Panama Rises | Travel | Smithsonian

Panama Rises

The Central American nation, now celebrating its centennial, has come into its own since the United States ceded control of its vital waterway

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The freighter Falstaff, nine days out of San Francisco and bearing a cargo of Korean automobiles, slid slowly into a chamber of the Miraflores Locks near the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. Like her Shakespearean namesake, the Falstaff is broad of beam. Her sides, painted green and streaked with rust and scuff marks, rose straight from the water and towered more than 100 feet above a two-story building where the lock’s controllers work. She looked blocky and top heavy, like a warehouse on water.

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Four small locomotives on narrow-gauge tracks running along both sides of the lock’s concrete trench slowly guided the Falstaff by means of steel cables fastened to her bow and stern. It was like squeezing a hippo into a bathtub. The Falstaff is roughly 106 feet wide. That left just two feet to spare on either side.

Massive steel gates shut behind the freighter. Asystem of subterranean valves and culverts that has been in operation since 1914 began letting water into the lock. No pumps are involved; the pressure of gravity suffices to raise the water level. Almost imperceptibly, the Falstaff began to rise.

The ship’s stern glided past, and I could see a gaggle of men gathered around the tethering cables. The elaborate lockage process that so fascinated me was simply another part of a routine day to them, and they paid more attention to the lunches they were eating from white Styrofoam containers. A pelican soared lazily above the lock, heading slowly toward the green, tree-clad hills of the Panamanian isthmus. Even it looked bored.

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Senate, at the urging of President Jimmy Carter, ratified by a two-vote margin the treaty that transferred the canal to Panama, the ordinariness of the Falstaff’s transit struck me as a remarkable thing. During the debates, in March 1978, the Senate chamber echoed with dire fears and warnings. Although the treaty provided for a gradual, 20-year transition from American to Panamanian control, there were worries that Communists would take over the canal, or that Panama would close it or would invite in foreign forces.

Nothing of the sort has happened. Instead, Panama is running the canal at least as efficiently as the United States did. After some missteps, Panamanians are building on their American legacy—not just the canal, but the protected virgin rain forests, a railroad and long, regimented rows of creamcolored former U.S. barracks. And there’s excitement about further development in eco-tourism and bio-prospecting.

Mark Falcoff, a Latin American specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., says the gamble the United States took in turning the canal over “has paid off brilliantly.” In his estimation, the United States has enhanced its credentials as a good neighbor in the Western Hemisphere and avoided both the necessity of stationing a big garrison in Panama to protect the Canal Zone and the expense of upgrading the canal.

The turnover has pleased most Panamanians as well. At the Miraflores Locks, on the outskirts of Panama City (the nation’s capital), lockmaster Dagoberto Del Vasto, whose job it is to notify the pilots who guide each ship through the canal when the locks are ready to receive their vessels, told me he had worked at the canal for 22 years. “I started out as a janitor,” he said. “At that time, most of the lockmasters were Americans. I went to an apprentice school and graduated as an electrician. Now I supervise 20 men.”

I asked how he felt about the canal and Panama’s stewardship of it. He smiled. “I am very, very, very proud,” he said.

Panama celebrated the centennial of its independence last November, and throughout the country a visitor could discern a sense of pride similar to Del Vasto’s. Bunting hung from buildings in Panama City. Street vendors peddled Panamanian flags for drivers to mount on their cars. On Independence Day itself, church bells pealed, fireworks exploded and salsa singer Rubén Blades gave a free concert.

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