The story of David and Goliath was always a favorite of mine when I was young. A small boy with nothing but a rock and a sling who ends up felling the enormous, snarling, ugly giant? What great stuff! It’s a parable that you want to believe in even if it doesn’t fit many of life’s challenges. You almost have to love it, especially if you live in Nicaragua.
I had that lovely Biblical tale in mind when I walked into the Granada offices of Enacal, the state water and sewage company. Even though I knew that I was about to be completely steamrolled, squashed like a bug and then spit back out to the curb, I came prepared with the most powerful weapons at my disposal: logic and reason. You’ve probably already guessed that there aren’t any rocks or slings in the rest of this story and as it turns out logic and reason are no match for the monolithic bureaucracy that has the average Nicaraguan happily by the throat. If nothing else, I wanted to unravel the mystery of how such a nonsensical and dysfunctional system can exist and thrive. Even before I set out on this adventure, I had assumed that there was something deeply malevolent at the heart of this puzzle. I was wrong about that; it’s actually far more complicated.
First, a little background. The situation was perfectly clear as far as I could tell. For the last five years and counting I had been receiving three completely different water bills each month under three different account names, none of which happened to belong to me. Years ago when I bought my property, two of the three water lines entering the property were cut and capped at the street, and only one remained. Periodically I received shutoff notices (which I was asked to sign) informing me that the two nonexistent lines were about to be disconnected for nonpayment. Great, I thought, go ahead, the service was already disconnected many years ago. The monthly bills were different each month and relatively small, but they included “meter readings,” something I found particularly curious since no meters exist and hadn’t for years. Despite the shutoff notices, I continued to be billed every month like clockwork.
On the advice of my property manager I ignored the bills which probably wasn’t the best idea. I had a gnawing suspicion that this would come back to haunt me at some point. But every time I asked that the issue be resolved my manager reminded me of the time she tried to do that for another client and was told that she needed to get the signature of the previous account holder. It didn’t matter to Enacal that the previous owner had been dead for years —they wouldn’t budge without the signature. Is it any wonder that logic and reason wither in the face of such imperviousness?
In November Enacal shut off the water service to the only line that actually supplies water to my house. It didn’t matter a bit that the account on the real water line was current and there had never been a late payment in six years. So I walked into Enacal knowing full well the only possible answer was to pay for six years of phony bills on nonexistent water lines with imaginary meters. I believe they call this “emotional intelligence” since it wasn’t a question of right or wrong or proving to anyone that it was impossible to have meter readings on lines that had neither a meter or a connection to my property. I wisely decided to raise the white flag for the sake of my general sanity.
I pleaded my case to several stone-faced bureaucrats, first informing each that I was willing to pay for all 120 phony bills. All I wanted in return was to get my real water service turned back on and get a single bill in my name each month. The long and the short of it was they were happy to accept payment of $224 for the phantom bills, but getting the two imaginary accounts suspended was going to be another matter entirely. I was instructed to write a letter explaining the situation and requesting the change accompanied by a copy of my passport, a copy of my escritura, and a copy of the printout showing the paid bills. Kindly, they didn’t ask for the originals of all of my elementary school report cards and the (framed) original of my 1962 membership certificate in the Future Scientists of America.
My water service was restored as promised by the afternoon. Then I discover as as an added bonus they also reconnected one of the two capped lines which was in the process of flooding my patio since it was no longer attached to anything inside the house. So back to the water department I went to give them the good news about the lake forming in my patio. When no one had shown up by the end of the following day to address the issue, I cut the line at the sidewalk and capped it myself. Lo and behold, the waters receded. (Astute readers will rush to point out that I’m mixing up my Biblical tales.)
Back to David and Goliath. Emboldened by my apparent success I returned to Enacal a week later armed with all of the requested items. I even brought a Granadina along for moral support and translating since the logic of the situation had gone beyond my Spanish skills, even though I had spent the previous week memorizing new vocabulary words that usually aren’t used in polite social settings.
This last meeting felt as if we were arguing a case before the Supreme Court. After at least 30 minutes of conversation and more stony stares at a computer screen, I was finally told that it would cost an additional 550 cordobas to put the account into my name. At this point I had reached my limit. I dipped into my store of emotional intelligence and discovered it had run dry and there was nothing left for me to do; so I threw a fit. With sweeping arm gestures, Kabuki grimaces and a variety of other gesticulations, I loudly and irately reminded the woman behind the desk that I had just paid several hundred dollars worth of imaginary bills for nothing —absolutely nothing! That this was all complete and utter nonsense, a charade at best; but I refused to pay to change the name on the bill. To my surprise my performance actually worked. The waters finally parted. (Biblical mixed metaphors seem to be a recurring theme here, but after my third trip to Enacal I was beginning to suffer from diminished capacity.)
