Tue, Dec 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Nicaragua in thrall of canal dream, worries remain

Plans to build a canal three times the length of the Panama have been approved for a Beijing-based telecom CEO, while critics’ warnings are being ignored

By Michael Weissenstein and Luis Manuel Galeano  /  AP, MANAGUA, Nicaragua

And the construction costs may be climbing. Cesar Zamora, a power company executive who traveled to China in October, said Wang’s company informed the group that the estimated price of the canal already has risen to US$50 billion because of unspecified environmental costs.

“What Daniel Ortega is doing is selling dreams to Nicaraguans,” said Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, who served as ambassador to the US and as foreign minister before Ortega returned to power in 2011. “I would love it if Nicaragua had a canal, but I just don’t see it in the cards right now.”

Wang and other Nicaraguan canal supporters said they are confident there is demand for a waterway accommodating larger ships than the expanded Panama Canal.

“There seems to be a very strong business case,” Wild said. “I’ve seen nothing that changes my view that world trade can handle another canal.”

Nicaragua was long considered a site for a trans-ocean canal, coming under repeated consideration by the UN in the 19th century before the US decided on Panama. Nicaragua has watched enviously as the Panama Canal fueled growth virtually unmatched in the region, while struggling to move 40 percent of its 6 million people out of poverty.

Ortega’s advisers have projected construction could begin next year and take five or six years to complete. They said it could more than triple Nicaragua’s roughly 5 percent growth rate by 2015 and double its US$10 billion GDP by 2018.

Advocates say complaints about the terms of the concession are motivated by opposition to Ortega, who has been pushing to bring private investment to the country despite his leftist roots. That push has become more urgent in the face of waning aid from Venezuela, a socialist patron facing its own economic struggles.

“This is a project that’s been waiting for centuries and that’s why we’re interested in doing it as soon as possible,” said Edwin Castro, a ruling-party congressman who voted for the canal concession law.

“There’s no unconstitutionality. It’s political attacks from those who don’t want Nicaragua to move forward,” he said.

Wang’s previous venture, the telecom company Xinwei, has boasted it has orchestrated an array of deals worth more than US$5 billion over the last three years but an examination of those claims by The Associated Press showed that Xinwei’s promises to build revolutionary new telecom networks had yet to materialize and deals with local partners were marred by false starts and poor performance.

Wang, who announced last week he will spearhead a US$3 billion joint venture to construct a deep-water port and refurbish the Sevastopol port on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, has said that he is proud of his record, and that his plans to raise US$8 billion by the year’s end in the first phase of the canal’s financing are going “smoothly.”

Many in Nicaragua, from wealthy businesspeople to struggling members of the working poor, care little about criticism of the canal, saying it will be worth all the government concessions if it brings badly needed jobs.

However, there is deep concern in the hamlet of La Virgen, a string of several dozen well-kept homes clustered along the shores of Lake Nicaragua near the mouth of the Lajas River, about two hours south of the capital. It is a spot singled out on planning maps as a site where container ships would exit the enormous freshwater inland sea that covers much of western Nicaragua, and steam on toward the Pacific. The town sits 1km from the mouth of the river, a sandy crescent bay where hundreds of snow-white egrets preen and bathe in a silence broken only by the crash of waves against the shore and the rustling of trees along the riverbank.

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