President Daniel Ortega’s government is pressing ahead with a plan to build an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua, a venture that is both audaciously ambitious and, to date, utterly lacking in transparency, characteristics that have made the project a subject of both continuing skepticism and growing contention. In a country where Ortega and his FSLN completely dominate the political arena, the canal plan has encountered strong opposition on a variety of fronts, in some cases from long-time supporters of the governing party.
Sovereignty concerns stemming from concessions made to HKND, the Chinese company overseeing construction of the canal, is one of the key sources of opposition to the project, but it hardly the only one. Critics are also troubled by the potentially harmful environmental impact, the lack of information regarding the portion of the estimated $50 billion price tag (if any) that will be borne by the Nicaraguan government, the displacement of population along the canal’s 172-mile route, and doubts about the touted economic benefits that will accrue directly to the Nicaraguan people.
The concern with the greatest potential to fuel a mass movement against the project is the environmental risk associated with the canal. The fact that the canal route includes Lake Nicaragua, the country’s main source of drinking water, has facilitated the efforts of opponents to paint plausible catastrophic scenarios.
Opponents of the canal have organized dozens of demonstrations over the past several months, and Ortega’s administration has for the most part responded to the protests by ignoring them, a strategy that the opposition hopes will help to generate a wave of public anger against the government that cuts across political and social lines. However, there is so far little evidence of such a phenomenon. Polls show that the president remains by far the most popular figure in the country, and, despite having found an issue around which to unify, the organized opposition is as divided as ever.
As long as that remains the case, Ortega can conceivably remain in power indefinitely by winning re-election with barely more than 35% of the vote, as he did in 2011. A recent poll revealed that 39% of respondents favor Ortega’s re-election in November 2016. Tellingly, the second most popular choice, with 19%, was “nobody.”