You remember him, don’t you? When Ronald Reagan was still in his stirrups, he did everything in his power to oust Daniel Ortega from control in Nicaragua by aiding the “patriot” Contras. Well, Reagan failed. Ortega was out for a while, but he’s back again. As the Nicaraguans say, “hierba mala nunca muere”—“weeds never die.”
Ortega’s latest gambit is to build another canal across Central America (see map following), but this time through Nicaragua. The idea had been considered once before, but rejected because of the nearness of the very active volcano Momotombo (see below). In fact, when the Panama Canal was cut through, in August 1914, Nicaraguan President General Emiliano Chamorro signed a treaty with William Jennings Bryan to the effect that the U.S. was granted the exclusive right—in perpetuity—to build a canal through Nicaragua.
Well perpetuity is over and done with. Ortega has cut a deal with the Chinese to build a Canal to be 100% owned by them, except that with each passing year, an additional 1% of the ownership rights would pass to the Nicaraguans. The company building the canal, called the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (or HKND for short) is led by Wang Jing, who has no particular experience cutting canals. What is Nicaragua paying for the venture? Nothing. What is Nicaragua getting for the canal? Initially, just about nothing. What is China getting for the canal? A one hundred year concession in which majority control passes to the Managua government after 51 years. Many think that Ortega is getting a large cut of the action for making the deal, but no one knows for sure.
According to Dora Maria Téllez, head of the opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement:
The Chinese must be throwing themselves a party right now. Since the concession doesn’t specify geographic limits, it effectively gives them the whole country to do what they want. What do they have to pay in taxes? Nothing. What control does Nicaragua have? None.
Adán Aguerri, head of the Superior Council on Private Enterprise (COSEP), fielded a question on what this deal would do to Nicaragua’s sovereignty: “In a country where anyone can come and stomp all over us tomorrow, what’s sovereignty?”
And what about the Monroe Doctrine which we all learned about in school? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, it is no longer operative.
I’ll leave you with another Nicaraguan term: vendepatria, or “seller of the fatherland.”
For more information about this subject, read Jon Lee Anderson’s article entitled “The Comandante’s Canal” in the March 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker magazine.