Sunday, April 26, 2015

Panamá Part 6: How the Canal works and how it came to be

Aerial view of the Pedro Miguel locks and the Centennial Bridge. The single chamber of the Pedro Miguel Locks is 9.5 m (31 ft) deep. In addition to those at Pedro Miguel, there are two other sets of locks in the Panamá Canal. The Gatun Locks are located on the Caribbean side of the isthmus. The Miraflores Locks form the Canal's exit into the Pacific. The  Pedro Miguel Locks are located only a short distance before reaching Miraflores. For a schematic showing the whole system of locks, click here.  The Centennial Bridge opened in 2004 and is 1.052 m (3,451 ft) long. The bridge is the crossing point for the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads stretching 48,000 km (30,000 mi) from Alaska's Prudoe Bay to Ushuala on the southern tip of Argentina. This makes it the longest drivable road on earth. The only break in the highway is Panama's Darien Gap, arguably the most dangerous location in the Western Hemisphere. The Gap is one hundred miles of rugged mountain wilderness infested with drug smugglers, guerrillas, and a deadly assortment of insects and snakes. As to the Canal itself, it has been described as one of the engineering marvels of the world. In this posting, I'll give you a sense of how the Canal functions, and some of its history. (Photo courtesy of the Canal Museum)

A look at the Locks

Lock gates and the control building where they are operated. Miraflores is the last set of locks before reaching Panamá City's harbor and the Pacific. This, and all the photos that follow, were taken from the observation deck of a multistory administration building overlooking the locks. Notice how the lock doors join at an angle pointing upstream. They were designed this way so that the pressure of the water will force the doors together, ensuring a good seal. Because of this, the doors can only be opened when the depth of the water is equal on each side.

View of the inner side of the last set of lock doors. The water in this lock is almost equal to the level of the water beyond Miraflores. In the lower right, you can see water pouring in through one of a variety of vents. There are two parallel channels in each set of locks, so that two ships can transit at once. However, there is a dangerously narrow stretch of the Canal before reaching Miraflores. This requires all ships to travel in the same direction, so the traffic periodically alternates directions. In the Miraflores Locks, each channel had two  chambers 16.5 m (54 ft) deep. The gates of Miraflores are the largest in the whole Canal system. They are 25 m (82 ft) high and as much as 2.13 m (7 ft) thick. The gates each weigh 662 tons and each individual gate hinge weighs an additional 16.7 tons. In spite of their immense size and weight, the gates are so well-balanced that their operation requires only two 25 horsepower electric motors for each door. If one motor fails, the other can still open and close the door, although at a reduced speed.

Two sailboats await their turn. The Canal takes all comers, from huge cargo ships to small boats like these. Cargo ships pay for their transit according to the number of containers they carry ($82 per full container, $74 for empty). It can cost a fully loaded container vessel over 1/3 of a million dollars to travel through the Canal. Small boats pay by length. Under 15.24 m (50 ft) and your fee will be $800. For up to 24.4 m (80 ft) you pay $1,300. Bigger boats, up to 30.5 m (100 ft), are charged $2000. Above that size, you'll shell out $3000. However, if you can afford a boat that big, the transit fee probably won't make you blink. Whatever their size, small boats generally make the trip in groups in order to save energy, water, and time. The smallest toll ever charged was 36 cents. It was paid by Richard Halliburton, who transited the Canal by swimming in 1928.

The flow of the Rio Chagres provides hydroelectric power for the Canal's operation.  The Canal follows the course of the Rio Chagres from Lago Gatun in the interior to the Bahia de Panamá. When the river reaches the locks, some of the water is diverted to this plant. The US engineers who planned the Canal's construction in 1904 rejected animal or steam power as impractical and chose electricity to drive the operation. The biggest hydroelectric installation is at the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. There are also thermoelectric plants near the locks. The full Canal system requires more than 1000 electric motors. Because of recent droughts, Panamá has begun to consider solar and wind as alternate sources of power for the Canal.

Army barracks of the former US Fort Clayton, with skyscrapers in the background. The red-roofed buildings were part of the 22 US forts, airfields, and other military installations that protected the Canal Zone for nearly 100 years. After the Zone reverted to Panamanian control in 1979, the US military facilities were gradually abandoned over the next 20 years. They became quaint relics of a colonial past. Today, many of the picturesque old buildings have been reborn as restaurants, stores, or commercial offices. If the barracks are a relic of the past, the skyscrapers represent Panamá's future.

The Miraflores Locks in operation

The Sextans enters the locks. She is a Chinese tanker out of Hong Kong. Built in 2007, she is 183 m (600 ft) in length and displaces 51,218 tons. The tight fit requires the assistance of a tugboat. Notice the Panamanian flag in the foreground, signifying the country's long-sought sovereignty over the Canal Zone. The maximum length and width of the locks is known as the Panamax and ships exceeding this must find another route. However, a new, widened canal is under construction parallel to the existing Canal. It is scheduled to open in 2016.

The 1904 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, gave the United States control of a zone ten miles wide cutting across the isthmus from Colón on the Caribbean to Panamá City on the Pacific. The time-frame of the treaty was to be "in perpetuity." This effectively made the Canal Zone an unorganized territory of the US, government by an official appointed by the American president. Within the Zone's limits the US would be allowed to build, operate, and control the canal. The circumstances of Panama's 1903 separation from Colombia, and the signing of this treaty less than three months later, were to haunt US-Panamá relations for nearly a century.

