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There Goes the Neighborhood

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Tim Rogers

House owner Roberto Sanchez surveys the damage to his home.

An avalanche-like noise on a recent rainy night proved to be an architectural metaphor for the fate of Nicaragua's erstwhile elite: In a matter of 30 seconds, the front half of a grand colonial adobe mansion collapsed into the street in a pile of muddy rubble, revealing the wobbly structure that holds together the homes and social class of the country's former oligarchy.

Though no one was hurt in the collapse, it served as a dramatic reminder that the noble fašade of country's former power structure is masking advanced decay.

"The Sandinista revolution in the 1980s diversified the quotas of power in the country," said sociologist Cirilo Otero. "There was a displacement of the oligarchy; a lot of investment left the country, and what is left is the remnants of a class whose influence and power are almost nil."

Like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, the remnants of many of Nicaragua's traditionally powerful families live in crumbling mansions in a no longer politically relevant city, clinging to memories of colonial grandeur. Their skin color is generally lighter than the rest of the population's; their politics are conservative; and their last names are those that have for centuries filled the rosters of Nicaragua's social clubs.

The country's traditional oligarchy is made up of a dozen families that have intermarried for generations to, as they say, "keep the blood pure." But as those families have grown, migrated and diversified in recent generations, their collective clout as a social elite has weakened. Today, an oligarchic last name no longer guarantees its bearer the influence or money once attached to it.

Where once they amassed fortunes from the bounty of the country's traditional agricultural sector, many of the finer families now live off of what's left of former fortunes, or on remittances sent from relatives in the United States. The younger generation, armed with college degrees from Texas A&M and Louisiana State University, have migrated to Managua to parlay their family names into middle-management or public-relations jobs, while the elders remain behind in their rocking chairs.

"The oligarchy is in a profound crisis; it's in its final days," says sociologist Orlando Nunez, author of the briskly selling Oligarchy in Nicaragua.

According to Nunez, the decline of the oligarchy began even before the Sandinista revolution, when the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty used its dictatorial power to strip the old-money class of its traditional military and political power. In fact, when economic power began to shift in the 1970s to a new bourgeoisie based in the cotton industry, some of the old landowning oligarchy even sided with the rowdy Sandinista rebels, hoping that the overthrow of the dictatorship would allow them to reclaim lost power. But the Sandinistas had other ideas: After seizing power in the insurrection of 1979, they systematically dismantled the power of the oligarchy in subsequent years. The coup de grace, Nunez says, came last year when the Sandinistas formed a political alliance with the Catholic Church, the oligarchy's last institutional bastion.

"All the oligarchy has left now is its prestige, its values and some influence over the media," Nunez says.

Now, they may be losing their stately homes, too. An influx of wealthy foreigners is swooping into Granada to buy up colonial mansions and build an economy based on tourism that has created many entry-level service jobs in hotels and restaurants — not exactly "suitable" employment for the grandsons of plantation owners.

The grim economic, political and social realties of a changing Nicaragua has prompted some to cash in their family's last chips, selling their homes in a hot real estate market and thereby severing their last ties to past grandeur. Still, despite the hardships, old paradigms die hard, Nunez says.

"The oligarchy," he says, "would still much prefer to sell their home to a white and wealthy Gringo than to a Liberal, a black or someone from the working class who has made money."