On Monday, a lawyer for the Indigenous Rama people in Nicaragua told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that there could be serious repercussions for the Rama if Nicaragua’s $50 billion canal project is allowed to continue.
Rama leader Becky McCray, the lawyer for the tribe, said that the Rama were likely to lose their language along with their land if the group is displaced by the canal. Currently, the Rama language is only spoken by several dozen people in the world. Fifty-two percent of the route of the Grand Canal passes through lands belonging to the Indigenous Rama and the nearby Afro-descendant Kriol community.
In December 2014, in Brito, Nicaragua, government officials and the Hong-Kong based HKND Group inaugurated the construction of a 186-mile-long (300-kilometer-long) canal that would connect the Pacific to the Caribbean, rivalling the Panama Canal. Despite the Nicaraguan government’s enthusiasm for the project and promises that it will lift more than 400,000 people out of poverty by 2018, the canal is the center of heated controversy.
Samuel Santos López, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nicaragua, called for a reform of the United Nations system, and specifically of the Security Council, in his address during the last session of the UN General Assembly yesterday. The foreign minister joined several other regional leaders who called for reform of the UN’s most influential body.
In his address, Santos asked the Council to take into account the “voices and votes of developing countries in the categories of permanent and non-permanent members.” While many leaders of developing countries believe that the time is right to add new permanent members to the Council, obstacles to the inclusion of these countries remain. Some have pointed to competing regional interests—such as Brazil and Mexico, and India and Pakistan—as well as Brazil and India’s voting records on human rights and democracy, as impediments to moving forward with reform.
The Security Council currently has 15 seats with five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.—that have veto power. There are also 10 rotating members—currently Argentina, Australia, Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Korea—without veto power.
As tensions between the United States and Russia over the future of the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula continue to rise, Moscow officials may look to beef up their country’s stronghold in Latin America.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on February 26 that his country is planning to expand its long-standing military presence in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, possibly bringing the U.S. and Russia’s icy diplomatic standoff into the Western Hemisphere.
Although Shoigu mentioned that Russia would also boost its armed presence in Vietnam, Singapore, the Seychelles and several other countries, Moscow’s anticipated embankment in Latin America will surely be perceived as a threat to U.S. defense policymakers.
“The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu said in a press conference in Moscow. “We need bases for refueling near the equator, and in other places,” he explained.
It is still unclear, however, whether Russia will construct new Moscow-owned bases in the proposed countries. Russia may only seek permission from already-existing naval defense ports to increase its access to military stations with refueling, maintenance and repair capabilities. The country’s only naval base outside the country is located in Tartus, Syria.
The National Assembly of Nicaragua met last Wednesday to discuss a proposal from the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional party (Sandinista National Liberation Front—FSLN), which seeks to remove a constitutional article banning consecutive presidential terms.
The proposed amendment was submitted to the National Assembly on November 1 and will be voted on by the end of December. The reform would also eliminate the minimum simple majority needed to win a presidential election, according to The New York Times, though it remains unclear what percentage would be needed to secure a presidential victory in the future.
National Assembly Secretary Alba Palacios said that she and six other multi-partisan lawmakers would form a commission to examine the proposal and consult with union representatives, community leaders, law professors, members of the armed forces, businesses and several other groups from an array of social and economic backgrounds.
“It is the people of Nicaragua who should decide who the president will be and whether or not there should be re-election,” Palacios said in a statement last week. Once the commission collects data from the public regarding their thoughts on the proposal, the National Assembly will vote and decide. Palacios’ statement follows a perception that the measure is likely to pass the National Assembly—where FSLN representatives hold a large majority—regardless of public opinion.
Although the proposition’s impact, if approved by the National Assembly, would not come into play until Nicaragua’s presidential election in 2016, many foreign media outlets and conservative Nicaraguan newspapers have distorted coverage of the FSLN’s bid and have approached the story from a perspective of perceived political superiority.
It’s now been nearly a month since the HKND Group (HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co.) and the Nicaraguan government signed an agreement to build an inter-oceanic canal that would cut through the Nicaraguan heartland.
