MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Imara Torres goes to the market three times a week and waits for hours in a long line in hopes of buying a couple of pounds of meat for her family. Sometimes, however, the alternative is skinned lizard.
'I do not always get meat, but I wait,' said Torres, a 22-year-old housewife and mother of one child. 'You get tired of it.'
At least the lizard, offered to shoppers as a meat substitute, is available. Meat, tortillas, rice, beans, bananas and potatoes -- staples of the Nicaraguan diet -- have grown increasingly scarce in recent weeks, and what is available has soared in price.
In just one week, the price of cabbage rose 25 percent, to cost a twelfth of a minimum wage earner's monthly pay. Eggs went up 60 percent in a week and milk doubled.
'Beans and a bit of cheese is a grand feast nowadays,' said a sales clerk in a Sandinista party bookstore in the provincial city of Matagalpa. 'It's worse than ever.'
The shortages and skyrocketing prices are symptomatic of an economic crisis that diplomats, officials and private businessmensay has deepened dramatically in the last year, fueling widespread discontent.
Sporadic shortages of some foods -- and long lines to get them - have been commonplace in Nicaragua ever since the leftist Sandinista Front led a revolution that ousted longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza in July 1979.
But never before have so many products become so scarce at once, observers say.
A country with rich, fertile soil once considered capable of feeding most of Central America, Nicaragua now cannot feed itself.
'It is the worst we have seen, but not the worst we are going to see,' said Rosendo Diaz, executive secretary of the Agricultural Producers Union, an opposition group to the Sandinistas.
Some critics blame the problem on ideologically inspired government mismanagement and an absence of skilled economic planners in the leftist Sandinista government. Many of the country's trained professionals left after the revolution.
President Daniel Ortega, while acknowledging some errors, blames the bulk of the economic crisis on the 5-year-old war with U.S.-backed rebels, known as Contras.
Much of the fighting takes place in rich agricultural areas, and a huge share of the budget as well as large quantities of food and other consumer products are being diverted to the armed forces or the state as a result of the war.
As Nicaraguans last month searched for meat, traditionally on the dinner tables of this meat-exporting nation, government officials admitted they allowed 20,000 pounds of meat to rot in a state warehouse.
A few weeks later, government officials announced 250,000 chickens starved to death because of a shortage of feed meal, which they blamed on a U.S. trade embargo imposed by President Reagan 13 months ago.
The shortages can also be traced to a sharp decline in farm production, which has fallen to its lowest levels since the Sandinistas came to power.
Private economists say the government, moving closer to a centrally controlled economy, discourages output by setting prices too low, often below the cost of production.
Most farmers are required to sell the bulk of their production to the state at controlled prices. As a result, agricultural laborers now work 4 hours a day, compared with eight hours before the revolution.
Many foods end up on a thriving black market, where they fetch higher prices.
The government has also confiscated thousands of acres of farmland and given them to peasants in state-run cooperatives. Sandinista officials have said the program, which has focused on government opponents, will continue.
Diplomats and businessmen say the government, trying to meet trade agreements with other nations that were based on unrealistic agricultural projections, is taking food off the domestic market and exporting it to raise badly needed dollars.
Distribution, controlled through state-run centers, is bottlenecked, especially in the overcrowded capital.
So far, the Sandinistas, who have been in power for seven years, appear to have been able to avert outbreaks of protest sparked by economic troubles.
But sources says disputes over economic policy have provoked divisions within the government, and usually complacent Nicaraguans are growing restive.
'People are squeezed, and it isn't the war,' a Western diplomat said. 'Management is terrible, even by socialist standards.'