In an earlier post, I talked about the United States’ declining influence in the Americas. I think that nothing may symbolize this as much as Nicaragua’s vote this week to grant a Chinese company a 50 year concession to build a canal across this country. The idea of a canal across Nicaragua dates back at least to the early nineteenth century. As David McCullough described in his magnificent book, The Path Between the Seas, Nicaragua was favored because it was closer to the United States, and Lake Nicaragua seemed to make the task of building the canal easier. After the Civil War, U.S. President Grant sent five expeditions to Central America to explore a route for a canal, most of which went do Nicaragua. But since it was the French who began the project -reflecting Europe’s influence in the hemisphere- proximity to the U.S. did not shape their choice, and they began work on the Panamanian isthmus. Although the project was headed by the French hero de Lesseps, the man who had built the Suez canal, his decision to build a sea level canal likely doomed the project from the start.
The French effort collapsed in 1889 because of engineering problems and the massive deaths caused by tropical diseases. The United States then took over the project, perhaps because it was the only country with the wealth and drive to so so. As the U.S. made the decision to build a canal, the nation underwent a passionate political debate over where it should be located. It’s difficult now to remember the intensity of these arguments. Some people believed that the canal had to be built on Nicaragua. Others argued, however, that it would be folly to build a canal in that country because it had active volcanoes. In the end, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt decided to build the canal in Panama, even though he had to sponsor an independence movement to break Panama away from Colombia to do so, a loss that still stings in that country. By the time that the U.S. finished building the canal in 1914 there was no question that the United States was the dominant power in the hemisphere. This dominance, however, engendered lasting resentments, which the U.S. sought to mitigate in part by returning the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.
For a century, the Panama Canal has been of unequaled strategic importance in this hemisphere. Now that may change. The scope of the Chinese-Panamanian plans is staggering, as Ishan Tharoor and Tim Roger’s article in Time Magazine described: “Estimated to cost $40 billion, it includes an interoceanic canal, an oil pipeline, an interoceanic “dry canal” freight railroad, two deepwater ports, two international airports and a series of free-trade zones along the canal route. The canal would be at least twice as long as the Panama Canal and wider in order to accommodate the newest generation of supertankers.” It remains to be seen whether a Chinese telecom tycoon really has the power and funds to realize this project, which has significant environmental ramifications. Many observers believe that this plan is a pipe dream. The recent expansion of the Panama canal to accommodate larger ships means that it is unclear if there would be demand for a Nicaraguan canal. Still, there is no question that China’s influence in the region is increasing, as it serves to purchase Brazil’s raw commodities, and finance development projects. Brazil has also acquired a great deal of influence through innovative programs that have undermined the income inequality that has long plagued that country. Finally, many people blame the violence and ecological damage caused by the drug war on U.S. policies. For all these reasons, at the moment U.S. power is ebbing in Latin America, while China is becoming significant politically and economically in the region.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University