Recovery after Earthquakes: Managua, la ciudad zombie

By Myrna Santiago

La novia del Xolotlán. The sweetheart of the Xolotlan lake. That is what Nicaraguans romantically call their capital city, Managua, because the two are always together, next to each other. The lake, also known as Lake Managua, is the northern border of the city. Other Nicaraguans have used different adjectives: caótica (chaotic), desdichada (unhappy), sufrida (suffering), a gendered and tragic capital because by virtue of geography and geology Managua’s natural history has been marked by hurricanes, floods, volcanic explosions, and earthquakes. Earthquakes, in fact, destroyed the city twice. The first time was 1931; the second, 1972. Post 1931, the city recovered by all standard indicators: size, political and economic importance, architecture. Not so post 1972.

As anyone who has visited Managua knows, there is no there there because although the capital is the largest city in the country—hosting about one million of the country’s six million inhabitants—the city lacks a center. It sprawls from east to west unabated, blocked on the north by the Xolotlán, and spreads southeast and southwest like a tong around the low hills of the sierra de Managua, which fence it on the south. Its downtown was never rebuilt after the Christmas quakes of 1972. A better moniker would be la ciudad zombie; the undead city. Managua recovered post 1972, but it lost its previous morphology forever. Throughout the twentieth century, the capital endured and survived man-made calamities, including foreign occupation, insurrection, revolution, and counter-revolution, all of which influenced the aftermath of the earthquakes and the physiognomy of the city. Managua demonstrates, then, that recovery after disaster is a relative term. It is not synonymous with reconstruction, for sure.

Let’s backtrack: Managua was an accidental capital. At the end of Spanish colonialism in 1821, the country’s elite was divided between two cities: León on the west and Granada in the east. Their rivalries became legendary—and deadly. Factional fighting between the León Liberals and the Granada Conservatives over the presidential chair and the apparatus of state, if not over governmental policies or strategies, led to a compromise over which city would be the capital. Managua’s geographical location determined its selection, as it is midway between the two adversaries. In 1852 the country’s founding fathers chose Managua as a neutral site for the seat of government ignoring the fact that the town sat on geological faults. The decision, nonetheless, did not end the armed competition between León and Granada. On the contrary, the escalation of the conflict resulted in direct United States intervention (on the Conservatives’ side) and the landing of the Marines in 1912. In fact, the Marines occupied the city still on Tuesday, March 31, 1931, when the capital collapsed after an earthquake shook it at 10:23 a.m. The Marines, therefore, were responsible for disaster response. In the process, they set the course for the future of Managua for much of the twentieth century.[1]

Managua was a small city in 1931. It had maybe 40,000 inhabitants and covered less than one square mile; eleven blocks from north to south and ten blocks from east to west. Most of its streets were unpaved (Figure 1). The March 31st quake measured 5.8 to 6 on the Richter scale. It was shallow, which amplified its force to topple unreinforced buildings and homes made of mud and reeds. By all accounts, more than one thousand people lost their lives and twice that many were injured. Less than 500 of the 6,000 dwellings, office buildings, workshops, and commercial establishments withstood the trembling. The Marines immediately mobilized their manpower to battle the fires that broke out throughout the city and consumed it for the next three days. Utilizing the method of demolishing buildings and setting fires in advance of the uncontrolled flames, which had been first tested in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Marines contributed to the destruction of the city in ways that Managuans would never forget or forgive. But while the capital crumpled due to the fatal combination of earthquake-prone terrain and vulnerable architecture, it was the Marines’ political decisions that galled Nicaraguans for the rest of the century. The Marines organized the Comité Local de Reconstrucción, with the nominally Liberal General Anastasio Somoza García as its president. When the Marines left the country two years later in 1933, they left Somoza García at the head of the National Guard, the repressive apparatus the Marines had founded. He went on to assassinate Augusto César Sandino, the leader of an anti-imperialist guerrilla militia that had bedeviled the Marines for years, in 1934 and to inaugurate a family dictatorship that lasted until 1979. [2]

Managua and Lake Xolotlán. [Photo by Nicolás López Maltez]

