Reflections on the Panama Canal

I made a trip to Panama City, Panama last week for a conference.  It was my first trip to the country and I did not really know what to expect of the city and its environs.  I was struck by was the remarkable number of high rises (many of them quite new) and the amazing amount of construction.   On the construction, I was further struck by the number of public works oriented projects (road, a metro, refurbishing of the colonial section, housing for the poor, new government buildings, etc.) that I have to wonder if Panama might not find itself in debt problems in the coming years.*

Punta Paitilla

Punta Paitilla in the background, with a construction project in the foreground.

However, what was really instructive to me was my visit to what was the Canal Zone and to the Canal itself.  As my colleague, Greg Weeks noted (both when we were at the Canal, but on his blog) , we have read about and taught the significance of the Canal and the Canal Zone for a long time, but there is something especially instructive about seeing the scale of it all.

Now, yes, the scale of the Canal is impressive, especially when one considers that it was constructed in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Indeed, the doors at the Miraflores Locks are the originals and have been in operation for 98 years.  The engineering of it all is remarkable as is the impact the Canal has had on world trade.

Miraflores locks



However, on the political/historical side of things, I was especially struck by the scale of the former Canal Zone, which used to be US territory until the turnover to the Panamanian government on December 31, 1999 as a result of the Torrijos-Carter Treaty signed in 1977.  It is one thing to read that the Canal Zone was a buffer zone created to allow the US to govern and maintain the Canal, it is another to see that at one point the are of the Zone near Panama City was a city unto itself on primo real estate that was granted to the United States via a treaty negotiated between the US and a French national only two weeks after Panama had gained independence from Colombia.  The Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which gave the US control of the Zone in perpetuity, was created via talks between Secretary of State John Hay and  Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman who had been directly involved in the French attempt at building a canal, and who had significant business interests in the process.  He was not negotiating in the interest of the Panamanians.  Really, the entire affair was imperialism, pure and simple, and any understanding of the events in Panama since its independence have to be understood in this context.

As such, when we try to understand events like the 1964 riots over the flying of a Panamanian flag, and the Johnson administration’s response thereto, the history (and the geography) have to be taken into consideration. (Of course, Johnson saw it all as left-wing agitation, not to mention with a great deal of arrogance, saying about the situation:  “I’m not going to be pushed around by a *** country no bigger than St. Louis”).**

Or, for that matter, when we try to understand why Carter negotiated the handover in the first place, and the context of the Ford-Reagan battle in 1976 on this issue.***

None of this is a new revelation in regards to nationalism in Panama (or elsewhere in Latin America, and around the world), but it was just something that was really brought home by seeing the actual context.

More generically, the entire tale is one that should remind us that it can be all too easy to ignore the way US actions affect local populations (and why local populations often harbor substantial, and well-founded, resentments against the United States—something that struck me this morning as I listened to a story about the US drone war in Waziristan).  One of the things that Americans (both politicians and everyday citizens) need to be better at is looking at our actions from the perspectives of those our actions directly effect.  It is all to easy to engage in the type of rhetoric that Reagan did in 1976 (“We dug it, we own it”) and get swept away in our own power-created self-righteousness.

One passing thought that strikes me as further fodder for thought in the current political climate:  the original attempt to build the Canal was a private venture, that eventually collapsed (as was the second attempt).  The third, successful, attempt was a government project.

All photos by me.  More here.

Posted at both OTB and PoliBlog.

*It is true that the country makes a remarkable amount of money from the Canal and the country has become a major banking center (to go along with a significant intake from tourism) but I still could not help but wonder if there was too much happening too quickly.  Still, that is an impression based in studying the region, but not an observation based on actual empirical evidence.

**As quoted on p. 163 Henry Raymont. 2005.  Troubled Neighbors:  The Story of US-Latin American Relations from FDR to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.

***In looking for a quote, I came across this piece from The American Conservative that discusses a Firing Line debate between Reagan and Buckley on this topic, which includes the following:

The Reagan-Buckley friendship en-dured two sharp fractures over foreign policy. The first has become legendary. In 1978, Buckley and Reagan, two paladins of the American Right, arrayed themselves on opposing sides of the Panama Canal treaties being negotiated by the Carter Administration. Buckley, who favored turning the canal over to the Panamanians, invited Reagan, opposed, to debate him on “Firing Line.” The knights had esquires: James Burnham, George Will, and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt stood with Buckley. Pat Buchanan, Roger Fontaine, and Admiral John McCain Jr., father of the senator, were with Reagan.

Back then, conservatives could disagree with one another about foreign policy openly and civilly. Reagan sounded notes familiar from recent debates over America’s role in the Mideast: “I think we would cloak weakness in the suit of virtue” if America were to surrender the canal, he warned. “With this treaty, what do we do to ourselves in the eyes of the world, and to our allies? Will they, as Mr. Buckley says, see that as the magnanimous gesture of a great and powerful nation? … I think the world would see it as, once again, Uncle Sam putting his tail between his legs and creeping away rather than face trouble.”

Buckley’s response would today get him branded an unpatriotic conservative. “We donegotiate under threats,” he told Reagan. “Ninety-nine percent of all the negotiations that have gone on from the beginning of this world have gone on as a result of threats. … The fact of the matter is that there are people in Panama who don’t accept the notion of Governor Reagan about the undisputed, unambiguous sovereignty that the United States exercises over that territory.” Likening Panamanian demands for sovereignty over the Canal Zone to the American Revolution, Buckley observed, “All of a sudden we find that we resent it when people say that they’re willing to fight for their freedom.”

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