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Dossier. Nicaragua : sandinismo 2.0 ?

Conflicts about Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal Project: framing, counterframing and government strategies

Conflits autour du projet de canal interocéanique au Nicaragua : framing, counterframing et stratégies gouvernementales
Conflictos por el Proyecto del Canal Interoceánico en Nicaragua: framing, counterframing y estrategias del gobierno
Conflitos sobre o projeto do canal interoceânico na Nicarágua: framing, counterframing e estratégias governamentais
Anne Tittor
p. 117-140


Cet article explore la relation contemporaine entre le FSLN (Front sandiniste de libération nationale) et les mouvements sociaux, et ce à travers un cas paradigmatique : les mobilisations contre les plans de construction d’un canal interocéanique à travers le pays. Employant la perspective du framing et counterframing, l’article analyse comment différents acteurs formulent leurs expectatives et leurs prédictions à partir des conséquences possibles. L’accent est particulièrement porté sur les stratégies d’argumentation, de menace et de cooptation employées par le gouvernement nicaraguayen. Le gouvernement a pris la décision de construire le canal interocéanique en l’imposant du sommet vers le bas, pour ultérieurement refuser de répondre aux critiques contre le canal. Dans un premier temps, le FSLN a ignoré, puis a ensuite essayé de contrôler ce mouvement ayant émergé de façon autonome. Après l’échec de ces tentatives, le parti a ensuite tenté de réprimer, puis a essayé de coopter différents secteurs du mouvement de protestation.

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Notes de la rédaction

Texte reçu le 7 juillet 2017, accepté le 3 février 2018.

Texte intégral

1Sandinismo has profoundly changed over the years. One important aspect that has undergone transformation over the past decade is the relationship between Sandinismo and social movements. This is an issue that has been well analyzed in the past. Nicaragua had strong social movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s: the peasant movement, the women’s movement, and the workers’ movement [Kinloch Tijerino, 2012, 291ff]. The high level of mobilization enabled both the development of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and the popular uprising that finally overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. From 1979-1990, when the FSLN was governing and tried to implement their variant of socialism, it aimed to be democratic and pluralist, based on a plural economy and political non-alignment. It was one of the few revolutionary parties that did not denounce social movements, such as feminism, as bourgeois [Molyneux, 1985, 227ff].

2While the FSLN was in opposition from 1990-2006, it claimed to “rule from below” and regularly called on popular mobilizations [Thaler, 2017, p. 158]. During the neoliberal governments (1990-2006), the FSLN supported workers’ strikes and other social movements’ activities. The FSLN maintained close relations with civic organizations, which were once part of the party’s formal structure and could easily be transformed in strategic alliances. Strong ties existed particularly with public schoolteachers, health care workers, and other state sector employees, and student associations as well as neighborhood associations [Almeida, 2010, p. 186]. As the FSLN called on its members to participate in the strikes and mobilizations, protests became huge. Nevertheless, the FSLN always tried to control or at least influence social movements and was very ambivalent about autonomous actors such as the women’s movement. The FSLN sometimes supported, and sometimes calmed, mass mobilization [Almeida, 2010, p. 186].

3In the first years after regaining government power in 2007, the FSLN established “Citizens Power Councils” (CPCs) that, founded on citizens’ participation, had the mandate to broaden direct democracy. The idea was that people from lower social strata especially would be able participate in local decisions and feel that the slogan “el pueblo presidente” (presidency of the people) was being put into practice [Perla and Cruz-Feliciano, 2013]. The CPCs were key in explaining and implementing social plans on the local level, and in selecting beneficiaries of goods and services. This clearly strengthened clientelist mechanisms, as it was almost exclusively FSLN members who were selected to benefit [Schützhofer, 2011]; members of the opposition, social movements, or indigenous and afro-descendant groups were rarely included. Over the past few years, the CPCs became a social network of clientelist power. Especially and after they were transformed into the Family, Community and Life Cabinets (Gabinetes), they were implemented to keep communities under government surveillance. The government has eroded several democratic institutions, and the FSLN has turned into an organization that strictly follows the commands of president Daniel Ortega and current vice-president Rosario Murillo, his wife. Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising, perhaps, that “the November 2016 elections marked the emergence of a full-scale FSLN party-state” [Thaler, 2017, p. 160].

  • 1 Interview with a member of a Nicaraguan human rights organization (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos (...)

4Parallel to the consolidation of clientelist networks, the FSLN’s relationship to social movements changed. Nevertheless, this aspect has not been explored as much in the literature as the authoritarian tendencies in the FSLN government. Scholars analyzing Nicaraguan politics and changes within the FSLN since its return to power in 2007 have focused on agrarian policies [Martí i Puig and Baumeister, 2017] or modes of governance [Martí i Puig, 2016; Thaler, 2017]. This article aims to contribute to this research by analyzing the relationship between the FSLN government and social movements since the FSLN’s return to power in 2007. It is striking how, compared to the past, social movement activity in Nicaragua has calmed down; indeed, not a single strike has occurred since the FSLN’s return to power. The Ortega government has installed a strong tripartite system, where unions, employers and government negotiate with one another, and strikes are therefore seen as unnecessary1. One major exception has been the women’s movement, which is continuously questioning the issue of reproductive rights [Heumann, 2014; Blandón, 2001].

5Most progressive intellectuals in Nicaragua were engaged in the Revolution in one way or another, with some even taking over ministries and campaigns during the revolutionary period. Since 1990, many have left the FSLN; some intended to renovate Sandinismo, while others founded institutions that constructively criticize the FSLN [Feliciano and Chaguaceda, 2014]. Nevertheless, those who left the FSLN never gained major support from a broader social base. This has contributed to a general political passivity and a generalized inability to criticize Ortega’s leadership. Similar to the old “caudillismos” in Latin America, Ortega and Murillo have managed to monopolize control over all important state institutions, from the administration, to the police and the courts. Additionally they have also interfered in important sectors of the economy [Martí i Puig, 2016, p. 255]. They have total control of the FSLN and their territorial networks and enjoy considerable popular support. This has created difficult conditions for social movements to emerge. Nevertheless, from 2013 onwards, a new social movement consolidated itself against the plans to realize the Interoceanic Canal.

