Friday, December 19, 2014

Letter from Managua: A canal dividing a country

The proposal to build a trans-oceanic canal across Nicaragua seems mostly like the scenario for a slightly implausible summer blockbuster movie.
The movie would have it all. Powerful business forces, environmental risks, social upheaval and conflict and even global intrigue - Chinese interests are behind the project. And lots and lots of mystery. I can see Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie racing from Caribbean villages in Nicaragua to skyscrapers in Hong Kong in a race to uncover the truth.
The canal would be about 280 kms long, more than twice as long as the Panama canal. A short 24-km section would let ships travel through locks from the Pacific to Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca, its indigineous name). Giant container ships would travel about 70 kms across the lake, the largest in Central America, and then through a canal across some 180 kms to the Caribbean. 
Der Spiegel
Details are sketchy, but the goal is to allow ships capable of carrying 18,000 containers, about 50 per cent lager than the ones the new locks being built in Panama can handle. (For a fascinating look at how shipping containers transformed the world, I hihgly recommend Marc Levinson’s The Box.)
All that comes with an entirely unsupported price tag of $50 billion, about three times the combined cost of B.C.’s Site C dam and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. And while Site C represents about 3.7 per cent of British Columbia’s GDP, the new canal would represents about 250 per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP. 
Sounds like a crazy project for a poor country. (Nicaragua was ranked 132 in the 2014 UN Human Development Index report, ahead of only Haiti in the Americas.) 
The canal project is being backed by Wang Jing, China’s 12th richest man with a fortune of some $6.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine. President Daniel Ortega, one-time revolutionary, supports the project and his son Laureano is the link with the government. The largest business group backs the megaproject.
But there is fierce opposition, based in part on the secrecy and lack of real planning. Last week about 3,500 Nicaraguans marched in the streets of Managua. They arrived despite efforts by government transportation officials and the police to keep groups from travelling to the capital. The military has moved into the countryside where canal opposition has been strongest.
There are four big concerns about the project.
First, a lot of people – perhaps 30,000 - are going to get pushed off their land to make way for the canal. That´s no big deal in China, where some 1.5 million people were relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. But it will be in Nicaragua, where land can mean survival.
Second, there have been no real studies of the environmental impact. The project would mean dredging rivers and blasting a 70-km channel across Lake Nicaragua, a beautiful, largely unspoiled treasure. Thousands of hectares would be cleared, new lakes built to hold water to operate the giant locks and both coasts would be affected. The country would literally be cut in half, with plans for one bridge at this point.
Third, there have been no social or economic impact studies, or publicly released information on the business case for the canal. 
Shipping experts are skeptical. The canal would knock about 1,300 kms off the sea route from China to the East Coast of the U.S., but the canal would take longer to transit then Panama. 
The government is claiming the canal will create 50,000 construction jobs and 200,000 permanent jobs, but it hasn’t set out the value of the concessions granted to Wang´s company, which include the right to operate two ports, an airport, tax-free industrial zones, a railway and pipeline and other potentially profitable businesses. One fear is that the canal will never be built while Wang will cash in on the other opportunities.
And fourth, there is wide speculation that the canal is less a commercial venture and more an effort to extend Chinese government influence in the region. Wang hasn’t revealed where the $50 billion will come from, and investments from Chinese state-controlled companies are considered likely. For analysts who doubt the plans commercial rationale, the geopolitical strategy makes sense.
Work is scheduled to start on Monday, with the first projects a new dock on the Pacific coast and roads to receive the heavy equipment and supplies needed for the project. 
The idea for a canal has been around for a long time. In the to-be-read section of my Kobo is the 1852 book ¨Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal.¨ U.S. tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was awarded a canal concession in 1849. He never built it, but made money off a train and stagecoach route.
It´s always been controversial. And it still is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Letter from Managua: Missing the strange

I can see why people wind up travelling to more and more exotic places. After a month in Managua, I recognize a faint disappointment at the lack of full-on culture shock.

