US squeeze on Sandinistas sets Nicaragua's economy on plummeting course
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua — Three shrimp boats lie docked along the pier. Nothing stirs under the intense noonday sun. The only noise comes from small waves breaking on the nearby beach. ''During Somoza's time,'' says the director of the port, Capt. Omar Torres, ''we had 21 boats here for fishing. Now we have three, and two of these are indefinitely out of operation because we cannot import the spare parts we need for repairs.''
This major Pacific port has been virtually dormant for the past six months, a victim of the Reagan administration's unofficial trade embargo.
The husky dockworkers, who once daily unloaded cargo from transport ships, now suffer an unemployment rate well over the country's average of 19 percent.
''I'm lucky,'' says Antonio Chemak, a former longshoreman. ''I now sort shrimp when the boat comes in.''
The Sandinistas, because of financial difficulties, do not allow shrimp or lobsters to be sold locally. Instead the catch is trucked into the capital and sold abroad by the Sandinista-run export firm ENAT to bring badly needed United States currency into the country.
Residents of San Juan del Sur, as throughout Nicaragua, also have difficulty getting basic necessities such as toilet paper, soap, rice, and potatoes. The government has instituted a stringent rationing system that often attempts to regulate supplies that are not even in stock. The rationing system is an important factor in a growing discontent with the Sandinista leadership.
San Juan del Sur was once the playground of former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his wealthy cohorts. Striking beach houses dot the hills that overlook the horseshoe-shaped harbor. Two beachfront houses, one constructed for Somoza and the other for his wife, stand near the entrance of the port. These structures have been turned over to the Sandinista party or the military, or are now schools.
While the residents of this village must no longer endure living alongside the opulence of a tiny elite, life has not become easier economically.
''When I go to the market,'' says one irate resident, ''it usually doesn't even have fish to sell, or if it does, it is always the garbage fish.''
The government is now spending $100 million a year to subsidize the shelf prices of 13 basic goods, including sugar, meat, milk, and cooking oil. Nevertheless a recent study sponsored by the United Nations shows that more than half of Managua's residents spent 78 percent of their income on food last year, compared with 44.5 percent a decade ago.
''We go to the market at 5 in the morning when we hear they have chicken or meat,'' says one mother of two, ''and we wait in line until noon. Sometimes they have these items for us and sometimes not. It seems our whole life is spent waiting in lines.''
Junta coordinator Daniel Ortega Saavedra estimates that US-imposed economic sanctions - which range from a cut of almost 90 percent of Nicaragua's sugar sales to the US to the blocking of loans - have deprived the Sandinista Treasury of $354 million this year. Low prices for Nicaragua's main exports - coffee, cotton, and sugar - have taken another $180 million out of '83 revenues.
Productivity has plummeted since the 1979 revolution due to a lack of equipment, inability to import needed supplies, and a loss of the managerial class, many of whose ranks have fled the country.
These problems are exacerbated by the withdrawal of US credit. The Sandinistas cannot obtain financing or goods from the US - which remains Nicaragua's largest trading partner despite political differences and sanctions.
Barricada, the official newspaper of the Sandinista party, says that US pressure has resulted in a loss of $112.5 million in multilateral loans since 1980. Loss of these loans has meant the suspension of many projects, including a planned expansion of the port here.
Overall, economic growth was minus 2 percent last year and is expected to be lower this year because exports are well below those from a comparable period last year. The 1982 exports amounted to $348 million. (And that figure represented an 11 percent drop from the year before.)
Nicaragua's gross national product rose 19 percent in the first two years of the revolution, but has dropped to just 8 percent in the last two years. Analysts expect no growth at all for this year.
The 75-room hotel that lies perched on a hill overlooking the bay in San Juan del Sur is being remodeled by the Sandinista government. It will be a home away from home for Soviet advisers who, according to Captain Torres, ''will supervise the modernization of the port.''
The expansion of port facilities, which Torres says is being financed by the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, is expected to cost several million dollars.
The USSR and Soviet-bloc countries are filling some of the void left when the US backed out of many of its dealings here. Trade with East European countries accounted for 6.2 percent of Nicaragua's exports and 11.5 percent of its imports last year. East-bloc countries have promised $240 million in aid this year.
But almost half of Nicaragua's economic assistance comes from West Europe and Latin America. About 20 percent comes from communist countries. The new East European trading partners, however, have yet to commit themselves to salvaging the faltering economy.
''We do not know if the port expansion will continue as planned,'' says Captain Torres, ''because we hear there is no financing and we hear the Russians will never come. No one knows. We will have to wait and see.''
NICARAGUA FACTS Inflation: 24% Unemployment: 19% Foreign public debt: $2 billion Projected GNP growth: 0% in 1983 Industry/property Controlled by government 60% Major exports: cotton, sugar, bananas, beef, coffee Source: Superior Council of Private Enterprise in Nicaragua