6The project of the Interoceanic Canal works as a paradigmatic case to explore the relationship between the FSLN and social movements for three reasons: First, until March 2018, the anti-canal movement has been the most important social movement in Nicaragua. Second, the magnitude and significance of the Interoceanic Canal, if it is ever put into practice, will change the entire future of the country. Third, the way the government responded to the anti-canal movement was the foretaste of repression against citizens criticizing key decision of the government. The brutal attempts to crush the protests in 2018, which caused hundreds of deaths, are not subject of this article. Nevertheless, a closer look at the way the government was ignoring, denunciating and repressing protests already from 2014 to 2017 helps to understand the recent increasingly violent dynamics within the country. In the following, I will show how the government took the decision to build an Interoceanic Canal and how it refused to respond to the sceptics and critics of the Canal plans. The FSLN first ignored, then tried to control the movement, which emerged autonomously from within their own party structure and networks. As these attempts failed, it repressed and finally tried to coopt (different parts) of the protest movement.

7The scholarly articles already published about the Interoceanic Canal concentrate on the possible environmental consequences [Huete-Perez et al., 2013; Fuchs and Navas, 2016; Wünderich, 2014], the history of the canal [Hill, 1948; Bailey, 1936; Clayton, 1987], the impacts for indigenous communities [Acosta, 2014] and the consequences for national sovereignty [Ortega Hegg, 2013; Lopez Baltodano, 2014; Acevedo Vogl, 2013]. Others controversially discuss the project’s feasibility and possible impacts on world trade [Chen and Liu, 2016; Yip and Wong, 2015]. Only a few of them focus on the social and political climate under which the decision was taken and how groups opposing the project have been treated [Ramírez Ayérdiz, 2016]. Nevertheless, the latter aspect can bring several insights for the overall discussion about the current character of the Nicaraguan government and Sandinismo in the 21st century.

Theoretical and methodological approach: framing processes and counterframes

8The analysis developed in this article draws on the theoretical approach of framing, which was originally developed by Goffman [1974] and transferred to the study of social movements as a way of emphasizing how issues are outlined to mobilize protest [Benford and Snow, 2000]. Movements are seen as agents actively engaged in the production, maintenance and transformation of meanings and ideas [Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 613]. To conceptualize the signifying work of the construction of meaning, social movement scholars employ the verb “framing”. Movements build “collective action frames” to interpret the world, to understand events and to inspire and legitimize activities and campaigns aiming at change. “In movements, frames attach characteristics and definitions to people and issues in space and time—they attribute blame, outline alternative paths and means of achieving goals. They perform the role, that is, of interpreting the significance of a person, an event, or a symbol.” [Della Porta and Parks, 2014, p. 21]. They develop a “diagnostic framing” (what is the core problem?) a “prognostic framing” (what is necessary to solve the problem?) and a “motivational framing” (what can we do, so that we or others solve the problem or change the issue?). As social movements seek to alter a problematic situation or issue, the source of causality and/or culpable agents have to be identified [Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 616]. The credibility of any framing depends on the consistency of the frame, its empirical credibility, and its congruency with everyday experiences. A further aspect is the credibility of the frame articulators, which is often increased through status and/or perceived expertise [Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 619]. Framing, therefore, is not only crucial for understanding the issues of grievance construction and interpretation, but also to understand participation in the movement and the mobilization of popular support for its cause [Benford, 1997, p. 210].

9From this perspective, a key element of social movement activity is the struggle over the production of mobilizing and countermobilizing ideas and meanings. The elaboration of a collective action frame is therefore a contested process. Movement opponents, bystanders and the media often develop counterframes to discredit, undermine, rebut, and otherwise neutralize a movement’s claims, myths, collective identity and interpretive frameworks [Benford and Hunt, 1994, p. 161].

10Benford and Hunt [1994, p. 162-169] distinguish four different types of counterframes: a) problem denial: negating the existence of a problem and repudiating the need for a movement or public debate; b) counter attribution: providing other interpretations of who or what is to blame, and redirecting public attention to other targets; c) counterprognoses: insisting that the protests call for wrong prognoses, or offering alternative solutions; and d) attacks on collective character: announcing the social movement leaders as actually being on the enemy’s side, or insincere [Chen, 2015, p. 13].

11The analysis of framing processes and counterframing follows an interpretative logic. Nevertheless, reactions to protest activities are not only a dispute of meaning, but opponents (governments, elites, media or counter-movements) can also react very violently. To make visible the importance of non-verbal action towards movements, my analysis combines Benford and Hunt’s types of counterframing with Weipert-Fenner and Wolff’s [2015] distinctions of government reactions towards protest movements. They distinguish between a level of substantial (policy-related) responses and institutional (polity-related) answers. At the level of institutional responses, there are typically four different strategies: a) a combination of inclusion and autonomy (liberal-democratic inclusion); b) inclusion and control (cooptation), c) exclusion and control (repression); d) exclusion and autonomy (marginalization). As the authors stress, mixed dynamics are possible, such as the inclusion of some, and repression of other, contentious actors. At the level of policy, the key question is, whether the government is willing to fully or partially satisfy the key demand(s) of the social movement. Often the demands are about broader redistributive struggles over “continuity vs. change” with a view to economic and social policies.

12Analyzing framing means looking at discursive, strategical and conflictive processes [Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 623]. Therefore, speeches and written communications of movement actors and their opponents are central to analyze framing processes [Della Porta and Parks, 2014, p. 22]. For this analysis, it is more important to look at spoken and written words from the actors involved, as published by social movement organizations and in interviews, than looking at other researchers’ interpretations of the protest movement’s claims. Therefore, this article is based on an analysis of Nicaraguan newspaper articles and media reports, which document the reactions of the government in detail. The material is combined with my own interviews with some of the actors involved, conducted during field research in Nicaragua between September 2014 and January 2015, complemented in May and June 2016.

