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Nicaragua’s Grand Canal: 1 — Schism amongst the Sandinistas


1: The Canal and the Sandinista Schism

In the first of a series of articles about this vast engineering dream, LAB editor Russell White explores the way in which the decision to build the canal has put a spotlight on President Ortega’s relationship with former allies who have become opponents.

The Canal, ‘Danielismo’ and Ortega’s Power Grab

Many critics within Nicaragua and abroad see President Daniel Ortega’s decision to allow the Chinese businessman Wang Jing to build a canal through Nicaragua as part of a wider effort to increase his power and perpetuate his presidency.

Daniel Ortega. Photo: WikimediaAs Ortega’s erstwhile Vice-President Sergio Ramírez told The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, ‘Ortega wants to make it appear that his tenure in power is indispensable in order to consummate this long-term project’.

Ramírez has also accused Ortega of falling for a ‘cuento chino’, a Chinese story, while another former Sandinista, Ernesto Cardenal, has accused Ortega of selling Nicaragua to the Chinese.

These are key figures within the Sandinista opposition who travelled the world advancing the Sandinista cause during the 1980s and built links and relationships that endure even today. Certainly, they continue to be widely cited by western media outlets, whose default setting tends to be set to negative when it comes to the Canal and the government of Daniel Ortega.

Ernesto Cardenal. Photo: WikimediaRamírez and Cardenal along with the likes of Dora María Téllez have been pointing to the cult of personality that surrounds Ortega ever since he was re-elected in 2006.

Reports point to the emergence of ‘Danielismo’, evidenced by the prominence of Ortega on billboards and in public life, and very much on show at the Museum of the Sandinista Victory in Managua which presents Ortega as the prime mover in the removal of the Somoza dictatorship –at the expense of other figures within the Sandinista movement.

The canal fits with the narrative of a president overly concerned with his own legacy and image. It is seen as a vast folly on Ortega’s part.

Ortega and the Sandinista Opposition

Beyond any sectarian or personal animosities, the announcement that an Interoceanic Canal would be built through Nicaragua raised serious concerns, some environmental, some economic and some social. Critics have questioned whether Nicaragua can truly pull off what would be one of the largest feats of engineering in Latin American history. They have asked where the money for the project is coming from. And they have questioned whether the environmental cost of building the canal negates any potential benefits. 

‘The Canal in Numbers’ -Graphic: La Prensa, Nicaragua

They have also questioned the speed with which the canal law came into being and a lack of appropriate consultation with affected stakeholders – indigenous groups, business organisations, environmental groups, and even the Nicaraguan people.  

That lack of consultation is, for critics of the Ortega administration, ‘par for the course’.

The canal project has highlighted and thrown into relief long standing tensions between President Ortega and his opponents, many of whom were formerly allies. 

Sandinista Schism

Ramírez, Cardenal and Téllez’s criticisms speak to a schism within and a fracturing of the Sandinista movement that occurred as Ortega lost presidential elections 1990, 1996 and 2001.

Divisions emerged within the FSLN with Ramírez and Cardenal resigning, citing Ortega’s heavy-handed leadership style. Ortega also faced leadership challenges from figures such as the former mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites. 

Such divisions were rooted in personal and political differences and are based on the idea that Ortega has sold out and betrayed his original principles. 

This idea is at the heart of the renovista movement, which suggests that Sandinismo is in need of ‘recuperation’. 

While the government has always been keen to stress ‘Ortega’s fealty to Sandino’ as Tim Rogers wrote in Time magazine two years after Ortega’s re-election, renovistas argue that ‘Sandino would never have been a Danielista’.

Ortega today is a more pragmatic politician than in the past. He has actively sought to build bridges with those who were bitter opponents of the FSLN in the 1980s. He has consciously courted the business elite, particularly those belonging to the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and has actively reached out to the Catholic Church, backing a draconian abortion ban in 2006 and cultivating relationships with key church figures such as Cardinals Miguel Obando y Bravo and Leopoldo Brenes.

Invoking the Spirit of Sandino

None of this has stopped Ortega from deploying revolutionary rhetoric as well as invoking the image of Sandino to justify his decision to build the canal. Ortega presents himself as fulfilling Sandino’s dream and thus being re-established as the true heir to Sandino’s legacy.

The dream of a Nicaraguan canal dates from the colonial period, long before Sandino. It is an idea that has cemented itself within the national psyche, as a historical and national mission, so much so that, as the Dutch critic Jan Geert van der Post has noted, there have been some 72 attempts to build a canal throughout Nicaraguan history. 

Critics have pointed out that, despite Ortega’s invocation of Sandino, his vision of the canal differs substantially from that of his hero. 

Ortega is selling off our country... Photo: La Prensa, NicaraguaWhen Sandino wrote about the possibility of building a canal though Nicaragua in his ‘Plan de realización del supremo sueño de Bolívar’ (1929), he envisioned it as a fundamentally Latin American undertaking rather than as something that ought to be undertaken by a corporation or indeed a country from outside South and Central America.

In building the canal themselves, Sandino wrote, the countries of Latin America would not allow the ‘transfer, sale, surrender or rent of the works in question or of other works that compromise the stability of Latin American sovereignty and independence or Latin American nationality to foreign powers’.

Contemporary geo-economic and geo-political reality has clearly overtaken Sandino’s vision. For the Nicaraguan canal to become a reality, capital from elsewhere is needed.

The Public’s View of the Canal

If opinion polls are to be believed, most Nicaraguans either don’t know or don’t care about differences between Sandino’s and Ortega’s visions of the canal.

While there have been demonstrations against the canal in Managua and along the proposed route, opinion polls indicate that the canal has captured the imagination of the majority of the public.

A Telesur report noted that ‘even centre-right opinion polls consistently indicate that over 70 percent of people in Nicaragua approve [of] the canal’. A July poll undertaken by the M&R Consultores indicated that 70.1 percent of the 1600 Nicaraguans polled believed that the canal ‘will pull us out of poverty’.

The canal has also boosted Ortega’s approval ratings. A bulletin on Nicaragua Network News from early October included polling data from M&R again as well as from Costa Rica’s Borge & Asociados which indicated that about three quarters of Nicaraguans believe that Ortega has done a good or very good job as President.

Opposition to the Canal

Nicaragua’s opposition will undoubtedly continue to question all aspects of the canal, as will domestic and foreign NGOs and the western media.

While Ortega might well make an effort to win over his critics, divisions are too long standing and entrenched to be easily overcome.

Though the government and HKND have made some adjustments to the canal plan on the basis of recommendations made by ERM, in truth it seems that no amount of changes to the plan are going to win over the opposition. 

For the opposition, the canal is just not viable environmentally, socially or even economically. For the government, on the other hand, the canal is not just viable, it is key to the country’s economic future and to the stated goal of eradicating extreme poverty. 

One thing is for sure: the battle between the government, Ortega and HKND on one side, and opposition politicians and NGO’s on the other side is set to run and run.

In his next article, Russell White will explore the tension between environmental and economic imperatives.

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