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  Number 386 | Septiembre 2013
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Nicaragua

Two political initiatives and a canal in times of moral crisis

An important sector of the opposition to the ruling FSLN has just concluded an organizational process to take on that party. On the other side of the street, the governing party itself has announced a regrouping of its own political and social forces. Both initiatives invite us to think about what’s good for Nicaragua, particularly in light of the mammoth concessions made in recent months to a foreign businessman.

Envío team

Meeting in a Managua hotel, representatives from 14 expressions of political and social opposition to the “dictatorial Ortega government” who had come from all parts of the country signed a document on Tuesday, August 20, committing them to the creation of what they are calling Unity for the Republic (UNIR).

The very next day, in an event held on the National Autonomous University’s León campus with judicial officials from the northwestern departments of León and Chinandega, Bayardo Arce, President Daniel Ortega’s economic adviser, presented retired Colonel Lenín Cerna as “the judicial branch coordinator.”

From November 2008
to June 2013

The process leading up to this new attempt to unite the opposition has been going on for months amid ups and downs triggered by mutual distrust, leadership struggles, rivalries, accusations and short-term visions. While Ortega’s political project has been consolidating since 2007, the opposition has become increasingly dispersed and fragmented. It fleetingly came together to denounce the alleged electoral fraud in the 2008 municipal elections. We can tentatively identify that moment as the point at which Ortega apparently decided to take the “advice” the late Tomás Borge said he offered: “I told Daniel Ortega: ‘Say what they will, whatever we have to do, the only thing we can’t do is lose power.”

Would Ortega have lost power without fraud in the municipal elections of 2008 and 2012, the 2009 Caribbean regional elections and the 2011 presidential elections? The answer to this question, fundamental to any analysis of Nicaragua’s current situation, is necessarily ambiguous given the ongoing fragmentation and dispersion of the opposition forces. In the nearly five years since that first documented but never officially reviewed fraud, the opposition has frittered away time on meandering, sometimes contradictory courses and unconvincing discourse. Unlike the Venezuelan opposition, which rallied around the presidential candidacy of Enrique Capriles both before and after the elections, the effort at unification developed in Nicaragua around the 2011 presidential candidacy of popular radio entrepreneur and Liberal sympathizer Fabio Gadea lasted no longer than a month after those elections. The energy that had united it quickly dissipated into political entropy due to rivalries and conflicting ambitions. What few people doubt is that the FSLN gained significantly more municipal and legislative power in the 2008 and 2011 elections than it would have without the free hand the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) allegedly gave it at all points along the route of depositing and turning in the ballots.

The canal concession
was the last straw

We can also tentatively pinpoint the moment that forced, galvanized or at least contributed to the opposition undertaking this unitary initiative: June 14, 2013.

The political and emotional impact of the controversial canal concession granted to Chinese businessman Wang Jing without ever being put out to bid and concretized in a law pushed through by the governing party’s legislative majority without ever being consulted with the citizenry seems to have shaken the opposition out of its doldrums. If acted on, this concession will slice the country in two, giving away its best territory, waters and other resources and compromising its monetary reserves for the next 100 years with only bargain basement revenues—at least for the country. In so doing, the governing party turned its back on its country’s Constitution and laws.

“It’s a political-
social coalition”

The document constituting UNIR, defined by its members as a “political social coalition,” was signed by the National Assembly’s Democratic Bench, made up of 22 representatives of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and 2 of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); the PLI and MRS parties as a whole; the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and two splits from Arnoldo Alemán’s original Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC): the Liberal Current with Vision of Nation and the Ramiro Sacasa Constitutionalist Liberal Movement. Various social movements also signed on: the Education Teachers’ Confederation, the Patriotic Group of Retired Military Officers, the Movement for Nicaragua, the Autonomous Women’s Movement, the Nicaraguan Democratic Youth, the Citizen’s Reflection and Participation Group, the Reflection Group of the Left and the Citizens’ Union for Democracy.

Its promoters describe UNIR as an “alliance of left, center and right organizations.” Considering this traditional segmentation still valid in Nicaragua, we would put the MRS and the PAC on the left or center-left of the political spectrum, with the center-right and right represented by the PLI and the groups that split from the PLC, one in mid-2010 to support Gadea’s candidacy and the other in April of last year in rejection of Alemán’s “retooling” of the PLC. A number of the eight social movements that signed, all of which are relatively small with more representation in the media than the grass roots, can also be situated on the left given the Sandinista origin of many of their representatives.

