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From the January/February 2008 Issue

For lovers of infrastructure and free-flowing trade, like AMITY SHLAES, there’s no place like Panama.

Panamania FeatureThere is action tourism—the helicopter to the snowcap. There is ecotour­ism—the tortoise of the Galápagos. And there is nostalgia tourism—the trip to Pointe du Hoc. Then there is infrastructure tourism—at least in my family. We like to inspect big structures and think about what they tell us about the geography and poli­tics around them. 

Nor are my relatives the only infra-tourists. In the age of motherboards and satellites, seeing a canal lock up close gives you the satisfying sense that you know how things work. Infra-tourism allows you a break from politics or history—it’s refreshing to think of the Suez in terms of cargo and water displacement instead of the 1956 conflict. Yet eventually infra­structure leads you to the politics and history in an interesting way. 

Recently, I had the good luck to visit the Suez of our own hemisphere: the Panama Canal. Panama, the coun­try, seems hopeful these days. There are new condos and beachside houses for American retirees, and the coun­tryside is relatively safe. The fact that Panama uses the dollar also makes it soothingly affordable relative to, say, Portugal. 

Still, visitors also pick up the creepy sense of how close Panama is to reverting to its old status of thug state. When I checked in at the Marriott on my trip back in September, I stopped the elevator at the mezza­nine so I could see where a CBS producer was kidnapped during the 1989 invasion. At the pres­idential palace, known as the Palace of Herons, there are real herons in the cages on the left, but you also notice chips on the walls that look like they were made by bullets. Manuel Noriega was an exceptionally evil leader. But corrup­tion remains a big part of everyday life. The Panamanians still look at you as if to say, “Stop me before I coup again.” 

Things are better than when Manuel Noriega was in charge. But Panamanians still look at you as if to say, ‘Stop me before I coup again.’

I was in Panama to accompany U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and a congressional delegation. The Bush administration hoped that what lawmakers saw would convince them to endorse the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement. Gutierrez is a Cuban refugee who made a career at Kellogg before coming to the government. In other words, he is the kind of diplomat who knows that expanding trade between our two countries is the best way to de-thug Panama. 

On our visit, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos seemed optimistic. His government had already approved the FTA. But back home, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and most of her Democratic colleagues were still dubious—and recently Panama had hurt its own cause. In early September, the same Panamanian National Assembly that cooperated on the trade deal thumbed its nose at the U.S. by electing an anti-American thug to be its new leader. Pedro Miguel González was accused of killing a U.S. soldier, Zak Hernandez, back in 1992, and was subsequently indicted by a U.S. grand jury. The United States has never been able to bring him to trial. American labor unions want congressional Democrats to vote against the U.S.-Panama FTA. The unforgivable Hernandez story gives them and reluctant Republicans a pretext. 

One glimpse of the light as I arrived at the Miraflores Locks, and I forgot all of that dark­ness. Visitors coming to inspect the canal expect to see a generous stretch of blue through which ships move majestically. They are imagining the way liners navigate New York Harbor. And there are parts of the canal that look like that. Here, however, you find a narrow line of green-blue water through which a ship is pulled forward, like a sedated whale through a tight tank. Only a foot or two of water stands between the ship and the lock chamber’s wall. The ship moves into the holding area and the gate shuts; when the water level is high enough, toy-like locomotives pull the ship out the other side. 

The best news of the day came in a press brief­ing after the Miraflores inspection: the new locks that can accommodate larger container ships will be opening in 2014. Just before my visit, the Canal Authority had celebrated the ground­breaking of the locks. If the U.S. Congress approves the FTA, the canal will be better able to serve the superstores of the East Coast. 

One of the best parts of infra-tourism is the lexicon. “Panamax” is the designation for the biggest ship that can fit through Panama’s locks. I learn that the new locks that will serve a larger class might be called “Maxipan.” A guide gave us the figures for the Panamax class and I wrote them down in my notebook: 965 x 105 feet. 

Around these proportions, the world once configured itself. Within a decade of the canal’s opening in 1914, 5,000 ships a year were passing through Panama. Annual toll revenues soon ran in the millions. Historian David McCullough, whose Path Between the Seas I carried with me, notes that the lowest toll ever was from Richard Halliburton, a writer who in the 1920s swam the length of the channel over the course of several days. Tolls were based on weight. At 140 pounds, Halliburton paid just 36 cents. 

