In Nicaragua, A Tour Of Nightlife Under Dictatorship
Nicaraguan publication Divergentes takes a night tour of entertainment spots popular with locals in Managua, the country's capital, to see how dictatorship and emigration have affected nightlife.
MANAGUA — Owners of bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the Nicaraguan capital have noticed a drop in business, although some traditional “nichos” — smaller and more hidden spots — and new trendy spots are full. Here, it's still possible to dance and listen to music, as long as it is not political.
There are hardly any official statistics to confirm whether the level of consumption and nightlife has decreased. The only reliable way to check is to go and look for ourselves, and ask business owners what they are seeing.
This article is not intended as a criticism of those who set aside the hustle and bustle and unwind in a bar or restaurant. It is rather a look at what nightlife is like under a dictatorship.
The waiter reaches the bar and orders four beers for table five. He places them in his hands and makes his way through the people crowding El Patrón discotheque. He delivers the order and immediately answers the call of another group: “Two seltzers and three classics.” The waiter returns to the bar with the order and repeats the ritual five more times in less than fifteen minutes. It is the first Friday of January 2023. The clock strikes 9:30 p.m., and at El Patrón, the party is just getting started.
Need to disconnect
The atmosphere in this club in Managua’s Zona Rosa is similar to that of six others on the same avenue: flashing lights and loud music, with young people and adults dancing and drinking in small spaces. There is hardly any trace of Nicaragua’s social, political and economic crisis.
Inside, at the tables and on the dance floor, there is no talk of the Sandinista regime or political prisoners. No police or paramilitaries — at least not visibly. Inside, people dance to the rhythm of electronic music and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. People drink beer, seltzers and traditional drinks like clásicas and toñas.
“Every weekend we are packed,” says Tadeo, the manager of a well-known club in the capital, who has been in the business for more than 15 years. “These are recreational spaces that have always existed, that people recognize.”
Tadeo is no stranger to the reality of the country. He is aware of the massive emigration of Nicaraguans and the repression unleashed by the Sandinista dictatorship against those who oppose the regime. For Tadeo, the party is not synonymous with normalization, or disinterest. On the contrary, it is “therapy” for those still left in the country.
“People need to disconnect, go out, have fun,” he says.
On the road to fun
Managua has several entertainment areas. The most popular is in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, where there are about 13 establishments open every weekend, from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. of the following day. Just before 11pm, traffic in the area is backed up. In addition to vehicles parked on the street, cab drivers often stop in the middle of the road to pick up passengers going home early or moving on to other parties.
Music is played at a volume that allows those who are there to talk.
Tadeo says business depends on the DJ, food and drink prices and the vibe of the place. El Patrón is one of the most crowded clubs tonight. Lights at the entrance to the venue catch the eye, and, even more so, a metal cage protruding over the street where a young woman dances in short, fluorescent-colored clothes, drawing the attention of people walking by.
Many people are looking for a table, but the place is packed. Inside, music blares. Teenagers takes shots of tequila. Talking here is impossible without screaming your head off.
The waiters walk among customers dancing to reggaeton and electronic music to deliver drinks and small plates of food. The non-dancers still nod their heads. Unable to speak, some watch the club with bored expressions.
In other clubs like El Gara, the Embassy, and the Pipas, the music is blasted at full volume, even if they are not full. At Ron Kon Rolas, the atmosphere is a little different: rock music is played at a volume that allows those who are there to talk to each other with less effort, while drinking beers.
Here, until a few months ago, concerts were organized by Nicaraguan rock bands, many of which played songs protesting the Sandinista regime. This ended in April 2022 when security forces raided a number of musicians, who have since gone into exile.
Tadeo explains that at that time, police warned bar owners that if they allowed these bands to play, they would be forced to shut down. It was a hard blow for them, but they managed to recover, although not as they wanted.
“Now, they only play commercial music. I think the ban had more of an affect on newer establishments that invited these musicians because many young people identified with their music,” says Tadeo.
Some night-time traditions, such as the Agüizotes in Masaya, have been revived after the pandemic.
The “B” side of the party
The Christmas season and the coincidence of the World Cup in Qatar on these dates was a lifesaver for many bar and restaurant owners in the capital. Those who did not have televisions installed them to attract football fans.
Joaquín, owner of one of these establishments, cashed in on the soccer hype. The result, however, was not what he expected. It was not that his establishment was empty; on the contrary, it was one of the most popular. But it did not meet the expectations he'd had before the socio-political crisis began in 2018.
“This December has not been like other years. Now, there is a good atmosphere, but it is not how it was in the past at the same time of the year. The truth is that this whole second semester, from July to now, has been very bad,” says Joaquín, who has other businesses that have also declined.
We arrived at his bar on Jan. 6 at 7:30 p.m., and the atmosphere was a bit dull for that hour, when we would have expected more people. Only a few tables were occupied; some were ordering food and others just beer.
Like Tadeo, Joaquín sees the situation as complex and changing. He believes that the people who left Nicaragua last year had an impact on the decrease in consumption. “But, in the medium term, all these people should mean a greater economic income to the country — that is, an injection of revenues from abroad and, perhaps, a slight recovery for us,” he says hopefully.
Remittances are increasing, but the effects are elusive
According to official data from the Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN), the country received remittances totaling $3.2 billion last year, a 50.2% increase from the previous year ($2.15 billion).
“But right now, we are still not seeing its results. Only a decrease in consumption. The interesting thing is that in the city it is not so noticeable, because you see the bars in Zona Rosa full, and the party atmosphere,” says Joaquín.
