Would Augusto Sandino Support the Canal for Nicaragua?

By Marco Navarro-Genie

Español A Chinese firm initiated construction of an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua on December 22, 2014. Understandably, there are those who oppose the canal project, in Nicaragua and abroad. A reinvigorated domestic opposition is erupting into widespread protests, which are being met with violence and prosecutorial abuse.

Led by Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s government is informed by Orteguismo. It represents the dominant of various factions previously housed inside the Sandinista party, the FSLN. FSLN splinters regularly accuse the Ortega-Murillo duo of no longer reflecting the goals of the party’s namesake, Augusto Sandino.


Sandino was the 20th-century revolutionary who took up arms against a US occupation of his country in 1927. Sandino is officially a national hero. The one-dimensional heroic persona that Nicaraguans revere as a Marxist patriot taking up arms to defend the sovereignty of his country against a predatory empire was constructed by FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca.

Given Sandino’s demigod status in Nicaragua, what he thought or didn’t think about building a canal through the country matters immensely. In particular, Sandino’s 1927 manifesto condemned the 1914 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty that granted the United States the exclusive right to build an alternate interoceanic route to Panama’s.

However, those who invoke Sandino’s legacy in opposing the Ortega-Murillo partnership with the Chinese to build the canal through Nicaragua singularly focus on the caudillo’s desire to defend the country’s sovereignty. The Sandinista splinter party, the Sandinista Revolutionary Movement (MRS), claims to hold faithfully to Sandino’s legacy in their opposition to the canal. The intimation is that Sandino was against building a canal through Nicaragua. He was not a sellout, as one Nicaragua-born UK human-rights activist recently tweeted.

Are Ortega and Murillo sellouts? Was Augusto Sandino opposed to building an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua? The simple answer is no. Sandino was a complex and changing character. His multidimensionality complicates matters for those enlisting his memory in the fight against the canal.

There is no way to know what Sandino would have said about the Chinese in Nicaragua, but one would expect MRS party cadres to know that Sandino favored building a canal under conditions that he outlined. One can be more forgiving of activists in the United States, Canada, and Europe, who are less schooled in the country’s history, for invoking Sandino’s image as a final authority to oppose the canal.

Augusto Sandino condemned handing control of a Nicaraguan canal to the United States, but he also saw a future canal as an infinite source of prosperity and wealth for his people: “And Nicaragua, my motherland, will then receive the taxes that by right and [by] law belong to it, and we will then have income enough to crisscross our whole territory with railroads and to educate our people.”

He clearly understood in 1927 that the gift of geography “placed us at the crossroads of the world.” The canal will be “a magnet and a key to the world,” he later wrote in 1929.

It is the same economic argument that Ortega and Murillo make. On several fronts, the ruling couple may have deviated from Sandinista ideals in running Nicaragua, especially on their personal acquisitiveness, but the evidence does support their Sandinista bona fides to build the canal.

Sandino’s ideas may be legitimately used to argue both sides of the internal dispute over the building of a canal through Nicaragua at the hands of a foreign power, but it is erroneous to assert that he was categorically opposed to building one.

Sandino wanted a canal built but wanted no sovereignty relinquished to a single foreign power. His position was nuanced but not inconclusive on this point. In the 1 July 1927 Manifesto, he wrote:

Civilization requires that a Nicaraguan canal be built, but that it be done with capital from the whole world, and not exclusively from the United States. At least half of the cost of the construction should be financed with capital from Latin America, and the other half from other countries of the world that may want to hold stock in this enterprise, but the share of the United States should be limited to the US$3 million that they paid to the traitors Chamorro, Díaz, and Cuadra Pasos.

Thus Sandino wanted to ensure that his country did not become a vassal to one single foreign power. It was very wise advice, and a crucial condition that the Ortega-Murillo faction has ignored.

The story of Sandino and the canal doesn’t fully end there, however. By early 1929, exiled in Mexico, Sandino became a disciple of the Magnetico-Spiritualist School of the Universal Commune (EMECU), a radical group founded in 1911 by a Basque exile in Argentina. EMECU’s program seized Sandino’s imagination and prompted him to think of himself as a messiah sent to redeem humanity.

His 1929 Plan to Realize Bolivar’s Supreme Dream granted the right to the canal to a foreign entity made up of Latin-American states with its capital in Buenos Aires. The struggle to liberate his homeland that in late 1927 was transformed into a project to unite Central America under his military rule, with EMECU influence, soon went on to become a grand project to unite all 21 states south of the Rio Grande as a prelude to a world conflagration that would see the entire planet come together under the Spiritualist banner that Sandino now embraced.

All of this may at best be “inside baseball” between academics or among Sandinistas. For all the pieties Nicaraguans pronounce about Sandino, they do not seem all that interested in who Sandino really was, much less in understanding the nuances and complexities of his character and his ideas.

Thus, knowing what we know about Sandino’s religion and his plan to convert Nicaragua and the world to his own brand of Spiritualism (with him as the messianic centre), less-partisan Nicaraguans wishing to avoid more bloodshed should perhaps leave the Sandino squabble to Sandinistas and choose to rely instead on scientific, social, and economic metrics, sticking to rational arguments based on evidence.

Marco Navarro-Génie is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Calgary, Alberta, and is author of Augusto “Cesar” Sandino: Messiah of Light and Truth. Follow @MNavarroGenie.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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