The first month in Copan Ruinas, less than three years ago, was a thrill ride of new sensations. The grungy home stay, the cobbled streets, the half-starved dogs and sheer newness of life in the world’s most dangerous country. We would walk along, under the scorching sun, and say ‘Geez, we’re living in Honduras’ in a slightly bewildered way.
The arrival in Nicaragua was wildly uneventful by comparison. Sure, there’s a buzz landing at night in any big Central America city, and it was strange to have the airport staff all in surgical masks and a thermal camera employed to see if we had fevers. (Ebola was their worry, with good reason. If it ever got a foothold in Central America, things would get desperate fast.)
But we quickly found a place to live, having learned the only way was to walk the streets looking for signs and asking anyone you saw about places for rent. Within the first hour or so, a helpful guy guided us to our eventual home. We found the stores, stocked the casa and started work with our Cuso International partner organizations.
Part of the difference is that Copan is a town of about 8,000 and Managua is a city of some 2.5 million. We were plunged into a whole new world in Copan, where a 20-minute walk took you into some dead-poor villages. In Managua, we’re in the Barrio Bolonia, a pretty nice neighbourhood. There’s a PriceSmart a couple of blocks away, a Costco clone.
And part of the difference is that Honduras is a wilder place. Nicaragua actually ranks lower on the UN Human Development Index, ranked 132 out of 187 countries, with Honduras in 129th. GDP per capita is about $4,300, compared with Canada’s $42,000. 
But the taxi drivers in Managua don’t pay weekly extortion fees to the street gangs. The murder rate is around 15 per 100,000, compared with the ridiculous rate of around 85 per 100,000 in Honduras. That meant about 18 murders a day, most never investigated.
Still, Managua is hardly Victoria. I walk a little over three blocks to work, and say hello to half-a-dozen security guards. Horse carts trot through the barrio and there are no street signs, or even names. The cathedral on the main square is a beautiful ruin, shattered in the 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. A mysterious Chinese billionaire plans to start work next month on a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the Ortega’s government support and without much of anything in the way of consultation or economic or environmental studies. We’ve been to one giant, crazy market; an even bigger one is considered highly risky to even venture into with any possessions of value. 
It’s nice to wander, as we did Saturday, down a main boulevard where the government is setting up some 20 giant displays dedicated to the Virgin Mary, without constantly looking over my shoulder. I’m keenly looking forward to Dec. 7, when at 6 p.m. we all pour into the streets, set off fireworks and sing and chant to give thanks for her birth. 
Things are still plenty different here. But we’re different too. While I like being better at settling in, I miss the shock of discovery that was so vivid when we landed in Honduras. Or I think I do. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Letter from Managua: Streets with no names

I got used to the lack of addresses in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. We told people we lived in the Casa de Jorge Ramos on Calle Independencia. They usually knew where I meant.
But Managua has upped the game, shunning not only addresses but street names. Beyond a handful of main highways, streets have no names. Finding your way around a city of 2.4 million people without any street names or addresses is like some kind of strange experiment in ingenuity.
Alexis Arguello statue
- just walk west
Cuso International’s business cards and letterhead do not have an address for the Managua office, or even a street name. There isn’t one.
Instead, the business card says ‘From the Optica Nicaraguense, go up one block and then one-and-a-half blocks south.’ It’s in Barrio Bolonia, the card says, which narrows the search. And ‘up’ means east, because that’s where the sun comes up.
That’s what substitutes for addresses. Every business, or home, is located in relation to some supposedly well-known waypoint. 
I’m working with APEN, the AssociaciĆ³n de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua. Its address is ‘From the Iglesia San Francisco, 20 varas up.’ (A vara is a largely obsolete Spanish measurement just shy of a yard.)
It can get worse. Some of the addresses refer to reference points that no longer exist. (‘From where the big tree used to be.’)
And standing at a corner in a strange city, without a compass, the whole idea of deciding which way is north is difficult.
Managuans don’t seem to find this strange. But aside from the confusion of people like me, there has to be a significant economic cost. How many deliveries have gone wrong because a driver never could figure out where a store or home was? How many new businesses have failed because customers decided not to take a chance on going three blocks east from the Canal 2 building, one-half block north and then 40 varas west? How weirdly has development been skewed by a desire to locate near a prominent waypoint?
But Cuso volunteers soon learn a basic lesson. Strange is the new normal.
We found a place to live for the next four months, a bedroom with private  bathroom in a nice house in a good neighbourhood, with shared living space and kitchen. It should serve nicely.
If you want to visit, come on down. Look for us 40 varas east of the chess academy in Barrio Bolonia.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Come to the Bard and Banker Thursday for my book launch