The PLC’s party structure, which still operates under Arnoldo Alemán’s rules, was the only political force excluded from UNIR, thus leaving this card still active on the FSLN’s game board. The FSLN will continue to expect to make pacts, coopt and hand out perks among the opposition to keep it fragmented and squabbling among itself.

It was politically and symbolically very important that Fabio Gadea and Edmundo Jarquín, the PLI Alliance presidential ticket in the ephemeral unity achieved during the 2011 elections, were invited to the signing as observers and guarantors and given front row seats. Gadea has managed to preserve his leadership role ever since those elections not only among the right and center but also the left.

With two forces in tension

Observing the creature that has been born—conceived, as its creators like to point out, at a positive moment because it’s not a pre-electoral one—and waiting to see how it develops, if it will mature and reproduce, we can clearly discern two main disputing political forces. One is the PLI, whose leadership was taken over several years ago by former presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre after the CSE arbitrarily removed him as head of the National Liberal Alliance, which he had created. The other is the MRS, which, despite difficulties such as the CSE’s equally arbitrary decision to strip it of its legal status in 2008, has still managed to progress since it split from the FSLN in 1995. The MRS is the only party that rotates its presidency and both promotes and practices collective and cross-generation leadership. A country in which the population expects politicians and their groupings to make alliances only to achieve personal and group power quotas doesn’t quite “get” the MRS, which does so more for political programmatic reasons.

The upshot is two tendencies in tension: between Montealegre’s party-boss vocation with the group that still follows him, and the MRS’s vocation to head up a project of national unity. It is a tension between the search for a presidential candidacy and the search for a broad programmatic alliance. These two models are being proposed as different paths to unity: an electoral process led by a caudillo or one directed by a coalition with multiple leaderships.

Quantitatively, the two forces are unequal, with the PLI considerably larger. The last time the MRS participated alone in presidential elections (2006), it only got 6.3% of the national vote, although over 20% of Managua’s vote. At that time Montealegre, running for his new ALN party, won 28% of the national vote, beating out the PLC, his former party, for second place. With the MRS’ legal status withdrawn in 2008 it allied with Montealegre’s liberalism in that year’s municipal elections, then in 2011 backed the unitary candidacy of Fabio Gadea, under which the majority of National Assembly seats were assigned to Liberals.

Limitations and
tensions in the PLI

The PLI Alliance legislators have had a blurry image in the National Assembly since the 2011 elections. We have seen them powerless, paralyzed or making peace with the FSLN’s unstoppable 63-member legislative majority, widely believed to have been achieved with the help of fraud in the 2011 elections although the CSE again refused to review the evidence. That absolute majority has allowed the governing party to push through laws at will, ignoring even the most reasonable and carefully thought-through concerns and alternatives offered by the opposition bench.

But these adverse conditions haven’t been the PLI’s only problem. There have been tensions within its legislative bench due to the way Montealegre, the PLI’s political coordinator, controls rather than coordinates the party both politically and financially. He is frequently tempted to negotiate a pact with the FSLN to obtain quotas of power that would consecrate his own leadership.

The PLI’s participation in the unitary initiative may possibly act as a brake on Montealegre’s political flights of fancy and buttress the critiques of him both within the party and in the parliamentary bench. If that happens, the MRS might have a better chance of intensifying the work it has been undertaking: reorganizing itself locally and growing from the base, not with personalities installed at the top but with an accepted and shared nation-building project with a voice for all.

The signers agreed
to seven commitments…

Behind the table on which the constituent document was signed on August 20 was the Nicaraguan flag and a huge poster with the face of Simón Bolívar and the famous phrase from his speech at the opening of the Congress of Angostura (today Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela) on February 15, 1819, during the independence wars of Venezuela and Colombia: “Nothing is so dangerous as to permit citizen to remain long in power. The people get used to obeying him and he gets used to commanding it, from which spring usurpation and tyranny.”

