How’s your history?
Here’s what I understand about the Panama Canal…
Sometime in the early 1900s the US wanted to connect its Atlantic and Pacific fleets. At the time, Panama was a part of Columbia. So we asked them if we could dig a canal. They said no.
We said “Pretty please?” and they said no again.
Then we started talking with a group of wealthy, disgruntled Columbians and told them that if they just happened to stage a coup and form a new country from that really skinny part of Columbia, we would help them…as long as they agreed to let us dig a canal.
They held their coup, we used our navy to block the Columbian navy in their harbor so they couldn’t defend their territory, and Panama was born. I have to imagine it was about 37 seconds later that we recognized the sovereignty of Panama and signed a treaty to start digging. The treaty gave us perpetual ownership and control of the Panama Canal Zone.
After a half century of operations the Panamanians thought that perhaps they should own the canal that ran through their country. There were decades of protests. People died. And in 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed a paper that said Panama could take over ownership and operations for the canal at the turn of the century.
I was 10 when Carter signed the paper. Yet I remember the news media and pundits talking smack about Panama. “They don’t have the skills.” “They won’t be able to maintain it.” “The canal is too important to take the risk.” “The whole thing will come crumbling down.”
Yet, commerce carries on. The canal is under Panamanian control and it seems to be thriving. They are expanding it and building new locks to accommodate larger vessels and operate in a more sustainable way.
Standing on the observation platform at the Miraflores Locks, I was surrounded by a few other foreigners, but mostly proud Panamanians. School children in uniforms posed for pictures. Adults streamed through to watch enormous cargo vessels float through the skinny strip of mountains and jungle that is their home.
It’s Panama’s flag that flies over the Canal Zone. And it’s a sight to see.
A few other notes you might not know:
-In 1882 the French tried to dig a sea level canal but thousands died from malaria and yellow fever.
-When we started work in 1904, our first goal was mosquito (disease) control.
-At its peak, almost 20,000 people were digging the canal…most of them from the West Indies.
-30-40,000 ships each year pass through the 80 km canal.
-Vessels must give up command of their ships and let a specially trained Panamanian pilot take it through the locks.
-The canal is not wide enough for ships to pass…so the traffic goes from Pacific to Altantic for half the day and the other way for the other half. Ships can wait in harbor for 2-3 days for their turn.