It’s been a long time between posts.
Lots of good reasons. We’ve had two weddings in October, two daughters marrying two great guys. They’ve been fun and inspiring, and a chance to re-connect with people who matter. 
I’ve been doing interesting work for The Tyee, BC Business and Douglas Magazine. 
We - Jody Paterson and I - have been looking ahead to new Cuso International placements in Nicaragua. 
And there has been ‘the book.’ The real title is Dead Ends: BC Crime Stories, but for a long time, as I laboured away, it was just ‘the book.’
It’s my first, published by the team at the University of Regina Press. I researched and wrote about 40 B.C. crimes from the 1860s to today. I knew the stories would be great, and the characters fascinating. But I didn’t anticipate that the crimes would reveal so much about us and our history. 
The book was released Sept. 29, and I’ve been trying to figure out, as a first-time author, how to get people to read it. (Munro’s Books listed it among more than 1,200 new releases in September, which sets out the challenge rather starkly.)
On Thursday, at the Bard and Banker pub in Victoria, there’s an official launch party. It will be low key. We have the comfy Sam McGee room. I’ll talk a little bit about writing the book. Copies will be on sale for $20, with $8 going to Cuso International and Casita Copan, an amazing project to support homeless kids and struggling families in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, where we spent more than two years. But it doesn’t matter if anyone buys books. There’s a piano, if you want to play.
Mostly, I hope people will show up and talk to each other. I have almost 400 Facebook friends. Jody has 1,805. I don’t know who they are. But it would be interesting if we all got together for a few hours, especially as we head to Managua in less than two weeks.
We have the room from 6:30 pm to 9. Come on down.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Public might blame both sides, but holds government responsible for inaction on strike

Both sides are losing in the teachers’ dispute. The spin and counter-spin, PR gestures and ad campaigns aren’t moving the parties any closer to a deal.
More and more people - as an informal sampling by The Tyee suggested - are sick of both the BCTF and the government.
Which means the government is going to have to step in and end the strike.
The chances of a negotiated settlement were always tiny. The posturing by both sides and unwillingness or inability even to bargain the key issues has reduced them to about zero.
Each side blames the other. 
But - and it is an enormous but - only one side has an actual responsibility to see that kids get an education, and the ability to make that happen.
All the Twitter ads and press conferences blaming the BCTF don’t change that. Governments are supposed to make sure citizens get the services they need (and are paying for).
The BCTF’s foolish two-week June strike was a nuisance (and self-destructive). The loss of the first week of classes was tolerated by many people.
But the government’s apparent willingness to stand by indefinitely while some 580,000 students are deprived of an education is going to generate more and more public anger. Especially as there is no sign the hard line is going to produce a resolution. 
Each day the government fails to act now adds to the impression that it doesn’t really consider education a priority, let alone an essential service, as Premier Christy Clark once argued.
There are several options. A legislated end to the strike combined with an imposed settlement or a report from an industrial inquiry commissioner, for example, or an appeal to the Labour Relations Board for a ruling that education is an essential service.
Leaving students and parents adrift during a PR war with teachers - will increasingly be impossible.
And the government’s willingness to do nothing despite the damage to students  will increasingly carry a political cost.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Clark's press conference bad news for province's court prospects