The prestigious educator Carlos Tünnerman, now in his eighties, read out the document with its seven commitments to confront the “citizen in power”:

1. To fight for the establishment of a republican democratic institutionality with dignity and equitable social and economic development,
2. To combat the Ortega dictatorship and corruption,
3. To reestablish a rule of law with full participation by the citizenry and respect for their civil, political, social and cultural rights,
4. To ensure respect for the right of citizens to elect and be elected in equitable, clean and transparent electoral processes,
5. To eradicate caudillism, personalism, hegemonism, nepotism, pacts and perks from our practices and behavior as these vices have undermined the credibility of the exercise of politics and sown discord and divisionism,
6. To annul and repudiate the agreement Daniel Ortega signed with Wang Jing and repeal the unconstitutional laws that authorized it, once there is a change in the dictatorial political circumstances that have made possible such a shameful handing over of national sovereignty, and
7. To support the just social demands of the different sectors of the Nicaraguan people, linking ourselves closely to these struggles.

…and made three decisions

The signers also agreed to three “decisions” to turn these commitments, which express what this heterogeneous group has in common, into reality:

1. To work on the basis of consensus, egalitarian representation and respect for the identity of each member to develop a broad array of coordinated actions of civic mobilization and denunciation,
2. to promote a citizen-led action plan with clear and ongoing intergenerational communication, fostering the participation of young people and women and encouraging the emergence and strengthening of local leaderships, and
3. to immediately draft an agenda for a Nation-building Plan and propose it to Nicaraguans with the duly agreed programmatic sense and strategic character required in the short, medium and long term.

These seven commitments and three decisions are ambitious and will put this effort at linkage and concertation to the test very soon. Starting “immediately,” as they affirm in the constituent document, they will have to begin analyzing actions, denunciations, proposals, plans, mobilizations…

The efficacy of civic struggle

In addition to surviving over time, growing and winning people’s confidence, this new coalition also faces the challenge of convincing people of the validity and effectiveness of civic struggle, counterpoising it to armed struggle, Nicaragua’s historical way of getting people into and out of power.

That’s a challenge again right now because the opposition’s fragmentation, dispersion and ineffectiveness has led small groups opposing the government to take up the option of armed struggle. In the northern mountains, where the war of the eighties took place, they are expressing their discontent with the government’s authoritarian course by engaging the Army and Police in skirmishes.

This peasantry, which in 1990 saw for the first time ever that clean elections and the Sandinista government’s willingness to relinquish power represented a viable peaceful alternative to war, has again lost confidence in the electoral system. It is also frustrated by the closing of opportunities in rural zones, where people are seeing the return of large haciendas and an accelerated concentration of lands and riches. All that is making them feel trapped by a policy of exclusion, as researcher Alfredo Ruiz explains in this issue’s Speaking Out article.

The Army and Police insist that the groups are just bandits, but the bishops of those zones have argued for some time that they are political motivated, although the specifics of their disgruntlement vary. The bishops are asking the government not to limit its responses to repression, control and weapons.

Demonstrating to this traditionally anti-Sandinista peasant population, marked by the war of the eighties, that armed struggle isn’t the way to resolve the country’s problems will require convincing it that the civic path, although slower, can be effective. It’s a decisive but hardly easy task for Unity for the Republic.

“It isn’t anything official”

The day after the opposition presented its unitary effort in Managua, Bayardo Arce—one-time journalist, then revolutionary comandante and now a businessman and President Ortega’s economic adviser—called a meeting of all the judicial branch officials and employees in León and Chinandega, ranging from judges to cleaning ladies, to present Lenín Cerna as the judicial branch’s newly-created “political coordinator.” Something similar took place in Masaya, although it wasn’t documented by the media. Cerna’s last known post in the FSLN was secretary of organization—from which he was dismissed together with all his subordinates in May 2011.

A week before the León event, Cerna had been briefly interviewed at the National Assembly, where he was attending the decoration of priest Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaragua’s foreign minister during the Sandinista government of the eighties, with a Medal of Honor “in recognition of his merits as a humanist and his untiring work for world peace.” Approached by La Prensa journalist Ramón Potosme, who asked what he is doing now, Cerna replied “I’m an adviser to the President; I’m part of his team… It would be hard for anyone to have more authority to be in the FSLN than yours truly.”

