Nicaragua has awarded a Chinese company a 100-year concession to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.
With uncertain costs and impact to the environment, the canal is expected to pass through Lake Nicaragua, and will accomodate ships of 250,000 metric tons- twice the size the Panama Canal will accomodate even after upgrades
This is not the first
time a canal through Nicaragua has been attempted.
Canals in Central America were proposed as far back as the mid-1500's, when Emperor Charles V of Spain sought to ease the transport of gold from Peru back to Europe.
In the 1840's, need for easier access to California (and its gold) reawakened interest in a canal, and in 1849, American industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt signed an agreement
with Nicaragua to build both a canal and a temporary overland route. Although the canal was never built, it engendered a massive diplomatic crisis with the world's superpower Britain, whose interests were threatened by the prospect of an American-run canal. Conflict was resolved with the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty
, which among other things guaranteed the neutrality of any future canal.
By 1902, French efforts to build a canal through Panama were failing and threatening to ruin
the country financially. Interests in the United States, meanwhile, were again moving towards a Nicaraguan canal and had passed a bill supporting said canal in the House of Representatives. In a stroke of luck, lobbyists for the French, desperate for an American bailout, were able to capitalize
on a recent deadly Caribbean volcano eruption coupled with an ill-timed
Nicaraguan stamp depicting an errupting volcano. Concerned in part by the threat of Nicaraguan volcanos, the United States moved instead to take over the French canal works in Panama.
The current Chinese proposals promise to bring more than 40,000 jobs
to one of the poorest countries in Latin America, but also threaten to once again ignite conflicts between old and new superpowers battling for influence in the Americas.