With Somoza García firmly in charge of the political landscape, Managua recovered. The General, a very entrepreneurial man himself, guaranteed the “peace” necessary for free enterprise to enact its magic and create prosperity. The close alliance with the United States that Somoza García pursued with singular zeal began to pay off for Managua as the post war boom reached Nicaragua. Cotton and other exports fueled the growth of the capital through the 1950s and 1960s. Banks, movie theatres, department stores, medical offices, schools, bars, restaurants, and hotels crammed the city. Block after compact block multiplied in straight lines emanating from the core downtown plaza and flanked by its gleaming Cathedral and the Municipal Palace in the old Spanish colonial urban model. Peasants, displaced from rural areas by the concentration of landholding and the classic closing of the commons necessary for export agriculture, poured into the city. They squatted wherever they could, filling in empty spaces with creative but precarious dwellings, workshops, and corner stores and expanding the capital east, west, and south.[3] Alongside this extreme poverty, the Somoza clan and its cronies became immensely wealthy, turning Managua into their fiefdom in the same way that the old elites had claimed Granada and León.[4] By 1970, the capital had become the most populated city in Central America, with some 425,000 inhabitants. The most enthusiastic boosters remembered Managua then “as the Switzerland of Central America, due to its beauty, ornamentation, and cleanliness.”[5] If that energetic example of peripheral capitalism was not the picture of recovery after disaster, nothing is.

And yet, nature would not be denied as a historical actor. On December 22, 1972, as the city glowed in the bright colors of Christmas lights, a tremor occurred around 10 p.m., a pre-shock that Managuans could not know presaged a calamity. Two hours later, at 12:29 a.m. on December 23, the earth convulsed at 6.5 on the Richter scale. As in 1931, the quake was shallow, which meant the shaking aboveground was intense, throwing people off their beds. Forty-five minutes later, at 1:18 a.m., an aftershock measuring 5.0 rocked the city already in ruins. Two minutes later, at 1:20 a.m., a third aftershock of 5.2 finished the capital. The three earthquakes took up 90 seconds; enough time for a large proportion of Managua to cease to exist.[6] Hundreds of smaller aftershocks shook the detritus of the capital in the weeks and months to come, while the fires that erupted in the aftermath of the three earthquakes razed everything in their path.

Managua after the earthquakes and fires, December 1972. [Source:]

The losses were devastating. The death toll rose to 10,000 people as 5 of the city’s 12.7 square miles collapsed in a heap of dust and cement. The downtown, about 600 city blocks, was obliterated. At least 20,000 people suffered serious injuries; some 250,000 Managuans lost their homes.

The replay of 1931 was uncanny and magnified, although not unexpected. Everyone knew the city rested on highly active seismic faults. Similarly, history repeated itself when Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the son of the first Somoza and the head of the National Guard, became president of the Comité de Emergencia. He declared martial law, effectively taking charge of all decision-making in the capital. What happened next was reported worldwide: the National Guard looted the downtown as it burned. The US military, once more, came to Somoza’s rescue, sending troops to occupy the destroyed city, support the firefighting, and “incinerating corpses with flamethrowers.”[7] When the fires were suffocated, Somoza surrounded the rubble in barbed wire for demolition and clean-up work. The debate over rebuilding the capital began in earnest, as it had happened briefly in 1931. This time, however, Somoza Debayle heeded those experts who cautioned against reconstruction without putting in place and enforcing the strictest earthquake regulations.[8] Simultaneously, the dictator set up land transfer schemes and created new construction companies in anticipation of the business opportunities that reconstruction signified. Not surprisingly, the Somoza family fortune grew as international funding began to flow in 1973.[9] The capital’s demise became Somoza’s bonanza. As in 1931, reconstruction and recovery became intimately linked to the financial wellbeing of the Somozas themselves. With the personal fortune of the strongman at stake, there was no doubt that Managua would recover. The only question was how.

