Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016

Panama: A Central American Singapore?

By Tom Long*

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

As a transportation hub, logistics center, and regional financial player, Panama has long been painted by investment bankers and Panamanian politicians as a potential “Singapore of Latin America,” but that vision still seems a way off.  In some respects, Panama’s story has been quite impressive.  For a decade, it has boasted GDP growth far beyond the regional average, even surpassing 10 percent in some recent years.  Unlike many of its neighbors, its dollar-based economy relies on services, not exports of commodities or low-value-added light manufacturing.  Since the 1989-1990 U.S. invasion to unseat General Manuel Noriega, the total size of the Panamanian economy has quadrupled in constant dollars.  It is also different from Singapore in important ways.  Singapore’s approach to planning and public housing might be helpful in Panama City, which has suffered traffic, environmental degradation, and inadequate housing for the poor as a consequence of poorly planned growth.

In other important ways, however, the Panama-Singapore comparison is less apt.

  • Singapore is a city, with nearly two million more people than Panama has spread across 100 times the landmass. Urban-rural divides are wide in Panama, with poor delivery of health and education services outside the cities, exacerbating inequality.  A Singapore-style strategy in Panama would leave the countryside behind – and indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations would benefit much less.
  • Differences between the two countries in governance – for better and worse – are profound. The Panamanian people are much freer under the country’s democracy than they would be under a single-party-dominated system like Singapore’s.  In other ways, though, Panama’s governance leaves much to be desired.  Corruption is a massive problem, and watchdog groups highlight weakness in the rule of law, judicial independence, and press freedom.  Projects to expand the Panama Canal and build a capital city subway are over budget and behind schedule, and have suffered from strikes, contract disputes, and questionable bidding practices.  While it may seem easy to blame the corruption on former President Martinelli, who faces criminal charges, the problem has much deeper roots.
  • The two countries have very different policies toward education. Singapore invested, and continues to invest, heavily in world-class universities.  Panama lacks these, weakening its ability to compete globally in industries where innovation is key.  While Panama’s primary education has improved, its research and development lags.
  • A final difference is where the countries find themselves in their political and economic evolution. Singapore became independent 50 years ago, but it has been only a quarter century since Panama ended its kleptocratic, military rule.  It has been just 15 since the United States officially turned control of the canal over to Panamanian authorities.  The roots of its problems cannot be easily or quickly extirpated.

Panama’s boosters often use the comparison to highlight the areas in which Panama excels – economic growth, unique geography, and infrastructure crucial to global shipping and air transit.  The comparison might be more helpful in highlighting areas where Panama needs to improve.  These include dedicating resources to higher education and R&D, addressing inequality, rooting out corruption, and enhancing political and bureaucratic accountability.  Singaporean scholar Alan Chong argues that Singapore’s attempt to present itself as a model, global city is in part a foreign policy strategy of “virtual enlargement.”  The city-state’s wealth, reputation, and active role in international organizations allow it to “punch above its weight” in Southeast Asia and beyond.  Some chapters of Panama’s recent economic story might be the envy of neighbors with their own canal dreams, but the country will need to focus on governance and accountability if even its logistics-hub strategy is in fact going to deliver shared welfare at home and enhanced influence abroad – let alone become a Latin American equivalent of an Asian Tiger.

March 2, 2015

* Dr. Long is a visiting professor in International Relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, which is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Nicaragua’s Canal: Great Leap (of Faith) Forward?

By CLALS Staff

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Nicaraguan government and a Chinese telecom tycoon took a big step on Monday toward the country’s long-held dream of having its own canal, but their prediction of supertanker traffic starting as soon as 2020 seems a bit far-fetched.  The project will cost $40 billion and, according to government officials, will create 50,000 jobs immediately, 1 million jobs over the life of the project, and will help lift another 400,000 people out of poverty.  President Daniel Ortega’s supporters claim the economy – currently projected to grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020 without the project – will grow as much as 15 percent a year with it. The Chinese company, HKND, will enjoy a 100-year lease on the canal, with 1 percent of it reverting back to Nicaragua each year.  The proposed route for the canal is 278 kilometers long – about three times longer than the Panama Canal – and will be deep and wide enough to handle ships much larger than the “New Panamax” vessels.  Officials say the canal would “complement” the Panama waterway, which they say will be overcapacity even after its current expansion, and will save shippers some 800 miles on their way to the U.S. east coast.

Opposition from some politicians and environmentalists has been strong.  According to media reports, Nicaragua’s Supreme Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and other business organizations are generally positive but skeptical, with one leader calling Monday’s press conference “just an initial flow of information.”  Congressman Eliseo Núñez of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), however, has been widely quoted as calling Monday’s announcement a “propaganda game” and blamed the media for generating “false hopes for the Nicaraguan people.”  Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez says that handing over national territory for development is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and other critics claim the project violates 32 provisions of the Constitution.  Concerns about damage to Lake Nicaragua, an important source of fresh water that is already polluted, remain. Chinese investor Wang Jing told the press that avoiding environmentally sensitive areas was a major factor in determining the route, and he has promised that a full environmental impact study will be conducted before construction starts.  Opponents of the project doubt he will make the report public.

