… And not by the Sandinistas! After my trip to the Atlantic Coast I was inspired to write a bit of a satirical piece on infrastructure out in the the lagoons. I submitted it to the Volunteer magazine, Va Pue, and after what I hear turned into a heated editorial battle, they declined to publish the article. It seems that the article’s portrayal of the canal is a bit too critical for the magazine’s tolerance. Here is the full article, in all of its glory:
I also strive to include as many of my own photographs as possible to make this blog as much “through Eric’s eyes” as possible, but the theft of my camera in Pear Lagoon leaves me with no pictures from my trip to the Atlantic Coast.
Special Advertising Section
The Caribbean Coast Nicaragua Development Corporation
To Perspective Investors:
Traveling to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua can be a wretched experience. From some corners of the country the trip requires multiple bus rides as well as multiple speed boat rides, all cramped and uncomfortable. Needless to mention, the current system is inefficient, discourages travel to the Caribbean Coast, and pollutes the beautiful lagoons.
The answer to these woes is the Caribbean Coast Nicaraguan Development Corporation (CCND). Just like Chinese interests are promoting the construction of a trans-isthmus canal through the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Corporation (HKND), the CCND would promote the construction of a modern monorail line that would glide just meters above the rivers and lagoons of the Caribbean Coast, connecting El Rama, Bluefields, Kukra Hill, Pearl Lagoon, and Orinoco.
A modern electric powered monorail system would decrease the need for the unreliable pangas that currently roam the lagoons of the Coast. Instead, those boats could be re-positioned at the monorail stations to serve farther afield settlements, such as Rama Cay, El Bluff, Haulover, Kakabila, and Tasbapauni. Certainly there will be increased demand for travel to these sites, since the arrival of the CCND monorail will increase tourism and trade along the Caribbean Coast.
Of course, in a region where electric service is unreliable, the CCND will secure government concession to construct the necessary infrastructure to ensure reliable service. Keeping with the eco-friendly nature of an electric monorail, CCND may explore a combination of solar, wind, and traditional sources of energy. In addition, to alleviate the burden of the 6.5 hour bus ride from Managua to El Rama, CCND will use land expropriation rights to build a modest but modern airport in El Rama.
The appeal of the CCND monorail speaks for itself. Instead of temporarily transfiguring yourself into a sardine for two hours, you can comfortably board an elevated monorail train and coast above the lagoons of the Caribbean Coast, admiring the stunning landscapes, flora & fauna, flotsam & jetsam, and various discarded plastic waste, from the comforts of the air conditioned and well-cushioned tram cabin. The speed and efficiency of the monorail would reduce the Rama-Bluefields trip from two hours to under one hour, and you would never have to worry about overcrowded boats, rain, the wind, the cold, or the panga crashing, flipping over, getting you wet, running out of gas, or having its engine overheating. The monorail itself would immediately become an attraction of Caribbean Nicaragua upon its opening.
Economic Opportunities & Environmental Sustainability
Every investment has to deliver returns, and the CCND is no exception. The CCND has commissioned an economic feasibility study by John Perkins, author of the modern classic, Confessions of an Economic Hitman. His conclusions: in the year that construction begins there will be an approximately 14% increase in the gross domestic product of the RACCS (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Sur, or South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region) autonomous department of Nicaragua. After construction is completed there will be a modest 10% GDP growth rate going forward. Construction is expected to be completed in two and a half years. The project will employ 15,000 full time employees, and will create 75,000 permanent jobs in Nicaragua.
In addition to the economic benefit of the CCND, the monorail will also have a positive environmental impact on the fragile ecosystems of the South Caribbean. First and foremost, there will be fewer gas motors polluting the lagoons and rivers. Taking some of the constant traffic out of the waterways may even lead to the manatees, sacred friends of our compatriots the Rama, returning to our coasts. The economic opportunities and environmental benefit of the project are also inextricably linked. Everyone knows that poverty is the number one enemy of the environment, and highly developed areas always enjoy the most pristine natural environments. Through economic development we will relieve the strain on our land and seas that logging, agriculture, and fishing are currently causing, and usher in the dawn of the green economy.
