The Panama Canal is a National Treasure

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The Panama Canal is a National Treasure

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Growing up in the U.S., my introduction to the Panama Canal could be summarized as: The U.S. built it, then one day benevolently signed it over to the Panamanian government. In the U.S. there is very little mention of the canal outside of that narrative.

Martyrs’ Day in Panama, a day commemorating those who died in clashes with U.S. troops, happened to occur soon after my arrival and I was interested in hearing the Panamanian version of events. Needless to say, the Panamanian version was not as simplistic.

Front Cover of Time Magazine, January 1964.
Front Cover of Time Magazine, January 1964.

What I learned in Panama was that, following the failure of a French construction team the U.S. involvement in the Panama Canal came at the invitation of Panamanian elites (Colombians back then) who had ties to a French - U.S. corporation seeking a stake in the lucrative canal. Backed by U.S. war ships and troops, Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903 and the French- U.S. corporation now known as the Panama Canal Company took over the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904. Thousands of Workers from the West Indies, Asia, and all over the world were brought in to complete the canal.

Front Cover of Time Magazine, January 1964.
Source: https://panamacanal.voices.wooster.edu/documents/document-4/

The canal would serve as a linkage between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, dramatically cutting the voyage between Asia and the East Coast of the U.S. by almost 8,000 miles and revolutionizing maritime commerce. It also gave the U.S. immense geopolitical control and reach over naval traffic between both oceans, which was crucial during World War II.

Front Cover of Time Magazine, January 1964.
Source: Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone as an enclave after the canal was completed. The U.S. presence in Panama became a source of resentment as the Canal Zone virtually cut Panama City in half so that any Panamanian who aimed to go outside of the city into the countryside - el interior -, had to cross through the zone which came under U.S. law and jurisdiction. However, U.S. citizens in Panama - the Zonians - were not subject to Panamanian law. In the Canal Zone, Panamanians became second-class citizens in their own country. The U.S. also neglected to abide by the 1963 treaty that would allow the Panamanian flag be flown alongside the American flag in the Canal Zone.

Boats at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
Pictured above by Life magazine, gambling at their American casino, most Zonians were unaware of how much resentment they began to provoke amongst the Panamanians. While Americans lived in privilege, individual Panamanians couldn’t step foot on land that was in their own country without having to answer to a foreign police that spoke a different language and enforced a different law. Source: The Living American Ghost Towns of Panama.

On January 9, 1964, a group of Panamanian students attempted to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the U.S. flag at the Balboa School in the Canal Zone. When they were rebuffed by U.S. students, the flag was torn. The underlying tensions boiled over as demonstrations broke out around Panama City. The U.S. government responded with troops on the ground which led to twenty-eight students dead over the course of the following days. Ascanio Arosemena, a 19-year-old student who was shot and killed, became the first of Panama's "martyrs" . Martyrs’ Day commemorates those who died during that time period.

Following these events, Panama broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. for four months until negotiations over the ownership of the canal could commence. Soon after, the dictator Omar Torrijos came to power in Panama promising to restore national sovereignty. Finally, the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties signed by the two countries provided for the handover of the Panama Canal to Panama and a timeline for dissolving the Canal Zone. In 1999, the canal came fully under the control of Panamanian government and has remained a great source of national pride ever since. To this day, all over the city, there are billboards and posters that read “The canal is ours” and statues commemorating the events of 1964.

If you visit the Visitor's Center at the Miraflores Locks today, there is an introductory video that outlines the great human achievement that was the construction of the canal, the most expensive feat of engineering in U.S. history at that time. The museum further details specific points in the canal’s history such as the fact that I learned was how the death of over 25,000 workers during the construction of the canal led to a cure being found for yellow fever. The museum also includes a simulation of a ship so that you could witness what it looks like to enter the canal from the point of view of a ship captain. Additionally, at the top deck and one can actually watch a ship move through the Miraflores Locks!

Recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the canal hosted its 1 millionth passing ship in September 2010. Just a few weeks ago, the entire country celebrated the expansion of the Panama Canal. The nine-year, $5.4 billion expansion more than doubles the canal’s cargo capacity and accommodates modern ships large enough to carry up to 14,000 containers, compared with around 5,000 in the previous canal design. Once you go see it for yourself, you can understand why the canal truly is a national treasure!

Boats at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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