The Big Dig
Along the route of the Nicaraguan canal
It’s long forgotten, but for more than two centuries, various European powers and the United States competed for imperial control over what they believed to be the inevitable building of an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua. The feat was accomplished elsewhere, of course, yet the dream lives on. The leader of the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1980s, Daniel Ortega — still a Sandinista but now a born-again Christian and de facto president for life — is planning to construct that canal.
The China-based billionaire Wang Jing has committed to fund, with other investors, the $50 billion, 173-mile-long project. Preliminary work on the canal, which will be three times longer than the one in Panama, began on the Pacific coast in December 2014. Ortega has awarded Wang virtual ownership of all the land along the canal’s route, including the right to seize any properties, which encompass autonomous territories granted in 1987 to indigenous groups.
Many Nicaraguans opposed to Ortega’s notoriously corrupt government consider the deal a sellout of national sovereignty. When I was in the country a year ago, I heard predictions of guerrilla-style attacks against the 25,000 Chinese and other foreign workers Wang was reportedly bringing in to construct the canal. Ortega’s government has already repressed protests.
Much of the opposition is centered on the environmental devastation the canal could bring. I went on a ride on Lake Nicaragua, through a labyrinth of small islands, some cultivated and inhabited, others pristine and wild. Everywhere I spotted beautiful birds I’d never seen before. Fishermen were out in rowboats or casting nets by the reedy shore. That corner of the lake, so fresh and verdant, was the obvious expression of a venerable and intricate ecology. Common sense suggests it could never survive the incursion of massive oil tankers and freighters.
The writer Sergio Ramírez, who was Nicaragua’s vice president in the late 1980s, wrote me an email recently: “If the canal is built, that will be the end of Nicaragua as a sovereign nation, we’ll be a Chinese colony, and the Great Lake of Nicaragua will become a lifeless swamp. Never has such an atrocious idea occurred to anybody. Maybe the Momotombo volcano will defend us. Well, it’s been erupting lately. And back when it was time to choose between Nicaragua and Panama for the other canal, it was a postage stamp of Momotombo spouting flames that, after it was circulated among the US senators who were to decide, saved us.”
In 2015, with the Chinese economy in tumult, Wang saw his net worth plummet from $10.2 billion to $1.1 billion. The canal is temporarily on hold.