The Nicaraguan Canal and Cry of Culture

IMG_2061Managua          The proposed “grand canal,” as the project is called in Nicaragua is the 72nd proposal in the last 500 years to build a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean through Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and the San Juan River. This time it’s a no-bid 100-year concession signed between President Daniel Ortega and a 41-year old Chinese businessman, Wang Jing, for a $40 billion operation that the most optimistic claims believe would be finished by 2019 and according to the government double the economy and create 400,000 jobs. Unions have embraced the project as a jobs creator. Environmentalists are horrified. Mostly locals are keeping quiet about the project.

The engineering obstacles are huge and perhaps daunting. The lake would have to be dredged twice its current depth to 90 feet and the canal would take up almost half its acreage, which is the source of drinking water for Managua. There are concerns that feeder rivers to the lake might have to be dammed to maintain the water level necessary for these huge ocean containers. There are fears about invasive species being allowed between the oceans. An environmental impact statement has been contracted through a professor from George Mason University in Virginia, but there’s no date for completion. One skeptic the Organizers’ Forum delegation met with raised another concern often overlooked that the 100-year concession to Jing would give his operation control and imminent domain rights at prices unilaterally set for half of the land area in the entire country.

Perhaps many are simply adopting a “wait and see” position since Jing’s Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Company was supposed to come up with firm financing by the first of this year, but has thus far said nothing. Jing claims the Chinese government is not behind the project or willing to finance, but it’s unclear to Nicaraguans where else this kind of money could come from.

Before our Friday afternoon meetings some of us caught a couple of cabs to University of Central America, a Jesuit founded university in Managua. We were following the trail to a collection there of “relics” of Augusto Sandino and early Sandinista history housed somewhere on campus. In the serendipity of hidden pleasures found in the risk-and-rewards of international travel, we never found the relics, but we were treated to a tour of the biology collection of flora, fauna, geology, and shells of Nicaragua as well as a semi-diorama of various birds from the area. Finally before our helpful staffers conceded we would not be able to see the relics we were walked over to the large art space where the director gave us a shoulder shrugging tour of the work done by an art collective on the canal. Her diffidence underscored her oft repeated point that this was not a UCA endorsed position but “art, you know,” so you take it or leave it.

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What it was in fact was the most sustained protest about the canal plans that we saw anywhere in Nicaragua. One installation after another made it abundantly clear that the artists were stating clearly that the canal project was essentially a Chinese takeover of Nicaraguan sovereignty, and also a potential environmental, and purposeless, disaster. One of the most powerful pieces showed a small lizard crawling out of the canal to a wasteland symbolizing the ruins of Lake Nicaragua. Another piece was a long running video of a loudspeaker truck driving through miles and miles, village after village throughout the country following the potential route of the canal and announcing the news that all of the listeners would need to be relocated. Piece after piece echoed the politically profound cries of culture, searing the protest powerfully, but deeply, in all of us as we walked from one display to another, amazed at this hidden, almost invisible gem, we had stumbled on in Managua.

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