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In Managua, main fight is for shelter

`I'M STAYING here. They can't move us all.'' Adaluz Peralta is defiant as she looks up from her weekend ironing in the stark squatter's shack that she calls home. The government says she has to go. But Ms. Peralta and her 1,500 neighbors in the Dinamarca settlement say they won't go.

Though squatting has long been a problem in Managua, the number of settlements has mushroomed since the 1979 Sandinista revolution, says Auxiliadora Reyes, the city's housing chief. Officials blame the sharp increase on the low wages of peasant migrants.

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``The revolution tries to open up new horizons, to teach people they have rights, and that they should fight for them,'' Managua's mayor, Mo'ises Hassan, says. ``That creates expectations'' of better health care, more educational chances, a generally improved life style. ``And to the extent that the revolution could not fulfill those goals in the countryside, people sought to fulfill them here.''

Dinamarca, one of some 75 illegal settlements with a combined population of 50,000, sprang up on weed-tangled wasteland left vacant by a severe earthquake in 1972.

One problem posed by the settlements, for which the government does not really have a solution, is that many are on land unfit for housing - because of flooding in heavy rains, because of pollution, or, like Dinamarca, because they lie on geological faults. But that is a remote problem for the people who live here, just across the road from the United States Embassy.

They have built their homes, ranging from rude hovels of planking and beaten tin to sturdy concrete-block constructions. And they have rustled up collections to pay for the materials needed to illegally tap water and electricity supplies.

Squatter settlements - known as favelas in Rio de Janeiro, or villas miserias in Buenos Aires - are one of the uglier features of Latin American capitals.

An estimated 30,000 people a year move into Managua from the countryside. The city's natural growth adds just as many people to the population. At this rate, housing chief Reyes warns, the capital will have ballooned from its current 900,000 inhabitants to an unmanageable 2 million by century's end.

To cope with this growth, Housing Ministry officials estimate they need to build 5,000 houses a year - on top of the 80,000 new homes needed right now to cover the existing housing deficit, Ms. Reyes says.

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But since 1985, the cash-strapped government has invested practically nothing in housing in Managua. In the first half of 1986, the state built only 120 houses throughout the country, figures show.

Not all squatters are recent migrants from the countryside. Marielos Carazo, an independent housing expert, says the overwhelming majority ``come from existing houses in the capital where families have grown.''

Ms. Carazo's 18-month study of the settlements shows that 82 percent of their residents are under age 35. She argues this suggests ``that they probably left overcrowded houses to form new homes.''

That certainly seems true of Dinamarca. Ignacio Lorio Rivas, head of the neighborhood committee, says, ``Of the 340 families here, only eight came from the countryside.''

``We are not going to move unless they give us somewhere else to live in Managua,'' he adds.

That is not likely to happen anytime soon. Set between a lake and a range of hills, and riven by fault lines that make the city unusually earthquake prone, Managua has little room to grow.

The city's policy is to legalize those settlements that lie on land fit for housing, starting with the oldest ones first. The area is parceled out into equal-size lots; electricity and water supplies are legally installed; and the shantytown dwellers are given title to their homes.

At the same time, says Reyes, the city intends to survey and give away 1,500 lots of empty land each year to squatters living on land that is not fit for housing.

New settlements, on the other hand, are not allowed.

When Dinamarca sprang up overnight in 1985, ``the police tried to dislodge us, but we stood firm and they couldn't,'' Lorio says. Since last year, such squatter action is no longer tolerated.

``As soon as the first house appears, the police arrive and tell the person that if he doesn't move his things, they will be moved for him,'' says Reyes. ``Just telling people that this is illegal ... was not enough. If you don't use an element of coercion, you can't stop this.''

Officials acknowledge that this is no answer. So long as Managua's population grows, the government builds no new homes, and new attempts to squat are crushed, the overcrowding will worsen.

``There is no short-term solution,'' Mayor Hassan laments. ``All we can do is to give away lots bit by bit, but we are aware that ... it's not enough to cope with the population growth. The only solution is to contain that growth somehow.''

Meanwhile, in the Julio Buitrago settlement, which is now being legalized, Blanca Hern'andez is saving the bricks, mortar, and pots of paint she bought recently until she knows just how big her lot will be.

Across town in Dinamarca, Adaluz Peralta hopes that one day she, too, will be buying the makings of a real home. ``Our struggle now,'' she says, ``is to make them legalize us.''

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