A few spare parts and lots of ingenuity keep Managua running

LIFE here sometimes seems to revolve around a chronic lack of spare parts. From the smallest Toyota, whose owner can't find or afford a rubber gasket for the brake cylinder, to the largest industrial engine with a homemade flywheel, Nicaragua has to innovate, improvise, and otherwise jerry-rig much of its machines to keep them from grinding to a standstill. The problem is several-fold: Some 40 percent of the industry here is US-made. So the economic blockade imposed by the Reagan administration since May 1985 has compounded the problem. And if the parts can be had, Nicaragua's severe cash-flow problem restricts what can be bought. Even if the money can be found, ``some of the machinery here is so old they don't even make them anymore,'' says Francisco Mayorga, an economist.

Enter the innovators. The tinkerers, mechanics, and sometime geniuses who defy the best intentions of designers and live by seemingly only one rule: Use what you've got to fix what you can, and if it runs, it's a success. ``Necessity obliges ingenuity,'' says Carlos Alberto D'iaz. And he should know. For the last 49 years he has maintained, repaired, transformed, and generally shepherded the vast and often unruly machinery of the La Victoria brewery, on Managua's Northern Highway. And most of the equipment, he says, has been here as long as he has.

``That pressurizer is from 1954 ... those pumps from the 1930s,'' he explains, taking inventory and speaking in measured, practiced tones, making himself heard over a din that leaves a reporter breathless from shouted questions. So when a part breaks, Mr. D'iaz and his assistant, Freddy Digas, turn to the workshop.

There one day last week eight machinists were transforming a 12-foot-by-six-inch iron pole into whatever was needed: a three-inch cog for the hops crusher, or a roller bar for moving kegs. ``When there isn't something, well, we make it,'' says Mr. Digas. ``Thank God we can fix anything....''

The potential exploitation value of any good-sized piece of metal means that little is actually thrown away here. Indeed, it is rumored that the myriad odds and ends that can be fashioned from a hunk of iron are behind the regular disappearance of Managua's manhole covers. (Digas is vague when asked where the iron pole came from.)

Not surprisingly, then, cannibalization is the order of the day. Used cars that refuse to start are turned over to ``spare-parts banks.'' So much so that, while a car may have all its parts - or in many cases just the minimum essentials to ensure forward motion - most vehicles wind up truly international endeavors.

``Look, if we need a radiator for a Japanese car, we get one. Even if it's German,'' says Luis Sandobar, chief mechanic at the Volkswagen garage here, with a flip of his hand. ``There has never been a problem we have not solved here in nine years.''

Nicaragua has not always suffered from severe shortages of spare-parts and primary goods, according to Dr. Mayorga, dean of graduate studies at the Central American Institute for Business Administration, and one of the preeminent economists here. ``Up until 1984 there were plenty of such parts here,'' he said. But because of greatly imbalanced exchange rates, parts were so cheap ``that people came from all over Central America to buy parts here and smuggle them out. That's where most of them went.''

Since 1984, Nicaragua's economic fortunes have plummetted. One of its greatest problems is that - cut off from international financing - most of its foreign aid comes in the form of lines of credit. And most of that credit is ``tied.'' So a country may offer millions of dollars in a credit line to buy, say, buses and spare parts. But the buses will outlast both the spare parts and the credit line to buy more parts. This leaves Nicaragua with dozens of buses but no hard currency to maintain them. This scenario is repeated for tractors, industrial machinery, cars, etc.

The scarcity of standardized parts for routine maintenance over the past several years has midwifed a mechanical ingenuity that would cause chagrin in most mechanics, and anguish in all designers.

It is an unorthodox innovation, in which D'iaz takes great pride. ``Here in the plant we needed a larger cooling system. So we looked at the old system, copied it, and made it bigger,'' meaning an entirely new cooling system was created.

``But that was only imitating,'' he insists. Innovation for him was the time when an old motor in a boiler kept breaking down, requiring him to shut it down, let it cool, take the top off, crawl inside, unfasten the bolts to haul the motor out, fix it, and put it all back in reverse.

``So we said, OK, let's leave the motor out, bolt it to the floor, hook it from the outside, and seal the boiler up for good. And that's what we did, and that's innovation. No plans to follow, just work it out.'' And they did.

``In Europe and the United States you don't need anything,'' D'iaz concludes, ``so you don't have any imagination.''

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