The project, its promise and the government’s decision about it

13In July 2012, the Nicaraguan Parliament passed a law that created a commission responsible for enabling the construction of the Interoceanic Canal (law No. 800). In May 2013, President Ortega introduced the investor Wang Jing as the key partner to construct the “Great Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua”. Wang Jing’s newly founded international company for infrastructural construction, headquartered in Hong Kong, is called the HKND group (Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co., Limited). HKND has no experience in large infrastructural projects, and is registered in the Caiman Islands [Ramírez Ayérdiz, 2016, p. 72]. The Ortega administration directly selected Wang Jing as a partner: there was no open, international procurement process or other public tender for offers [CENIDH, 2014, p. 61]. Ortega’s administration did not give any systematic reasons why they chose HKND. Wang Jing promised that different stakeholders will invest (or have already invested) in the Canal, and travelled through China, Chile, Europe and the US to attract capital2. The construction of the 278 kilometers of the Canal is estimated to cost at least US$ 40 billion.

14In June 2013 a second law concerning the Canal (law No. 840) passed by the Nicaraguan parliament gave HKND a concession for 50 years, with the option to prolong another 50 years [Acosta, 2014]. All HKND activities are tax-exempt. There is no defined period for construction; in principle, the concession covers the whole territory relevant to the construction of the canal, allowing HKND to build anywhere at will [López Baltodano, 2014]. Further, Nicaraguan law does not apply within the area of the Canal—it is practically transformed into a foreign enclave. As the decision has been taken and the framework is now set, it could be argued that there is an immense power-asymmetry between national politics and the power of the investor. The company has the exclusive right to finance, build and operate the Canal, the harbors, railway, airports, pipelines for 50 years, and this right can be prolonged another 50 years [Wünderich, 2014, p. 28-29].

15Law 840 stipulates that initially only 1 % of the shares of the Canal are to be held by the state of Nicaragua, with its share increasing every decade [Lopez Baltodano, 2014]. After discussing four possible routes, HKND defined the route in July 2014—prior to completion of the ecological, social and economic feasibility studies3. In contrast to several former attempts to construct an interoceanic canal, this route did not follow the San Juan River, but rather involved the construction of a new waterway and an artificial lake. The British consultancy firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM) realized the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA)4. Without waiting for its results, HKND and the government celebrated a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony of the project in December 2014 and announced that construction would begin in 2019. Law 840 was passed in less than three weeks, without broad public or parliamentary debate. Neither the general public nor indigenous and afro-descendant groups were consulted, although 52 % of the Canal’s route is slated to cross through the latter groups’ ancestral territories.

16The government framed the Canal as motor of development, and as an opportunity to elevate Nicaragua’s status internationally. Paul Oquist, the private secretary for national policy and a key presidential advisor, predicted that the project would double Nicaragua’s GDP by 2020, make the country more resilient to global financial shocks and provide the funds needed to help the country adapt to climate change, as well as raise incomes and create 250,000 jobs. He offered a very positive prognostic framing for the country to alleviate poverty: “This is the opportunity for Nicaragua—the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean—to overcome extreme poverty and to be able to offer a more prosperous and just life and society to our children and grandchildren. […] There is nothing else in Nicaragua that could achieve that within our lifetimes.”5 President Daniel Ortega likes to refer to a speech of Sandino from 1927 to legitimize the Canal and presents it as the “old Nicaraguan dream” [Envío Team, 2013]. Historically, there have been more than twenty proposals and/or treaties to build an interoceanic canal by using the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua [Van der Post, 2014]. The government can articulate its framing of the Canal as a motor of progress within a broader historical narrative:

Throughout Nicaragua’s history, the Canal project had a crucial importance, especially after Independence. Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to affirm that the national imagination has been woven around the idea of a collective historical destiny that Nicaragua, selected by nature or divine providence, has to make the opening of the interoceanic connection a reality. The idea that Nicaragua must convert itself into a cosmopolitan nation appears constantly in the newspapers and official documents of the 19th century. The canal was the symbol through which progress would finally come” [Kinloch Tijerino, 2012, p. 11, translation Anne Tittor].

17Today the HKND website advertises that the “Century-old dream will come true”, and many officials constantly refer to this framing. Telémaco Talavera (Director of the Agrarian University of Nicaragua and spokesperson of the Commission of the Great Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua) stresses that the Canal means educational opportunities: he promises that 315 new technical career paths will be developed within the Nicaraguan higher education system in order to enable Nicaraguan workers to qualify for jobs linked to the Canal project6. The government has embedded the Canal into a regional project of Central American integration. The investor (HKND) also frames the Canal as a necessity for growth in the 21st century:

The Nicaragua Canal will satisfy the changing needs of the 21st century, and will complement the Panama Canal. With the rapid increase in East-West trade volume and increasing ship sizes, there is a sufficient justification for a second Interoceanic Canal spanning Central America. The trend of increasing ship size alone demonstrates there is a huge market potential for the Nicaragua Canal. This market belongs to the Nicaragua Canal. We believe, in 2030, 16 years from now, the combined value of goods passing through the Nicaragua Canal and Panama Canal will surpass 1.4 trillion dollars. This will be one of the most important concentrations of shipping in the world”7.

18Several graphs on HKND’s website, displaying linear growth, are presented to provide evidence to support these statements. The possibility of a future crisis of world trade—or a crisis within China—is not considered: growth is framed to be eternal.

