Nicaragua canal project cloaked in secrecy – apparently at government’s behest

As international spokesman for the project to build a mammoth canal across Nicaragua, Ronald MacLean saw his job become increasingly untenable.

Somebody didn’t want him to speak.

For MacLean, that was a hard order. After all, he is a renowned champion of open government, a former mayor of La Paz, Bolivia, who was the first head of the Latin American branch of Transparency International, a global advocacy group fighting against corruption in government.

After his hiring in May 2013, MacLean said, he received marching orders from the Chinese telecom magnate, Wang Jing, who controls the Hong Kong-based company that won a 50-year concession to build and operate the canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Nicaragua.

“The chairman expressed his desire that this company would be a very transparent, open company,” MacLean said in a recent interview at his home in Rockville, Md.

As time passed, it became clear that while Wang might have wanted a freer relationship with the news media, Nicaragua’s ruling power couple, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is his communications adviser, did not.

Ortega has not given a press conference since coming to office in 2007. Murillo, who speaks on state radio and television several days a week, has a strategy toward media not controlled by Nicaragua’s government: Don’t talk to them.

As chief spokeswoman for Ortega, Murillo has no publicly listed telephone number. One can call multiple branches of government and find no way to reach her. Cabinet members are generally not allowed to speak without her approval. A McClatchy correspondent has sent formal emails to her three times since 2010 requesting interviews and information and has never received a response.

For MacLean, the final straw came last December, when Wang flew from China to Nicaragua and he, along with Ortega and Murillo and other dignitaries, formally announced the start of preparatory work for construction of the canal.

“The international press came to Nicaragua and they were not allowed to attend the ceremony,” MacLean said. “It was mostly, I think, a decision on the part of the government, not the company.”

So MacLean parted ways with the project earlier this year. No replacement as global spokesman has been named.

Secrecy and a lack of transparency surround the Nicaraguan canal project. Even those involved acknowledge this.

“There is a need to expand communication globally. We are clear about this. There is a no rationale for secrecy,” said Telémaco Talavera Siles, a university dean who speaks for the Commission of the Grand Inter-oceanic Canal of Nicaragua, the governing body for the project.

Talavera spoke freely and at length about the project to McClatchy reporters, answering all questions, as did Manuel Coronel Kautz, a former deputy foreign minister who heads an office that oversaw negotiations to get the project going.

Yet complaints within Nicaragua about a lack of information are common. Both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the business community have lodged them.

“The government hasn’t given that much information, and that keeps everybody a little worried about what’s going to happen,” said Michael Healy Lacayo, head of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, a major farm group.

Wang has answered some questions at news conferences and at meetings with students in his sporadic visits to Nicaragua. Ortega has not.

Police, meanwhile, have harassed foreign journalists who have covered scattered protests against the canal. A Belgian photojournalist, Michèle Sennesael, was expelled from Nicaragua Dec. 22 after covering an anti-canal demonstration in El Tule that turned violent, she told Confidencial, a Nicaraguan Internet news site.

Two police agents approached McClatchy journalists in a hotel restaurant in Nueva Guinea, near the route of the proposed canal, on the night of March 12 and asked for details of whom they’d spoken to about the canal. Asked the purpose of the insistent queries, one insisted that it was “for your protection.”

The journalists offered the names of Talavera, Coronel Kautz and a chief adviser to Wang but declined to provide further information. The officers left.

In mid-May, Nicaragua barred entry to a cartoonist, Julien Berjeaut, from the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. Berjeaut, who is known as Jul, was scheduled to take part in a forum on violence and humor. Officials offered no explanation for the action.

“I think the original strategy to have a much more open and frequent communication with the international press and the press in general was very good,” MacLean said. But he said Wang’s company, HKND Group, had bent a bit to prevailing winds in Nicaragua and decided to focus on feasibility and impact studies “at the expense of communications.”

While no longer working for the project, MacLean remains a defender.

“For Nicaragua, it is a unique opportunity . . . (that) could turn the country around at no risk for them. This is not Nicaraguan money being invested or put at risk. I think it is interesting that they can do that with somebody else’s money,” MacLean said.