Seeking advice from a bevy of foreign experts to the exclusion of rival Nicaraguan social factions, Somoza embraced the notion of “decentralization,” a buzzword that came to mean the segregation of the city by class, a pattern not highly evident prior to the Christmas earthquakes.[10] The rich moved out to what became suburban hubs, with their own shopping malls and high gates covered in the climbing brilliant fuchsia flowers called bugambilias. The newly homeless occupied novel developments like “Open Tres” on the outskirts of the city on the northwest or “Las Américas,” built on the far northeast with US-AID funding. The elites thus became “modern,” able to ignore the marginalized barrios whence their maids, nannies, and chauffeurs came from. The downtown lingered, scraped clean of debris save the shells of high rises that stood like zombie buildings, dead yet inhabited by a growing underclass. The next upheaval was around the corner. But this one was entirely human.

The discontent with the Somozas did not start with the earthquakes. Papa Somoza García was killed in 1956 at the celebration of his re-election by Rigoberto López Pérez, a young man fed up with dictatorship masquerading as electoral democracy. On the eve of December 22, 1972, the Cathedral that would cave in at half-past midnight had been occupied by students demanding the release of political prisoners. The earthquakes built on that restlessness and the callousness the regime displayed in its response to the disaster. In 1978, an insurrection called for by a revolutionary coalition named after the anti-imperialist leader from the 1920s, Augusto César Sandino, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) exploded. Somoza reacted to the uprising by ordering the air force to bomb Managua, that is, the poor neighborhoods easily identifiable in the capital under the class-segregationist reconstruction scheme he had approved and supervised (Figure 3). The dictator demolished the city further but did not manage to destroy the spirit of its population. On the contrary, Managua was never more alive as large sectors of the population, including the professional classes and scions of the old elite families, became infused with revolutionary fervor. The recovery here was not physical, architectural, or economic, of course. It was political: a political renewal that swept away the old regime once and for all. By July 1979, Somoza Debayle was in exile.[11]

Home destroyed after bombing by the National Guard. [Photo by Susan Meiselas,]

The revolutionary Sandinista government inherited a city in ruins (Figure 4). Recovery now took on a sense of urgency. What to do with a dusty and weedy capital without a center? Getting at the root of the political responses to natural disasters, how to recover from inequality and poverty? How indeed to rebuild an entire country? The Sandinista government (1979-1990) approached the question of recovery and reconstruction by addressing the complexity of the matter holistically. There was nature to take into consideration. The 1972 earthquakes had been the focus of intense scientific study by academics and engineers who discovered that the geological strata below Managua was cracked by multiple faults. In other words, Managua would be subject to earthquakes forever (Figure 5).[12] Rebuilding the downtown could be done, but only at a high cost, with quality materials and anti-seismic technologies most people could not afford. There were also associated social problems that a revolutionary government could not ignore. The government, thus, came up with projects to turn the downtown area into green parks and open spaces while it drew up “ambitious plans” to address the housing shortage, improve low income neighborhoods, regulate urban land use, systematize property titles, and more.[13] Urban planning was high on the political agenda for the first time in the country’s history. Most of those ideas, however, fell by the wayside as the U.S. government imposed an embargo on the second generation of Sandinistas and, instead of sending the Marines, raised a counterrevolutionary army to destroy them. Defense spending quickly absorbed more and more of the state’s budget until, in fact, the Nicaraguan people tired of war and voted out the revolutionaries in 1990.

Detail of mural about the 1972 earthquakes in the Palacio Nacional, painted by Felipe Castellanos Centurion. [Photo by Myrna Santiago, 2015]
Geological Faults of Managua, INETER, May 2020. [Source:]

The decades of neoliberalism that followed the revolutionary experiment brought no structural changes to the capital city. But it did bring recovery to Managua, if measured by economic indicators and political importance. Migrants from the countryside kept the capital growing in the directions its geographical features allowed. The return of anti-Sandinista exiles from the United States after 1990 reinforced class segregation in residential housing development and commercial mall construction as well. The only major construction project in the old city center was the sewage plant, the first ever for Managua. It began in 1995 and was completed in 2005, finally ending the practice of dumping the city’s raw sewage directly into the waters of Managua’s sweetheart.[14] The capital remained the nerve center of the country, concentrating the national bureaucracy and political power, much of its university and medical capacities, as well as banking and commerce.

