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The Nicaragua Canal and Sandinismo’s Right Turn

Last 23rd of December, President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega inaugurated the most expensive and ambitious infrastructural project in the 21st century so far: The Nicaragua Canal, an Inter-Oceanic waterway that aims to surpass the Panama Canal in width and size. However, the Canal has sparked much controversy both domestically and internationally, due to concerns around its feasibility as well as around the magnitude of its environmental and social consequences. As tensions surrounding the project mount, President Ortega’s self-portrayal as the heir of the Sandinista Revolution becomes ever harder to sustain. Although polls suggest that most Nicaraguans endorse the project, heartfelt protests by farmers, intellectuals and activists indicate that the Canal will stir important divisions within Nicaraguan society and expose the contradictions posed by Ortega’s turn towards more conservative and rightwing policies since the 2006 elections.

With so much agitation around this project, it is easy to forget that the Nicaragua Canal has already been tried multiple times. Indeed, the idea of creating a waterway that would bridge the two Oceans has reached the status of myth in the national psyche, a never fulfilled mission that dates back to the colonial period. Throughout the country’s history, there have been a total of 72 attempts to build the canal, undertaken not only by Nicaragua but also by such disparate nations as Netherlands, France, England and the US under the office of Ulysses S. Grant. All of them, however, ended up defeated at the hands of mountain ridges, political tensions, or bankruptcy, not to mention the inauguration of the Panama Canal in 1916 that eased international pressure for the project.

But now the project has relaunched and this time it seems it is for good. At least that is what Daniel Ortega’s rhetoric seems to imply: Nicaragua’s current President has declared that the construction of the Canal is irrevocable and that it that has the potential to “bring happiness to the Nicaraguan people” and ““lift the country out of poverty””. Indeed, it seems that, with elections approaching, the President wants this project to be his legacy, and perhaps some numbers might give an impression of how spectacular such legacy intends to be: The Nicaragua Canal is expected to take 5 years to complete (a prediction rather on the optimistic side), cost a total of 50 billion dollars, and run along 172 miles of land. Unexpectedly for a project of this magnitude and likely repercussions, the funds will not come from the Nicaraguan government but from the HKND consortium leader Wang Jing, a Chinese businessman that has gone from total anonymity to lead one of the world’s grandest infrastructural ventures.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the foreign donation has caused much controversy in the country. Back in the revolution days, Augusto Sandino used the term “vendepatria” to denounce the government’s practice of granting rights over the land to foreign companies. In one of those twists that history likes to play, it is this same term that protestors from the left and from the right wield against the Sandinista party that Ortega now leads. Many people fear that the benefits of the Canal will not be shared by the great part of the Nicaraguan population but rather by HKND shareholders and employees, as well as by some well-positioned individuals within the national government.

The commissioning of the Nicaragua Canal to a Chinese entrepreneur might come as a surprise for those who have not heard of the Sandinista movement since the days of the Cold War and for those who have been tuned in to Ortega’s recent anti-imperialist rhetoric. What happened to Ortega the Marxist that only some years ago declared that capitalism was in its dead throes? In fact, the Nicaragua Canal is but one among the several measures that have estranged the President from other adherents of the Sandinista Movement. Since the 2006 elections, Ortega’s government has consistently given concessions to the right and the Catholic Church; the former epitomized by his election of Contra Jaime Morales as a running mate during the national elections and the latter by his public reconciliation with former nemesis Cardinal Miguel Oblando y Bravo. Among the controversial measures issued under his Presidency figures a re-writing of the Constitution that will allow him to run for office indefinitely and a police reform that names Ortega “Supreme Commander” of the police forces. Nevertheless, the most controversial of all measures imposed under Ortega’s office is probably his draconian ban on abortion, one of the only five abortion laws in the world that forbids this procedure under any circumstance.

Due to this trend, sectors in the left have gradually distanced themselves from the President since 2006. Priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, one of the most important voices in Nicaragua and a former supporter of the Revolution, has declared that Ortega “rules the country as if he were a dictator” and betrays the memory of “a beautiful revolution.” Furthermore, he has also expressed dismay in front of the “monstrosity that is the Canal, that will split our country in two.” While one of the most visible voices of discontent, Cardenal is by no means alone in his accusations. Poet Giocconda Belli has describes Ortega’s Presidency as a movement “from revolution to farce” whereas iconic historian of the Sandinista Revolution Dora María Téllez has gone as far as to indulge in a hunger strike in protest of the dictatorial measures of Ortega.

But while criticism from the dissatisfied left has been frequent, the Nicaragua Canal might ignite new voices against the President. While there seems to be a slightly higher rate of approval, it is evident that objectors, however smaller in number, are fiercely protesting against the project. Scientific agencies such as the prestigious Humboldt center have leveled numerous accusations against the Nicaragua Canal, including the pollution of Lake Nicaragua (the greatest deposit of freshwater in Nicaragua) as well as the destruction of the country’s wildlife and biodiversity. Additionally, numerous rural and indigenous communities are standing against Ortega’s project. On February 26th, locals marched across Ometepe Island to voice their concerns about plans to expropriate their lands and to express their rejection against the Canal’s likely effects on their fishing economies. Similar protests have been repeated in Tolesmaida, Rama, or Rivas: all of them communities bordering Nicaragua’s main lake.

At this point, it is hard to predict how the Inter-Oceanic Canal will affect Ortega’s support for the 2016 elections. Taken into account that the Sandinista Front has traditionally drawn its support mainly from rural areas, recent protests among the peasantry and declining interest in the Canal might prove more harmful to the President than the criticism of his former allies. On the other hand, we should not forget that the opposition to Ortega seems still too dispersed and weak to constitute a real challenge to the Sandinista party. While the future is uncertain, we can clearly see that Ortega’s turn to the rightwing has lead to a significant backlash in the present moment: in his turn towards foreign investment and conservative social policies, Ortega has inevitably given up old supporters in order to reach new ones, leaving thus a fragmented yet ever larger group of adversaries that might be profitably reaped by the opposition in the following national elections.