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Nicaragua's canal controversy builds

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Ng Han Guan/AP

(Read caption) Wang Jing, chairman of HKND Group, attends a press conference at a Beijing hotel in June. Mr. Wang, a Chinese businessman behind the plan to build a canal in central America to rival the Panama Canal, said his ambitions are well researched and backed up by an experienced team, despite skepticism that he may not deliver the $40 billion project.

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Nicaragua’s political opposition on Tuesday filed a Supreme Court challenge to the Sandinista government’s hastily approved canal law, arguing that the generous concession granted to an unknown Chinese firm violates 15 articles of the constitution, including national sovereignty.

The opposition claims the concession – which will convert a giant swath of the country into a privatized canal zone, owned and operated for 50 years by Chinese businessman Wang Jing – violates constitutional guarantees to private property, natural resources, and indigenous lands. Liberal Party congressman Luis Callejas says his party fears the canal will carve up Nicaragua and “leave our national sovereignty in pieces.”

Opposition politicos are urging the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court to give their constitutional challenge “the same priority” that the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly gave to approving the concession law last June. The law was rammed through the legislature during a breathless two-day session and passed along party lines, by a vote of 61 to 25. Xochilt Ocampo, the only Sandinista lawmaker who failed to support the law, was removed from office 10 days later, without explanation.

In a country where institutional checks and balances have been virtually replaced by a one-party system, Mr. Callejas, who is spearheading the constitutional challenge, admits the motion before the Supreme Court is mostly symbolic. “There is no separation of powers in this country, but we wanted to go on the record with our disapproval,” he says.

The Supreme Court challenge might be the least of the problems facing the proposed $40 billion canal project. Despite spending big bucks on high-powered consulting firms and public relations efforts, Mr. Wang’s newly formed canal company, HKND Group, still struggles to be taken seriously.

Wang’s first press conference in Hong Kong prompted grunts in Nicaragua when the 41-year-old canal enthusiast presented reporters with a wildly distorted map of Nicaragua, which appeared to trace a canal route passing from Lake Nicaragua into Lake Managua, dead-ending in the capital city – about 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

In a subsequent interview with British daily The Telegraph, Wang tried to calm concerns about his grasp on geography by carefully laying out the route of the canal, starting in the Caribbean port town of Bluefields and winding to a Pacific outlet in Brito. But that too came as a surprise to Nicaraguans, who only two weeks ago were told by President Daniel Ortega that the canal’s route will be determined by the results of a two-year feasibility and environmental-impact study.

Wang also raised eyebrows by telling The Telegraph that he is “100 percent sure” canal construction will start at the end of 2014 and be completed by 2019. That means, by Wang’s calculations, the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in the history of Central America will be built in five years – even faster than Panama’s current $5.3 billion canal expansion, which pales in comparison in scope and cost.

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Given the attention this project has garnered and concerns that the canal project will compromise national sovereignty, some Nicaraguans have taken to mockingly calling their country “Chinaragua” (a combination of China and Nicaragua). This is the first – and only – Chinese-backed megaproject in Nicaragua, and the unfamiliar partnership has spawned some racist sentiments – even if expressed in jest. Opposition lawmakers have publicly used derogatory nicknames to refer to Wang. Even Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose government is at odds with Nicaragua’s, recently joined in on the wordplay by calling Wang’s canal plans a “cuento chino” or a “Chinese tale,” which in Latin America means a tall tale.

But if Wang can buck the historic odds and the legal challenges piling up against his project, and raise the kind of money this country has never seen before, this tale could have a different ending.

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