The old downtown, nevertheless, attracted the attention of municipal and national governments. Beautification projects that started under the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s continued and grew to include sports arenas, monuments, concert spaces, children’s parks, and an esplanade by the Xolotlán with a water park, two small museums, restaurants, and cafes which can be enjoyed for a fee. Since a purged FSLN returned to power in 2007, sections of the lakeside have experienced a process of nostalgic Disneyfication. In 2014, the government inaugurated a miniature recreation of several blocks of Roosevelt Avenue in the 1960s, with scale models that includes businesses, schools, banks, the Cathedral, and more (Figure 6).[15] That project followed similar tiny reproductions of the country’s churches elsewhere in the park. Family fun is the theme that coheres development in the broken heart of the old capital. There is no architecture there, save the skeleton of the Cathedral, the Municipal Palace that survived both earthquakes and is now the natural history museum, and the Rubén Darío Theatre, which also withstood the 1972 quakes. There is, however, plenty of shade under the trees to tame the capital’s stifling heat and watch the children play.

Reproduction of Avenida Roosevelt prior to the 1972 earthquakes, on the Paseo del Xolotlán.  [Photo by Myrna Santiago, 2015]

Visitors make much of the peculiar way in which Nicaraguans give directions. They do not use street names and numbers, but rather utilize landmarks and cardinal points. That is, they will say, “from the statue to Monsignor Lezcano, three blocks west, and two blocks to the lake,” and there you find what you are looking for. Sometimes the landmarks are no longer extant. They collapsed during the 1972 earthquakes, but people will still say, “de dónde fué,” “where such-and-such used to be…” City landmarks are dead yet they are alive, just as one would expect in a zombie city.

Managua faced disastrous earthquakes twice in the twentieth century. Both times authoritarians ruled the city and both times Managua recovered its economic, political, and demographic importance. However, there were important differences. One might ask, for instance, if the 1931 earthquake had the unanticipated political consequence of helping the Somozas come to power. The Marines worked with Anastasio Somoza García in the emergency committee first and then went on to appoint him as the supreme military leader upon their departure. Carving an economic space between the Liberals and Conservatives of old, Somoza García took advantage of the collapse of the capital city to profit personally from its reconstruction. After 1972, the third Somoza in power, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, intended to build upon his father’s example. The press quoted him as saying that the devastation of Managua represented a “revolution of opportunities,” which he exploited immediately by engaging in shady land deals and setting up his own construction companies.[16]

However, Somoza the son misread the historical moment. 1972 was not 1931. Three Somozas later, Nicaraguans were fed up with the family the United States had imposed on them four decades earlier. As in other world disasters, the 1972 earthquakes exposed the shortcomings of the government. The corruption and heartlessness the dictatorship demonstrated in the face of disaster fueled already existing demands for change. And while Somoza Debayle did decide that the new Managua would lack a downtown, his plans to become even richer were derailed by a revolution of a different sort—Sandino’s revenge if you will.

Nevertheless, perhaps the only chance the capital had to recover and rebuild in a more equitable fashion was dashed by the United States government in the 1980s. Unwittingly, president Ronald Reagan determined Managua’s urban history. The reconstruction of the city became “collateral damage” of Cold War high politics, condemning Managua, in the judgment of The New York Times, to be “still among the ugliest capital cities in the hemisphere.”[17] It all goes to show that the recovery and reconstruction process after an earthquake can be as unpredictable as the movements of the Earth itself. Sweetheart or zombie, at least Managua will always have the Xolotlán.

Myrna Santiago received her PhD in History from the University of California, Berkeley.  She is a Professor at Saint Mary’s College in northern California, where she teaches Latin American history and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.  Her research has been on the oil industry in Mexico, focused on the social and environmental consequences of extraction.  Her new research project is the history of the 1972 earthquake that destroyed the city of Managua, Nicaragua.

Featured image (at top): Terremoto, Managua, Nicaragua (Earthquake, Managua, Nicaragua), 1972, Marcel Toruno, Flickr. 

