Nicaragua: protests as canal construction begins

Christmas Eve saw clashes in Nicaragua between riot police and campesino protesters, with some 40 detained and several injured. Most have been released, but a few are still reported missing and are believed to be in Managua's El Chipote prison. "This is no longer a dictatorship lite, this is a now a full-blown repressive dictatorship that is baring its claws and releasing its dogs," Vilma Nuñez, head of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, told US-based Fusion website. The protests took place at El Tule, Chontales department, and in Rivas, where campesinos tried to block road construction related to the inter-oceanic canal project. Protests were also reported at Nueva Guinea in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, where campesinos burned tires at roadblocks. The protests began Dec. 22, marring that day's ceremonies marking the start of construction on the mega-project. Laureano Ortega, son of President Daniel Ortega, and canal developer Wang Jing of Hong Kong-based HKND Group, were helicoptered into Rivas for the affair, and apologized to assembled journalists for the disturbances. (, La Prensa, Nicaragua, Dec. 27; Nicaragua Dispatch, Dec. 24)

Officials put a good face on the ceremony. Vice President Omar Hallesleven said that the canal "will not only transform the history and geography of Nicaragua but also its economy in a sustainable fashion which is what we Nicaraguans need." He said it will "bring great economic benefits and double our GDP growth which is currently at 4% or 5% each year." Wang Jing said through a translator, "Friends, I invite you to keep in your memory this great moment which will be written in history. I announce the beginning of the work on the Grand Canal of Nicaragua."

At another event that day, President Ortega addressed concerns about land acquisition: "We will speak with the population along the route to come to agreements and the population can choose to accept land nearby or other state-owned land elsewhere. These new properties will be more valuable because everyone knows that when you build a road it creates better conditions for the farms along the way and for the nation." Wang Jing added: "Compensation will be paid based on the market, in a just, open, and transparent fashion. No one will touch an inch of land without an agreement and until the owner is satisfied with the payment."

But the Grupo Cocibolca, an environmental alliance opposing the project, issued a statement protesting that construction had commenced without completion of the feasibility and environmental impact studies, calling this contrary to basic international norms. Victor Campos of the Centro Humboldt, one of the Grupo Cocibolca member organizations, said that four months ago his group requested a meeting with the Canal Commission and HKND, and offered to do an independent review of the studies, but never heard back. Telemaco Talavera, spokesman for the Canal Commission, said that drafts of the environmental impact studies were considered, and denied that the inauguration had been hurried.

Phyllis Powers, US ambassador to Nicaragua, said she did not know what US companies might be interested in investing in the canal. "No one yet knows what the economic feasibility study says or the risks to the environment," she told reporters. "Nor do we know the contracting process…. I think that many companies, not only US companies, but other international ones, will wait to see what these studies say."

In its Dec. 22 editoria, Managua's El Nuevo Diario said: "The polls show a large majority of Nicaraguans support the building of this giant project; nevertheless, in areas where the canal will go through, some peasants have demonstrated against it, principally because they will have to sell their land and they see this as an imposition more than an opportunity. Some environmental organizations insist that the damages to the environment could be greater than the economic gains of the project. Other sectors see opportunities, [including] businesses in the areas of construction, commerce and tourism…." The editorial concluded: "How many doubts will be dispelled today when they cut the ribbon? In order to believe, citizens need information and then they will see." (NicaNet, Dec. 23)

The weeks leading up to the symbolic ground-breaking also saw mounting protests. Thousands marched on Managua to oppose the project on Dec. 10, under the slogans "No to the canal," "Get out, Chinese," and "Ortega, sell out." According to local media, many were barred from reaching Managua for the protest from impacted areas of the country by police blockades. (Tico Times, Costa Rica, Dec. 10)