The megaproject, with a tentative price tag of $40 billion, is set to include an oil pipeline, two deep-water ports, two airports, a railroad through Nicaragua, and two free-trade zones.
According to HKND’s website, the canal would measure 286 kilometers long, by 20 meters wide and 24 meters deep—twice as long as the Panama Canal and possibly the largest infrastructure project in Latin American history.
If the project goes through, Nicaraguan Public Policy Secretary Paul Oquist said that it could double Nicaragua’s GDP and triple employment by 2018, significantly reducing poverty and improving a number of economic and health-related indicators in which Nicaragua consistently ranks toward the bottom.
But at what cost? Each of the proposed inter-oceanic canal routes impacts Lake Nicaragua (or Lago Cocibolca, as it is referred to by Nicaraguans), essentially destroying the nation’s access to clean freshwater. This factor alone could have devastating environmental impacts for generations to come.
Further, this megaproject assumes that Nicaragua’s canal can compete with Panama’s existing canal and actually return a profit. Thirty percent of the Western Hemisphere’s cargo passes through the Panama Canal, which is undergoing a $5 billion expansion project. The remaining cargo travels through U.S.-based ports. Economically and environmentally speaking, the Nicaraguan canal faces great challenges.
Amid loud protest that President Daniel Ortega is “privatizing Nicaragua’s dream,” handing over the country to a Chinese businessman and indulging in the same type of “savage capitalism” that he has railed against during his entire political career, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government this week used its supermajority muscle in the legislative National Assembly to give a generous 50-year concession to an unknown Chinese company to design, build and operate an inter-oceanic canal to rival Panama. Ortega is scheduled to sign the bill into law tonight during a nationally televised event.
The Great Nicaragua Canal megaproject, with carries an estimated price tag of $40 billion, includes a combo of megaprojects: two deep-water ports, two international airports, a transisthmian oil pipeline, and an inter-oceanic freight railroad. “This will be one of the world’s most significant infrastructure projects ever,” claims the Chinese concessionaire, HKND Group, a company that was registered only a few months ago in the Cayman Islands. HKND is owned by enigmatic Chinese telecom tycoon Wang Jing, and has no ties to the Chinese government. Nor does Nicaragua, which instead maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
“This is a totally privately held company …there is no government involvement whatsoever, not from China or any other country,” HKND Group spokesman Ronald MacLean-Abaroa, a former Bolivian politico and World Bank official, told me in an interview today. “The minute you have government involved in these kind of projects, the private investors fly away.”
If $40 billion sounds like a lot of money to invest in Nicaragua, that’s because it is. To date, the largest private investment projects in Nicaragua barely measure in the hundreds of millions. So $40 billion—a number that is four times larger than the country’s entire GDP—would seem to have too many zeros to even fit in such small economy.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Venezuela’s CNE confirms April’s presidential election results; President Humala arrives in the United States; U.S. senators visit Guantánamo prison; Brazil’s FUNAI director resigns amid Indigenous protests; Nicaraguan Congress expected to vote on building a canal.
Venezuelan Audit Backs April Election Results: Venezuela's Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE) confirmed the victory of Nicolás Maduro in the country's tightly-contested April 14 presidential election. A CNE official on Sunday reported that Maduro beat rival Henrique Capriles by a narrow 1.5 percent of the vote. Capriles, whose request for a full recount of the results was denied, called the audit a farce and has challenged the election results at the Supreme Court. An official report of the audit results is expected to become available sometime this week.
Humala Visits Washington, Massachusetts: Peruvian President Ollanta Humala begins a three-day visit to the United States on Monday. He will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other U.S. officials and political leaders. Along with Humala’s trip to Washington, he’ll also travel to Massachusetts to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This will be Humala's first official visit to Washington since he became president of Peru two years ago.
U.S. Senators Visit Guantánamo: U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Dianne Feinstein of California reiterated the need to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba after the two made a surprise visit to the facility on Friday with President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough. The visit by McDonough was the first by an administration official since 2009. Currently, 104 of the 166 prison inmates are participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions and what they say are invasive searches by prison guards. Forty-one prisoners are currently being force-fed, according to military authorities. On Friday, McCain and Feinstein said prisoners were being treated in a "safe and respectful" way.
