SAN JUANDEL SUR – A bit gruff and disarmingly candid, San Juan del Sur’s mayor, Eduardo Holmann, is not a typical politician. In fact, to even suggest that he is politician is to incur his bark.
Holmann, who in 2008 will enter the final year of his hugely successful mayoral term, is defined by another characteristic that is also uncommon among political leaders in Nicaragua: he is wildly popular among virtually all sectors of society, from rich to poor.
A devout Sandinista and a businessman, Holmann, 59, took office in January 2005 and inherited a municipal government that was left in shambles by his two unpopular predecessors, who also happened to be Sandinistas. Not only did Holmann have to rebuild the municipal government from the ground up, but he also had to rebuild his party’s image and try to grab the reigns of a development and investment frenzy that threatened to devour the town if left to run wild.
“It’s been difficult work,” Holmann told The Nica Times in a recent interview in his modest downtown office. “We received zero institution, and had to reverse a situation that was chaotic.”
Not only was the municipal government not functioning on most levels, but the “bad values” of previous administrations had permeated to almost all levels of society, Holmann said.
“Even the foreigners who came here adopted the negative values and did things they would never do in their own country,” the mayor said. “We had to change that situation to build credibility and create norms and values.”
Holmann said that the first thing he had to do upon taking office was to let everyone know that there was a new “boss” in town, and that things were going to change.
Within the municipal government, Holmann said he insisted that all other public employees “act the way I do so that investment here is stable.” And with foreign investors and developers, the message was equally clear: “We will respect you, if you respect Nicaragua’s laws, the local permitting process and the community as a whole.”
To institutionalize the change in culture, Holmann helped create a new Municipal Development Plan. According to Holmann the regulations, which have been in place since 2006, not only aim to preserve the historic downtown area from the construction of future monstrosities, but it also establishes clear environmental norms that must be followed to get a building permit.
“We have been trying to convince people that this institution (the municipal government) now exists, and we have norms to order development,” Holmann said.
Maintaining order and stability have been the pillars of the Holmann administration, and the mayor himself has acted quickly to resolve any problems that have occurred in past years, to avoid any destabilizing situations such as those that occurred in the nearby coastal municipality of Tola following several land invasions in June.
During an instance earlier this year when a Nicaraguan family, armed with a judge’s order, tried to takeover property that is part of the landmark Pelican Eyes…Piedras y Olas resort on the hillside overlooking San Juan del Sur, Holmann helped resolve the issue by going straight to the country’s number one powerbroker, President Daniel Ortega, who stepped in behind the scenes on behalf of the luxury hotel development.
“The most important thing for investment is to create stability; I have to guarantee this stability, and if I can’t resolve the problem locally, I have to go above,” Holmann said, adding, “We have had the support of Ortega and the Sandinista structure.”
Man of Action
If disgraced former President Arnoldo Alemán had not taken and forever tarnished the political slogan, “Actions, Not Words,” it would be one that could be used now to accurately describe the Holmann government.
Like other Sandinista leaders before him, Holmann is not afraid to promise massive development projects. But unlike some, Holmann is actually delivering the goods.
Adorning the walls of Holmann’s office are several colorful artist renditions of large-scale projects that promise to transform downtown San Juan del Sur and make it a more modern and user friendly tourist attraction. During a previous interview with The Nica Times in early 2006, the drawings taped to the wall looked a bit too fantastical to be hanging in an otherwise grim office.
The drawings then seemed destined to one day be covered in dust and forgotten.
But a year and a half later, one of the drawings – the modern artisan fishermen’s wharf built with Japanese funding – has already become a reality, and the final product looks almost exactly as it was drawn a couple years ago. The other projects, including a plan to remodel the entire south-side of the town with a modern boardwalk, seaside park and new commercial center inside the old wharf warehouses, will jump off the blueprints and come to life as soon as funding is acquired, Holmann said.
Another massive project to pipe water some 25 kilometers from Lake Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur to be treated as drinking water is already getting underway and should be completed within three years, thanks to Spanish funding.
Several relatively smaller projects have also been completed in recent months. The main downtown roads are being fixed and repaired, sidewalks are being widened for pedestrians, two new garbage trucks were recently purchased, and construction is all but finished on a new municipal government office outside of town. A new civic center, complete with a boxing gym, a volleyball court and a basketball court donated by one of the town’s newest part-time residents, NBA player Travis Knight, is also a feather in Holmann’s cap.
Despite the accomplishments, one act in particular demonstrates Holmann’s character clearer than anything else during his term in office. Holmann explained that after being frustrated by years of empty promises from the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, which inexplicably has been studying the design of the forthcomingCoastal Highway
–or fabled Costanera – for what seems like an eternity, he recently decided to take matters into his own hands and build the road himself.
By forming an alliance with the nearby municipal government of La Cruz, on the Costa Rican side of the border, Holmann and his Tico counterpart decided to build theCoastal Highway
without any further ado.
Earlier this month,Holmann and a municipal work crew took bulldozers and earthmoving equipment and turned what was an historic old cattle path from El Naranjo to the Costa Rican border into a dirt road that is now passable in four-wheel drive vehicles.
Holmann completed the two-kilometer road on his side of the border, and the municipality of La Cruz finished connecting the five-kilometer stretch on the Costa Rican side, thereby finishing construction on a rural but serviceable version of theCoastal Highway
Holmann is now presenting the project to the Nicaraguan government, and asking them to put in a border post at the small outpost known as “Los Mojones,” so that the traffic can start flowing.
“The hard part is done, the government just needs to open a border crossing,” Holmann said. “This highway is the single most important project for the future of San Juan. There is no development without this road; the project is fundamental.”
Holmann estimates that the road will be inaugurated by next year. Although it’s still a dirt road, the mayor estimates that curious and adventurous tourists will start using it as soon as it is open.
“Even if 500 cars start driving that road each month, the whole surrounding area and communities will start to develop,” Holmann said.
Challenges for the Future
As San Juan del Sur grows in the future, it will continue to face some of the same challenges it does today, plus some new challenges related to tourism growth.
Holmann says that one of the goals moving forward is to attract more investment focused on tourism infrastructure, and less on land speculation.
“We need more tourists and less speculation,” he said. “Lots of foreigners have bought land, but they never come here to build or pay taxes. The challenge is to change this.”
Holmann says San Juan del Sur needs more high-end hotels to continue to develop as a tourism destination and generate tourism revenue.
As for Holmann, his dabble with politics will soon be over, and he says he has no further political aspirations.
However, he does want to ensure that the project he has started in San Juan continues after he leaves.
As a result, he said, the wheels are already in motion to tap Jorge Sánchez, a businessman and landowner with a profile similar to Holmann’s, to succeed him as the Sandinista candidate in 2008. Sánchez is expected to run on the ticket with Heidy Traña, a young volleyball player and Managua lawyer who the Sandinista Front is trying to convince to return to San Juan del Sur and run for vicemayor.
And in a Sandinista town, a party nomination is almost as good as a political appointment, especially with the momentum generated by Holmann’s term in office.