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Ten years later and going strong: Panama’s very own canal a huge success

America’s international judgment has been challenged as a result of our nation’s incursions into Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and global-warming matters, among other examples.

America’s international judgment has been challenged as a result of our nation’s incursions into Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and global-warming matters, among other examples. It is therefore gratifying to see a bold American idea take shape and work out for the betterment of the world, as we found in a December visit to Panama. 

One has to look no further than the Panama Canal, dedicated in 1914, to see an excellent example of diplomatic and commercial successes. At least three American presidents, forcefully led by Theodore Roosevelt, faced political risks in pulling off the creation of a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The concept of a trade water canal actually dates to Spain in the early 16th century, followed years later by Scotland. The first serious attempt to construct a sea-level canal, however, began in 1880 under French leadership. It was abandoned more than a decade later after nearly 22,000 canal laborers from throughout the world died, largely from mosquito-caused malaria and yellow fever, as well as crushing landslides — the result of mammoth engineering miscalculations.

After initially working with the reluctant nation of Colombia on a strategy for the canal construction, in 1903 Roosevelt changed tactics, promising support for Panama’s intermittent separatist movement and sending U.S. warships to assure Colombia’s surrender of the region. Nary was a shot fired. With independence achieved, the United States and most other countries quickly recognized Panama.

A reluctant Senate
It was then that Roosevelt launched the U.S. canal effort, buying the project rights from the French developer for $40M and overcoming a reluctant and isolationist U.S. Senate in the process. The Panama Canal, the single most expensive construction project in U.S. history, eventually cost Americans an additional $387M, including $10M paid to Panama. Despite significant medical advances in disease treatment, 5,600 more deaths resulted over the next 10 years.

The canal inaugurated its operations in 1914, nearly six years after Roosevelt had left office. Roosevelt had initially secured a 99-year lease through 2003 to oversee the 50-mile-long and 10-mile-wide Canal Zone.

The key to the engineering success of the canal is three sets of “locks” — Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores — each with two lanes. These locks serve as lifts, elevating vessels 85 feet above sea level from the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, to the manmade freshwater Gatun Lake. Fed by gravity from the lake, the water enters the locks’ chambers through an innovative system of drains and passageways.

Negotiations toward eventual Panamanian ownership began in earnest in 1974. An often controversial treaty was proposed in which the U.S. Senate and some political pundits initially doubted Panama’s ability to manage the immensely complex operation. The deal was ultimately agreed to by the Senate and signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s Omar Torrijos in 1977.

Twelve years later, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush forcefully removed the corrupt Manuel Antonio Noriega, the military dictator of Panama. Noriega was tried and found guilty on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. (Noriega’s U.S. prison sentence ended in September 2007; pending the outcome of extradition requests by both Panama and France, he remains in a federal prison in Florida.)

Transfer in December 1999
So long as Panama guaranteed the permanent neutrality of the canal, the Carter-Torrijos treaty defined a complete ownership handover, which actually took place on Dec. 31, 1999. The transfer date (four years earlier than required) was selected, according to Panamanian college professor and interpretive guide Cristian Moreno, because of U.S. fears of Y2K. We are now at the 10th anniversary of the United States fully relinquishing control of the canal itself and what is called the PCZ (Panama Canal Zone), including 370,000 acres and 7,000 buildings such as military facilities, warehouses, schools and private residences.

Ten-year hindsight shows that Panamanians have accomplished spectacular things:

• Annually, more than 14,000 vessels pass through the canal ferrying nearly 280 million tons of trade goods between the Eastern and Western nations.

• The canal transports 5 percent of world trade and 16 percent of U.S. trade goods.

• Over two-thirds of canal traffic originates in or is destined for the United States.

• In addition to the United States, the largest users are China, Japan, Chile and South Korea.

• A $5.3B canal expansion, adopted two years ago by an 80 percent vote of the Panamanians, is set to be completed in 2014, doubling the waterway’s capacity through a new set of locks to relieve congestion and make room for the latest generation of colossal container ships.

The unprecedented Panama Canal project was carried out without the scandal or corruption that often plagues such efforts, nor has ethical mismanagement come to light in subsequent years. The creation of a water passage linking the two major oceans some 95 years ago was among the most difficult ever achieved by human effort and ingenuity. “A work of civilization,” historian David McCullough wrote in 1976, “the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together.”

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He and his wife, Francelle, traveled to the Panama Canal last month.