Saturday, June 8, 2013

More Canal Trouble for Colombia?

A threat to Colombia? Old plans for a canal across Nicaragua are coming back. (Photo: Wikipedia)
In 1903, Colombia had just finished the bloody Thousand-days civil war. In Colombia's presidency was José Manuel Marroquín, a philosophy professor who reportedly was more passionate about writing books on grammar than governing. And the country was still smarting from the dismemberment it suffered when Ecuador and Venezuela broke away from La Gran Colombia.

It could have been Colombia: Construction of the Panama Canal (Photo: Wikipedia)
Enter the United States, led by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, a military man, believer in Manifest Destiny and wielder of the 'big stick,' who was bent on expanding the U.S.'s power across the hemisphere.

A ship crosses the Panama Canal.
Roosevelt wanted to dig a canal across Central America to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and save ships the long and dangerous passage around around the southern tip of South America. And the Colombian province of Panama was the logical place to dig it, since the French had already done years of excavation there. (The alternative was digging across Nicaragua.)

No warrior: Colombian Pres. Jose
Manuel Marroquin.
Bogotá's relationship with Panama was already tenuous. The province was isolated from the rest of Colombia - today, there's still no land connection between the two nations - and many Panamanians had long aspired for independence - even rebelling several times. The Panamanians also resented their sufferings during the Thousand Days War, which they felt was fought over issues foreign to them.

So, when Washington approached Bogotá proposing digging a canal across Panama, Colombian leaders worried. Bogotá had less than a century before already lost much of its territory, and now this big power from the north was proposing digging a trench across the country and then assuming long-term control of the corridor.

Colombia's Congress gave the Yanquis the cold shoulder and made big demands for the canal concession.

Theodore Roosevelt:
A rough rider.
The strategy backfired disastrously for Colombia. Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanians to stage yet another revolt and immediately recognized Panama's independence. Roosevelt even sent down U.S. warships to prevent Bogotá from putting down the rebellion.

Instead of losing temporary control of a corridor of land, Colombia lost a whole province.

It's interesting to think about how things would be different if Colombia had cooperated with the Roosevelt administration. Today, Panama would likely still be a Colombian province, giving Colombian much more economic and geopolitical importance.

But there's no changing history.

And today, Colombia's unfortunate relationship with Central American canals may be heading for a repeat.

The recent Hague International Justice Court's ruling expanding Nicaragua's Caribbean waters breathed new
Nicaragua still claims Colombia's San Andres archipelago,
located off of Nicaragua's coast. A nearby canal would
 impact them economically, geopolitically and
life into that nation's hopes to build its own canal between the oceans. A canal across Nicaragua would be longer than Panama's, but have huge advantages. It would be a sea-level canal, meaning that ships would not have to be lifted and lowered in locks as the Panama Canal does, and it would be wider and deeper than Panama's. The world's biggest ships, mostly oil tankers, already can't fit thru the Panama Canal and still won't even be able to after that canal's current expansion is completed.

The Nicaraguan government is moving ahead with a concession to a Chinese company to dig a canal across the country. (There had also been talk of the Chinese building a 'dry canal' in the form of a railroad line between Colombia's Pacific and Atlantic coasts.) After the Hague ruling, some Colombian officials even suggested that the Chinese interest in building such a canal could have influenced the Chinese judge on the panel, but there's no evidence for that.

The Seaflower Marine reserve around the San Andres
archipelago would be hit with pollution and exotic species,
as well as huge sea traffic, if an inter-ocean canal is
dug across Nicaragua. (Photo: Unesco)
But a canal across Nicaragua could mean trouble for Colombia. It would inevitably increase Nicaragua's influence in the Caribbean, increasing pressure on Colombia's sovereignety over the San Andres Archipelago off of Nicaragua's coast. Nicaragua has long claimed the islands.

Adding a major shipping channel will also produce huge environmental impacts from ship movement, ship wastes and the introduction of exotic species. That's particularly worrying for Colombia's Seaflower Marine Sanctuary around the San Andres Islands. (Colombia is using the sanctuary to challenge the recent Hague court ruling, but its chances for success look slim.)

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Roberto P said...

Don't see this coming to fruition. Too much seems odd, have a look at the company website.

China is big on loans but dropping 40 billion is way bigger than anything else they've done in Latin America and there are no names behind it.

Miguel said...

Hi Robert,

yes, the people behind it seem a bit dubious. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the economics ARE there. After all, the biggest supertankers sailing now won't even be able to fit thru the Panama Canal AFTER it's widened. And shipping will surely even increase.

I can see logistical challenges, however, such as keeping the canal clear of silt and navegable.