SAN JUAN DEL SUR– Nicaragua’s boomtown poster-child for foreign investment and tourism is approaching a pivotal moment as four candidates vie for the mayor’s seat in a race that will set the political tone for investment for the next four years.
Among the diverse cast of candidates in this popular southern Pacific beach town are a pugilistic fisherman seeking redemption for his father, a loyal Sandinista and former vice mayor, the big brother of a famous family-run beachfront restaurant, and a small hotel owner and mother of four.
In a municipality that has been a Sandinista stronghold for 29 years, the incumbent odds would seem to favor Sandinista Jorge Sánchez, who served as vice mayor during the scandal-plagued administration of Alberado Nuñez (2001-2005). But according to a May survey by the daily La Prensa, the frontrunner in the Nov. 9 elections is Roger Nuñez, son of the same scandalous ex-mayor who rebelled from the ranks of the Sandinista Front citing high-level party corruption.
In a country where political risk is among the top concerns for investors, November’s election is making for a heated contest in this tourism town, where investment has created a lot of new wealth to be managed.
Over the past four years, the town has matured as a tourism destination under Mayor Eduardo Holmann, who will leave big shoes for his predecessor to fill.
The Nica Times this week talked with the four contenders, who say they’re up for the task.
Jorge Sánchez, FSLN
A faithful Sandinista party loyalist since the age of 17, Jorge Sánchez says there’s no reason for San Juan’s 10,000 voters to stray from their Sandinista voting tendencies. A hotelier who sometimes refers to himself in third person, Sánchez says his relationship with the Sandinista party in Managua will make for a smooth four-year term in office.
“Jorge Sánchez is known all over San Juan del Sur, in all the neighborhoods. The people know that Jorge Sánchez is honest, serious, frank and accessible,” Sánchez says.
When Sánchez was vice mayor, Mayor Alberado Nuñez and his predecessor Gerardo Miranda (1997-2001), dolled out some 500 property lots to Sandinista buddies and family members during their terms in office.
Nuñez’s sister received a 400-square meter piece of land as part of the scandal.
A 2007 Comptroller report found that some $28 million in property had been dished out by the two Sandinista administrations.
They apparently didn’t check the public registry before distributing the land, which set off an explosion of legal disputes between landowners whose land the municipality had “donated” to others.
Nuñez was sentenced to a year in prison for usurping land, but says he was wrongfully lynched by Sandinista kingpins, including Miranda.
Sánchez, 47, is trying to put those four years under Nuñez behind him, though his rivals say he still works closely with Miranda.
The candidate says his top priorities will be purchasing machinery to improve roads, to provide potable water and sewage services and to protect the environment.
“We’ll execute water cleaning projects. We’ll work on projects to reforest the water basins,” he said.
He also plans to work closely with environmental authorities in Managua to reforest San Juan. Sánchez says he wants to start a recycling-export business that would employ locals and earn income for municipal coffers.
A former baseball player and manager, Sánchez was the FSLN secretary in San Juan del Sur during the 1990s and managed a now defunct lake-side restaurant in La Virgen.
Last year he opened the new Hotel Gabymar, located in the mountains between Playa Remanso and San Juan del Sur.
Sánchez says he is well-connected with the foreign investment community and will seek to minimize red tape for developers.
“We’ll unconditionally support the businesses, bars, restaurants, hotels supermarkets, anything that has to do with tourism,” he said, adding that he’ll push for a new tourism border crossing at Naranjo and to have the Coastal Highway project completed – or at least half-completed – by the end of Ortega’s term.
Roger Nuñez, AC
A fisherman and former national boxing champ, Roger Nuñez says he’s on a mission to restore his family’s name after it was tarnished by the Sandinista Front.
Nuñez’s father, Abelardo Nuñez, was the mayor who went down in flames in a 2005 land property scandal and was sentenced to a year in prison for land usurpation. A career fisherman before being elected mayor, Abelardo Nuñez has since been released from jail for bad health, and now lives with his son Roger in a humble home in the hills of San Juan.
Roger Nuñez says he wants to “punish” Sandinista leaders who scathed his father’s reputation. Aside from his plans for revenge, he says his top priority as mayor will be to restore investor confidence.
“We want to legally assure their properties,” says Nuñez, who currently serves as a city councilman.
Nuñez left the Sandinista ranks after his father’s downfall and was elected to run as the candidate for the minority party the Alternative for Change (AC).
As city councilman, he’s watched as investment has stagnated in recent months, causing a drop in municipal income.
Nuñez, 35, surprised the country in May when a poll in the daily La Prensa showed him leading San Juan’s mayoral race. He recently gained another boost when the local Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), a party of former Contras, backed his campaign.
If elected, he says, he won’t need to seek the help of the Sandinista government in Managua. The municipality has a multimillion-dollar budget from local taxes and Managua’s support is marginal, he says.
He acknowledges his father gave lands to 17 poor families as mayor, including to his aunt, but he says the large-scale corruption of which he was accused was the result of other corrupt Sandinista leaders who scapegoated him.
He says his studies in administration and law will help him to set straight land disputes in San Juan – as well as his father’s legacy.
Mauricio Granja, PLC
Mauricio Granja has had a front-row seat to San Juan del Sur’s blossoming into a hot tourism destination with a robust nightlife. Granja, whose father owns the family-run beachfront seafood restaurant El Timón, says it’s never been so important that San Juan’s natural resources are managed properly.
“To be able to sell that product, we have to create the conditions to do so. To solve the primordial problems like sewage and drinking water,” says Granja, the oldest of five brothers.
Improving water management and reforesting the balding isthmus’s coastline are his top priorities, he says.
Improving water service not only will keep the population along the dry coast of the Rivas isthmus hydrated, but it’s essential to feed infrastructure and development construction projects.
The San Juan native and longtime supporter of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) says he wants to work hand-in-hand with San Juan’s growing foreign investor community to get the job done.
“The mayor’s office depends on taxes. The more investment, the more income to resolve problems like sewage treatment,” he says.
The candidate says he will reorganize land and zoning to better control construction projects that have popped up along the bay.
He says he’ll do so while keeping business interests in mind, such as his family restaurant on the beachfront drive overlooking the picturesque bay, which is at the heart of San Juan del Sur’s growth spurt.
The 28-year-old restaurant has grown from two to 56 tables during that time.
“We’re seeing from up close the problems and necessities that affect us as businesspeople,” he says.
Elizabeth Larios, ALN
For Elizabeth Larios, San Juan’s next mayor must know the tourism industry from the inside, making this small-hotel owner the ideal candidate.
Larios, a mother of four, is the owner of the pink-colored Elizabeth’s Guest House.
“I want to do what the Sandinistas haven’t done,” says Larios, 50, listing her top priorities as expansion of the local health center, construction of a sports complex and development of the fishing and tourism industries.
As a small hotel owner, she has experienced a drop in business, which she attributes to the Sandinista government giving investors cold feet.
“Investors are leaving. They’re abandoning us,” says Larios, who aspires to become San Juan’s first mayor for the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance. She has always supported the Liberal Party but never run for office.
During an interview, Larios sat next to her legal aid Francisco Sánchez, a municipal legal aide with a tendency of finishing some of her sentences.
Sánchez says he’ll be keeping an eye on possible electoral fraud: Nearly 500 voters in San Juan have applied for new cedulas but have yet to receive them yet, he says.
The unassuming Larios says she will work closely with Sánchez to sort out land disputes that were caused by Sandinista mayors.
“We don’t have any land left because of them,” Larios says.