The Nicaraguan government and a Chinese telecom tycoon took a big step this week toward the country’s long-held dream of having its own canal, but their prediction of supertanker traffic starting as soon as 2020 seems a bit far-fetched.
The project will cost $40 billion and, according to government officials, will create 50,000 jobs immediately, 1 million jobs over the life of the project, and will help lift another 400,000 people out of poverty. President Daniel Ortega’s supporters claim the economy – currently projected to grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020 without the project – will grow as much as 15 percent a year with it. The Chinese company, HKND, will enjoy a 100-year lease on the canal, with 1 percent of it reverting back to Nicaragua each year. The proposed route for the canal is 278 kilometers long – about three times longer than the Panama Canal – and [is designed to] be deep and wide enough to handle ships much larger than the “New Panamax” vessels. Officials say the canal would “complement” the Panama waterway, which they say will be overcapacity even after its current expansion, and will save shippers some 800 miles on their way to the U.S. east coast.
Opposition from some politicians and environmentalists has been strong. According to media reports, Nicaragua’s Supreme Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and other business organizations are generally positive but skeptical, with one leader calling Monday’s press conference “just an initial flow of information.”
Congressman Eliseo Núñez of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), however, has been widely quoted as calling Monday’s announcement a “propaganda game” and blamed the media for generating “false hopes for the Nicaraguan people.” Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez says that handing over national territory for development is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and other critics claim the project violates 32 provisions of the Constitution.
Concerns about damage to Lake Nicaragua, an important source of fresh water that is already polluted, remain. Chinese investor Wang Jing told the press that avoiding environmentally sensitive areas was a major factor in determining the route, and he has promised that a full environmental impact study will be conducted before construction starts. Opponents of the project doubt he will make the report public.
Ortega’s statement last year that a Nicaraguan canal “will bring wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people” may well be right – if the project gets off the ground and so many jobs are created. However romantic that vision is, construction is still far from certain to begin this December, as claimed, or even within the next year or so.
Mr. Wang says that he has lined up “first-class investors,” but no one has been identified yet. In addition, criticism of his business record – opponents say his telecom company is poorly run – has hurt his credibility. And accusations that he’s a stalking horse for the Chinese government, which he says has had “no involvement,” will be difficult to dispel in view of Beijing’s other interests in the region and in shipping. Equally troubling, as the ongoing expansion in Panama has shown, is that the shadow that corruption and inefficiency cast over any major project tempers optimism and argues against premature celebration.