Brazil FUNAI Director Steps Down amid Indigenous Protests: Marta Azevedo, the president of Brazil's Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Indian Foundation—FUNAI) announced her resignation on Friday, citing health problems. Violent protests have erupted in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul over a dispute between Indigenous groups and landowners in which one person has already been killed. Last Thursday, 200 protesters demonstrated in Brasilia to call for a return of Indigenous ancestral lands, while landowners told the government that they expect to be paid at least $1 billion reais to leave the area. Brazilian troops were sent to the site of the dispute last week.
Nicaragua to Debate Alternative Canal: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega hopes to gain congressional support this week for a canal that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through a canal in Nicaragua. The project, in which the Nicaraguan government would partner with Chinese company HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment co. Ltd., would take approximately 11 years to build and is expected to cost $40 billion. The government would grant the Chinese company a concession for 100 years to run the canal. The proposed canal in Nicaragua would be three times longer than the Panama Canal, which is currently being expanded and is expected to be completed next year.
A Nicaraguan court began the trial Wednesday of Henry Fariñas, the Nicaraguan businessman who was accompanying Argentine folksinger Facundo Cabral to the Guatemala City airport on July 9, 2011, when Cabral was shot and killed by assailants. The trial of Fariñas could shed some light on the motivations behind the murder of Cabral, who was touring in Guatemala at the time of his death at age 74.
Guatemalan authorities said that Fariñas was the intended target of the July 2011 assassination, allegedly masterminded by Costa Rican Alejandro Jiménez. Both Jiménez and Fariñas have been accused of trafficking drugs from Costa Rica to Nicaragua for the “Los Charros” gang, which is linked to Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.
Jiménez allegedly ordered the attack on Fariñas in retaliation for a supposed betrayal, but Cabral, known as a voice of popular resistance during the 1976-1983 Argentine dictatorship, was killed instead.
Fariñas will stand trial with 23 other defendants, including members of his family and Julio César Osuna, an ex-magistrate for the Supreme Electoral Council of Nicaragua, for collaborating with drug cartels in various Latin American countries and for laundering more than $1 billion in drug money in Nicaragua. Jiménez, jailed in Guatemala, is being tried in Nicaragua in absentia.
Carlos Javier Chavarría, Fariñas’ lawyer, has said that charges against his client are false, arguing that Fariñas was not in fact the owner of a night club known as “Club Nocturno Elite” that is central in his supposed dispute with Jiménez. Jiménez allegedly sought to kill Fariñas because he refused to sell him the club, although there are other versions of what motivated the assassination attempt.
Nicaraguan judge Adela Cardoza will preside over the trial, which began Wednesday in Managua.
In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
With today’s release of its Spring 2012 issue, Americas Quarterly has unveiled a new index that measures social inclusion in the Americas. This ranking evaluates 15 different indicators and compares them across 11 countries in the hemisphere. The variables include a country’s economic competitiveness, percent of national GDP spent on social programs, level of political and civil freedoms, and citizen perception of personal empowerment and government responsiveness in that country.
Out of a maximum of 100, Chile came out on top with a score of 71.9, while Guatemala ranked lowest at 7.5. The index praises Chile’s “consistently high rankings across almost all indicators” and cites “severe inequalities by race and ethnicity” in the case of Guatemala, adding that “Indigenous and Afro-Guatemalans lag far behind” socioeconomically. Uruguay and Brazil ranked second and third, respectively.
For four variables—enrollment in secondary school, percent of population living on more than $4 per day, access to adequate housing, and percent of population with access to a formal job—Americas Quarterly uses data collected by the World Bank in household surveys and disaggregated by race and gender.
According to the index, social inclusion is defined as “the concept that a citizen has the ability to participate in the basic political, economic and social functioning of his or her society. It includes not just economic empowerment, but also access to basic social services, access to infrastructure (physical and institutional), access to the formal labor market, civil and political participation and voice, and the absence of legally sanctioned discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender.”
Access the full results of—and methodology behind—AQ’s social inclusion index.