Tadeo agrees. The manager of one of Managua's most popular discotheques explains that the supposed “bonanza” may only benefit a few. “The bars and discos that are always full are the same ones. The others are barely holding on. Then, there are also those where no one knows how they stay open because sometimes not even a single client visits,” said Tadeo.
The report of the monthly index of economic activity (IMAE) of the Central Bank of Nicaragua for Oct. 2022 showed improvement, registering growth of 5.4% compared to the previous year, in the annual average variation.
Among sectors registering the highest growth were hotels and restaurants, with 20.3%. Official statistics indicate that the increase is due to the demand for such services. But data on domestic consumption does not reflect an increase.
I acquired an enormous capacity for serenity and self-control.
The bank's data also show that the individual consumption of households and Non-Profit Institutions Serving Households (ISFLSH) or private consumption, registered a growth of 6.6% compared to the same quarter of the previous year, and of 6.2% in the accumulated to the third quarter. This is in part due to the increase of remittances from abroad, as well as improving employment.
“It is normal for there to be growth after two years of pandemic,” an economist told Divergentes. "In the coming years, the impact of remittances will be crucial.”
Many bars are still empty
During our tour, we saw some bars in the Managua neighborhood of Bello Horizonte that were empty except for servers, and others with very few customers. In Puerto Salvador Allende — one of the flagship tourist complexes of the Ortega-Murillo regime — at around 8:30 p.m., there were more empty bars than ones with customers.
Although consumption continues to decline in businesses like Joaquín’s, he says he is still not looking at leaving the country. He says it is not easy to pack up and drop his employees.
“After the 2018 crisis and unrest, the pandemic and the current political situation in the country, I acquired an enormous capacity for serenity and self-control — and also creativity to get ahead. The reality is that it is very complicated for entrepreneurs to grow. The tax burden presses you hard and you can’t say anything because you must not get involved in politics in order to avoid more problems,” Joaquín laments.
One of the busiest nightclubs in Managua, Wynwood.
Back to the club
A group of young people hurry inside the Central America Building, located in the neighborhood of the same name. They take the escalator and walk to the entrance of one of the most exclusive discotheques in the capital. A security guard checks two men in the group, and finally lets them move forward. They sit at a table and order four seltzers.
In the complex, there are also several establishments where music and drinks cost a little more than in other bars in the city. One of the differences here, with other nightclubs in the Zona Rosa, is the air conditioning, which stays on all night long since the clubs are in an enclosed building. They also have more comfortable and finer sofas. It’s 11:30 p.m..
Carmen, 24, sometimes parties at the discos in the Central America Building. She likes to dance here because she feels safer than in the Zona Rosa. “I’ve seen how fights and robberies break out there, so I prefer to come here,” she says.
When asked how she feels having fun in a country under dictatorship, Carmen says she used to feel guilty because she sympathized with the pain of the families of the victims of April 2018, when 30 people lost their lives during nationwide protests against social security reforms decreed by President Daniel Ortega, which included higher taxes and reduced benefits. This was the deadliest civil conflict since the end of the Nicaraguan Revolution.
Now, Carmen is not indifferent to the situation in the country, but her therapist said that, for the sake of her mental health, she needs to learn to live in such a complex environment.
“My friends thought the same thing. The first time I went clubbing after 2018 was strange. I felt fine, although a bit weird. The therapy helped me understand that being locked up is not healthy, that I should go out and that it’s not going to change the way I think about what's happening in Nicaragua,” she explains.
As we entered the nightclubs in the Central America Building, we saw a good number of customers in the establishments, but none of them were packed. The waiters had little work to do, and it was easy for them to go back and forth between tables. A few minutes before midnight, more customers began to arrive, taking over all the tables and dance spaces.
Here, the atmosphere is more orderly than in El Patrón and the other discos in the Zona Rosa. You don’t have to deal with traffic, the music is loud but it's still possible to chat with friends, and security is tighter. Many influencers arrive to promote the weekend parties. They dance and walk around, taking pictures to upload to social media.
The last weekend of October, for Halloween, these businesses couldn't keep up. Many people were stuck in the parking lot, waiting to enter. “I couldn’t get in and I settled for going to El Gara,” says a university student, who came that day to participate in a costume contest.
The blinding lights of closing time
Tadeo mentioned that these businesses haven't been as affected by the crisis. And every weekend, people crowd clubs such as The Reef, Downtown or Wynwood, on Camino de Oriente road.
At Wynwood, for example, even though capacity is at maximum, security allows anyone who wants to enter. And it doesn’t matter if there is no table available. For those who come to popular nightclubs like these, the important thing is to stay in the atmosphere until closing time.
This is appreciated by José Larios, who usually goes out partying with his friends and only leaves when the club shuts down. Unlike Carmen, this 21-year-old never stopped partying, not even during the pandemic.
We talk about it because, in one way or another, it affects us.
José is not unaware of the situation in the country. A few months ago, a relative who worked in a government institution had to emigrate to the U.S. after he was fired “because he was thinking differently.”
“The situation in Nicaragua is difficult. I talk about it with my friends, but it’s not as if we spend hours and hours on the subject. We talk about it because, in one way or another, it affects us. But that can’t limit ourselves when it comes to our desire to live like young people in other countries,” he says.
Until three o’clock in the morning, there were still many people in the bar. A well-known influencer who had just arrived at The Reef was asking for a table and a drink. Many of those who left did not go home, and instead walked a few blocks down Camino de Oriente road to visit the two karaoke bars in the area, which don't close until six or seven in the morning.