Today [June 26, 2016] marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere and the world.”
– Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama
In this age of increased border policing and nationalism, nothing reminds us of global connectedness like oceans. Also, I will take all opportunities to write about Panama.
Author disclaimer: I love Panama! My father is from there. My family lives there. I did my dissertation fieldwork there. The Smithsonian has a Tropical Research Institute there (STRI). It is constantly among the happiest countries in the world and frankly, it is beautiful!
The defining thing [about Panamanian identity] I would say is the Panama Canal … what else … that is all … we can’t even go any further!” – DC resident from Panama
In August 1914, the Panama Canal opened, revolutionizing global sea traffic. The Canal created a “path between the seas,” joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships no longer had to travel all the way around South America. They could now pass through the 50 mile long Canal. Ships traveling the canal connect 160 countries and reach about 1,700 ports worldwide. To date, more than one million ships have passed through the Canal.
The politics and culture of the Panama Canal is a central element — literally and figuratively — of Panama’s national identity and on December 31, 1999 the U.S., who operated the Canal since 1914, turned over full control of the Panama Canal to Panama.
The last time I visited Panama was a research trip 2014 with ACM photographer Susana Raab to document the 100th anniversary of the Canal. During that trip, we visited the Canal expansion project on the Atlantic coast
We also took a partial transit through the Panama Canal. It is a marvel to watch ships being raised and lowered to pass through the locks system of the Canal.
On June 26, 2016 , over a hundred years after the Panama Canal opened, the new locks at the Panama Canal were inaugurated. We are now living in a Post-Panamax or NeoPanamax maritime era! The expansion brought two new sets of locks, Cocolí on the Pacific coast near Panama City and Agua Clara on the Atlantic coast at Colon.
The size of the original canal made it difficult for high-volume Asian shipments to get to the East Coast of the U.S. Post-Panamax ships can reach 1,200 feet long — more than three football fields — and are up to 160 feet wide. The expansion doubles the Canal’s capacity.
So while this feat is certainly worth celebrating, it has global ramification and human costs especially in the U.S.. Canal expansion has meant that ports like Savannah, New York, New Jersey, and Houston among others have invested billions in order to accommodate the larger ships that will pass through the new Canal. Larger ships mean updating ports, and consequently increased road traffic, as more trucks will be needed to transport the increased number of goods. In December of 2014, the Melissa Harris Perry Show discussed some of the environmental concerns of Canal Expansion in New Jersey.
In the coming month, years, and centuries we will all be witness to the Panama Canal’s continued influence on global trade for the U.S. and the world.
You can learn more about the Washington D.C.’s connection to Panama, the U.S. presence in Panama, and the Panama Canal in the exhibition Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama to Washington DC in the Anacostia Community Museum Program Room. The exhibition is up indefinitely.