Contestation from below: a farmers’ movement against the Canal

19The Ortega government did not expect much disapproval against the Canal project within Nicaragua, since it has been framed as a key motor of development and “the old Nicaraguan dream”. Indeed, initially there was considerable popular support: in June 2013 73 % of Nicaragua’s population believed the Canal would be realized and 71 % perceived it as bringing jobs and wealth to the country [Wünderich, 2014, p. 27]. The government expected protests from environmental groups and NGOs—but what really surprised them was that a social movement coalesced from their core social base: rural peasants. Although the political circumstances in Nicaragua do not favor the constitution of social movements due to the regime’s authoritarianism, rural peasants living in the area of the planned Canal perceived themselves as being both completely ignored by their “own” government and existentially threatened.

20Initially, in 2013 and 2014, several academic fora and discussion events were held in Managua to discuss the Canal project. The Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences), a network of distinguished (male) professors and researchers, published a book about the possible impacts of the canal [Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua, 2014]. Well-known authors—geographers, biologists and engineers with academic degrees from the United States and positions within Nicaraguan universities—contributed to the book. As the authors have high academic and social status and are perceived as experts, the credibility of the claims they made was very high. This open access book had a key function in stimulating the debate and generating knowledge about the possible consequences of the megaproject. Hundreds of students, activists, media representatives and a broader public participated in the public discussions. Simultaneously, several NGOs, especially Popol Na, Centro Humboldt, Fundación del Rio, began analyzing the Canal plans and their possible social and environmental impacts. The NGOs had always been present in the discussions of the Academia de Ciencias but added specific social aspects to the debate and made the knowledge more accessible to a broader public.

  • 8 Cocibolca is the name of the Nicaraguan lake, which at 8.264 square kilometers is the biggest fresh (...)
  • 9 Author’s personal notes. The National forum called “Reflexiones sobre el Canal Interoceanico y su c (...)

21The NGOs and the Academia de Ciencias started to speak publicly as a coalition under the name Grupo Cocibolca8. In September 2014 in Managua, they convened a first national forum to reflect on the Canal concession. The event was not only organized to be accessible to non-academics, but also speakers from each affected municipality were invited to the event. It was an important opportunity for individuals who lived in very isolated parts of Nicaragua to meet with others, and helped to strengthen new alliances between indigenous organizations and peasant farmers. More than 500 people participated in the one-day meeting and carried the information about the Canal plans back to their communities and territories9.

  • 10 According to the press release of Grupo Cocibolca, Managua, 22 December 2014, (...)
  • 11 This number is published in a study of the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt from September 2014. I (...)

22The Grupo Cocibolca organized 20 public forums in 18 municipalities along the planned Canal route. Some 3,200 persons attended the discussions10. Different elements of a diagnostic frame were articulated: First, that the Canal endangered the ecological and agricultural system in the whole area, with potentially immense social impacts. This included putting at risk potable and irrigation water, which could lead to desertification and be exacerbated by climate change, deforestation and the destruction of animal habitats. Second, that the plans did not respect property rights and would displace up to 233 villages and up to 109,000 persons from their land11. Third, that the megaproject did not respect indigenous rights, as the route was slated to go through indigenous territories, and had not received the prior, informed and free consent of indigenous communities, nor had it been negotiated with their political authority, the Gobierno Territorial Rama-Kriol. Fourth, that there was no referendum about the Canal and opposition to it was ignored and repressed, which had also led to a militarization of the entire Canal area. Fifth, that Nicaragua’s resources and territory were being sold to foreign investors—a blatant disrespect of Nicaraguan sovereignty. Sixth, that the megaproject would not contribute to Nicaragua’s development, but would instead serve to construct another enclave that would displace local populations and take away their agricultural and livelihood opportunities. Seventh, that the plans were technically not feasible, as they did not adequately consider the risks posed by hurricanes, seismic activity and sedimentation in particular not well considered.

23The meetings contributed to the emergence of a new actor: the Consejo Nacional en Defensa de Nuestras Tierras, Lago y Soberanía Nacional (The National Council in Defense of our Land, our Lake and our National Sovereignty). The name of the organization reflects the core diagnostic frame: that the Canal plans are an attack on land rights, Lake Nicaragua and national sovereignty. Founded as a peasants’ organization, it first mobilized for several peaceful demonstrations in November and December 2014. In the movement’s initial activities, different opponents and culpable agents were identified: Ortega, the FSLN, Wang Jing, Law 840 and “the Chinese”. During this process, the movement took the strategic decision to concentrate on one key demand: the withdrawal of Law 840.

Indigenous opposition against the canal—unexpected alliances

  • 12 The government of the indigenous and Afro-descendant population of the area (Rama, Rama-Kriol and C (...)
  • 13 The rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to communal property in their traditio (...)

24A second political actor against the Canal plans also emerged at the same time: the indigenous communities and their autonomous government. The Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K)12 framed the Canal project as a violation of indigenous rights as more than half of the land affected by the Canal is indigenous territory. Indigenous rights have been defined at both international and national levels, including in particular the 2003 Law 44513, approved in 2003. It stipulates that any project that affects indigenous territory needs to have the prior, free and informed consent of indigenous communities. As one deputy of the Atlantic Coast put it, in 2014 the government came to inform the population, but not to consult them:

  • 14 Interview with an anonymous deputy from the Atlantic Coast 17 September 2014, Managua; translation (...)

They came to inform us that the Canal will cross here. Nicaragua has ratified the ILO convention 169 about indigenous rights. Therefore, Nicaragua clearly violates two instruments: one is the instrument of consultation; the second is of prior, informed and free consent. Consultation does not mean that you have a list that some of the leaders have been present and you informed them. This is neither consultation, nor prior, free and informed consent. They have violated this rule. […] Rather, for us here on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, it was more information given by Telémaco Talavera than consultation or consent of indigenous peoples. Additionally, laws 28 and 445 say that regional governments can give their consent based on the consent of communal governments or communal meetings; but this was not the case.”14

25The leaders of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Caribbean Nicaragua continued to insist on a free, prior and informed process of consultation. They presented a petition to the Inter American Human Rights Commission (16 March 2015), explaining their concerns about the future of their land and its environmental destruction. The petition demanded that the Nicaraguan state respects the rights to self-determination of indigenous peoples, as well as the fact that access to and beneficial use of natural resources is the basis of their culture and subsistence.

