How A Wider Panama Canal Can Free Panama From Its Past

From a republic struggling to rid itself from overbearing U.S. influence, then its own political shenanigans, Panama has come of age as a sovereign state.

A vessel passes through the Panama Canal in the city of Colon.
A vessel passes through the Panama Canal in the city of Colon.
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval


BOGOTA â€" With the completion of the new, widened canal â€" without help from the United States â€" Panama has shown it has made strides as a sovereign state since the 1977 treaties that led it out of its semi-colonial status.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw persistant and ultimately successful efforts to cut a maritime passage through the Panama isthmus, which separated the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. After Colombia's failure to control this strategic spot, the United States stepped forward to complete a colossal project that changed so much in global, maritime, commercial and geo-political dynamics.

Yet the United States' intervention to rob Colombia of its legitimate rights over the isthmus (Panama was a part of its territory until 1903) and strip it of a nascent territory soon to become the Republic of Panama, would be one of the great stains in its history of regional interventions.

As an effectively puppet republic, Panama lived through its first century in somewhat lacklustre circumstances â€" and divided in three. There were two Panamanian sectors, which were, typically perhaps around here, disorderly, dirty and marked by every manifestation of backwardness, enclosing a third, aseptical enclave in the tropics that was effectively an untouchable piece of U.S. territory.

As Washington's rulers became the key masters of this maritime gateway, the world and especially Colombia, came to terms with this arrangement the way the world and countries do intermittently, in the face of aggressive faits accomplis.

Panamanian governments oscillated between resistance and abjection, when they did not despair, in the face of this truncated sovereignty. Gradually a movement take shape demanding drastic changes to the conditions imposed by President Theodore Roosevelt, eventually yielding the deal to cede control of Canal operations to Panama.

This social mobilization meant that when the Democrat Jimmy Carter entered the White House, conditions were ripe for much-needed talks on the canal's gradual transfer and eventually full Panamanian sovereignty by the start of 2000.

Colombia aided the process in the late 1970s, especially under the pragmatic President Alfonso López Michelsen. He was not just a political mentor to the Panamanian "strongman" Omar Torrijos, a key player in dismantling U.S. imperial rule in Panama, but helped remove the last legal obstacle to â€" and U.S. excuse hampering â€" Panamanian sovereignty. Michelsen's bold move was to temporarily renounce some of Colombia's rights and privileges regarding the territory pursuant to the treaty it had had to sign in 1903.

Democracy in the making

Panamanian public life since recovering the canal has not been exempt from vicissitudes and has shown some typical defects of a democracy in the making. There have also been objections to the terms of its agreement over the canal, which have allowed the United States to maintain a "protective" shadow â€" thankfully some would say â€" and ensure the state of the canal does not harm its interests.

It is fair to say however that the new Panamanian leadership, which is far more than just its political class, has shown vision and an ability to act to achieve ambitious goals. The best example of their enterprise may be the elite's decision to widen the canal and ensure that hencefoth, it will allow the passage of trading ships three times bigger than those going through before.

In contrast to the initial 1914 project, Panamanians have been partners in the new, multinational project led by the Spanish firm Sacyr. And in spite of disputes over timing and pricing, the Third Set of Locks reserved for megaships was completed in just nine years, impressive for the region's largest infrastructre project of the early 21st century.

Panama is not only hoping to triple its revenues with the new canal â€" with all this will imply for its development â€" but is already reaping the fruits of its independence and its own vision, capacity to act and ability to exploit its history and geography.

All Panama must do now is manage with the same competence and acuity the torrents of capital flowing into its banks.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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