The Panamax Canal
By Ken Root
Editor's note: This week Ken Root has been leading a tour group across Panama. He has found that what he knew of the Central America nation was only a small part of its real history.
It didn't take long after arriving in Panama to realize that what I think as an American is different than what they think as Panamanians. I am getting a glimpse of a country that feels like it is on the verge of a major economic upsurge. It is deserved by a long-suffering people whose physical location was their only attraction to the outside world. Surviving rule by Spain, occupation by the United States and domination by dictatorship, they did not lose their religion nor their culture. Now Panama is excited about the future.
Americans know this country for only one reason: The Canal. We see it as the best thing that ever happened to this country. The Panamanians see it as a continuation of the world's desire to pass through their land just like the Spanish explorers of the 14th century. The French started started digging in the 1870s, finding that disease hindered them more than landslides and floods. Gunboat diplomacy following the Spanish American War gained independence for Panama and the United States completed the 48-mile-long engineering wonder of the world in 1914.
Standing on the observation platform at Gatun, it is hard to believe that ships have passed through these same locks for a century. We were given a lease on a 10-mile wide strip from Atlantic to Pacific and we maximized its usage. The wealth generated by the canal paid for the lease to Panama and the presence of the U.S. military. But the canal was like an open wound for the Panamanians. They ask how we would like to have the Mississippi River controlled by a foreign power: A strip 10 miles wide, right down the middle of the country, closed, except to workers, and sovereign to the occupier.
As a result, the Panamanians became more and more nationalistic until the mid 1960s when 11 teenagers were killed as they entered into the Canal Zone and raised the country's own red, white and blue flag. This caused U.S. Congressional re-evaluation of the canal treaty in the 1970s and handover to Panama in 1999.
As you might expect, the Panamanians were challenged, in their first years, to take control and function without U.S. government support. However, the economic advantage of the canal has become even more important and profitable as world trade has expanded in the ensuing years and especially in the new century.
The United States did not completely leave Panama to its own devices as we did one more military deed in the invasion and capture of General Manual Noriega in the late 1980s. Our guide told us that he positioned himself to benefit financially from drug trafficking and drained the country of its wealth. Panamanians who were not in his inner circle feared him and were glad for his ouster: "The United States did what it had to do." Noriega served 20 years in a U.S. prison, two years in a French prison and is now back in Panama, still in prison, and reported to be very ill.
The Panamanian past was painful but the future looks bright. Now, 100 years after it opened, the Panama Canal is being expanded and the work is almost as impressive as the original cutting of the big ditch from sea to sea.
The current canal can handle 14,000 vessels each year. The term "Panamax" means a ship that is built to the maximum size that will fit through the locks of the Panama Canal. That is 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. The new canal will have expanded locks that will accommodate "Post-Panamax" ships that are 40 percent longer (1,200 feet) and 60 percent wider (160 feet). To cite it another way, as it relates to ships that carry containerized freight: The total container length (if you took all the containers off the largest carrier today and strung them end to end) is about 5,000 feet. The new Post-Panamax vessels will be able to more than double the capacity and carry containers that will reach for over 11,000 feet. With two sets of locks, the throughput may add 60 percent to the number of ships that make the 10-hour passage from coast to coast.
The construction is scheduled to be complete in June 2015 and is on schedule. The work sites are unbelievably large, with gargantuan ditches where men and machines look the size of ants. Contractors are here from all over the world so the expansion will be credited to technologies brought in from countries ranging from South Korea to Canada. (See for yourself at www.pancanal.com.)
The people of Panama have had the opportunity for education but are still emerging from the economic and social ills of the past hundreds of years. There are still the "haves" and the "have-nots" with many high-rise condominiums dominating the skyline of Panama City. Yet the farm workers here get just three dollars per hour. The unemployment rate, thanks to the canal construction, is less than 5 percent. The currency is the U.S. dollar but we are told that our charges will be subject to an "exchange fee."
Panamanians see the value of commerce and are inviting tourists and investors into their midst. "The first cruise ship stopped in 2001," said our guide. "That was the first time we had seen the prospect of people coming to our country for anything other than passing through to the other side."
The word Panama means "abundance" and that is shown in their fish markets and their fields. The incentive for profit is driving local businesses to expand and outside investors to bring their capital and technology. The country has a dry season from January through March but gets 80 to 100 inches of rainfall per year. Temperatures remain tropical, year round.
The political stability looks good with the elected president holding a single five year term. The current leader is of Italian extractions and ran on an economic growth platform. His message was: "I am already rich, so I won't steal your money." His term ends in 2014, the same year the first phase of the new canal will open.
Panama is a country with a history as long as any in the new world. Columbus came here 500 years ago. As the canal turns one hundred, the Panamanians are in their second, post-Noriega, decade. What the future will hold is unknown but the economic base is strong and the social structure looks stable. Panama may become more than the path between the seas and set an example for Central American countries. "Post-Panamax" may be an apt prediction of their future.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.