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Artist's conception of the proposed canal, 1899


The Inter-Oceanic Nicaragua Canal is a proposed waterway that would connect the Caribbean Seamarker, and therefore the Atlantic Oceanmarker, with the Pacific Oceanmarker through Nicaraguamarker, in Central America. Such a canal would follow rivers up to Lake Nicaraguamarker and then cut across the isthmus of Rivasmarker to reach the Pacific.

Construction of a canal along the route using the San Juan Rivermarker was proposed in the early colonial era. Louis Napoleon wrote an article about its feasibility in the early 19th century. Plans by the United Statesmarker to build such a canal were abandoned in the early 20th century, after the purchase of the Frenchmarker interests in the Panama Canalmarker at a reasonable cost. Speculation on a new canal continues, however; the steady increase in world shipping, together with the possibility of establishing shorter shipping routes, may make this a viable project. Alternatively, a railway, or a combined railway and oil pipeline, could be built to link ports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Route

Several possible routes have been proposed for a canal in Nicaragua, all making use of Lake Nicaraguamarker, the second largest lake in Latin America. Three routes have been discussed to carry traffic from the Atlantic up to the lake, which is at an elevation of above sea level:

  • from Bluefieldsmarker, up the Rio Escondido and then an artificial canal to the lake


  • from Punta Gorda, up the Rio Punta Gorda and then an artificial canal to the lake


  • from San Juan del Norte, up the Rio San Juan — with improvements and new locks - to the lake


An artificial canal would then be cut across the narrow isthmus of Rivasmarker (its lowest point is above sea level) to reach the Pacific Ocean at San Juan del Sur.

History

The idea of building a canal through Central America is a very old one. Under the colonial administration of New Spain, preliminary surveys were conducted. The routes usually suggested ran across Nicaraguamarker, Panamamarker, or the Isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker in Mexicomarker.

The Nicaragua canal was seriously proposed by the newly established Federal Republic of Central America in 1825. That year the Central American federal government hired surveyors to chart the route and contacted the government of the United States in the hopes that the U.S. might contribute the financing and engineering technology needed for building the canal, to the great advantage of both nations.

A survey from the 1830s stated that the canal would be long and would generally follow the San Juan River from the Atlantic to Lake Nicaragua, then go through a series of locks and tunnels from the lake to the Pacific.

1895 cartoon advocating U.S. action to build the Nicaragua Canal


The Federal Republic of Central America proposal made a favorable impression in Washington, D.C.marker, and was formally presented to the Congress of the United States by Secretary of State Henry Clay in 1826. The poverty and political instability of the region, as well as the rival strategic and economic interests of the Britishmarker government, which controlled both British Honduras (later Belizemarker) and the Mosquito Coast, prevented the canal from being built.

On August 26, 1849, a contract was signed between Cornelius Vanderbilt, a U.S. businessman, and the Nicaraguan government. It granted the Accessory Transit Company, which Vanderbilt controlled, the exclusive right to build a canal within 12 years and gave the same company sole administration of a temporary trade route in which the overland crossing through the Rivasmarker isthmus was done by train and stagecoach. The temporary route operated successfully, quickly becoming one of the main avenues of trade between New York Citymarker and San Franciscomarker, but a civil war in Nicaragua and an invasion by freebooter William Walker intervened to prevent the canal from being completed.

Continued interest in the route was an important factor in the negotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. The canal idea was discussed seriously by businessmen and governments throughout the 19th century. In 1897, the United States' Nicaraguan Canal Commission proposed this idea, as did the subsequent Isthmian Canal Commission in 1899. However, the commission also recommended that the French work on the Panama Canalmarker should be taken over if it could be purchased for no more than $40,000,000. Since the French effort was in utter disarray, the U.S. was able to make the purchase at its price.

In the late 19th century, the United States government negotiated with President Jose Santos Zelaya to lease the land so they could build a canal through Nicaragua. Luis Felipe Corea, the Nicaraguan minister in Washington, wrote to United States Secretary of State John Hay expressing support of such a canal by the Zelaya government. The Sánchez-Merry Treaty with Nicaragua was signed in case the negotiations of a canal through Colombiamarker fell through, although it was later rejected by John Hay. In the end the Spooner Act (which proposed a canal through Panama) was presented before Corea completed a draft of the Nicaragua canal. In addition to the earlier completion of the Panama canal proposal, opponents of the Nicaraguan canal suggested Momotombomarker posed a threat of volcanic activity, as depicted on a Nicaraguan stamp, although in reality it was far away from the site. They favored construction of a canal through the isthmus of Panama.

