At 100, Panama Canal looks to the future

Since the Panama Canal officially opened a century ago, more than one million ships have crossed the narrow isthmus separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific, and Panama’s history has captivated the world.

All of the high drama — the epic construction, political intrigue and unrest, the American era, a divided country, delicate negotiations leading to Panamanian control of the canal, and the waterway’s place in the economy of Panama and the world — have been remembered, dissected and discussed this week as the canal marks its centennial.

Shortly after 8 a.m. Friday, as a high school band played and drones buzzed overhead, two tugboats, the Cerro Punta and Cerro Pando, moved into the locks at Miraflores to salute Aug. 15, 1914.

That was the day, after 10 arduous years of construction and many workers’ deaths, the SS Ancón steamship made the first official transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, opening the canal to world commerce.

Jorge Luis Quijano, administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, said the tugboats symbolized “Panama’s promise to keep connecting the world and carrying the canal forward into the future.”

When the Ancón made its passage, it was the only ship to transit the canal. Now, the average is 35 ships daily, Quijano said.

Crew members and canal pilots stood on the decks of several ships making their way through the locks Friday and waved tiny Panamanian flags.

“Even though we celebrate today, we would also like to honor those who died during the French construction phase (in the 1880s) and the United States’ effort and all those who came afterward who have allowed us to be where we are today,” Quijano told the Miami Herald. About 25,000 workers fell to disease, accidents, snake bites and other maladies during canal construction.

While the morning celebration was a people’s party with canal workers sampling a giant cake, the day ended with a black-tie gala at the Figali Convention Center built on a causeway made from fill excavated from the canal.

Nearly 3,000 people attended, including President Juan Carlos Varela and a who’s who of Panamanian society, descendants of the builders of the canal and world maritime and transportation leaders. A nationally televised extravaganza of music, dance and art and a concert by Panamanian salsa singer Rubén Blades were scheduled.

A day earlier, PortMiami Director Juan Kuryla showed a stack of business cards he had collected in his effort to market Miami as a first port of call when a multibillion-dollar canal expansion is complete. The Miami port is undergoing a $2 billion transformation of its own to be ready for the post-Panamax ships that will begin crossing the canal in a couple years.

Kuryla was at one of numerous events held all week to mark the centennial, including TV specials, a History Channel documentary, lectures, photo and art exhibits and tours of the canal sites.

But there haven’t been the mass celebrations, balloons and fervor of Dec. 31, 1999, when the United States handed over the canal to Panama after more than nine decades of control. Friday was a normal working day.

Already, many Panamanians say the younger generation’s grasp of the canal’s history is a bit sketchy, but its significance isn’t lost on their parents and grandparents.

“They don’t know much about the canal, which is really the jewel of the Panamanian economy, and they’re not making a big deal of it,” said shopkeeper Liza Garzon, 34. “The government should have made a visit to the canal mandatory for all school children this year. Without the canal, we wouldn’t have half the things we have now.”

Indeed, Panamanians reflecting on the past 100 years say the biggest legacy of the canal is its contribution to the economy. The canal alone accounts for 3 percent to 4 percent of the economy and delivers more than $1 billion to state coffers annually.

More than 140 maritime routes connecting Panama with ports in 160 countries pass through the canal.

“From an economic perspective, the canal is similar to Panama discovering major deposits of oil,” said Ovidio Díaz-Espino, a lawyer and historian. “Now the canal is the engine of growth for Panama, the oil wells of the next century.”

To fuel that growth, the canal is in the midst of an expansion that includes new channels on both ends and state-of-the-art locks that will allow bigger, wider and heavier ships to transit the waterway.

Quijano, who is in charge of the autonomous government agency that oversees canal operations, said the expansion represents “the next 100 years of the canal.”

The $5.25 billion project was initially supposed to be completed to coincide with the canal’s 100th anniversary. But a dispute with the contractor, weather and delay in finding the right concrete mix for the new locks have pushed the completion date to December 2015, with commercial traffic beginning in 2016.

Those delays may be another reason why celebrations of the canal’s anniversary are somewhat muted. “The delay is a major disappointment,” Díaz-Espino said.

And nearly 15 years after Panama took control of the canal, it is so ingrained in the Panamanian identity that people may not feel “there’s a reason we should break out the champagne,” he said.

The delay also means it will take longer for additional revenue expected from the expansion to come online.

When the canal changed hands, there was a lot of criticism that the Panamanians would “break the canal,” the economy would fail and the political system would fall apart, said Michael Conniff, a San Jose State University professor. “It’s exactly the opposite. The Panamanians have been very successful at running the canal. They’ve managed the transition extremely well.”

The turnover allowed the growth of assets around the canal, such as the Colon Free Zone, the ports, international airports, and Panama’s cargo-handling, tourism and banking industries.

Over the next 100 years, Conniff said he expects revenue from the canal itself to account for a smaller percentage of the overall economy, and the free zone, airports, ports and container services to play an increasing role.

Meanwhile, a spate of television programming about the canal is exposing a new generation of Panamanians to the hardships and sacrifices of the mostly West Indian laborers who carved the passage out of the jungle. They have seen vivid images of the 1964 flag riots that began over Panamanians’ right to hoist their flag in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone and ended in the death of 23 Panamanians. Those tensions led to negotiations for new treaties that ultimately gave Panama control of the canal and canal zone.

Díaz-Espino was a teenager when the Panama Canal Zone ceased to exist on Oct. 1, 1979, under the Torrijos-Carter treaties. As did many Panamanians, he took advantage of the opportunity to enter it for the first time.

Panama was no longer a country divided with a sovereign strip of territory bisecting it along the length of the 51-mile canal. It was the beginning of the end of an American-controlled parallel society.

“It was clean, there were lots of trees, very nice,” he said. “The feeling I had was liberation. It was kind of like the locked room in the house that your parents never let you go in and then suddenly you could.”

Panama Canal at 100

• $40 million: U.S. payment to French for canal rights and property after failed French attempt to build the canal.

• $10 million: U.S. payment for the Canal Zone

Early History

•  Feb. 23, 1904: U.S. acquires Canal Zone from Panama

•  May 4, 1904: U.S. begins work on canal

•  1913: U.S. begins to pay annual rent of $250,000

•  Aug. 15, 1914: Canal officially opens and SS Ancón becomes first ship to transit the canal.