The revelation of his new job, which caused speculation about the post’s legality as it is not mentioned in the judicial branch’s organizational law, was followed by predictable silence from the President’s office. The Supreme Court, however, , issued a statement denying the news, attributing it to a “smear campaign” by La Prensa. The Court’s current president, Justice Alba Luz Ramos, declared, “It isn’t officially true; it must be something personal; no one has communicated it to me.”

A potted history of
Cerna’s political career

It’s useful to go briefly back over Lenín Cerna’s recent history to get some kind of perspective on the significance of his return to the political stage in such a visible manner—whether through an officially and/or institutionally assigned role or one assumed personally, or even proposed within the legal profession, as Supreme Court Justice Juana Méndez let it be known.

Cerna is an “historical” FSLN militant, a category fundamental to understanding the new transformations the FSLN has undergone as well as one of the contradictions and struggles running through the governing party. Historical is a synonym for “old guard” as opposed to the plethora of younger members with little or no track record and barely any memory of the party’s history.

During the struggle to topple the Somoza dictatorship, Cerna shared a cell with Daniel Ortega for years. Once the FSLN took power, he joined the Ministry of Interior structures, heading up its State Security apparatus. After the 1990 electoral defeat, he made the rank of colonel in the Army and remained active in the military institution as a defense and security adviser.

In March 1999, during Arnoldo Alemán’s presidency, with the Alemán-Ortega pact well underway, the Army announced the retirement of some 200 officers, Cerna among them. Upon learning that he was separated from the military ranks, the Permanent Human Rights Commission announced plans to accuse him of hundreds of human rights violations documented in its files. Daniel Ortega reacted immediately, warning that it was “playing with fire” and that he would respond for any suit filed against Cerna: “Any charge against him will be a charge against me,” he said. The month after his retirement, Cerna announced he was reincorporating into the FSLN militancy “to help win elections.”

Cerna turns the FSLN into
an electoral machine

Cerna demonstrated significant effectiveness in organizing electoral mobilization. The FSLN won 52 of the 151 mayoral posts in the 2000 municipal elections, with Herty Lewites becoming the first FSLN mayor of Managua after the party’s electoral defeat in 1990, but Ortega lost the presidential race against Enrique Bolaños the following year. With the “electoral commandos” directed by Cerna and with better structure and training, the FSLN won 87 mayoral seats in 2004, including Managua, and in 2006 Ortega beat out Eduardo Montealgre for the presidency. There is no question but that Cerna’s organizational capacity contributed to the return of Ortega and the FSLN to government although it is doubtful it would have happened had the Right still been united, as it was in 2001. In 2008, the FSLN again declared its candidate—boxer Alexis Argüello—the winner in Managua and increased the number of other municipalities under its control to 100, albeit in elections widely charged and documented as fraudulent.

In declarations to envío in December 2007, Mónica Baltodano, guerrilla comandante and FSLN legislator until 2001, described the transformation in the FSLN starting with the 1999 Ortega-Alemán pact in the following way: “The FSLN apparatus kept getting weaker. Organization within the FSLN decreased dramatically and the party ended up as nothing more than an electoral structure: some 30,000 election monitors, voting table members and other guarantors of the party’s votes; people who didn’t even undertake any proselytizing activities. This structure remained organized exclusively to defend the party’s vote during elections and was subordinated to the FSLN secretary, former intelligence chief Lenín Cerna.”

2007: “The point of inflection”

In September 2008, a year and eight months into Ortega’s new government, Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, who was about to leave office with high popularity ratings, referred to the FSLN’s creation of Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) soon after taking office in 2007 as a “point of inflection.” In a talk with envío he described them as “a strategy to pack the party organization. ”Marenco’s opinion about this “inflection” is shared by many other “historical” militants of his generation as well.

The strategy and the CPCs themselves were directed by First Lady Rosario Murillo, whom Ortega appointed as his communication and citizenship coordinator and to whom he declared he had given 50% of his power. From her office, the FSLN began to express itself through new acronyms: first as CPCs, then as Cabinets of Citizens’ Power (GPCs) and Committees of Sandinista Leadership (CLSs), and more recently as Cabinets of Family, Health and Life. This continuous profusion of new structures is fed by recently joined youths and at times reinforced with some of the old political secretaries, all organized in a top-down centralized structure.

