Mexico Wants Its Own 'Panama Canal' - Without US
In December 1859, the United States and Mexico signed a treaty granting the US full use "in perpetuity" of Mexico's Tehuantepec Isthmus, the narrowest point of the country between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal was not yet built, and the Americans were looking for a quick and secure interocean trade route.Skip to next paragraph
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The McLane-Ocampo Treaty never took effect, because the US Senate failed to ratify it. But this dusty historical event, which Mexicans today consider a "near miss" loss of sovereignty over a strategic chunk of their country, is resurfacing.
That's because Mexico is debating a "megaproject" to turn the Tehuantepec Isthmus into a major east-west trade and industrial corridor that would rival the Panama Canal.
It's a project many Mexicans worry could lead to a loss of national sovereignty in the 21st century.
The idea is to build an overland trade route, using modernized rail lines and a zippy divided highway, to allow quick transport of containerized goods between the Gulf port of Coatzacoalcos and the Pacific port of Salina Cruz.
By taking advantage of this transportation infrastructure, promoters say, the area could become a manufacturing and assembly zone similar to Mexico's northern border with the US. Asian products could be assembled on the isthmus before shipment to the United States and beyond. And US products shipped out of Houston or New Orleans would have quick access to the Pacific.
The problem many Mexicans see is that neither the Mexican government nor Mexican companies have the deep pockets to make the multibillion-dollar project a reality.
So foreign investment will be necessary. Most of the rail transport, port operation, and large construction companies considered likely to be participants in such a project are US-owned.
Old concerns reemerge
This foreign involvement has resurfaced old fears of lost Mexican sovereignty and US hegemony here.
"What worries us is a dividing of the country in two, with creation of a band across this strategic area where sovereignty could be lost and control left in the hands of international companies," says Hctor Snchez Lpez, a senator from Oaxaca state, on the Pacific side of the isthmus.
Mr. Snchez, a member of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution, spices his comments on the Tehuantepec project with references to "the old dream of the United States" to control a transoceanic route across Mexico.
But he says his concerns would be the same regardless of what foreign country might end up, through investments, with de facto control of the isthmus. Mexico's sovereignty "would be at risk not only if the US, but if Japan or Canada or any other country, were to predominate," in such a project, he says.
Others are even more strident.
"First, the government delivers our most frightening bankruptcy and then tells us that, since there's no money, we have to sell Tehuantepec's sovereignty," says Jos Angel Conchello, a senator for the center-right National Action Party.
"The ominous McLane-Ocampo Treaty has reached maturity a century and a half later," he says.