The Nicaragua Canal, Redux

Posted on August 6, 2014


Once again, the dream of building a transithmian canal across Nicaragua to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is on the drawing board.

Wang Jing, described as a “mysterious Chinese businessman” in some of the media, has signed a contract to build a canal across Nicaragua, at a cost of about $40 billion, which isn’t an amount to sniff at.

He has a 50-year concession made by Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega, the charismatic socialist who helped bring the Sandinista Revolution to power in the early 1980s.

And guess who has signed up to help the Chinese? The Russians under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new imperial designer, are proposing to assist.

Putin is also negotiating with the Cubans to set up the old Soviet listening station in Cuba.

But wait, haven’t we already been this route? In fact, while the Chinese and Russians appear to be ahead of the curve as the Obama administration deals rather cavalierly or ineptly with Latin American issues, it was not so in the past.

The Chinese are way behind us on this one.

In 1887 an American company, the Maritime Canal Co., signed a concession with Nicaragua to build an interoceanic canal. Senator John Tyler Morgan of Selma, Alabama—no mean internationalist himself– pushed through a bill in the U. S. Senate to formally endorse the Maritime Canal Company, and in 1891 the Maritime started to dig and dredge on the San Juan River in Nicaragua, what was to be the Atlantic terminus of the canal.

As Chairman of the Committee on Interoceanic Canals, Morgan’s nickname was “Canal Morgan” for his vocal and powerful leadership of the enterprise to build the canal. Morgan was an ex-Confederate general and brilliant lawyer. An impassioned advocate of the “New South,” to be fashioned on trade and industry with the world, Senator Morgan fastened on the Nicaragua canal as key to his vision.

Where the French had failed in Panama, subverted by tropical diseases, floods, and failed financing, American engineering, capitalism, drive and initiative would put the Gallic effort to shame.

The Nicaragua Canal? You most likely are thinking: I thought it was the Panama Canal.

It is the Panama Canal, but, in fact, it almost was the Nicaragua Canal.

The concept of a canal somewhere across the isthmus of Central America occurred to Spanish explorers and conquistadors almost from the time Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed Panama in 1513 and discovered the Pacific Ocean.

How to get from one ocean to the other without a long, tempestuous and dangerous voyage around the tip of South America that reaches almost to the Antarctic?

Panama, the favored route because it was the shortest, was plagued with deadly diseases like malaria and yellow fever that ravaged Europeans new to the area. Mountains, heavy rainfalls, mudslides of epic proportions, they all conspired against Panama.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 prompted new efforts to create some effective interoceanic pathway. Thousands of gold prospectors and rush junkies were clamoring to find a quick way to California.

While a railroad was built across Panama in 1850, Panama’s physical and medical challenges daunted canal builders.

When the French under Ferdinand de Lesseps went belly up in Panama in the 1880s, the Americans stepped in with their proposal: the canal across the Nicaragua route.

The Maritime Canal Company started dredging at San Juan del Norte, the port on the Atlantic terminus of the canal, in 1890, following a half century of work and planning a canal through Nicaragua by Americans that had paved the way.

For example, under President Ulysses S. Grant, a series of scientific expeditions were made to study the alternate routes of Panama or Nicaragua. Grant had slogged through the jungles of Panama in 1842 with his regiment, the 4th Infantry, and more than 100 of his troopers perished from fevers (cholera), and the heat and misery appalled him. Having seen Panama, Grant naturally favored the more salubrious Nicaragua route.

The Maritime Canal Co. went bankrupt in 1893 under one of the periodic financial crises that generally shake a capitalist society. Ten years later the Americans, under the swashbuckling young president, Teddy Roosevelt, chose to dig in Panama and that canal opened August 15, 1914, just a hundred years ago.

Many Alabamians were involved in the making of the canal, such as Dr. William C. Gorgas. Colonel Gorgas, chief sanitation officer, directed the critical work of eliminating the deadly diseases of yellow fever and malaria that made the canal work possible.

Now it appears to be China’s turn to once again put the spotlight on Nicaragua and turn it into a global intersection of immense influence in the next century. America’s Caribbean “backyard” is apparently more of a global lily pad where many frogs alight to test the waters. May we live in interesting times.

Published in my column The Port Rail as China Picks Up Where U. S. Left Off in Nicaragua in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday August 10, 2014.




Posted in: History