26Opposition to the Canal project was an issue that the emerging peasants movement and the indigenous authorities had in common. A spokesperson of the National Council in Defense of our Land, our Lake, and our Sovereignty explains:

  • 15 Interview, 13 June 2016 in Managua; translation Anne Tittor.

We have committed ourselves to our indigenous brothers, because their ethnic groups are diminished and there are few persons left. This is why we have organized ourselves to protect them as well, because nobody should be expropriated. If they expropriate them, they will expropriate us, it is the same problem. Therefore, we organized ourselves and we have this moral compromise to protect each other. Concerning this issue, we are very united […]. Honestly, we did not have any communication before, but as we are facing the same problem, this has united us against the monster that is the Canal and that we have to defend ourselves against here in Nicaragua.”15

27The framing of the Canal as a common danger for both groups allowed them to bridge their different viewpoints and build an unexpected alliance. Both in the present and in the past, there have been immense conflicts between the (Mestizo) peasants and the indigenous peoples: During the 1980s, many of the indigenous political authorities had been politically—and some even militarily—opposed to Sandinismo. They perceived the Sandinista revolution as not having anything to do with them, and as negating their culture, traditions and land rights [Nietschmann, 1995, p. 12]. In contrast, the majority of peasants, especially in the region of Rio San Juan and Rivas, supported the Sandinistas: peasants have historically been one of the crucial pillars of the Sandinista ideology [Rabella, 2013].

28In addition to old conflicts, new problems complicate the relationship between peasants and indigenous groups: In the last decades, there has been continuous displacement of the agricultural frontier towards the east. This means thousands of peasants settling in “new” territories on the Atlantic Coast which they perceive as “empty”. The peasants tend to deforest the area, build a house, and begin to plant crops or raise cattle. Occasionally, they buy false titles to the land [Jhon 2015; Larson, 2010]. However, these lands are indigenous territories. Rama and Creole populations hold collective titles on these lands. Some settlers who arrived several years ago have an agreement with the indigenous population that they can stay if they accept the code of conduct, which means no more deforestation or pollution of the environment and paying rent for the land. However, many settlers do not agree to these rules and are in open conflict with their indigenous neighbors [Aburto, Elizabeth and Thomas 2014; GTR-K, 2009]. As a result, an alliance between the Mestizo peasants and the indigenous population of the Caribbean Coast seemed very improbable.

Between ignorance, repression and clientelism: government responses

  • 16 Author’s personal notes about the UCA forum 11 September 2014, Managua, with the title “Journada Cu (...)

29In the beginning, the national government ignored the criticisms. The government and the Canal advocates avoided every direct discussion with the critics. On only one occasion, the Canal spokesperson, Telémaco Talavera, accepted an invitation to speak at the Central American University in Managua. During this occasion, Talavera did not answer specific questions from the podium and the audience, but just repeated the very general promise of jobs and growth.16 He admitted the likelihood of ecological consequences but trivialized them. Furthermore, the government and the supporters of the Canal project ignored all other invitations to public debates. Overall, there was a lack of information, both for Nicaraguan citizens as well as for neighboring countries such as Costa Rica, who asked for studies about the trans-border environmental and social impacts [Fuchs and Navas, 2016].

30The government established their own counter-framing. For example, they used the strategy of denouncing the social movements as being enemies, in particular accusing them of being part of the extreme right-wing fringe (“la ultra-derecha”). The FSLN spread material amongst their support base that contradicted what they termed the social movements’ “axis of attack”, and the “lies of the critics”.17 The key argument was that the extreme right wing opposed the project because it had never done anything positive for the country and feared that Ortega’s popularity would increase as a result of the successful canal project. The FSLN materials present its critics as “enemies of the people of Nicaragua”. Official government documents repeat—without providing any evidence—promises that peasants who will have to sell their lands and houses will receive fair compensation, and that the Canal will generate 50,000 jobs during the construction phase, 200,000 jobs during the exploitation phase, 30,000 jobs in tourism and 103,000 jobs in the new free trade areas.18 With the promises of jobs, compensation and growth, the government produced a counter attribution concerning the Canal consequences that was very different from the prognostic framing of the anti-canal movement.

31As the project was considered to be of strategical national importance, all information flowed directly from the government and the Canal commission. Ministries were not involved at all. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Marena (Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) did not supervise, monitor or accompany the environmental impact study written by ERM, nor did it develop its own study. On the contrary, it approved the ERM study within two days without raising further questions or asking for additional information.19

32While marginalization of the critics of the canal was the government’s initial strategy, this was later combined with repression. Immediately after the official groundbreaking ceremony on 22 December 2014, at least 30 persons were arrested, over 20 protestors wounded, and 15 policemen injured during two roadblocks organized by the political opposition in El Tule and Rivas.20 Another act of governmental violence occurred in October 2015. During a national demonstration against the Canal, the FSLN announced a counter-march in favor of the Canal, which mobilized FSLN members and state employees, and took place mainly around traffic roundabouts in Managua, thereby blocking the demonstration against the Canal. Several cases of clashes resulted between the two sides, with between 8 and 12 persons injured.21

33When the further bigger protests occurred in El Tule, an increasing military presence was reported in the area, with some even speaking of it as having been converted into a “militarized zone”.22 Chinese engineers, accompanied by Nicaraguan military, inspected the route of the Canal and started to measure the size of houses and lands within the Canal area. Without asking the owners for permission, they entered houses and properties.23 In the beginning, many people collaborated—due to fear of the military, due to ignorance of possible consequences or due to interest in how much the government was going to offer as indemnity. The emerging movement against the Canal called for Chinese engineers not to be let into private properties anymore, and a Chinese vehicle was set on fire.

