Rep. Weller Buys Land in Nicaragua

Posted June 17, 2003 at 6:39pm

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but property in the once war-torn nation is proving to be a hot commodity among a growing number of Americans, including Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.).

The 45-year-old Congressman last year plunked down somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 on a plot of land in San Juan del Sur, according to his 2002 financial disclosure form released Friday.

“He went on a personal vacation down there a couple years back and went sightseeing and fell in love with the country and thought it was a great place to visit,” explained Weller Press Secretary Benjamin Fallon. “He had the opportunity to go back a little bit later and decided he wanted to purchase some land.”

San Juan del Sur is a tranquil fishing village on the Pacific Coast two hours southwest of the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. The area has recently emerged as a popular tourist destination in the developing country, with bed and breakfasts and other resorts drawing visitors to San Juan del Sur’s pristine beaches, lazy hammocks and surfing spots.

Fallon said that his boss first traveled to the Central American region a couple of years ago on a Congressional delegation — public records show he traveled to Nicaragua on the Ways and Means Committee tab in January 2002 to attend the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos — but that he has also vacationed there on his own dime.

“He spent a week there hiking and doing outdoorsy things,” Fallon said of his boss’ personal visit to the region. “He really fell in love with the setting and the people.”

According to a February 2002 article in Conde Nast Traveler, Nicaragua is the Costa Rica of yesterday, a developing country where Americans and other foreigners can snap up land — some are even buying their own islands — at bargain-basement prices, with an eye on profits down the road.

A quick search of the Internet, in fact, reveals numerous Web sites touting land and homes for sale in San Juan del Sur and other parts of Nicaragua. For instance, at www.realestatenicaragua.com, a lot with a stunning ocean view is listed for $155,000.

Several Web sites on buying real estate in Nicaragua stated that most deals are executed with cash.

Fallon said he did not know if his boss paid cash for the property, but Weller did not list a mortgage for the real estate under the liabilities section of his financial disclosure form.

While Weller is not the only Member of Congress who owns property abroad — Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), for instance, has owned part of a cottage in County Galway, Ireland for years — he is among the few.

A 2002 study of the real estate investments of House Members over a 10-year period from 1985 to 1995 published by the American Real Estate Society and The Journal of Real Estate Research found that few lawmakers have purchased property in foreign countries.

“Neither Representatives nor Senators hold significant foreign property,” the study noted. “Foreign investment, usually confined to resort properties, comprised less than 1 percent of their total real estate holdings in both cases.”

But beyond the financial incentive, Weller’s investment in Nicaragua also gives him a great place to practice speaking Spanish.

Weller — who was given a spot on the International Relations Committee this year and was recently tapped by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to improve the GOP’s outreach to the Hispanic community — is spearheading a group of 20 lawmakers studying Spanish through the Department of Agriculture Graduate School.

Nonetheless, as a so-called “Sandalista” — a nickname Nicaraguans reserve for wealthy tourists — the Congressman still has to be careful during his visits to his property.

While the Civil War between the Marxist Sandanista government and the Contra rebels is now a chapter of history for the Central American nation, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs warns Americans visiting the region to be cautious.

Violent crime in the country is on the rise and traveling by car is a hazardous experience due to the state of disrepair of the roads, many of which were severely damaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and have yet to be repaired.

Health risks include malaria and dengue fever, and the country still has boundary disputes with the governments of other bordering nations.

Weller, however, seems undaunted by the risks.

Fallon said his boss enjoys hiking and biking in Nicaragua and while he has no immediate plans to develop the property, he might eventually build a vacation spot — or retirement home — on the property.