NUEVA GUINEA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s muddy countryside rumbled under the staccato of horse hooves and rubber boots on Tuesday as more than 1,000 campesinos marched through Nueva Guinea to protest the construction of a $50-billion, privately owned Chinese canal that would rival Panama’s interoceanic waterway.
Under the banners “Our land is not for sale!” and “Chinaman, go home!” Nicaraguan farmers and cowboys vowed to defend their properties from government expropriation and Chinese encroachment.
“I would rather die than hand over my property,” march organizer Francisca Ramirez, 39, told Fusion in a phone interview from Nueva Guinea, 175 miles east of the capital. “The people living in this region are already living in extreme poverty. Where are we supposed to go if the government kicks us off our land?”
Suspicions of Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government have turned to alarm as the country’s perpetual president, Daniel Ortega, hatched a perplexing partnership with enigmatic Chinese businessman Wang Jing in 2013. Now, the two are preparing to expropriate land from 7,000 mostly poor Nicaraguan families to make way for an ill-conceived 172-mile canal megaproject that many doubt will ever get funded, much less built.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Wang Jing (photo/ AFP)
More than a year after the president’s Sandinista Front rushed a sovereignty-compromising concession law through his rubber-stamp congress, Nicaraguans still don’t know how much the Chinese canal will cost, who will pay for it, whose land will be confiscated, or what the environmental impacts will be on the country’s expansive Lake Cocibolca, considered by many to be the future source of drinking water for all of Central America.
The Sandinista government, in its fondness for secrecy, granted the canal concession to an unknown Chinese company that appeared out of nowhere and registered on Grand Cayman Island a few minutes before the law was drafted. The company, HKND, has no history of canal-building — or building anything else, for that matter.
For the past few months Chinese surveyors, with the muscle of heavily armed Nicaraguan soldiers and police, have been fussing about the countryside taking unwelcomed measurements of people’s properties and homes, then chattering amongst themselves in a foreign tongue.
Local residents say the nosy foreigners don’t speak Spanish and don’t explain themselves as they enter people’s properties to take measurements. Stone-faced Nicaraguan soldiers, meanwhile, say they’re “not authorized to talk” when farmers inquire about the Chinese guy with the measuring tape.
When the Chinese mapmakers do speak, residents say, it's only to offend.
“One of their translators asked me, ‘Why do you continue to work on your land and build if you’re just going to have to leave anyway?’,” said 29-year-old Oxeas Villas.
He says one of his neighbors tried to film the Chinese surveyors with his cellphone, but the Nicaraguan soldiers grabbed him and made him erase the images.
“Our government has sold out to the Chinese,” Villas snorts. “The soldiers are only concerned about protecting the Chinese, not the Nicaraguans.”
Folks aren't too happy about the arrangement.
“Ortega is a sellout; we call him that because he’s selling off our land,” said farmer Reynaldo González. “But we’ll fight for what belongs to us— the and we inherited from our parents and grandparents. I don’t know how they’re going to get us off this land.”
The Sandinistas’ Canal Law
Voting along strict party lines on June 13, 2013, Sandinista lawmakers unilaterally passed into law a presidentially endorsed concession law that gave newly minted HKND a sweetheart 50-year contract to “design, develop, engineer, finance, construct, possess, operate, maintain and administer” the Great Nicaragua Canal megaproject.
The law was passed without any public debate and despite the uncooperative objection of minority lawmakers. The one Sandinista congresswoman who failed to vote “yay” — some claim her pudgy finger unwittingly pressed the wrong button by mistake — was unceremoniously ousted from office on some frivolous offense invented by the ruling party.
Nicaragua’s canal law (Law 840) was met by a flurry of constitutional challenges filed by the opposition, civil society and indigenous groups. But every motion was summarily dismissed by partisan pettifoggers hogging the bench in the Sandinista-stacked Supreme Court.
As it stands, the law makes Nicaraguan landowners defenseless against the advances of Chinese company HKND, which has the unchecked authority to expropriate any land it deems necessary for construction of its canal megaproject.
“The law establishes a mechanism that gives total power to the Canal Commission, which is above the law and due process,” José Adan Aguerri, head of Nicaragua’s top business chamber, said in 2013 interview. “They alone will determine which lands need to be expropriated, and how much they will pay for them. Period.”
Jose Adan Aguerri (photo/ Tim Rogers)
With no legal recourse, Nicaraguans are left to protest in the streets.
“Law 840 talks about massive expropriations, where they are going to pay us a ‘just price’ determined by them,” said farmer Orlando Campos. “Is that fair? Everyone in the countryside is totally against this.”
The government’s argument
The Sandinista government promises the canal will revolutionize Nicaragua and convert the country into the third-fastest growing economy in the world over the next five years.
Ortega’s government projects the canal will lift precisely 403,583 Nicaraguans out of poverty by 2018, and an additional 353,935 people will be pulled from the grasps of extreme poverty. The country’s overall poverty rate would drop from 42 percent to exactly 31.35 percent over the next five years, according to the government’s statistically exact projections.
The Sandinista government predicts Nicaragua's government will grow by more than double with a canal.
The canal will thrust Nicaragua’s economic growth into the double digits, peaking at an astronomical 15 percent growth rate in 2015, according to the government’s math.
Overall, Nicaragua’s economy will double over the next five years, reaching $24.8 billion by 2018. Employment will triple. Children will smile, affluently.
'Solo Mates Sos'
Nicaraguans whose homes lie in the path of the alleged canal don’t believe the hype peddled by Ortega’s apparatchiks or their Chinese pen-pals.
For those who live in the canal-flagged region of Nueva Guinea, a territory that supported the U.S-backed contra rebels during the war against the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, a canal is about as useful to them as a three-legged horse.
“I don’t want a canal— that’s for capitalists,” said farmer Eusebio Torrres, from the community of Agua Fría. “They are trying to take away the land that we paid for with our sweat…We just want them to leave us alone; just let us work, without any canal and without any Chinese.”
Poster for the next anti-canal march in Nicaragua.
All photos by Carlos Herrera, unless otherwise indicated