  • 24 Author’s personal communication, Managua, 13 June 2016.
  • 25 Author’s personal communication, near Fonseca, 11 June 2016.
  • 26 Author’s personal communication with a teacher, Nueva Guinea, 10 June 2016.

34While there was also some state violence against the protesters, the government’s main strategy was one of threatening those who attended protests (and their families). Informants in Rivas noted that during the first protest marches, members of the FSLN took notes on participants, and suggested that any public employees in attendance would lose their jobs.24 One farmer also explained that government officials informed his two daughters (both teachers in public schools) that they would lose their jobs if he attended the protests.25 A schoolteacher also reported that an official government directive mandates schools to teach positive things about the Canal project, and to disregard counter-arguments.26 Farmers told me that since they had protested the Canal, they were denied credit for urgently needed for agricultural production. Local government members visited the bus companies who had agreed to bring peasants to the protest marches, especially to Managua, and told them that they would lose their company registration if they provide services for the Canal opponents. One FSLN parliament member has lost her mandate for being against the Canal.

  • 27 The executive summary of the study from September 2014 is available at: (...)
  • 28 Interview with an anti-canal activist, La Fonseca, 13 June 2016.

35The government stresses that only people who have legal land titles and are officially registered—29,000 persons according to government estimates—will receive compensation. However, everybody living within the route must leave, with or without compensation. The independent NGO Centro Humboldt calculated that 119,200 persons live along the Canal’s planned route.27 The difference between the estimates of the government and the Centro Humboldt can be explained by various factors. First, parts of the area are still considered agricultural frontier. Many people had taken or bought land or houses, but never officially registered their property (and hence never paid taxes). An anti-canal activist explained that about 90 % of farmers around Fonseca do not possess land titles, for example, and that this land will be expropriated without indemnification28. A second reason for the huge differences in numbers is that settling on lands, which is part of the core zone of a protected area (called Indio Maíz), or belonging to indigenous communities, is illegal. These people cannot register the land as their own, even if they wish to. Still they settle there, as there is little government control. The third reason is that the calculations refer to different sizes of the Canal Zone. Centro Humboldt calculates using a 10-kilometer zone (5 km south and 5 km north of the project), whereas the government speaks of a narrower area. Many details about the exact route are still unclear or subject to change.

36The government has announced that the community of El Tule will not be displaced. El Tule can be considered the heart of resistance to the Canal: the first huge demonstrations against the Canal took place there. The non-displacement of El Tule can be seen as the first substantial response, at the level of government policy, to Canal opposition: by changing its stance on El Tule’s displacement, the government hopes to dampen support for anti-canal activities.

37The communication strategy of the government is giving limited information. For example, ERM publications were the only source of information that informed the public of the planned creation of a 400 km2 lake, the Lake Atlanta, which will flood several villages. Another example is the government spokesperson Talavera’s announcements concerning the fair compensation of displaced farmers. Although several pronouncements were made, it remains unclear what this means exactly. First, only the cadastral price was referred to; later, it was suggested that investments and improvements to properties would also be taken into account. Nevertheless, many farmers complain that compensation remains far below current property values. In recent years, following a general trend in Central America, land prices in Nicaragua have risen considerably. Although price increases due to huge flex-crop investments are not as massive as in Honduras and Guatemala, the increase is nevertheless considerable [Baumeister, 2013, p. 74].

38Since many farmers along the route did not collaborate with the authorities and denied engineers and surveyors access to their properties, the government still is interested in gathering information. The government is now clearly turning to a strategy of co-optation of this group. In Fonseca, another center of Canal resistance, many people suspect that the recent campaign to send medical brigades to the area is part of this new strategy.29 In 11 locations along the route almost 100 doctors, nurses and personal of the Ministry of Health attended, for free, anybody who approached them. The government announced the campaign as an act of solidarity with peoples affected by the route.30

  • 31 Interview, 11 June 2016, La Fonseca.

39A considerable area of the Canal Route, especially Rivas and Rio San Juan, used to be places with strong support for the Sandinistas. People were shocked in the way “their own government” ignored their rights. Many protestors (strategically) refer to Sandino and the accusation that Ortega is selling out the country. In most affected communities, the vast majority is against the Canal plans; those who agree tend to not voice their opinions openly. Hence, the government had to move to new strategies. There are rumors that the Sandinista authorities will protect persons who have taken or moved onto land in the core zone of the protected area Indio Maíz—there is in particular one old commandant of the revolution who is mentioned several times in relation to these kinds of promises. According to an anti-canal activist, around 100 families, formerly anti-canal, are using this opportunity to move east and settle in new territories.31

The simulation of local participation and consultations

  • 32 Press release of the Gobierno Territorial Rama y Kriol, 5 February 2016. Available at: http://radio (...)

40Whereas the latter deals regarding the illegal occupation of land in exchange of loyalty are obviously informal in nature, formalized offers of cooptation have also been made to indigenous leaders. In 2015 and 2016, the government intensified its efforts to get indigenous leaders to sign a document of consent. On 5 February 2016, several delegates of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K) publicly accused some members of their community, including former members of the GTR-K, to be formally constituting a new, parallel government arguing in favor of putting together a delegation with the mandate to negotiate with Canal authorities.32 Indeed, there were rumors that an agreement had already been signed. In a press conference at the beginning of March 2016, members of the GTR-K explained:

We have never seen this document, and we do not even know what kind of document has been signed, or if it gave consent or was an agreement or a contract with the company. The communities have never been consulted; during the meetings insufficient information was given. They never told us that we will be displaced, and we will not allow them entry to the communities.”33

41In May 2016, one of the members of the “new government” publicly declared in Managua that he had signed a document confirming that a consultation process to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities would take place in the future34, but insisted that this did not mean that he signed an agreement to rent land to the Canal Company. Nevertheless, public media, referring to official government statements, reported that the GTR-K had signed a contract to rent 263 km2 of their land to build the Canal.35 Several days later, the official bulletin of the Nicaraguan government published the document.36 The document states that between 4 February and 2 March 2016, communal assemblies in nine affected communities were consulted; specifically, Suumu Kaat, Tik Tik Kaanu, Rama Cay, Wiring Cay, Graytown, Indian River, Corn River, Bank Kukuk Taik and Monkey Point.37 Although contested, one FSLN member of parliament used the agreement to prove that the United Nations’ demand concerning the need for free, prior and informed consent to be granted for these kinds of projects had been fulfilled.38

42In mid-May 2016, a delegation of Canal opponents traveled to several points in Rama-Kriol territory to verify in situ if the people within the communities had been informed about the project. One of the delegates explained after returning from this trip:

  • 39 Interview, 11 June 2016, Managua.

