Is the canal for real? International observers will continue pondering a potential canal’s repercussions for China’s growing geopolitical influence in the hemisphere, but viewed from Nicaragua, that question has lost some of its meaning in 2016. Whether it’s built or not, the alluring promise of a canal has already played its part in President Daniel Ortega’s successful transformation of Nicaragua into a sham, one-party democracy.
Nicaraguans have seen this before. The canal-that-wasn’t has exerted a powerful influence on national politics dating back to the 19th century, as leaders of all political orientations have either abused the dream of a canal or sold it to foreign powers for short-term political gain. The most notorious example is the Chamorro-Bryan treaty of 1914, in which strongman Emiliano Chamorro ceded to the United States — which had just finished the Panama Canal — exclusive rights to any canal built in Nicaragua for 99 years. In gratitude, U.S. marines helped Chamorro’s Conservative Party stay in power and turned the country into a virtual protectorate.
Ortega’s generous 100-year concession to HKND, Wang Jing’s Hong Kong-based company, amounts to a similarly doleful submission of national sovereignty. Legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of granting tax-free ownership over a vast swath of the country to an obscure foreign business. After revealing virtually zero details regarding the canal’s potential route or plans to finance its construction, the Orteguista-dominated National Assembly took less than a week to approve the concession. Civil society groups barely made it in time to hurl the very Nicaraguan insult of vendepatrias (roughly translatable as “sellouts,” but with a nationalist twist).
Despite the country’s long and proud tradition of resisting foreign influence — Ortega’s own Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was founded on the principle of anti-imperialism — the canal has predictably captured the popular imagination. How could it not? Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and government officials have irresponsibly promised that the canal would instantly double the country’s GDP and create millions of jobs. The rhetoric resonates even more strongly than the numbers. “For this people that has spent so much time wandering the desert,” Ortega boasted on the day the concession was signed, “the day has arrived that we reach the promised land!”
But Ortega’s manipulation of the canal dream goes much deeper than populist demagoguery. Fearing land reform and nationalization of the economy, Nicaragua’s capitalist class fled the country in droves during the Sandinistas’ quasi-socialist revolution in the 1980s. When the FSLN re-captured the presidency in 2006, they feared the stifling of free markets and a return to tense state-business relations. If anything, the opposite has proven true: Ortega’s 21st century market orthodoxy, which has come at the expense of his party’s original leftist agenda, has earned him a cozier relationship with the private sector than the one enjoyed by neoliberal governments of the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, because they would be the first to benefit from any influx of foreign capital tied to the canal project, the country’s banks and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce (COSEP) have been amongst its most ardent defenders. In that way, the canal highlights something that U.S. and European news outlets — which have been quick to condemn Ortega’s recent maneuvers — have largely overlooked: the nominally leftist FSLN’s consolidation of power has only been made possible via an alliance with its old foes in the country’s traditionally right-wing business elite.
In turn, the private sector has become increasingly complicit in the government’s erosion of democratic institutions and blatant suppression of dissent. Just as it was during the 40-year Somoza dictatorship, the mantra du jour is “make yourselves rich, but stay out of politics.” Widespread allegations of fraud fueled massive street protests after municipal elections in 2008. Since then, the government’s willingness to use force on such occasions — combined with its harassment of the independent media and the silence of its former critics in the business class — has proven largely successful in dissuading people from speaking out. Those who do, such as a group which mounts weekly protests in front of the Supreme Electoral Council, are systematically intimidated. Their reasoned hostility to the canal on legal and environmental grounds doesn’t help their crusade for democracy and human rights, as it allows the government to tag them as obstructionists who simply “don’t want development,” in the words of FSLN congressman Edwin Castro. Moreover, since the canal’s announcement in 2013 there has been a marked quieting of public debate on other pressing issues such as the continued marginalization of the country’s afro-indigenous populations or, for that matter, the embarrassing failure of several other foreign-financed megaprojects. As Nicaraguan journalist Fabian Medina has put it, the canal is like “the rabbit that the magician pulls out of the hat when he wants to distract his audience.”
Indeed, Ortega killed off Nicaragua’s democracy this summer and hardly anybody blinked. First, ahead of November’s presidential elections, he declared that they wouldn’t allow any foreign electoral observers. Soon after, electoral authorities barred the main opposition candidates from running. Worse still, and despite the fact that the FSLN already holds an absolute majority in a National Assembly full of puppet parties, the government expelled the opposition’s 28 elected lawmakers from the legislature. The cherry on the authoritarian cake came on the deadline day for inscribing candidatures, when Ortega presented his wife, Rosario Murillo — who already operates as the de facto prime minister — as his running mate and therefore heiress to the new dynasty.
There is a bright side, however. While Ortega exercises complete control over the three branches of government and stands basically unchallenged on the streets of Managua, plans to expropriate lands for the canal have inspired the most powerful social movement the countryside has seen in decades. The peasant leader of the movement, Francisca Ramírez, is increasingly being seen as “the only real leader” in Nicaragua’s stand against authoritarianism, and the rural anti-canal movement has become the real locus of the campaign against this year’s electoral farce.
As a Nicaraguan and somebody that writes about the country’s history, my friends and colleagues in the U.S. often ask me if I think the proposed waterway will actually be built. I suppose the question misses the point. Regardless of if or when the digging begins, the canal in its current, phantom-like form will go down as the centerpiece in the Ortega regime’s reversal of one of the most symbolic democratic transitions in Latin America’s recent history.
Published in International Boulevard.