EL ESPECTADOR

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

-Analysis-

BOGOTA — With the completion of the new, widened canal without help from the United States 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 — 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 and U.S. excuse hampering 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 thankfully some would say 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 with all this will imply for its development 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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