The government told them that when the Canal comes to their territories they will have money like sand at the beach. True story. But they did not tell them that their properties will be expropriated. When they read the law and the studies, they recognized that a huge amount of land will be expropriated. They asked us how this is possible. The media informed them that a parallel government had been installed by the national government, and that the parallel government had signed an agreement. But nobody consulted us in a prior, free, informed, and manner, which they are obliged to do by law. They ignored the law.”39

43What this process clearly shows is how megaprojects like the Canal have the possibility to aggravate existing conflicts within these communities. Members of the community are selling out their common future for their own personal benefit: as two indigenous interviewees said, they make mischief, create conflicts and endanger the future of their culture.40 During this period, the national government became very sensitive to the presence of international observers. In June 2016, the Nicaraguan government deported various international observers, scientists and activists. Prof. Evan Ellis, a US citizen who was officially conducting a scientific investigation about the Canal, was deported 24 hours after entering the country.41 Six environmentalists of the Mesoamerican Caravan for the Good Life were also deported.42 A Mexican political scientist who researched the economic situation and social inequality in Nicaragua was detained within the building of the Interamerican Development Bank.43 Without bringing any formal charges, the Ortega government has expelled 16 foreigners of different nationalities for investigating the Canal or issues related to social inequalities in Nicaragua.44 It defends these measures by claiming that the Canal is an issue of national security and a commercial secret, and argues that no Central American citizen would be permitted to enter the United States to investigate sensitive issues such as fracking.45


44A closer look on government’s strategies and responses towards the critics of the Canal demonstrates that Sandinismo has become extremely hostile towards social movements that are autonomous from the FSLN structures. In significant contrast with past practices, particularly at the beginning of the 1980’s, the Ortega-led FSLN government is used to making decisions drawing on an inner circle of power and communicating these decisions to ministries and party cadres to be executed. As the Canal is seen to be of the highest national priority, no experts, ministries, or technical advisers beyond the Canal Commission seem to be involved in the details. There is an overall lack of precise information concerning the Canal project and its actual status. Although construction had officially begun in December 2014, nothing has been built since then. At the end of April 2017, Sandinista deputies confirmed that they did not have any information about the progress of the Canal project.46 Problem denial, ignorance and marginalization of the critics have been the government’s key strategies since the beginning.

45There have been more than 60 marches, many fora and even an initiative to suspend Law 840, which is the key objective of the protesters. Nevertheless, the FSLN has a broad majority in parliament that is not willing to vote against any directive of the Ortega government. This makes substantial policy change, such as the withdrawal of the law, quite unlikely. As the government has changed several judges on the Constitutional Courts, all juridical attempts to declare Law 840 as unconstitutional have failed at national level. A citizens’ initiative to collect signatures to suspend Law 840 was rejected due to formal reasons.

46The critics and the proponents of the Canal refer to different frames and belief sets. The National Council in Defense of our Land, our Lake and our National Sovereignty refers specifically to Law 840, the opportunities that the juridical frame gives for expropriating and expulsing people along the route, and the use of all national resources of the Nicaraguan territory by a foreign investor. In contrast, the FSLN’s arguments did not refer to the concessions given in Law 840, but to statements of the government and to spokespersons of the Canal commission (especially Ortega, Talavera and Oquist). At the same time, there are also numerous rumors circulating about the Canal, which further undermine people’s ability to understand the project beyond its framing and counterframing. Ultimately, though, according to a 2015 CID Gallup poll, only 19% of respondents said they felt they understood the development of the canal. More than half reported knowing little or nothing about it. According to another poll, the most important factor for approving the canal was FSLN membership, approval of the president and confidence in the Gabinetes: loyalty to Ortega means being strongly in favor of the project [Coleman 2015, p. 4].

47What can be concluded is that the government for a long time did not want to have an open conflict about the project, as they feared an escalation of violence, since various farmers and indigenous persons have stated they prefer to die before losing their land. The government implemented a “divide and conquer” strategies and had installed parallel indigenous and afro-descendant governments or sent FSLN people to change people’s perceptions in the last municipalities, groups and initiatives which are not loyal to the party. Attempts to coopt the debate and repress criticism are the current strategy, but within a broader context of secrecy and obfuscation.

48Nevertheless, until March 2018 the FSLN still holded a significant amount of territorial power and control. This effectively brought conflicts to all these groups; the division of the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government is a very striking example here. Nevertheless, resistance to the Canal also brought improbable communication and cooperation between (some) indigenous and afro-descendant leaders and peasants, who previously were in conflict with each other, and it is perhaps here that hope remains for an effective counterframing.

49From March 2018 onwards, the situation has changed dramatically; open and brutal repression against social protest has caused hundreds of deaths. An atmosphere of violence, denunciation and repression is threatening all social activists and many other citizens. Many of the strategies that have been used against the anti-canal protest were repeated and intensified: as had already been the case during the national anti-canal demonstrations, it is not only the police and the military that have violently crushed protests, but so have followers of the FSLN and its youth organizations. The militarization is much more intense now than it was in the past. As already against the Canal critics, the government is using a counter-framing that accuses them of being part of the extreme right-wing fringe acting against the national interest and the people of Nicaragua.