Ortega is the great arbiter

In addition to the tensions generated between the youth and the historical members, power has already been in dispute since the eighties between the business bloc, all of whose members are historical, and the rest of their generation. The latter can also be classified into two branches: those from the military structures and those from the social structures. Lewites, Marenco, Manuel Coronel Kautz—recently named to head the Grand Canal Commission—and Bayarde Arce, among many others, all belong in the business bloc. It has been headed up for years by Arce, although always with Daniel Ortega’s brother, businessman nee Army chief Humberto Ortega, watching over his shoulder.

In the first term of the new Ortega government, Murillo provoked the “point of inflection” supported by the “social historical” militants. In all disputes between these groups, the indispensable great arbiter has always been Daniel Ortega, which translates into almost total power for him.

An internal upheaval

Cerna’s ouster from his post as FSLN secretary of organization occurred right in the middle of the 2011 campaign in which Ortega was seeking illegal reelection. The curious timing plus Cerna’s historical status within the party and his personal history with Ortega caused a significant tremor on the party’s internal Richter scale and was followed by a series of aftershocks: other dismissals, changes and appointments, all on the “orders from above” of Rosario Murillo.

Estela Calderón, the sister of Manuel Calderón, one of Cerna’s subordinates, who was summarily and improperly booted out of his post as mayor of León, angrily denounced Murillo in January 2012: “She is the main cause of the internal division in the FSLN; she has been manufacturing a bunch of candidates, officials and political operators loyal to her.” Her brother backed up the accusation: “She was the one who sent down the orientations. I was forced to resign because I wasn’t obeying the political line being shaped to favor her. Compañera Rosario Murillo aspires to the presidency and is working to adjust the conditions in her favor.” By that time Ortega had just been reelected by a far greater margin than even the most optimistic polls gave him.

Another cycle is over

Why was Cerna separated from such an important post? Journalist William Grigsby, a “social historical,” explained it at the time on the TV program “Cuarto Poder”: “Lenín’s cycle ended. The FSLN now has two new structures: the electoral network he created and a new political one. Lenín is out because the FSLN wants to move beyond being an electoral machine; it wants to be a political party linked to the grass roots.” It was understood that the new political network he referred to was the CPC structure, over which Cerna never had any control. They were run by territorial political secretaries who had worked with him, but those not easily distanced from his control were purged.

Two years have since passed of a cycle in which Murillo has appeared the outright victor, with full monopoly over the governing party. With Cerna’s visible return, that cycle appears to have closed to initiate yet another, with a new recoupling of forces in the FSLN and a more diversified divvying up of institutional spaces in the State. What has not changed is that Daniel Ortega maintains the power of supreme arbiter of all forces in all spaces. Meanwhile, whatever Cerna’s new post may mean for the party, one can only wonder whether it will further intensify the legal insecurity in the country.

“There’s no room for doubt”

The most extreme expression of legal insecurity in Nicaragua is the canal concession President Ortega granted in June to Chinese businessman Wang Jing, which allegedly violates at least 40 articles of the Constitution. In only two weeks the Supreme Court received a record 32 lawsuits for unconstitutionality presented by a total of 182 Nicaraguans, including members of political parties, citizens’ groups, women’s and youth groups and individuals from all over the country.

Justice Rafael Solís said the Supreme Court would analyze all the suits to discard those that do not meet the requisites and are “pure political manipulation.” “Meeting requisites” is a catchall euphemism the current government institutions, particularly the Supreme Electoral Council, use for dispensing with anything they are ordered from on high to eliminate. Failure to meet all the requisites was the excuse for revoking the legal status of both the MRS and the Conservative Party just before the 2008 municipal elections, even though another party whose members could hold their convention in a phone booth and could not possibly have filled all the numerical requirements was allowed to run because it was no threat and gave the appearance of plurality. Suggesting that even the suits not immediately discarded would be given short shrift, Solís added that they would be resolved “soon” because “with such a huge investment there must be no juridical doubts.”

Doubts and
skepticism everywhere

Doubts, not only juridical but also social, economic and especially environmental, are not in short supply. A second forum promoted by Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences was held at the Central American University in Managua on August 13 to reflect on the canal project. It was opened by the Academy’s president, molecular biologist Jorge Huete, who called it a challenge for Nicaragua’s “small scientific community,” which aspires to influence the decision-makers.

