President Daniel Ortega and Japanese Ambassador Jiro Shibasaki trekked to the Río San Juan Wednesday afternoon to lay the ceremonial cornerstone to the $30 million, Japanese-funded Santa Fé Bridge, which will cross the Nicaraguan river and connect to Costa Rica.
The four-lane bridge will be the biggest in Nicaragua, both in length—250 meters—and height, arching 40 meters above the river to allow boats to pass beneath. Once completed by 2014, the Santa Fé Bridge promises to bring trade, tourism and economic development to the rural border zone, while providing an important piece of infrastructure to promote Central American integration.
The new bridge border crossing at the river town of Las Tablillas (a small community near the westernmost end of the river) is also expected to take some of the trucks off the Inter-American highway by providing an alternative shipping route to deep-water Caribbean ports in Honduras and Costa Rica.
“Today is a special day for Nicaragua and Central America,” said the Japanese ambassador, speaking in Spanish. “This bridge will be a very important regional corridor to allow transportation in Río San Juan region, uniting Nicaragua and Costa Rica and benefiting socio-economic development in both countries.”
The ambassador said Nicaragua is a “priority” for Japanese aid, and claims the bridge project is thanks to the two countries’ 70-year friendship. Ambassador Shibasaki thanked the Nicaraguan government for its show of solidarity following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan one year ago next week. He said despite the difficult moments in his country, Japan remains dedicated to helping Nicaragua and its friends in Latin America.
“It is our hope that these benefits will transcend borders, generations and governments,” the Japanese ambassador said.
President Ortega, wearing a black ball cap and flanked by his eccentric wife, the minister of infrastructure and a team of Japanese and Nicaraguan engineers dressed cautiously in hardhats, called the Santa Fé Bridge an “enormous, gigantic project for Nicaragua.”
Though construction on the bridge actually started seven months ago, Ortega waited until today to lay the ceremonial cornerstone.
“I don’t like laying the cornerstone when there’s nothing built yet,” Ortega said, in what might have been a surprisingly humorous reference to the oil-refinery cornerstone he and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez put in an empty field in León in July 2007. Five years later, the cornerstone to the Supreme Dream of Simon Bolivar Oil Refinery is still sitting among the weeds as the project inches forwards years behind schedule.
Ortega thanked Japan for backing the Santa Fé Bridge and called the Asian country an example of resilience, vigor, hope, creativity and hard work.
In a speech that was shockingly unscripted and unprepared—even by Ortega’s oratory standards—the president noted that the bridge will bring jobs, trade and economic progress to the region. But the normally long-winded Sandinista caudillo seemed at a rare loss for words 10 minutes into his speech.
Curiously, Ortega didn’t say much of anything, controversial or otherwise. With the state TV cameras rolling live, and the picturesque Río San Juan flowing majestically behind him, Ortega seemed to be out of ideas.
The president did not mention the border conflict with Costa Rica (just a few clicks behind him), nor did he address his government’s environmental concerns about the Tico’s highway project on the other side of the river. Ortega also forgot to mention his government’s recent and enthusiastic commitment to dusting off a century-old plan to build an inter-oceanic canal up the mighty San Juan.
He even failed to mention the evils of savage capitalism that Pope John Paul II wisely warned against, or the avuncular generosity of Tio Chávez, whose health is cause for “constant prayer” in Nicaragua, according to Murillo.
Instead, the seemingly distracted president engaged in some light-hearted cocktail prattle and a pleasant exchange of social niceties with the Japanese and Nicaraguan engineers working on the project. He asked each one where they are from, and how their families are doing. He asked if the mosquitoes and chayules are bad on the river this time of year.
Perhaps sensing the crowd’s disappointment that they weren’t pumping fists and dancing to campaign music, Ortega turned back to his supporters and started to rattle off a list of different municipalities in Río San Juan, prompting polite cheers from the Sandinista Youth who were dressed thoughtfully in their “Yo Amo Daniel” T-shirts.
But then the event fizzled entirely.
“Now we are concluding, right? We are concluding. I don’t know if you have anything else to say?” Ortega said to Ambassador Shibasaki, who seemed to be longing for the stiff protocol of a Japanese government ceremony.
“Because we have to… at any moment it could rain. You guys know, right? Right now it’s sunny, and at another moment it’s a little cloudy,” Ortega said.
Then he asked, “Are we going to place the first stone?”
Then he did.
Then it was over.