The tit-for-tat press conferences by Premier Christy Clark and BCTF head Jim Iker did nothing to advance negotiations, and left most people appalled by both sides.
But Clark’s comments seem especially damaging to the government’s long-term interests.
Assume the union holds out and the government legislates teachers back to work and imposes a new contract. 
Teachers would then challenge the agreement in court, pointing to the failure to negotiate class size and composition issues, as the B.C. Supreme Court has said it must. 
The court didn’t say the provisions, stripped in 2002, must be restored to the contract. But it said there must be good-faith bargaining. (And compensation for the damage done.)
A transcript of Clark’s press conference will be very helpful for the union cause.
Clark said the government would not begin bargaining on class composition until the BCTF reduces its wage and benefit proposals and an agreement was in place on those issues. She didn’t even acknowledge class-size limits as a topic for negotiation.
Clark’s comments indicated the government has made no serious effort to bargain the contentious issues, or address the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that class size and composition issues had been illegally stripped from the contract.
Her public insistence on preconditions before any real negotiation on the issues  makes a strong case that the government has not yet accepted the court ruling - or learned how to avoid another court loss.
It will weaken the government's ability to defend an imposed contract from a new legal challenge.
Footnote: The issue isn't complex. The teachers' union had successfully bargained to have class size and composition limits in contracts. (Composition refers to the number of special needs students in a class.) 
In 2001, the newly elected Liberals thought the limits were too restrictive, costly and properly a matter of education policy. 
So they passed laws in 2002 to strip them from the contract and bar the union from negotiating the issues in future.
The Liberals had a point. Class sizes are matter of education policy, which should be the responsibility of school trustees and MLAs.
But a sensible government would recognize they are also an issue of working conditions. Unions negotiate working conditions. There needs to be some balancing of interests, or at least a good-faith attempt.
The Supreme Court agreed. And it found the law violated the teachers’ rights. They had, presumably, traded off other items in past negotiations to get the clauses in the contracts. Government can not just pass laws to violate agreements without consequences. (The Liberals have accepted this principle in other areas. When it retroactively banned uranium mining, the government agreed to pay more than $30-million to Boss Uranium, recognizing there is a cost to ripping up legal agreements.) 

Monday, September 01, 2014

Teachers' dispute down to public pressure and first to fold

You can tune out all the rhetoric from both sides in the teachers’ dispute at this point. 
It has come down to a simple question - who will fold first.
The government hopes the BCTF will accept a negotiated deal, to avoid - or reduce - the risk of legal challenges. Given its losing record in the courts, that’s understandable.
The union would rather be legislated back if an acceptable deal can’t be reached, for the same reason. (The union leadership, after taking members out in a costly, ineffective strike strategy, also doesn’t really want to try and explain why the result was a mediocre negotiated settlement.)
So they are hunkered down, blaming each other and trying to rally support for their cause.
The government’s brave rhetoric about letting the strike/lockout continue is empty. Parents and the public won’t tolerate a government that fails to use its power to re-open schools. Especially given Premier Christy Clark’s past claims that education is an essential service.
But the Liberals hope the BCTF will cave before it has to legislate an end to the strike. Teachers lose, on average, about $1,700 a week in gross pay as the strike continues. They are already out $3,500-plus, with the losses mounting by the day. And they know that any settlement is not going to recover those losses.
Teacher support for the strike is fading, according to columnist Bill Tieleman. His piece in The Tyee argued that the union should continue the strike. One reason, he said, was that if the BCTF called a pause in the strike members would refuse to go back to the picket lines.
So parents and students wait, the parties wage a PR war and the schools stay closed.
What is most irritating is that the union and government have had five or six years to act on sound proposals to improve this hopelessly flawed bargaining process, but have done nothing.