Funding and Investment
With the creation of the new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, led by China, CCND hopes to help facilitate a loan between Nicaragua and the bank. In addition, the Inter-American Development Bank, The World Bank, and several functionaries of USAID have expressed interest in the project. Yes, indeed at every new station in the grand new system USAID will string up a big banner proclaiming that Estamos Unidos and that ‘Merica did this. The project could also be subsumed into the Grand Nicaraguan Canal project, were construction to ever begin and plans actually revealed for the development of the Caribbean side of the project.
However, at a fraction of the cost of the canal, and with economic benefits of a far greater magnitude, the merits of the CCND Caribbean monorail plan stand out on their own.
Can you say aceite de coco? An innovative design for the monorail trams will leave space for people and their personal items, as well as wares that small and medium-sized producers will be shipping across the country. Finally, the effervescent coconut oil of Rocky Point will be available in your local Palí. You will find breadfruit in your local market. Fish from the Atlantic Coast can supplant fish from the Pacific and alleviate over-fishing in the Pacific.
In addition, tourism will be poised to experience a boom. A foreigner staying at a wilderness lodge on the Escondido River will be able to take a day trip and explore the unique Garifuna culture of Orinoco. Even more friendly faces will be stopping in to Pearl Lagoon to visit the renowned Pearl Cays. CCND will also consider building resorts along the coast, especially south of Bluefields. The next Cancun could be in Nicaragua. Doesn’t that just sound wonderful?
With the success of a Caribbean monorail, the plan could be expanded to the further nethereaches of Nicaragua. A line could be centered around San Carlos in Rió San Juan, running all the way from the Solentiname Islands Archipelago to the mouth of the San Juan River at San Juan del Norte, passing Boca de Sábalos and El Catillo along the way.
The main line could also be expanded with branch-lines to the aforementioned smaller villages around the lagoons. Imagine the joy of the inhabitants of Rama Cay when they become no longer beholden to the schedules and rates of the pangueros, and the opportunities that regular service to the Wawashang Agrofrestry Center would open for humble youth seeking technical education.
In the Northern Caribbean monorail lines can run down the Rió Coco, bringing access to one of the most isolated regions of the whole country. Ultimately, the three regions – North Caribbean, South Caribbean, and Rió San Juan – can be unified by service from Puerto Cabezas down south towards Orinoco and Bluefields, and from Bluefields to San Juan del Norte. Traveling between these cities currently takes between 24 and 48 hours. The trip can be reduced to a mere morning or afternoon trip, and the debilitating back and coccyx pain to boot. El Castillo to Puerto Cabezas, and back in time for dinner!
I wrote this article about one week before there was an absolute transportation calamity out on the Corn Islands. A small boat transporting tourists capsized between Big and Little Corn Islands. 13 people, all Costa Ricans, perished. Embarkations had actually been banned by the Navy due to high winds and storms, but this boat launched anyway. I’m sure that all of the tourists on Little Corn were very anxious to leave. Small launches are the only means of access to the island. There are no ferries or an airfield. Rumor has it that the Costa Rican tourists bribed the boat captain to take them over to Big Corn Island.
The captain survived and has since plead guilt to the crimes he has been charged with. About a week after the tragedy the Navy made an unexpected move: they grounded all launches, from the largest ferries on Lake Nicaragua to the smallest fishing skiffs. No one was allowed to launch anywhere in the country until their boat was re-licensed and they complied with all safety regulations. These include having life jackets for all passengers, two-way radios, GPS navigation, flares, and life rafts on larger vessels.
I’ve taken a number of passenger boat rides around Nicaragua. They usually hand out life jackets. There is no guarantee that it will fit you, and many people put them on improperly or do not bother to put them on at all. I was once seated next to a man in handcuffs with a police escort. The police officer did not bother to free his hands and help him get the life jacket on. If we had capsized I suspect that that man would have drowned.
The consequences of the naval decree were severe. No fishermen could fish. No tourists could get on or off of Ometepe Island, and transportation on the Atlantic Coast was paralyzed. Earlier that week the Peace Corps had a girls’ camp in Estelí. On the way home the girls from Bluefields and and Pearl Lagoon got stuck for days with Ryan in El Rama, away from their families. The affected populations were in an uproar. There were protests in El Rama, Bluefields, Big Corn Island, and probably further afield as well. Produce rotted waiting for a lift off of Ometepe.
