Gunboat diplomacy may be needed to finish the Panama Canal
By Ken Root
I first saw the Panama Canal last year, a hundred years after it was finished. The majesty of this “Path Between the Seas” was overwhelming when I thought of the politics, engineering and human suffering that resulted in a ditch that cut shipping routes by thousands of miles. My astonishment rose to the next level when I saw the new locks that were being constructed to handle “Post Panamax” vessels by 2015. The new configuration, when completed, will allow passage by ships that contain two and a half times the cargo of current ships. The construction of each lock looked like a half-mile-long skyscraper on its side with workers and equipment appearing as ants and toys in comparison to the monstrous structures. All that vision of the future came crashing down when I learned that work on the new canal is going to shut down because the European contractors have run out of money with a quarter of the work left to finish.
This all bounces me back to the French, who started the original canal in 1881 with major promises to investors, a very shaky budget and 20,000 laborers. History shows that they moved huge amounts of dirt but they failed to complete a sea level canal due to engineering challenges that overwhelmed their equipment and tropical diseases that sickened and killed their workforce. Over a century later, here we are again with European and Asian engineering, Panamanian capital and an international workforce about to be shut down due to lack of money to complete the task on budget and on time.
There should be credit given to the people of Panama, who have been exploited since Columbus arrived in the 1500s. They endured being a “passage” and not a “country” for 500 years. The United States took a 99-year lease on the middle of their country and militarized it. They viewed us as occupiers during that period and also had to endure dictatorships, including a particularly harsh period under Manuel Noriega. Now, Panama is a flowering democracy with the canal as their economic centerpiece. They made the decision to remodel the century-old structures and finance it themselves. The only problem was that they accepted the bid from a consortium that was dishonest in the amount of money it would take to complete the construction. It is not the first time that a huge engineering project has been deliberately underbid with the goal of blocking legitimate companies and holding the buyer hostage until additional money can be appropriated to finish the work. I really think there should be criminal penalties enforced on principals who undertake such scams.
What it is going to come down to, again, is that America is going to finish the new canal. The Europeans may step up and pay the additional money, but I’m thinking they won’t do so, figuring the United States has more to lose if the expansion is not completed. The Panamanians are trying to hold the line but I think they are out of their league in what it will take to complete the locks and open the canal to big ships.
There is another option that we should consider: building a canal through Nicaragua. This is not a pipe dream, as a major effort to fund a canal was carried out in the late 19th century and surveying has been completed. The U.S. involvement in the Panama Canal muted the Nicaraguan effort but prospects for either a sea level canal along a much easier route or a railroad to transfer containers across to the other ocean still exist.
I have a tie to the modern surveying of a Nicaraguan canal as my cousin, Colonel Wayne Fade, headed the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. He would come to visit family in Oklahoma and talk of the work they were doing. I was only a child but I hung on every word as he described being in a dugout canoe with Caymans (alligators) swimming alongside. “We can make a sea-level canal in just a few days by detonating nuclear devices,” he told my father. “We have already drilled the holes.” That was scary stuff in the Cold War but he said it was an option in case the Panama Canal was sabotaged.
The Nicaraguan canal would, however, require us to overthrow a government, appropriate the land, briefly appease the people and then hold them at gunpoint for a hundred years. We did in Panama so I guess we could do it again!
The pathway that we will likely take is more diplomatic. We will encourage the Europeans try to pacify the labor interests who are demanding more money to keep working in Panama. Then we will see if the Panamanians can muster enough funds to pay the extortion. Then we will try to find private U.S. capital that will get a piece of the canal as payment and finally, we will declare it in our national interest to complete the canal and re-establish ourselves as the dominant engineering country in the world.
The greatest pressure can be placed on the canal by China. If they offer to pay the cost to complete it for part ownership, all bets are off and the U.S. will step in to protect our dominance in the region. No matter what actually happens, it should be fun to watch.
I intend to go back to see the first ships pass through when completed. I’m not booking my airfare, however, as the projected finish (in 2015) may slip a few years.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.