Ortega’s statement last year that a Nicaraguan canal “will bring wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people” may well be right – if the project gets off the ground and so many jobs are created.  However romantic that vision is, construction is still far from certain to begin this December, as claimed, or even within the next year or so.  Wang says that he has lined up “first-class investors,” but none has been identified yet.  In addition, criticism of his business record – opponents say his telecom company is poorly run – has hurt his credibility. And accusations that he’s a stalking horse for the Chinese government, which he says has had “no involvement,” will be difficult to dispel in view of Beijing’s other interests in the region and in shipping.  Equally troubling, as the ongoing expansion in Panama has shown, the shadow that corruption and inefficiency cast over any major project tempers optimism and argues against premature celebration.

Cuban Infrastructure and Brazilian State Capitalism: The Port of Mariel

By Eric Hershberg

Panamax Container Ship / Wikimedia Commons

Panamax Container Ship / Wikimedia Commons

The Port of Mariel – long associated with a boatlift in 1980 that brought more than a hundred thousand Cubans onto U.S. shores – could either help launch Cuba into a new regional role as a shipping/trading hub or be yet another white elephant project.  This irony was noted in a recent New York Times piece, which portrayed the venture in an optimistic light.  According to some observers, the massive port upgrading that is underway there at the moment, with Brazilian funds and a leading Singaporean port operator slated to operate the venture, is a ticket for Cuba to thrive in the 21st century as a vital logistics hub, funneling goods to Europe, the Greater Caribbean and, eventually, the United States.  All of this is on the agenda because of the Panama Canal expansion that will allow for post-Panamax ships to transit the canal.  These ships will have the capacity to carry over twice the amount of cargo than the current vessels that transit the canal, thus re-routing trade that now travels from the west coast of the U.S. by land to the east coast, and at the same time expanding traffic from Asia on to Western Europe.

The $957 million Mariel project entails a Brazilian investment of $682 million with the rest of the financing coming from Cuba.  The ambitious project goes well beyond the port itself, as the Cuban government has taken the exceptional step of authorizing a surrounding free trade zone – essentially an export processing zone along the lines of those that have housed maquilas throughout much of the Greater Caribbean as well as in regions such as Guangdong, in China, which became an export powerhouse.  The notion is that industries that locate within the special economic zone around Mariel will enjoy 50-year, renewable contracts and numerous beneficial tax treatments, including tax-free processing of imported inputs into products that will in turn be shipped out through the state-of-the-art port.

For some analysts of Cuba’s economic development prospects, this is a historic opportunity, one that will become even more relevant once the U.S. embargo finally goes away.  By this account, a combination of geographic location and a highly skilled workforce places Cuba in an ideal situation to take advantage of these massive investments.  If the Mariel initiative were to work as envisioned, the result would be a massive increase in industrial employment in Cuba which, under this scenario, could become a high value-added manufacturing hub and a distribution point for goods transiting from Asia to the greater Atlantic.  The opportunity may be all the more exciting given the failure of the U.S. federal government to invest in port upgrading of a sort that a well-functioning capitalist state would undertake.  At the moment, The Economist reports only Baltimore and Norfolk have the capacity to accommodate post-Panamax ships, leaving the field open for newcomers such as the Bahamas (already equipped) and Havana (about to be so).  Other analysts observe, however, that the project faces severe constraints, ranging from the institutional bottlenecks in Cuba to the reality of competition from other deep water ports (which do not suffer from the sclerotic institutional environment that plagues so much in Cuba), as well as competition from other countries with highly skilled workforces (Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and much of the English-speaking Caribbean).

Nevertheless, critics in Cuba and abroad question whether the massive Brazilian investment in the project – essential to its success – is driven not only by economic opportunities but also by the domestic political calculations of President Dilma Roussef. Loans provided to the Brazilian engineering conglomerate Odebrecht to build the port are from the Brazilian development bank, BNDES, and guaranteed by the Brazilian state, so unlike EU companies that eschewed investment in Mariel, Odebrecht incurs minimal risk.  Mariel represents both a geostrategic and a domestic political calculation by the Dilma government. Brazil is happy to take advantage of the U.S. absence in Cuba to build the port and its relationship with Cuba.  At home, it allows the government to reward the construction firms – such as Odebrecht – that are consistently the largest campaign donors in Brazilian politics.  It also helps to slake the passions of factions of the left that seek closer ties to Cuba, and have been disappointed by the Dilma and Lula administrations’ relative political moderation at home.  The fortunes of Mariel may in the end reveal as much about Brazil as about Cuba.