Politicians often announce grandiose public works that never get off the ground, but Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega should go into the Guinness Book of Records for having promised one of the world’s most ambitious — and surreal — megaprojects that may never get started.
Four years ago last month, Ortega made headlines across the world by announcing that a Chinese firm would build a $40 billion interoceanic canal in Nicaragua, which would compete with the Panama Canal and turn Nicaragua from a poverty-stricken nation into a global shipping power overnight.
In a move that looked like it was taken out of one of Gabriel García Márquez’s “magic realism” novels, Ortega ordered his loyalist congress to approve a “special law” on June 13, 2013, basically turning over the country’s national sovereignty for 50 years — with an option to extend it for another 50 years — to a then mysterious Chinese businessman named Wang Jing.
The law gave Wang’s company, Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co., HKND, an exclusive concession to build an interoceanic canal and seven related projects, including ports, airports and tourism resorts.
Unlike what happened with the expansion of the Panama Canal, the Nicaraguan law was passed in a matter of days without a referendum or a national debate over its merits.
The law said the Nicaraguan Canal, which would be three times longer than the Panama Canal, would make Nicaragua’s gross domestic product grow by a whopping 16 percent in 2016, and would generate more than 550,000 direct and indirect jobs. Laureano Ortega, the president’s 27-year-old son, a professional opera singer, was appointed as the government’s official liaison with HKND.
Wang, the Chinese business magnate, went to Nicaragua in 2013 and launched the project next to Ortega at a ceremony that made big headlines worldwide.
At the time, there was widespread speculation in Washington that the Chinese government was behind Wang, and that China would significantly increase its growing clout in Latin America by controlling one of the globe’s major shipping lanes.
Ortega painted the canal project as the fulfillment of a centuries-old Nicaraguan dream. “Our people have been crossing the desert for a long time, searching for the promised land. And the day has come, the hour has come to reach the promised land!” Ortega said at the canal’s 2013 announcement ceremony, standing next to the man he called “brother Wang Jing.”
In December 2014, Wang made a new appearance in Nicaragua, this time to inaugurate what he said would be “the beginning of the canal project” in Brito, on the Pacific coast. “This is an important moment for humanity,” Wang said, as he announced the widening of a 3.7-mile dirt road leading to the port.
Earlier this week, I called Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the publisher of Nicaragua’s prestigious Confidencial news magazine, to ask him about the current status of Nicaragua’s interoceanic canal.
“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing,” Chamorro told me. “They widened that 3.7-mile dirt road by about 40 inches, and that was it. It remains a dirt road.”
In late 2015, Wang lost much of his fortune when his Xinwei telecommunications took a beating in China’s stock market, according to Bloomberg.com.
Since then, HKND has sporadically announced new environmental impact studies, but there’s no canal construction to be seen anywhere. Ortega has not talked about “brother” Wang nor the canal project over the past two years, Chamorro said.
HKND recently surfaced as a sponsor of Nicaragua’s “Puccini Festival” in honor of Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924.) The festival featured Puccini’s “Tosca” opera, with one of its leading roles played by — you guessed it — Laureano Ortega.
My opinion: This whole story looks like a script for a comic movie, but it’s a sad reflection of a poverty-stricken country that is run like a family fiefdom by Ortega and his wife. As Chamorro told me, the bottom line is that there is no canal, and growing fears of a massive corruption scheme.
There are fears that Wang could now use his 50-year concession to sell the rights to ports, airports and tourism complexes, with zero benefit for the Nicaraguan people. It would be a textbook case of how authoritarian regimes often become the most incompetent, and the most corrupt.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español