According to Stephen Kinzer's 2006 book Overthrow, in 1898 the chief of the French Canal Syndicate (a group that owned large swathes of land across Panama), Philippe Bunau Varilla, hired William Nelson Cromwell (from the U.S. law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell) to lobby the U.S. Congress to build a canal across Panama.

In 1902, using a 10-cent Nicaraguan postal stamp produced by the American Bank Note Company erroneously depicting a fuming Momotombo volcano (which was nearly dormant and stood more than from the proposed Nicaraguan canal path), and taking advantage of a particularly volcanic year in the Caribbean, Cromwell planted a story in the New York Sun reporting that the Momotombo volcano had erupted and caused a series of seismic shocks.

Ultimately, the decision on which canal to build was made in a 1902 Senate vote. Prior to the vote, lobbyists for the Panama Canalmarker, represented by William Nelson Cromwell, sent leaflets with the stamps featuring the Momotombo volcano pasted on them to every Senator as proof of the volcanic activity in Nicaragua. A subsequent eruption in Saint-Pierre, Martiniquemarker which killed 30,000 people was enough to persuade the U.S. Congress to vote in favour of Panama, leaving only eight votes in favour of Nicaragua. The decision to build the Panama Canal passed by four votes.William Nelson Cromwell was paid $800,000 for his lobbying efforts.

At the start of the 20th century, Nicaraguan president José Santos Zelaya attempted to arrange for Germanymarker and Japanmarker to finance the canal. This was opposed by the U.S., which by then had settled on the Panama route.

After the Panama Canal

The relative locations of the Nicaragua and Panama Canals
At various times since the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Nicaragua route has been reconsidered. Its construction would shorten the water distance between New Yorkmarker and San Franciscomarker by nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles). Under the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, the United States paid Nicaragua US$3 million for an option in perpetuity and free of taxation, including 99-year leases of the Corn Islandsmarker and a site for a naval base on the Gulf of Fonseca. Costa Ricamarker protested that Costa Rican rights to the San Juan River had been infringed, and El Salvadormarker maintained that the proposed naval base would affect both it and Hondurasmarker. Both protests were upheld by the Central American Court of Justice in rulings that are not recognized by either Nicaragua or the U.S. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was repealed by both nations on 14 July 1970.

Present day

In 2004, the Nicaraguan government again proposed a canal through the country—large enough to handle post-Panamax ships of up to 250,000 tons, as compared to the approximately 65,000 tons that the Panama Canal can accommodate. The estimated cost of this scheme may be as much as US$25 billion, 25 times Nicaragua's annual budget. Former President Enrique Bolaños has sought foreign investors to support the project. The scheme has met with strong opposition from environmentalists, who protest the damage that would be done to the rivers and jungle.

In addition to the canal proposal, there are private proposals for a land bridge across Nicaragua. The Intermodal System for Global Transport (SIT Global), involving Nicaraguan and Canadian investors, proposes a combined railway, oil pipeline, and fibre optic cable; a competing group, the Inter-Ocean Canal of Nicaragua, proposes building a railway linking two ports on either coast. It is possible that these schemes could exist in parallel to the proposed canal.

On October 2, 2006, President Enrique Bolaños, at a summit for Defense ministers of the Western Hemisphere, officially announced that Nicaragua had sincere intentions of going ahead with the project. Bolaños said that there was sufficient demand for two canals within the Central American isthmus. Bolaños proclaimed that the project would cost an estimated US$18 billion and would take approximately 12 years to construct. It could take one of six possible routes at approximately 280 km, reduce the transit time from New York to California by one day and a total of 800 km, would considerably reduce transit costs from Europe to China and Japan, and have capacity for ships of up to 250,000 tons.

The construction of the canal would more than double Nicaragua's GDP based on the canal alone (exclusive of other investments which would evidently flow into Nicaragua as a result of the canal's construction). Some sources even suggest that with the construction of the canal, Nicaragua could become one of the wealthiest countries in Central America, and one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America in per capita terms. Currently, the committee for the canal is preparing a proposal to be approved by the National Parliament after which private companies may bid for the project. The project is expected to create 40,000 direct jobs and another 200,000 indirectly.

It is expected that all Central America would benefit from the construction of the canal. If a Nicaraguan canal were built, "it would bring an economic effervescence never seen before in Central America," Bolaños said.

Notes

References

  • Mellander, Gustavo A.(1971) The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Daville,Ill.:Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1563281554. OCLC 42970390.


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