Other Discussions on Mexico

A Tehuantepec Mirage?

We pay much attention to Mexico because we are living in Pompeii next to Vesuvius. Fires have exacerbated human suffering in Mexico, and a lava of humanity threatens to flow into the United States. Or does it? Some visionaries think the migrants will move to the Tehuantepec area. This is the neck of land between Campeche Bay and the Golf of Tehuantepec. The isthmus provides a short land route between the east and west coasts of the United States. Mexican conservative historians have charged that Benito Juarez waas prepared to cede it to the United States, a charge his defenders angrily deny. Years ago I travelled across it when travelling by train from Veracruz to Guatemala. The line crosses the narrow ridge between Ixtepec and Juchitan and then continues southeast along the fertile Pacific coast of Chiapas.

Now some visionaries claim that the future of Mexico lies in that "coveted" region. The Mexican National Development Plan (1995-2000) proposes to build a canal across the isthmus, providing a better route than Panama or any alternative for trade between the Atlantic and Pacific. The region is favored by nature, and does not lack water. Development of this "coveted" region is planned by a number of official Mexican organizations with funding from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. The government prospectus is convincing. The project would do much to develop the troubled regions of Chiapas. It remains to be seen if nationalists will try to block the plan. A canal across Cuba would make sense too, but that plan was blocked as threatening the sovereignty of Cuba. Now that Panama has gained control of its canal, that argument may be weaker. The plan may also be attacked by leftists who would lose their hold over the native liberation movements in the area. We will do our best to follow the development of this ambitious plan.

Ronald Hilton - 05/01/98

More on A Tehuantepec Mirage...

Tim Brown has sent a long and informative memo, part of which discusses various canal routes:

In the Americas, between Mexico and Colombia, there are seven possible routes for inter-oceanic canals, from Tehuantepec in the north to northern Colombia, with possible routes elsewhere in Guatemala-El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama south of the existing canal. The problem with all but one is that they would require massive and extremely expensive excavations even larger than those done when the Panama Canal was built, and the installation of locks even bigger than those in Panama which, in turn would require everywhere but Nicaragua, the creation of a giant lake to feed them water.

The exceptions are two routes in Nicaragua, which is the only place a sea level canal without locks is possible. It is widely known that a Nicaragua route was once considered the best alternative to Panama, but even those well acquainted with it have long assumed it would run from the Atlantic/Caribbean up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua [Cocibolco] and then across the very narrow neck of land that separates Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific.

But that was never the plan because it would require a set of locks between the Lake and the Pacific. The plan was to dredge the San Juan from the Atlantic to Lake Nicaragua as a sea level canal without locks, but then to turn north, dredge a second canal between Lakes Nicaragua and Managua [Xolotlan] at Titpitapa, cross Lake Managua and then dredge a third canal northward across the inland plains to emerge on the Gulf of Fonseca north of the town of Chinandega. That is the reason why the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, in addition to granting the US a perpetual lease to Greater and Lesser Corn Islands in the Caribbean to build defenses at that end, also granted the US the right to build a naval base on the Gulf of Fonseca to defend the Pacific end of the canal. In fact, in 1976-78 a LASH canal following this route was under active development, with Harza Engineering of Chicago deeply involved. Given recent unrest in Nicaragua, and the requirement the four historically fractious nation-states [Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador] would have to agree fully on its construction and operations it is unlikely to be built for some time, if ever.

But Americans can rest easy. In 1978, as part of the treaty that returned the Panama Canal to Panama, the Carter administration unilaterally, without even being asked to do so by Panama, insisted on doing two things. First, it unilaterally renounced the us-Nicaragua Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, thus assuring that the United States not longer has treaty rights to build a Nicaragua Canal. This unilateral renunciation of course, included renunciation of the US's perpetual leases to Greater and Lesser Corn Islands and to build a naval base on the Cosguina Peninsula on the Gulf of Fonseca [which might have been nice to have during the Sandinista's revolution, whcih began within months of ratification of Carter's treaty].

And, second, the United States, without being asked by Panama to do so, unilaterally renounced in perpetuity its rights to build or share in the building of any second canal between the Atlantic and Pacific, except in Panama. So, if Tehuantepec or any other canal is ever built in the Western Hemisphere, given probable costs and complexity, it will probably be with Japanese, European or Arab capital."

My comment: The Carter administration's concessions to Panama astounded Americans. The Mexicans claim that the Tehuantepec route is much better than the others listed. Since so many Mexican government agencies are involved in the plan, it is not the pipe dream of one or two individuals. This is no guarantee that the canal will be built, but it means that the plan must be taken very seriously.

Ronald Hilton - 05/04/98