[1] Jorge Bautista Lara, La urbanización de Managua: El terremoto de 1972, Derecho Urbano Municipal (Managua: PAVSA, 2008), 39.

[2] Bautista Lara, La urbanización, 47-48; Roberto Sánchez Ramírez, El recuerdo de Managua en la memoria de un poblano (Managua: Alcaldía de Managua, 2008), 37, 61, 69, 71, 157.

[3] Nancy Southerland, “Post-Earthquake Urban Reconstruction in Managua, Nicaragua,” MA thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1985, 7-8.

[4] Bryan R. Higgins, “The Place of Housing Programs and Class Relations in Latin American Cities: The Development of Managua before 1980,” Economic Geography 66, no. 4 (October 1990), 379-381.

[5] Bautista Lara, La urbanización, 59, 107.

[6] R.D. Brown, Jr., P.L. Ward, and George Plafker, “Geological and Seismologic Aspects of the Managua, Nicaragua, Earthquakes of December 23, 1972,” Geological Survey Professional Paper 838. USGS, Department of the Interior (1973).

[7] George Black, “The 1972 Earthquake and after: Somocismo in Crisis,” in Nicaragua: Unfinished Revolution: The New Nicaragua Reader, Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer, eds. (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 189-190.

 [8] David Johnson Lee, “De-centring Managua: Post-Earthquake Reconstruction and Revolution in Nicaragua,” Urban History 42, no. 4 (2015), 663.

[9] Black, “The 1972 Earthquake,” 191-191.

[10] Martyn J. Bowden, “Reconstrucción subsiguiente al desastre: Estructura comercial e industrial de Managua,” in “Perspectivas geográficas y sociológicas sobre la reconstrucción de Managua, Nicaragua, subsiguiente al terremoto del 23 de diciembre de 1972,” Informe de J. Eugene Hass, Martyn J. Bowden, Daniel J. Amaral, Patricia Bolton Trainer, Reyes Ramos (Abril de 1975), 2-14

[11] D. Brown and L. Bornstein, “Whither Managua? Evolution of a City’s Morphology,” 42nd ISoCaRP Congress, Istanbul, Turkey, Conference Proceedings (2006), 8.

[12] See for example, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Managua, Nicaragua Earthquake of December 23, 1972 Conference Proceedings, Vol. 1 (November 23, 1973), San Francisco, California.

[13] Dennis Rodgers, “An Illness Called Managua,” Crisis States Working Papers Series, No. 37 (May 2008), 8.  

[14] José Adán Silva, “Nicaragua: Cleaning Up ‘World’s Biggest Toilet,’” InterPress Service News Agency, March 16, 2009,

[15] Yader Padro Reyes, “Instalan réplica de Avenida Roosevelt en el Paseo del Xolotlán,” El 19 Digital, July 17, 2014, .

[16] Edmundo Jarquín, “Revolución de oportunidades,” La Prensa, September 23, 2017,

 [17] Stephen Kinzer, “A Faded City Brightens in Nicaragua,” New York Times, February 17, 2002.

7 thoughts on “Recovery after Earthquakes: Managua, la ciudad zombie

  1. Great piece.

    Those of us who worked in Nicaragua just after the 1979 Sandinista revolution all knew that ruins of a city, no matter where we lived. Life would bring one to Managua for music, mail, purchases, movies, food and social events. I used to meet up for circus arts in a new park on a street that sported abandoned parking meters and burned out tanks.

    Many Nicaraguans included the Managua earthquake as part of the revolution’s narrative. The stories of the corruption and looting of relief supplies were many. Near where I lived people never tired of telling me about how the national guard used tents for the refugees on beach for vacations.

    In December of 1982 I spent the 10th anniversary of that quake with people from Managua who had made a new life on the Atlantic Coast. They made an open dinner for the residents of Bluefields and in a subtle and humane way shared their new hopes and remembered their losses.

    Myrna’s work on the 1972 Managua disaster is going to be a valuable contribution to understanding modern Nicaragua. This article touches on an important part of their history that needs to be told more in depth.


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