Headlines - Smithsonian - "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama Rises"

A Man, A Plan, A Canal: 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

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Senate ratified by a two-vote margin the treaty that transferred the canal to Panama, the ordinariness of a freighter's transit through the water-way struck our author 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 rows of cream-colored 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. "I am very, very, very proud," says lockmaster Dagoberto Del Vasto, who started out working at the canal 22 years ago as a janitor. 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. And in the four years since the turnover, total employment has gone from more than 10,000 workers to between 8,000 and 9,000, perhaps indicating greater efficiency.

The canal may no longer be as strategically vital as it was when it first opened. There are vessels that are too big for its locks, and Panama will have to decide soon whether to try to expand the canal with a new, much larger set of locks. Expansion could be fraught with unforeseen consequences, both to the country's treasury and to its environment. But the canal is still an impressive testament to the politicians who conceived it, to the engineers and laborers who built it, and to the Panamanians who run it today.