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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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Panama, an s-shaped isthmus with a land area roughly equal to South Carolina’s, was a province of Colombia when President Theodore Roosevelt convinced the U.S. Congress in 1902 that it made a better site than Nicaragua for the canal he wanted to construct to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (and thus permit the United States to more quickly project its naval power). Roosevelt chose Panama despite the costly (in francs and lives) failure of the French to build a canal across the province in the 1880s. Panama offered the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific— approximately 50 miles. But much of the country is covered by thick tropical forests, and a chain of rugged mountains forms its spine. Tropical diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, and the difficulty of digging a sea-level channel through mountains, had defeated the French.

Roosevelt wanted to take over the remains of the French project. But Colombia would not agree to the American terms. AU.S.-supported plot was then hatched to separate Panama from Colombia. A few days before the plan was launched by a cabal of prominent Panamanian families on November 3, 1903, Roosevelt dispatched the U.S.S. Nashville to Panama. The gunship deterred Colombian troops from suppressing the rebellion, and the United States immediately recognized Panama as an independent country.

A few weeks after the “revolution,” Roos-evelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, signed a treaty with Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman in on the plot who then got himself appointed the fledgling nation’s representative to the United States. Bunau-Varilla owned otherwise worthless stock in one of the French companies involved in the earlier canal effort, and the treaty he negotiated enabled the company to sell its concession and property to the United States for $40 million. The treaty gave the United States control of a strip of Panamanian land ten miles wide and 50 miles long, stretching from ocean to ocean.

There, in 1914, after ten years and a cost of $352 million and 5,609 lives, the United States successfully completed the canal. The Americans had corrected two fundamental flaws in the French plan. They understood, as the French had not, that the mosquito was responsible for spreading diseases like malaria and yellow fever. By controlling mosquitoes, they made the country a more tolerable place to work. Second, they abandoned the idea of a sea-level canal. Instead, they dammed the principal river in the canal’s path, the Chagres, creating a body of water, GatunLake, 85 feet above sea level, then dug a channel, the Gaillard Cut, through a mountain ridge. They used the spoil from the cut to fill in lowlands along the route and built a series of three lock chambers on each end to raise incoming ships to lake level and lower them again to sea level before exiting to the ocean. From the air, the largest portion of the canal looks not like a ditch at all but a reservoir, dotted with islands and surrounded by tropical vegetation. The construction of the canal proved both an imaginative solution to a formidable engineering problem and a signal of the United States’ emergence as a great power.

Panamanians know, of course, about the doubts expressed regarding their fitness to inherit this American triumph. I asked Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the canal’s current administrator and the second Panamanian to hold the job, if he had heard from people who thought the canal would fall apart when Panama took over. “Oh, yeah. Many times,” he said. “People used to ask me what would happen after December 31, 1999 [the date the transfer was completed]. My answer was January 1, 2000. Nothing was going to happen.”

One reason for the smooth transfer was that Panama had, over the years, developed a cadre of American-trained specialists. Alemán Zubieta, whose ancestors were among the founding families of Panama back in 1903, is one of them. He got his higher education at Texas A&M, earning degrees in both civil and industrial engineering, and he is a man who could be as thoroughly at home in Houston as he is in Panama. He drives a BMWX-5, and he plays golf to a single-digit handicap.

We talked, in fact, on a golf course near the Continental Divide, not far from a cemetery that contains the mossy tombstones of Frenchmen who died attempting to build the canal. It is off a potholed road near the Trans-Isthmian Highway that links Panama City, on the Pacific, to Colón, on the Atlantic. Along the road, exhaust-spewing trucks rumble through villages of concrete homes painted in pastel shades of green and yellow. Young girls in plaid skirts walk to and from school. Egrets can sometimes be seen flying over the highway.

The golf course was built in the 1940s and 1950s for canal personnel. It has recently been refurbished by a Panamanian businessman and opened for public play. It’s a hilly course with holes bounded by tropical forests and head-high elephant grass. Howler monkeys could be heard in the trees as we played our shots. Alemán Zubieta said that when he was a boy, the only way he could play this course was to pretend he was a caddie and participate in an occasional caddies’ tournament. When I asked him how the canal was doing, he rattled off statistics like a salesman giving a presentation: “One measure of quality is the average time, including waits at the entry points, that a ship needs to make the crossing,” he said. “In 1996-97, we were about 32 hours on average. Today we are below 24.”

The canal operated in both 2001 and 2002 with only 17 accidents per year in a total of more than 26,000 transits— the best safety record in its history. In the four years since the turnover, total employment has gone from more than 10,000 workers to between 8,000 and 9,000, with claims of greater efficiency.

Panamanians have installed computerized navigational and tracking devices that enable canal officials to follow every vessel in the canal. They have also accelerated the pace of maintenance in the Gaillard Cut, which requires constant dredging because the soil on either side is unstable and prone to mud and rock slides, especially during the long rainy season. The dredging has widened the cut by some 120 to 200 feet since the treaties were signed a hundred years ago. Panama expects to be able to allow 24-hour two-way traffic in the cut soon, even with vessels the size of the Falstaff. (At present, the biggest ships transit at different times. Atlanticbound traffic might go through the cut in the morning, Pacific- bound traffic in the afternoon.) On top of all that, Alemán Zubieta told me, the canal has managed to double the annual payment it makes to the government of Panama from $135 million in 1999 to $270 million in 2002.

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