Back to Index

Nicaragua and the proposed canal

Tim Brown corrects some misconceptions about the proposed Nicaragua canal: "Nicaragua is the only place in the Western Hemisphere where a sea-level canal without locks can be built that would be usable by even the very largest ocean-going vessels, because it is the only route between the Atlantic Caribbean and Pacific that has no mountains to cross but does have two gigantic natural lakes capable of supplying the water needed to operate such a canal.

When looking at their maps of Nicaragua, which all true WAISers no doubt always have on the top of their desks, they can easily trace this this possible canal route. It enters the San Juan River at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border and follows that river west into Lake Nicaragua [or Cocibolco]. It then crosses Lake Nicaragua northward to the Tipitapa River near Granada. It then follows the Tipitapa River into Lake Managua [or Xolotlan], then crosses Lake Managua northward, where it is linked northward to the Gulf of Fonseca [or Chorotega], entering the Gulf to the east of the Cosguina Peninsula via a long, dredged canal..

Most casual observers wrongly assume the proposed canal would follow the shortest route and enter the Pacific via the Rivas isthmus, the narrowest point between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. But a canal crossing there cannot be built without locks because the distance across the isthmus there is too short and the different between sea and lake water levels too great. A channel without locks at that point would become a rushing un-navigable torrent emptying Lake Nicaragua into the Pacific, so locks would be required to avoid this catastrophic result.

WAISers, sensitive as they are to geopolitical realities, will quickly perceive what has been the major political challenges that have long bedeviled efforts to take advantage of this, the least expensive and best possible route for an interoceanic canal. The San Juan River serves as the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Technically, the river's natural south bank is the national border, but the San Juan cannot be deepened and straightened without Costa Rican territory being seriously affected. Similarly, the Gulf of Fonseca is shared by three countries - Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, making the building of a canal across Nicaragua subject to the approval of four countries.

An historical aside. In connection with the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, the US unilaterally renounced the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty between this country and Nicaragua. Nicaragua did not want us to do so, and Panama didn't care. This was the treaty that gave to US the exclusive right to build this sea-level canal. We also unilaterally renounced our right to build any other interoceanic canal anywhere else in the region, even though we were not asked to do so by Panama. As far as I know, no reasonable explanations have ever been given of why we did either. Among the provision of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty were rights for the US to build a Naval Base on the Cosguina Peninsula and to a perpetual lease of Great and Little Corn Islands in the Caribbean, and to activate these rights at any time. Soon thereafter, the Sandinista's took power in Nicaragua, garrisoned the Corn Islands, and established their primary supply center for sending arms to the Faribundo Marti Liberation Front in El Salvador on the Cosiguina Peninsula near the sight of the proposed US naval base".

My comment: The last paragraph is amazing; one wonders what went on. President Carter pushed the Canal Treaty through the Senate, where it won by only one vote. Did the Senate know that he had made these unrequested concessions? The Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific would provide a good anchorage for the US Navy. Hence its earlier importance. I am surprised by Tim's assertion that the proposed canal could take even the largest ocean-going vessels. There are odd problems. When at the beginning of the last the canal route was being discussed, Panama maliciously put out a stamp showing volcanoes, and this stamp was shown in the US Senate. The route Tim mentions would indeed pass close to Mount Momotombo.

You can be sure that American environmentalists would howl. When, some years ago, there was a proposal to lower the Panama Canal to sea level, they protested that this would allow poisonous Pacific yellow eels to reach the Caribbean and kill off the local fish. It seemed to me like the usual hype. I myself strongly favor the Nicaragua canal project. It would end the monopoly of Panama and greatly benefit the economy of Nicaragua. A canal across Cuba would be a great boon to the island, but Castro rejected the plan as an imperialist plot. Probably the same argument would be raised about the Nicaraguan canal. Can anyone tell us what happened to the Japan-led consortium which proposed to build it?

Ronald Hilton - 4/9/02