In a country accustomed to surprises from its government, Nicaraguans received another curiosity on May 15 when they awoke to find that the Central Bank, moving in the night as stealthily as the Tooth Fairy, had snuck a new legal tender into their economy while the markets were sound asleep.
The new bills, printed on a peculiar plastic-like material in an unfamiliar size and adorned with never-before-seen designs, are meant to replace the old, ratty paper bills that cause germaphobes to collapse in conniptions every time they are handed change. The problem is the new bills were slipped into the economy without any public awareness campaign and minimal forewarning. A week after the plastic money was let loose on the economy, the Central Bank still hadn't updated its website to indicate that the new bills even existed. (See the top 10 public panics!!!)
As a result, most people didn't know what to think when they were suddenly handed a new plastic 10 or 20 cordoba bill, the lowest denominations of Nicaraguan tender and therefore the most commonly used. "This looks like European money," says one taxi driver, in a voice hinting pride, as he twisted and creased the bill in cruel defiance of its seemingly indestructible space-age properties. Others have described it as "play money" or complain that its gloss makes it "slip through my hands."
Most of the criticism, however, seems to indicate an underlying lack of confidence and trust in the government. There are many who remember the first Sandinista government's inventive monetary policies and the resulting mega-inflation of the 1980s. As a result, some people are now treating the new plastic dinero as if it were a hot potato. "Many people don't want these bills because they think they are valueless and they're going to get stuck with them, so they're spending them as fast as they can," says clothing vendor Fabiola Espinoza. It has unintentionally created a bizarre stimulus effect on Nicaragua's beleaguered economy. "As soon as I get one of the plastic bills, I try to pass it on right away to someone else," says shopkeeper Gloria Romero. (Read a story from TIME's Archive about America's counterfeit bill problem in the 1930s.)
The public's suspicion of the new bills has been validated by serious legal concerns by economists and opposition lawmakers. Several legislators have pointed out that the new bills were printed without the signature of the Minister of Finance, as required by the country's Monetary Law, effectively making them fake bills. "These bills are illegal and worthless and should only be used to play Monopoly," says opposition legislative leader Wilfredo Navarro. "President Daniel Ortega is a counterfeiter. That's the level things have gotten to in Nicaragua these days." The lawmaker, a member of the legislature's Economic Commission, says "any serious government" would immediately recognize the error and recall the money. But so far the Sandinistas aren't budging.
Instead, government officials have responded in what has become the Sandinistas' standard reaction to criticism: triumphalism mixed with personal attacks. Sandinista lawmakers have accused Navarro of "economic terrorism" for questioning the bills' legality, and Central Bank president Antenor Rosales dismissed the criticism as the complaints of rich people "who are more accustomed to using debit cards and checks and don't care about the people." Said Rosales, "The Central Bank is profoundly satisfied with the excellent reception that the bills have had with the Nicaraguan population. Everywhere in Nicaragua the bills are being used."
Rosales defended the legality of the bills, insisting that legislation passed in 1995 gives the Central Bank "exclusive authority" to mint and print money. The number of signatures that appear or don't appear on the money is not important, he said. Critics, however, argue that the Central Bank's exclusive authority doesn't give it creative license to invent new styles of currency that stray from the technical specifications laid out in the Monetary Law. "The government couldn't just start circulating cacao beans and say it's currency like the indigenous did," says economist Nestor Avendano. "They have to respect the law."
The problem in Nicaragua, according to Liberal Constitutional Party lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, is that most people don't know what the laws say, including the government. "In this country, we pass laws and we don't know what they say and we don't care," he says. "This is an outlaw country." Still, Aguirre predicts, the issue of the new currency and whether it's legal or not is a case of a "tempest in a teapot" an issue that will fade away as soon as the inevitable next crisis comes around. (Read a story about Nicaragua's vampire problem.)
In the meantime, vendors such as Gloria Romero, whose small corner store sells a variety of oddities, says she'll hold on to her old money and keep the plastic bills moving so she doesn't get stuck holding them when the music stops. "I prefer to save these," she says, holding up two grungy paper notes, and wrinkling her nose in disgust.