Aug 14, 2014

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Panama Canal

Photo from internet,

Tomorrow Panama celebrates the 100th anniversity of the Panama Canal.  I just finished watching a documentary about the canal on the national television channel and have to sincerely admire Panama and its people for what they went through during 96 years of US foreign occupation of the canal zone.  I get my hackles up whenever some arrogant, conservative expat mouths off that “Carter should have never given away the canal.”  But this documentary, through no overt intention of its own, intensified the sentiment.  I’ve always believed Carter did the right thing.  The canal wasn't really ours to keep or give away.  Panama has always been the landlord.  We may have improved the property value and negotiated some unfair advantages, but that didn’t mean we owned it.  We leached plenty of profit from the canal over the time we rigidly controlled it. 

My recent research revealed that the US paid Panama 10 million dollars for permission to construct the canal in 1903, plus it paid Panama $250,000 annually in rent from then on.  How magnaminous!  The average toll for ONE cargo ship to pass through the canal is that amount.

While the US occupied the canal zone, it brought along segregationist, imperialist, colonialist attitudes to a host country and civilization that never differentiated people according to skin color or origin.   Having lived in the deep south as a child, I still remember the segregationist signs on water fountains and bathroom doors that delineated “colored” and “white”.   I think this has stuck so vividly in my mind because in my childish innocence, I chose to drink out of a “colored” fountain once, expecting the water to come out red, or blue, or purple.  I was sorely disappointed when it was just regular water, and even more dismayed and puzzled when my mother explained to me that white people drank out of one, and colored people out of the other.  Even at that tender age it seemed wrong to me.

Tonight’s documentary on TVN 2 showed photos of life in the early canal zone, and these exact same water fountains were seen in some of the shots. An elderly Panamanian man who grew up in the canal zone recounted how, as a child, there were separate housing tracts for “colored people” and for “whites”.  He said the houses for the white people had nicer yards and landscaping.  One time he ran across the street to pick a mango from a tree along the side of a public road in the common area.  He was acosted by a military policeman and told to get back to his own neighborhood.  He could never understand why, as a Panamanian in his own country, he couldn’t pick a mango off a tree on the side of the road. The documentary also talked of how, by order of US President Taft, over 20,000 Panamanians in numerous aldeas and villages along the route of the canal were summarily stripped of their lands and left to their own devices to find new living arrangements.  They were simply told to move.  Numerous villages were then flooded and submerged to create Lago Gatun, a 33 kilometer man-made lake that is considered the world’s largest.  Gatun Lake provides the water required to fill the canal locks and move the huge ocean liners through the canal.

The 1964 riots and subsequent bloodshed caused when Panamanian university students insisted a Panamanian flag be flown alongside a US one in the canal zone, as stated in one of the canal treaties,  was briefly mentioned in tonight's documentary.  The resultant deaths that occurred at the hands of US troops brought about significant strains in foreign relations between the two countries and was the impetus for the 1977 Neutrality Treaty signing by then-presidents Torrijos and Carter.  

Panama has done well since assuming control of the canal 14 years ago.  By the end of 2015, there will be an additional set of locks as part of the canal expansion.   Government education programs have been implemented to teach the population regarding conservation of the river basins and watershed areas feeding the three lakes that supply water to the canal.  As one environmental scientist expressed,  ‘It’s no longer just about running a canal zone.  It’s about incorporating a nation and caring for the Chagres River and the tributaries that fill the lakes. It’s about involving everyone for the good of the country and its people.'

I just have to say I’m exceptionally proud to be living here in Panama and sharing the joy this country feels at celebrating the 100-year anniversary of one of the world’s seven wonders, the Panama Canal.