Nicaraguan environmental engineer Pedro José Álvarez, who lectures in universities in both the United States and China, participated in the forum. He spoke about the perceivable international skepticism regarding the project, “despite it being an old idea.” He insisted that, like any megaproject, this one must respond to “generational justice” by being “economically viable, socially desirable and environmentally sustainable.” The main doubts he mentioned are related to environmental aspects, among them the deterioration the canal would bring to Lake Cocibolca and the disaster that an oil spill in the lake would cause, reminding his audience that the kind of supertankers that would cross carry two million barrels. Another danger, which he was the first to mention, would be ships introducing non-native species, which would affect national biodiversity.

Jurist and law professor Alejandro Aguilar gave a detailed analysis of the process that resulted in the contract and concession, noting with alarm that it was surely a Guinness record: in barely 42 days a contract was drawn up and approved for a project Nicaragua will be bound to for the next 100 years. He read several paragraphs from the agreement, written in English, that were unintelligible given the rush in drafting them.

“An ode to money laundering”

Tax law expert Julio Francisco Báez analyzed what he called the concession’s “destruction of the logic of public finances,” as it doesn’t require a single penny of taxes from the concessionaire and indemnifies him via the budget should he decide to sue the State for any reason. Báez called the articles exempting investments, good or services coming into the country for the canal from being registered in any national institutions, being taxed or even having to report their origin an “ode to money laundering.” Indignant, he said that “nowhere else in the world is there a concession like this one, in which the concessionaire has no responsibility whatever!”

Salvador Montenegro, ecologist and director of the National Autonomous University’s Center for Research on Aquatic Resources, underscored that, although Nicaragua is a country rich in water, “we haven’t known how to convert water into development.” Instead of destroying Lake Cocibolca with a canal, he proposed selling its water to El Salvador and northern Costa Rica, both of which have serious water shortage problems. “No business would be more profitable for Nicaragua,” he insisted. He explained that existing calculations suggest that such a project could bring in US$3 million a day and that he had written to Wang in early August to advise him of better options for use of the lake than building a canal through it.

“Without rip-offs
or truculence”

That same afternoon the big business leaders in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and the American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua put on a lunch to hear Bolivian Ronald McLean Abaroa, Wang Jing’s spokesperson, and Nicaraguan ecologist Alberto Vega, a consultant from the British firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM), which bills itself as the world’s leading sustainability consultancy company and is doing the environmental impact study. The lunch chat was titled “The opportunity of Nicaragua’s Grand Canal: The beginning and challenges to surmount.” Before turning the mike over to the two speakers, AMCHAM President Diego Vargas put forward his organization’s position in a speech intended to set the tone for the event.

Claiming that the get-together had been called “due to the enthusiasm” the canal project has awakened in big business, he nonetheless reminded the invited speakers of the two aspects of the concession that members of his organization were most concerned about: the expropriation of lands for the megaproject and the country’s obligation to cover any claim or objection against the concessionaire with the Central Bank’s international reserves.

“There is one last but no less important issue,” added Vargas, not mincing words, “and I want you to listen to me carefully. If you want the national and international private sector to accompany this magnificent idea, we are ready and unhesitatingly willing. But we want no rip-offs and no truculence. No loaded dice and no favoritism. None of the vices that in the past prevented a canal through Nicaragua from becoming a reality… Things have to be put in their true dimension. Transparently. Clearly. We deserve this and it is the least that we as citizens, never mind business people, demand of the stakeholders of this project: transparency. That’s why we’re here. It’s what we’ve come for.”

But it appears that Wang’s representatives were not up to the challenge of clearing up the business elite’s concerns. Neither Wang’s spokesperson nor his consultant supplied any new information about the project: its possible route, its costs, the costs of the studies, anticipated dates and deadlines or any thoughts on the method for expropriating lands… “There are many things we would like to tell you,” soothed the spokesperson, who limited himself to extolling the prestige of the companies contracted by Wang Jing, “but we ourselves don’t know them; we are in the process of discovering the truth.” That disquieting remark was followed by Vega reminding them that the contract imposes a commitment to confidentiality so he could not comment on the environmental impact studies.