Standing at the canal’s edge for a peek, I decided that its charm also has to do with the way it gives North Americans a chance to orient themselves—to figure out where they and their country fit in the quirky Western Hemisphere. That orientation is first of all a literal one: at Miraflores, I found that it is possible to plant one’s body in a southern direction and still find the Pacific Ocean on my left and the Atlantic Ocean on my right. The curves and horizontal­ity of the canal make this possible. 

A guide gave us the figures for the largest class of ship that can go through the canal: 965 x 105 feet. Around these proportions, the world once configured itself.

The reorientation is also political—an unnerv­ing reminder of an American record Gutierrez is seeking to improve. The first effort to cut through the 50-mile isthmus in the jungle was classically American: a business adventurer traveled through New York, Paris, and London raising capital to create a joint stock company.

That intrepid entrepreneur was actually a Frenchman: Count Ferdinand de Lesseps. His plan was wonderfully ambitious but fatally chal­lenged by a combination of poor engineering, insufficient funding, and yellow fever epidem­ics. After spending millions more francs than he had spent on his preceding project, the success­ful Suez Canal, de Lesseps had to give up. 

Into that breach stepped Theodore Roosevelt. At the start of his presidency, Panama was part of the territory of the sovereign nation of Colombia. Colombia’s founding fathers had admiringly modeled some aspects of their system on that of the United States. In a move so bold that Colombia still has not gotten over it, Roosevelt promptly arranged a revolution of indepen­dence in Panama on condition that the rev­olutionaries give the United States control of the canal site. The rev­olution was as smooth and artificial as the waters on Panama’s Gatún Lake. Asked by Roosevelt to develop a retroactive justifica­tion for the U.S. role, Philander Knox, the attorney general, reportedly replied, “Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.” 

The successful completion of TR’s canal marked an American high. For generations thereafter, schoolchildren learned the story of the canal and studied pictures like the splendid one of TR sitting behind the controls of a 95-ton Bucyrus shovel. The engineering feat was summed up in what is arguably the best palin­drome ever: “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” 

Panamania_historyPanama, the canal, inspired; but Panama, the country, seemed to move without a hitch from being the region’s “canal country” to being its drug country. The United States certainly cannot be blamed for all that is wrong in Panama; but it did its share by being cavalier about sovereignty (TR), by enabling villains like Manuel Noriega, and by fostering a lot of trouble in between. A century after the canal opened, and nearly two decades after the U.S. invasion, Panamanians are still ambivalent about the United States. They seek confirmation that Washington will follow through on the good things that it promises. 

How to deliver that? For one thing, vote the trade deal into law. As of this writing, it looks as though Congress will postpone any such U.S.-Panama FTA vote until “later,” which means not 2008 but 2009. That’s too bad, because this part of the world may not have much time before political challenges block reform. One of the trav­elers on the Panama trip, Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, notes that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is a Fidel Castro with oil, a populist ready to fill the power vacuum that will be created when Castro dies. A Panama disappointed by the United States is territory vulnerable to Chávez. 

The canal itself is vulnerable too—not so much politically as geologically. The melting of ice in Canada may make the Northwest Passage a serious alternative. Ships traveling to Asia from Europe via the Northwest Passage might tra­verse only 7,000 or so nautical miles, whereas the same itinerary would take 12,000 miles when passing through the Panama Canal. With energy prices rising even faster than sea levels, the Northwest Passage may eventually become the better option. Back in New York after my Panama voyage, I found the duel of the canals already under discussion. 

At this, of course, my infrastructure brain lit up. How did they cut the ice up there, after all? I began to imagine myself, sporting a stylish update of my old midwestern snow pants, at the prow of a ship moving slowly among the floes of the Northwest Passage. But in the days follow­ing the trip, the image of the Miraflores Locks also stayed in my head. Anyone who has seen the canal will understand what I mean. A competi­tive canal will not only save Panama, but it will also prove that ours is a hemisphere where coun­tries can keep building together. 

Amity Shlaes is a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image caption, bottom photograph: November 1906: President Theodore Roosevelt, clad in a white suit and Panama hat, sits on a Bucyrus steam shovel being used to construct the Panama Canal. The canal was completed in 1914.

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