I’m quite certain that if Dante had lived another five centuries he would have discovered that hell hath 10 and not nine rings. There is no way that the entrenched Nicaraguan bureaucracy could have escaped his attention; it’s simply too malignant, too rigid and far too big and durable. Kafka would have been dazzled by it but perhaps depressed in the end because it goes well beyond what we now routinely call Kafkaesque.
Some understanding souls reading this are already bristling. I can feel it. They are going to tell me that the bureaucracy exists to give people jobs; and jobs, no matter how nonsensical they might seem to my privileged eyes, are always better than no jobs. This barely rates as a specious argument in my book considering the broader issues— the fact that it is crippling an entire country.
What do I hope to gain by scrutinizing the unwieldy Nicaraguan bureaucracy? Let me assure you it is not a purely masochistic exercise. I had hoped to unravel the mystery of how something that clearly doesn’t work to anyone’s advantage can persist. This little snippet of Nicaraguan DNA would be valuable in recreating the entire beast and with that accomplished I hoped to draw some meaningful, large scale conclusions about life in Nicaragua.
Bureaucracies exist the world over, but they take root and flourish best in poor countries. The warmer the better. The Nicaraguan variant is especially vigorous and at its heart is specifically designed to thwart you in whatever it is you want to achieve. It is all about maintaining the accepted status quo. I had originally assumed that it was at its heart purely malicious and I have come to abandon this as a possible explanation. The system in place is largely co-dependent and represents the absolute antithesis of one that draws upon the collective intelligence of people that encourages and rewards creativity, ingenuity, innovation and especially problem solving. It is the antithesis of a system that fosters and rewards instead of foils initiative and individual effort. This is really the takeaway point I hope to make.
The individuals employed by the bureaucracy are there to collect money, stamp forms and enter data in the computer. They are not allowed to take initiative or solve any of the many problems that come up along the way either large or small in the way of customer service. Simply changing the name of an account holder for example is completely beyond the extent of the powers that they have been entrusted with so it is no surprise that they may agree to do this and a month later you find yourself back at square one.
I wasn’t willing to surrender my initial assumption about the system until I had talked to so many other people who had had similar experiences with several of the larger bureaucratic and business entities in Nicaragua. Stories abounded about the how difficult or impossible it was to accomplish simple things. By the time I had wandered home from my last encounter with Enacal, I felt I had finally peered behind the curtain in the Land of Oz. What I found wasn’t either an evil homunculus or a buffoon. Instead I found someone as frustrated and baffled as I was.
Now, looking beyond my recent experience I see the effect this entrenched attitude has across a wide spectrum of life in Nicaragua, and it isn’t benign. It insures that progress on nearly any front is halted; it is about power and control and it pervades large swathes of Nicaraguan culture and civic life. The long and the short of it is the bureaucrat can say yes or no, nod and even on occasionally offer a rare smile, but is powerless to do anything helpful in the end. Any decision you think you might have been granted is null and void the moment you walk out the door. In the end they are just as victimized by the whole ridiculous mess as anyone else.
I have been back to Enacal several times over the course of five months hoping to get them to stop sending me bills on accounts that don’t exist, and I am able to claim at least partial success. I now receive a bill each month in my name and one, instead of two additional bills. When I returned to Enacal I was promised that the second account would be suspended once they had done an inspection of my property. Sounds reasonable, I thought. A few days later I noticed that all three water meter cajas had been opened. They would have discovered that indeed, only one water line is connected to my house. That should settle things once and for I thought smugly. But then I noticed that they have started to dig a hole in the sidewalk in front of my house. I suspect they are determined to find another water line. Maybe they’ll get lucky and discover the lost Dutchman gold mine instead.
In the end I came away from this experience partially enlightened and partially dismayed. I realized that the powers presiding over things at Enacal were probably frustrated as well but had come to accept the situation and that is probably what I should learn to do. Logic and reason are worthless as it turns out; Goliath, armed with a sheath of tattered, worn out carbon paper always, always wins.