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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 canalwithout help from the United StatesPanama 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 toand U.S. excuse hamperingPanamanian 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" shadowthankfully some would sayand 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 canalwith all this will imply for its developmentbut 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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Ideas

Calmez-Vous, Americans: It's Quite OK To Call Us "The French"

A widely mocked tweet by the Associated Press tells its reporters to avoid dehumanizing labels such as "the poor" or "the French". But one French writer replies that the real dehumanizing threat is when open conversation becomes impossible.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Dirk Broddin on Flickr
Gaspard Koenig

-Essay-

PARIS — The largest U.S. news agency, the Associated Press (AP) tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at journalists: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead use, wording such as people with mental illnesses.”

The inclusion of “The French” in this list of groups likely to be offended has evoked well-deserved sarcasm. It finally gives me the opportunity to be part of a minority and to confirm at my own expense, while staying true to John Stuart Mill's conception of free speech: that offense is not a crime.

Offense should prompt quips, denial, mockery, and sometimes indifference. It engages conflict in the place where a civilized society accepts and cultivates it: in language.

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