50Despite the threatening and desperate situation, the history of the Anti-Canal protests is at the same time a story of solidarity. When the Ortega government assassinated the first protesters against the pension reform in April 2018, and many citizens feared to leave their houses, the peasants of the anti-canal movement were the first to declare their solidarity with the protest and condemned the repression. They were among the first who dared to take the streets back and to mobilize against the authoritarian and violent regime the Ortega government had installed.

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1 Interview with a member of a Nicaraguan human rights organization (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos CENIDH, 14 June 2016, Managua).

2, published on 4 March 2015; last access: 19 April 2016.

3; published: 5 March 2014., published on 12 February 2014; last access: 19 April 2016.

4 The publication of the ESIA study was announced and postponed several times (May 2014, November 2014, March 2015). In June 2015, the study was presented to a selected group of FSLN-supporters and it took several months until it was made available to the wider public.

5 Quoted by Guardian, (last access: 28 January 2015).

6 Interview, 20 December 2014 in Mexico:

7, last access: 11 May 2015.

8 Cocibolca is the name of the Nicaraguan lake, which at 8.264 square kilometers is the biggest fresh-water reservoir within Central America.

9 Author’s personal notes. The National forum called “Reflexiones sobre el Canal Interoceanico y su concession” on September 29th in Managua was video- recorded and is still available at Youtube.

10 According to the press release of Grupo Cocibolca, Managua, 22 December 2014,, accessed: 1 February 2016.

11 This number is published in a study of the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt from September 2014. In contrast, the government calculates that only 29,000 persons have to move. For details see below.

12 The government of the indigenous and Afro-descendant population of the area (Rama, Rama-Kriol and Creole population) is an institutionalized and formally recognized governing entity in the southern part the Atlantic coast.

13 The rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to communal property in their traditional lands was formally recognized in the law 445 passed in 2003, and a process of demarcation of indigenous areas was begun thereafter [Rivas and Broegaard, 2006; Mueller Riverstone, 2003]. Legally, the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast have the right to use, benefit and enjoy (usar, gozar y disfrutar) the waters, forests and lands they have traditionally used and establish their own social and productive organization and communal property. Their communal lands are inalienable and cannot be sold, endowed, mortgaged or charged. The state fully recognizes and guarantees their indefeasibility [Acosta, 2014, p. 5; Ortega Hegg, 2013].

14 Interview with an anonymous deputy from the Atlantic Coast 17 September 2014, Managua; translation Anne Tittor.

15 Interview, 13 June 2016 in Managua; translation Anne Tittor.

16 Author’s personal notes about the UCA forum 11 September 2014, Managua, with the title “Journada Cultural y Científica sobre el Canal Interoceanico por Nicaragua”, Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua, ACN, el Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamerica (IHNCA).

17 FSLN (2015): “Las mentiras que la derecha y sus aliados dicen contra el Gran Canal de Nicaragua: las verdades que se estrellan en la cara de los enemigos del pueblo de Nicaragua”; available at:, published on 20 January 2015; last access: 01 June 2017.

18, last access: 1st June 2017.

19, published on 11 March 14, last access: 24 June 2016.

20; last access: 24.6.2016;, last access: 24 June 2014.

21, published 28.10.15 and, published on 28 September 15; last access: 24 June 2016;, published on 19 December 2014; last access: 27 June 2014.

22, published on 17 December 2016; last access: 27 June 2016.

23, published on 19 June 2015; last access: 4 March 2018.

24 Author’s personal communication, Managua, 13 June 2016.

25 Author’s personal communication, near Fonseca, 11 June 2016.

26 Author’s personal communication with a teacher, Nueva Guinea, 10 June 2016.

27 The executive summary of the study from September 2014 is available at:; last access: 29 June 2016.

28 Interview with an anti-canal activist, La Fonseca, 13 June 2016.

29 Author’s personal communication; 10 June 2016 in La Fonseca.

30, published on 4 December 2015; last access: 27 June 2016.

31 Interview, 11 June 2016, La Fonseca.

32 Press release of the Gobierno Territorial Rama y Kriol, 5 February 2016. Available at:; last access: 01 June 2017.

33 A speaker of the directors’ board of the GTR-K quoted by Published on 7 April 2016; last access: 22 May 2016.


35, published on 4 May 2017; last access: 01 July 2017.

36 La Gaceta, No. 85, 9 May 2016, available at:; accessed 29 June 2016.

37 La Gaceta, No. 85, 9 May 2016, p. 3710.

38 Noticias Recientes (Liz Escoto: Dialogan sobre firma de convenio con territorio Rama-Kriol), 3 May 2016.

39 Interview, 11 June 2016, Managua.

40 Interview with two members of the directors’ board of the Black Creole Indigenous Community of Bluefields, 26 May 2016.

41 La Prensa, 15 jJune 2016, p. 17.

42, published on 27 June 2016; last access: 29 June 2016.

43, published on 24 June 2016; last access: 29 June 2016.

44, published on 15 June 2016; last access: 29 June 2016.

45, published on 4 June 2016; last access: 01 June 2017.

46, published on 29 April 2017; last access: 01 June 2017.

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Anne Tittor, « Conflicts about Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal Project: framing, counterframing and government strategies »Cahiers des Amériques latines, 87 | 2018, 117-140.

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Anne Tittor, « Conflicts about Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal Project: framing, counterframing and government strategies »Cahiers des Amériques latines [En ligne], 87 | 2018, mis en ligne le 25 octobre 2018, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Tittor

Anne Tittor est sociologue et chercheuse postdoctorale au sein du groupe de recherche « bio-économie et inégalités sociales » de l’université Friedrich-Schiller à Jena, en Allemagne, promu par le ministère fédéral de l’Éducation et de la Recherche (BMBF). Ses recherches portent sur l’écologie politique, la globalisation, ainsi que sur les mouvements sociaux en Amérique latine.

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