nicaraguans who are ready to come back and invest, if the conditions are right.''
Nicaragua's rate of inflation last year topped 1,700 percent, and real income for most Nicaraguans is estimated to be 10 percent of what it was in 1978. The country exports less than half of what it did five years ago, leading to a trade deficit of $500 million.
``We have a country with an economic infrastructure in ruins, a Nicaragua set back 50 years,'' Francisco Mayorga, Mrs. Chamorro's top economic adviser, told the group of businessmen. ``We urgently need foreign help to recover, but even more importantly [we need] all those Nicaraguans outside who wish to come back and assist in the reconstruction of the country.''
The business leaders, most of whom lost their property and businesses following the Sandinista revolution in 1979, met with Chamorro, her top advisers, and those few private business leaders who remained in the country under the Sandinistas.
Many were returning to Nicaragua for the first time since leaving to reestablish businesses in the United States, Costa Rica, and other countries.
``Coming into Managua was like returning to the past, except that I never could have imagined what it looks like now,'' says Eduardo Pereira, whose family once owned the SOVIPE construction company. ``Everything looks dry, dusty, and worn down. Like a tornado hit it.''
Mr. Pereira said the Sandinista government illegally confiscated SOVIPE, accusing his family of having ties to Anastasio Somoza, the ousted dictator. Pereira denies the charges.
``They came in suddenly and took everything, absolutely everything,'' Pereira says. ``We even lost our dog, cats, and the parrots.''
But Mr. Mayorga is balanced in assessing blame for Nicaragua's moribund economy, which the Chamorro government plans to stimulate through privatization and prudent investment.
``We don't want to commit the error of the Somoza dictatorship, which concentrated the wealth in the hands of a minority, or that of the Sandinistas, who concentrated power in the hands of the nine comandantes,'' he says. ``We now have the opportunity to finally distribute Nicaragua's wealth to all social sectors.''
But just how to compensate for property seized by the Sandinista government, including an estimated 10,000 homes, is a sensitive issue.
The Chamorro administration intends to give special bonds to former owners of confiscated businesses and homes who file legal claims. The bonds would be issued in a new currency, the ``gold cordoba,'' and could only be redeemed in Nicaragua to provide jobs and investment.
According to advisers of the incoming government, any attempt to evict people now living in such properties could provoke a confrontation with the Sandinistas. This is especially true after the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly hurriedly passed a law last week granting legal titles to such homes and properties.
But the returning businessmen were skeptical of the Chamorro plan.
``Why can't they give the bond to these people who are in our houses illegally?'' asked Fernando Gallo. ``Why should we, the legitimate owners, be given the problem of having to build a new house?'' Mr. Gallo said that issuing the bonds in a new currency would erode the confidence the new government wants to create to spur economic recovery.
``I would be content with having a new house somewhere else, but at least the new government has to reestablish the rule of law,'' said Marcelo Lacayo, who lost his home and business after the revolution. ``If we allow them to stay in our homes just because they have guns, you just legitimize the law of force and not reason.''
But banker Mr. Montealegere emphasizes the need to look ahead. ``I would prefer not to focus on the past, but look to what we can do for Nicaragua's future,'' he says. ``It won't be easy, as the country needs plenty of help.''