The boat captains and owners had certainly been operating outside of regulations, but there was no way for them to immediately comply. Even if they had the cash on hand, which most of them did not, the equipment was not commercially available for purchase in Nicaragua in such large quantities. After about a week of this government-imposed chaos the boat owners and the Navy reached a deal: boats would have six months to operate and seek re-licensing. The government would help boat owners seek sources of financing for bulk purchases of equipment. I even heard that the old life jackets were all burned so that so that they could not be used again.
Back when I was an intern at the State of Delaware Office of Management and Budget and I was really tuned into politics and economics there was always murmurings about regulations and its chilling effect on small business. I didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see what regulations were doing to stunt small business development. But working down here and helping small business I have seen the effect of over-regulation on small businesses. Small business owners spend tons of their time dealing with various government organizations, and they have to spend a lot of money traveling around and paying licencing fees. In one case, a rural tourism cooperative I work with needed to report its tax ID number to another licensing agency, but the tax agency was late to issue them a tax ID number. In the end they had to pay a fee for the tax ID number and then they paid a fine for reporting it late to the other licensing agency, even though it was not their fault! Now I see the same problems with the new boating regulations. The fish processing cooperative owns a small fishing boat, and the Navy is forcing them to get re-licensed, even though they do not carry passengers. They barely have the cash on hand to pay a licencing fee, and a GPS system is out of the question. I can see the need for them to have life jackets and flares, maybe a radio, for their own safety, but they rarely if ever head into deep water. These regulations could also be a nail in the coffin for the new tourism cooperative at Mateare/Momotombito. These boating regulations need to be more flexible to accommodate all of the different types of commercial and recreational boating activities that take place in Nicaragua.
So marine travel in Nicaragua continues, for now. It is a shame that the country only became conscious of its dangers in reaction to 13 deaths out in the Caribbean Sea and countless more before them. I must say that I find the government’s response very shortsighted. Why would they think that by banning all launches the boats would immediately come into compliance with the regulations and be eligible for re-licensing? When I was the Head Counselor at a sleep away camp I sometimes had the same attitude. I would expect adherence to rules and expectations on the part of my staff, all extenuating circumstances be damned. I learned over those two formative summers that people cannot be managed that way. But I learned that lesson before I turned 22. You would expect government leaders to have already gained that experience (well, maybe not in the military). I’ve mentioned before that the government could benefit from development and training. It’s a shame that the Peace Corps cannot participate in that assistance. The Peace Corps goes through great efforts to remain apolitical so that it can continue to serve no matter what passes between a country and the US State Department. For that same reason this article got redacted by the Volunteer magazine.
The political system here is very reactionary, not proactive (and by no means I am saying that is unique to Nicaragua), and I find it very frustrating. I always say that Nicaragua is one horrible bus crash away from actually enforcing safety standards on public transportation. Currently, the transportation authorities bid out operating licenses to cooperatives. These cooperatives have to operate a set number of buses, on set routes, at set times, at a set rate. Therefore, the cooperatives have an incentive to spend as little money on buses and maintenance as possible, and cram as many passengers as possible on to buses. They have no incentives to offer quality service, comfort, or safety. There is no competition. I’ve been on countless buses with every seat filled and every possible cubic inch of space in the aisles, up in the front, and behind the seats crammed full with extra people, wares, and yes, chickens. The government only enforced a ban on people sitting on top of buses three years ago after a horrible accident left a few roof-surfers dead. I only see it as a matter of time until 40 or more people die from a horrible bus accident and the government immediately enforces passenger limits on buses. Chaos will ensue because people are getting stranded since there are not enough buses circulating, and the government will have to relax the rules and gives the transportation cooperatives six months to comply and re-license.
Do I truly believe that Nicaragua ought to build a monorail system on the Atlantic Coast? No. I am not a civil or structural engineer, and I would also need to see economic cost-benefit analyses to convince me that it is a good idea. However, my article was prescient and foreshadowed the dire need for new transportation options and reform all around Nicaragua.