Nicaragua’s “Grand Canal” Project: Dialogue Must Replace Repression

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

According to a recent article by Tico Times journalist Larry Luxner, “Opponents of Nicaragua’s dubious plans to build a $50 billion interoceanic canal are trying to rally U.S. help in fighting the controversial project. But it’s not clear if official Washington is listening.” While the U.S. government has expressed some concern over a lack of publicly available information about the project in the past, the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua and the U.S. State Department have both been noticeably quiet on the issue.

“As controversial as the project is,” wrote Luxner, “U.S. officials won’t bring it up with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during next week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City.” Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Campbell, told Luxner that he declined to attend a recent presentation given by three anti-canal activists in Washington, DC because it was “not interesting” to him.

The issue of the canal, which would be the largest in the world, has been highly contentious in Nicaragua, spurring numerous protests in recent months. A recent poll showed that less than half of Nicaraguans living along the canal’s path support it, compared to 71 percent of Nicaraguans not living along the route.

Experts and activists say the massive undertaking, which broke ground in December, could displace tens of thousands of people from their homes, threaten the local water supplies and prove disastrous for the surrounding natural environment, including Central America’s largest lake. In January, the journal Science released a report critical of the project, which it said has been “shrouded in secrecy since its inception 2.5 years ago” and has lacked adequate consultation with local residents.

The company behind the “Grand Canal,” HKND, is led by a Chinese billionaire named Wang Jing. Many critics of the canal claim that the Chinese government, which has denied direct involvement in the project, has nefarious geopolitical intentions in Latin America. Last month, BBC reported that the slogan “Serve the Country” adorns the conference room at HKND’s offices and Wang “wore a lapel pin with the national flag” to his interview with the news organization. “Outside in the corridor were signs reading ‘protecting state secrets is top priority,'” wrote reporter Carrie Gracie, “and in the reception area, [there were] exhortations to ‘enjoy hard work and fight hard.'”

Writing for Al Jazeera America, journalist Reese Erlich reported that an anonymous Chinese diplomat told her “that the Chinese government favors the canal but is not involved in the day-to-day decision-making. The Chinese government hopes to benefit economically and politically from the project but has no agenda beyond getting faster and cheaper delivery of oil and other key natural resources.” Others have claimed China plans to establish a military base in Nicaragua, but as Erlich writes, this assertion is “absurd…China has no military bases outside its territory and, as a practical matter, wouldn’t risk U.S. anger by establishing one in Nicaragua.”

Russia has also played a role in the canal project by offering to provide security during the construction of the waterway. Increasing security cooperation between Moscow and Managua has been a source of domestic and regional concern, as evidenced by the recent statement of Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro regarding the Nicaraguan government’s plan to purchase fighter jets from Russia: “Nicaragua is sending the wrong message…and it’s not a friendly message.”

Russia has backed Nicaragua in a dispute with Colombia over maritime boundaries in the Caribbean, but along with the government of President Ortega, it has also cooperated with the United States on counter-drug efforts in the region. Despite “various complicated elements,” Nicaragua’s cooperation with the U.S. drug war is “quite positive” according to William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

The tensions surrounding the canal project reflect broader issues in Nicaraguan society. As Sara Van Note recently reported for The Christian Science Monitor, “Critics say Ortega has traded his political vision [of leftist policies such as land reform, nationalizing industries, and ensuring access to free education and health care] for the consolidation of power: In 2006, he formed a strategic alliance with the conservative Catholic Church. Since then, his government has consolidated independent media into state-controlled channels, enforced party loyalty by state employees, and restricted access to information, all seen as signs of growing authoritarianism.”

President Ortega has made moves to centralize control of the military in the executive branch, ostensibly in connection with the fight against drugs and crime, but as El Pais recently reported, the Nicaraguan army “has been heavily criticized by civil society after the harsh crackdown against thousands of farmers who have protested the Interoceanic Canal project…Nicaraguan Army soldiers have accompanied the Chinese census workers engaged in mapping the canal route and have been charged with protecting the interests of the Chinese company HKND as well as engaging in operations of repression against those who oppose the Canal, according to reports by human rights organizations.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ortega hasn’t held a public press conference for more than eight years. The closed-off nature of many of the major actors involved in the Grand Canal project – the Nicaraguan armed forces, HKND, as well as the Chinese, Russian and Nicaraguan governments – make it difficult for journalists and civil society organizations to operate effectively. In the case of the Grand Canal, this lack of open public debate and discussion has fueled fear and resentment on the part of those with legitimate concerns about the project. Rather than engaging in a dialogue with its citizens, the Nicaraguan government has responded with repression and propaganda.

As it stands, the Nicaraguan, Chinese, U.S. and Russian governments appears unlikely to engage in significant international efforts to ensure the canal project moves forward in a socially and environmentally responsibly way. Nevertheless, continued activism by groups and individuals on the ground in Nicaragua, combined with ongoing international media attention, has helped generate the beginnings of international relationships that can help grow and sustain awareness about this important issue.

As one anti-canal activist recently told Al-Jazeera, “[W]e have never seen anything like what is happening today…We’re not in agreement with this, and we’re going to fight until the end.”

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