The Nicaraguan Interoceanic Canal: Ceremonies and Violence



Becki just returned from spending much of December with her husband in Nicaragua. Little did she know that she would directly experience a small piece of over 5 centuries of world history.

Toastmaster Speech: January , 2015

Have you ever traveled overland from the east to the west coast. How long did it take?

At the time of the gold rush it took 6-8 months to either go overland or around the Horn of South America. That is why they created a shorter route down Rio San Juan in Nicaragua- a potential canal route. You can see why they wanted an interoceanic canal.

And the twisted history of a Nicaraguan canal continues to this day.

Makengue, our 200 acres of rainforest property, is along Rio San Juan. This December, we found ourselves walking right into history–or should I say–riding on a bus at 1:00 am, two days before Christmas, stopped at a road block, surrounded by hundreds of angry, armed canal protesters. Fear not, we survived.

An interoceanic canal was first spoken of in the 1500’s by Spanish King Philip. Two areas were considered- Panama and Nicaragua. During the gold rush, in the 1850’s, the Vanderbilts began transporting prospectors in steamers from New York to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. From there, they travelled up the Rio San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua where a stagecoach took them 12 miles to San Juan del Sur, where another steamer travelled to San Francisco. Claiming to be the cheapest route to California from the east, they soon carried 2,000 passengers monthly for $300 each. Vanderbilt’s contract with the Nicaraguans also gave him exclusive rights to construct a Canal until 1861, but that did not happen.

Years later, in 1881, a French company was contracted to work on a canal in Panama. Twenty thousand workers died and $300 million was lost, as the project failed due to design flaws and corruption. In 1901 Roosevelt signed a treaty with Britain, giving the US exclusive rights to build a canal in the Americas. The Canal Commission proposed building it in Nicaragua, distancing itself from the Panama fiasco. Congress voted 308 to 2 for the Nicaraguan route. But others in the US government, including members of the President’s family, stood to make a fortune if Panama was selected. Panama supporters lobbied heavily, hanging enormous 20 foot maps of Nicaragua in congressional chambers, pointing out the many volcanoes, They sent each senator a postage stamp picturing a Nicaraguan volcano. Their point, the canal route was laden with erupting volcanoes and shaking earth. They claimed Panama had no volcanoes and conveniently neglected to mention how an earthquake had rocked Panama while the French were building. It did not help that Mount Pelee had erupted in Martinique, killing 30,000. The advertising war worked, the tables turned and the canal was built in Panama. But, that did not the end dreams of a Nicaraguan canal route.

Over the last eight years since we bought our rain forest property, the risk of a canal has always hung over our heads. We are on a small river- only a mile from the San Juan and our property would certainly have been affected as the locks would be built and the river widened.

In 2013, a deal was signed between Nicaraguan President Ortega and Wang Jing, a billionaire from Hong Kong, who described the project as “the most important in the history of humanity.” They’d break ground on one of three routes on December 23, 2014, and finish building in five years. The deal also includes building two ports, a resort, and railroad, giving Wang Jing exclusive rights to profits for 50 years with a chance to extend another fifty. In the end, the 172 mile canal route will not be on Rio San Juan and for that we were relieved. But to date, no serious environmental impact study has been done. Over 30,000 people live on the route and the Nicaraguan constitution decrees their land will be taken.

On our trip in December, 2014 Nicaragua was buzzing about the canal and everyone seemed wary. First we traveled to the Caribbean coast, to San Juan, the town where Vanderbilt’s ships had arrived from New York. Now abandoned, this tiny outpost, reached only by water or very small planes, is surrounded by Rama Indian villages, swamps, and jungle. We met the Rama people and heard of a big meeting to discuss their rights. The canal route will run through their sovereign native lands, and they were never consulted. Like non-Indian campesinos, they were visited by Wang Jing’s staff, accompanied by armed police, who asked questions and measured their property without permission. All feared that they would not be fairly compensated and would not be able to afford land since prices had risen astronomically. The Rama sought dialogue, but the other the campesinos made a call to arms.

As groundbreaking grew near, we heard that protesters set up roadblocks along the canal route. They were a mix- mostly rural campesinos and some urban environmentalists.

When it was time for us to leave for Managua to get our flight home, we heard that at the small town of El Tule, on our bus route, the road was blocked. Everyone said the protesters were stopping buses for 20 minutes, but they weren’t mad at the “people.” They were hunting “Chinese invaders”. That struck a nerve with me, reminiscent of how Japanese were interned in the US.

The bus to from San Carlos to Managua takes 6 hours, but El Tule was about 15 miles through dark jungle roads from where we departed. In the middle of the night we reached the road block. From my window I saw 10-foot flames from a burning tires. A huge banner across the road said “No al Canal.” A man shouted into a microphone, “No Pasaran… they will not pass. We will die before we let the Chinese invade our land.” Men stood restlessly with huge sticks and machetes. Revolutionary music blasted. People were arriving on horseback and in trucks. Then, and I am not kidding, he also said “to the two women who just arrived on the truck, you have a secret admirer.”

I was still frightened. As the only white person on the bus, I recalled when “No Pasaran” referred to the “Gringo invaders” when I lived there in the 80’s. Back then, people catcalled me “CIA” when I walked by.

The hour our bus was stopped seemed to last forever. I breathed a sigh of relief as we drove off into the darkness for five more hours. Yet, I knew eventually something bad would happen in El Tule.

The next day, in Managua, we watched on tv as ground was broken for the canal. The tv did not show the images of the protest. And then on Christmas Eve, we heard that the army cracked down. At El Tule the government claimed 15 police and 20 protesters were injured, and 30 arrested. The authorities refused to confirm protester claims that two were killed at the bloody scene.

We keep in touch by phone and read the news on the internet, trying to sort out rumors and the truth. Our friends told us that after the incident, a dialogue happened in El Tule. On the Internet we read that both sides left unsatisfied.

As the canal construction proceeds who knows what’s up ahead. American University students are coming to Makengue in March and we hope things will be calm. In the long term, we wonder will lives be lost? Will the water supply be ruined? Will Rio San Juan be destroyed? Or will huge prosperity come to Nicaragua as the President claims? Some think the project is just to help some people get rich and the canal will never be built.

I close with excerpts of a Nicaraguan poem about the canal in the 1800’s that could still describe life today:

And that warm, sweet, green odor of Central America.
The white houses with red-tiled roofs and with wide sunny eaves,
and a muffled sound of flood waters rushing through the jungle
and the howls of monkeys on the opposite bank
how the little steamboat looked there, calm as could be,
anchored to the shade of the jungle.
And the sudden flop of an iguana into the water,
Hornsby spoke of Nicaragua, its blue lakes amid blue mountains under a blue sky,
and how it was the Transit route and the great passageway,
the pier of America, and how it would teem with merchant ships and with foreigners
speaking all tongues, waiting for the Canal.
                    From a poem by Father Ernesto Cardenal


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