The Chinese engineers passed by
In this town on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, a withering drought is scorching farmland and parching cattle. Once-green fields have turned yellow-brown. The Brito River is nothing but a dry ravine.
But the Chinese engineers and the people who hired them see something different. They see a $50-billion shipping canal that would divide Nicaragua in two as it traveled from the Pacific to the Caribbean, bisect Central America's largest lake like an engineering Moses, and dwarf the 100-year-old Panama Canal.
Cardenas, 32, grew up on this land. Brick and wood shacks with concrete floors are the only buildings on the plot. Two girls swung in a hammock and a baby did not stop crying. Eight somewhat bony cows stood behind a wire fence.
"They pass by, tell us nothing," Cardenas said of the engineers. "Are they going to pay us? Give us other land? Send us to live on some mountain?"
Nearby, Jose Miguel Alvarez has been planting bean, corn and banana, and raising cattle, on his plot for 30 years. Even amid the drought, fruit trees and bougainvillea on the property were surprisingly lush; a small concrete swimming hole sat empty but spoke to future dreams.
"When I came here, there was nothing," he said. "I wouldn't sell it for anything. This is my children's patrimony."
For hundreds of years, Nicaraguans have dreamed of carving a land-and-water route across their section of the Central American isthmus. In the 1800s, Cornelius Vanderbilt thought it a swell idea as an easier way to transport California gold to the East Coast, taking advantage precisely of the gargantuan Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua. He never mustered the investors, however, before being run out by the invading filibusters.
It was one of several failed projects over the decades.
Now, if all goes according to the way the Nicaraguan government insists it will, work on the canal as well as a system of seaports, an oil pipeline, airport, free-trade zones and other infrastructure will begin this year. The canal route was unveiled in July.
It will cut through tropical Pacific forests that increasingly attract surfers, U.S. retirees and wealthy Nicaraguans; through modest farms on one side of Lake Cocibolca and vast cattle ranches on the other; and, finally, through indigenous villages on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.
And a mysterious Chinese entrepreneur rumored to have connections with Beijing's military has been put in charge of the project.
In June of last year, a parliament controlled by President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front approved the project with scarcely a debate. They handed a 100-year concession controlling a vast swath of Nicaragua to telecommunications magnate Wang Jing, giving him broad powers as he and his newly formed Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. (HKND) build and manage the waterway.
Wang is supposedly gathering investors. He has insisted that the Chinese government does not back him and the endeavor is purely commercial.
Wang hosted numerous Nicaraguan officials and businessmen on a trip to China last year. Participants said Wang was treated with great deference, was ostentatious in his power and wealth and was flanked at all times by military officers or other high-ranking Chinese. Once, when one of the Nicaraguans overslept, Wang stopped the trains to wait for him, participants said.
Geopolitically speaking, whether all or part of the canal project is completed, it will give China an important presence on a continent it has been trying to penetrate with investments and trade. And for countries such as leftist Venezuela, it will provide an alternative to the Panama Canal, still seen by many as a U.S. proxy.
Ortega, in an interview with state-owned China Central Television, said the canal project will free Nicaragua from "global economic imperialism," which he blamed for Nicaragua's myriad problems. (Ortega rarely speaks to Western news media, and requests for an interview last month went unanswered.)
Wang, in a visit to Nicaragua in July to unveil the canal's route, pledged that construction of the 173-mile-long ocean-to-ocean waterway will be finished in five years.
Supporters are calling it the largest construction effort "in the history of mankind" — in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. Many ordinary Nicaraguans are calling it a cuento chino: a Chinese tale, a false story, a lie.
The biggest complaint from most Nicaraguans is that Ortega's increasingly authoritarian and secretive government has refused to release any but the most bare-bones details.
"It can't be a blank check," said Jose Adan Aguerri, president of the country's main business umbrella group, known by the acronym COSEP, and who in theory favors the canal.
"If there are expropriations, the land must be paid for … at fair market price," he said. "If people are relocated, they must be given the tools to begin a new life. We have to watch carefully every detail."
Canal project advocates who work for Ortega said more details will emerge in due course and that potential economic benefits, including thousands of jobs and prosperity, will outweigh any damage.
"It won't be confidential forever," said Telemaco Talavera, president of the National Universities Council, who serves as a spokesman for the government's Canal Technical Advisory Commission.
That is of little reassurance, however, to many of the small farmers and indigenous villagers who are bewildered and worried about losing the little they have. Although government representatives are holding informational meetings in many towns, most people say they are still in the dark.
Others worry about the environmental effects. The canal would cut through Lake Cocibolca and skirt below its scenic Ometepe Island, a popular tourist destination reached by ferry. "Cocibolca" is an indigenous word meaning "sweet water"; the 3,000-square-mile inland sea is the major source of drinking water for Nicaraguans.
Under the government and Wang's plans, ocean liners, super tankers and cargo ships much larger than those the Panama Canal can handle would traverse the waterway, impinging on the natural beauty of the region and raising the risk of oil-spill contamination while perhaps creating a new, if incongruous, tourist attraction.
Across the lake, the canal will be up to 30 yards deep, and extensive dredging will be required, planners say.
The Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences calculated that nearly 1 million acres of tropical forest and wetlands could be destroyed by the project, jeopardizing ecosystems, fishing and wildlife habitats.
The government hired a British firm to conduct an environmental-impact study, but its release has been delayed repeatedly.
"There has been a deliberate effort not to disclose information and a deliberate effort to rush this project beyond reality," said Monica Lopez Baltodano, an environmental attorney who heads Popol Na, a progressive social development group based in Managua, the capital.
"Few people oppose a canal per se," said Jaime Morales, a congressman who served as vice president under Ortega until 2012. "But one that won't harm the lake. Water is Nicaragua's greatest patrimony.... Expectation of great wealth makes many ignore what might happen to the lake."
The lake also helps water the scruffy crops of the farmers here in Brito, who fear their land will fall in the path of the mighty canal. They have told authorities they don't want to relinquish the land, plots worked by their families for generations.
Miguel Angel Alvarez, 33, a father of two with a machete at his waist for clearing brush, plants banana and rice on his 49 acres. Despite the ravages of the drought, he intends to hold on to his livelihood. To do otherwise would plunge his family deeper into poverty and starvation, he said.
"It doesn't seem right that they would take us from here," he said. "Where would we go? I can't imagine a canal here."