Wang Jing’s seemingly
bottomless pockets

Despite such a context of civic and entrepreneurial uncertainty, contracts are continuing to be made and consul¬tancies formalized in multi-million-dollar transactions, all of which, according to McLean, come out of Wang Jing’s pockets. He said Wang is prepared to spend US$900 million of his own personal fortune on the project’s preliminary studies.

Wang’s rhetorical capacities rival those of Nicaragua’s First Lady. The official web page of the new business of which he is chairman and only board member—HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co., Limited (otherwise known as HKND Group), created only months before initiating this venture—his June 14 message contains the following extract: “The essential traits of human nature such as wisdom, courage, perseverance and tolerance come together during the growth of mankind and the development of society, creating more and more opportunities in the world. While there are challenges associated with the project, we will move forward with full confidence. Throughout ancient and modern history, each beginning of a new era and each accomplishment of an epoch-making milestone is a triumph of meeting challenges that inspires us to continuously charge forward. Let us join together in mankind’s never ending call for self-improvement. Let us take responsibility for leading the future and serving the world and make strides towards the success of this project and a better world. We will change the world: making this dream a reality will bring more happiness, more freedom, and more joy to the world.”

S.O.S. for Cocibolca

This month HKND reported that it had contracted two new companies: SBE, “a Belgium-based, civil engineering firm that specializes in lock and canal hydraulics, including feasibility evaluation and conceptual and detailed design” and was responsible for what the press release calls the “reference design” of the locks for the Panama Canal Expansion; and MEC Mining, “an Australia-based engineering consultancy, which provides specialist planning, site management and on-site technical solutions for the strip mining and civil engineering sectors. MEC Mining will advise on the canal excavation design and spoil area design and management.”

With respect to “spoil management,” scientist Pedro José Álvarez warned of the mountains of rock, dirt, sediment and plant life that would have to be disposed of in excavating a canal half a kilometer wide by some 80 kilometers long across Lake Cocibolca, whose current depth ranges from only 5 meters over half of its extension to a maximum of 12 meters. The canal would need to be excavated to a depth of 28 meters to permit passage of the ever larger new tankers and cargo ships. Montenegro added that the need to continually dredge the lake to keep the canal clean of encroaching sediments “would cost more than the canal construction itself.”

Wang Jing seems
to be in a real hurry

In mid-August, ERM personnel spent three days inspecting different areas of the country by land, water and air to appraise the possible canal routes. The tour by air was done in helicopters provided by Nicaragua’s Army.

At the end of the month, Laureano Ortega Murillo, a son of the presidential couple, presented 52 Chinese specialists from the China Railway Construction Corporation who had come to conduct other feasibility studies. Mo Xiaoling, who headed up the group, announced that yet another group of Chinese, “specialists in drilling,” would be arriving soon.

HKND spokesperson McLean, interviewed by La Prensa, explained that there’s a rush: “The business people and visionaries want the study finished yesterday and the construction begun tomorrow. We have instructions to move at top speed because Wang Jing wants us to finish this project quickly.” In July, Wang announced that canal construction would begin in December 2014 and be finished in 2019. So far he seems to be the only one working with that starting date; one can only hope that those doing the studies, not to mention the construction, will not allow themselves to be rushed into cutting corners.

A time of moral crisis

When the forgers of the unitary opposition initiative pledge not to fall into the vices that “have undermined the credibility of the exercise of politics,” mentioning several of them, they are actually talking about a moral crisis. The readjustment of the governing party forces hints at a moral crisis that is stirring up those same vices. Many of the dozens of lawsuits of unconstitutionality filed with the Supreme Court regarding the scandalous canal concession refer to a moral crisis expressed in the immoral legal contents of the Ortega-Wang agreement.

Today’s national context is one of huge uncertainty. The challenge for the opposition, pushed to join together by the political and emotional impact of the canal concession, is enormous and the future of this initiative uncertain. On the other side, the governing party’s challenge in rejigging its forces is also enormous and is being undertaken in its own uncertain context.

Moral crises require moral responses, guided by the morality of the common good. Dante Alighieri’s phrase from The Divine Comedy resonated in the UCA forum: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” In this time of moral crisis, we will not be neutral.

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