The Chinese ship is now within the first lock. The Canal operators have equalized the water levels with the second lock and are preparing to open the gate seen in the lower left of the photo. The four small electric vehicles attached by cables to either side of the ship's bow are called "mules." In the 19th Century, actual mules were used to pull vessels through the Erie Canal and other man-made waterways. The name is still used more than century after the opening of the Canal.

Proposals for a cross-isthmus canal date all the way back to 1514In the 19th Century, world trade accelerated, as did canal-building technology. These two factors resulted in a series of plans, schemes, and surveys throughout the century. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who built the Suez Canal, launched a major construction project in the late 1880s. When the French project collapsed, the US began negotiating with Colombia for the canal rights. Panamá was a province of Colombia at the time. The two nations reached an agreement, called the Hay-Herrán Treaty, but it was subsequently rejected by the Colombian legislature. Colombian political leaders felt the proposed compensation would be inadequate, particularly given the expected economic value of the canal to the US. Panamá's business and political elites, who had been pushing for a canal for decades, saw their dreams once again thwarted. They immediately began plotting to break away from Colombia and sign their own deal with the Americans. The US government--which was at peace with Colombia--was no innocent bystander in this conspiracy to dismember a friendly country.

Water drains from the Sextans' lock while another ship enters the parallel lock. The Sextans' deck is now nearly level with the side of the lock. The mules continue to inch the big ship forward toward the gates of the next lock. The container ship in the background is the Hansa Europe, out of Hamburg, Germany. 

Theodore Roosevelt was US President in 1903 and he had little patience for international law, and less for pesky Latin American governments that got in his way. His policy was to "speak softly and carry a big stick" and the stick he wielded was called "gunboat diplomacy." There was no essential difference between his approach and that of 19th and early 20th Century European imperialists who colonized the globe by seizing other people's territory. He let it be known to the Panamanian conspirators that the US looked favorably upon their plans and would assist them with military force if necessary. This, of course, was based on their willingness to go along with US treaty terms. The conspirators readily agreed, anticipating personal financial gains on a stupendous scale. 

The Sextans has passed the first lock, the gates have closed, and the lock is refilling. In the parallel channel, the Hansa Europe has begun dropping as the water is drained from its lock.

In late 1903, the Colombian government caught wind of trouble in Panamá and ordered troops to land at the port of Colón, cross the isthmus to Panamá City, and put down any revolt. They immediately ran into trouble. US Navy ships from the Caribbean fleet maneuvered to delay the debarkation of the troops. When they were finally ashore, the Colombians attempted to use the railroad to move their forces. However, the American government had bought the railroad from the French in 1902. Its officials used various stratagems to obstruct the efforts of the Colombian force to reach Panamá City. On November 2, 1903, a US Navy gunboat landed Marines in Panamá City to block the Colombian troops when they arrived. No less than ten US warships patrolled the coast to prevent any landing of Colombian forces from the Pacific side. 

The control center of the Hansa Europe sits ten stories above the main deck. The level below the sign containing the ship's name is called the bridge. It is the command center.  Projecting up from the very top level are masts for communications and radar. The ship, built in 2012, is 239.47 m (786 ft) long and displaces 47,266 tons.

Although a Colombian Navy ship did lob a few shells into Panamá City, killing a Chinese resident, the affair was otherwise bloodless. In fact, many of the key Colombian military officials already stationed in Panamá were part of the conspiracy. When the troops arrived from Colón, their officers were arrested and the local military officers took over. The whole operation was swiftly completed. On November 3, the day after the Marines landed, Panamanian business and political leaders declared independence from Colombia. Three days later, the US recognized the new nation. Forty-four years before the birth of the CIA, the US government was already quite adept at stage-managing coups against foreign governments to further American strategic and economic interests. 

Hans Europe's officers peer over the bridge's railing to check their progress. Wings extend out from each side of the bridge so that the officers can get an unobstructed bow-to-stern view of the huge ship.

On November 18, 1903, twelve days after the declaration of independence, a canal treaty was signed by US Secretary of State John Hay and Phillipe-Jean Bunau-Varilla. The Hay-Buneau-Varilla Treaty immediately became controversial. This was due not only to its terms, but also to the fact that Bunau-Varilla was the sole negotiator and signer for Panama. He was French rather than Panamanian, and had not lived in Panamá for 17 years. After signing the document, Bunau-Varilla never returned to Panamá, probably for good reason. When he sat down with Secretary Hay, the Frenchman ignored virtually all the instructions he had received from Panamanian leaders regarding the treaty's terms. No doubt Hay was more than happy to have so pliable a bargaining partner. When the signed treaty reached Panamá, its newly installed leaders nearly rejected it. US officials told them that if they did, the US would withdraw its support. To increase the pressure. 2000 additional Marines landed in Panamá City and the implication was clear. They weren't there to fight Colombians this time. The Panamanian leaders caved in and added their signatures to the agreement.

A large, covered lifeboat hangs on the side of the Hansa Europe. Anyone who has seen the movie "Captain Phillips" should immediately recognize this type of lifeboat. When Somalian pirates captured a similar ship, its captain ended up spending several days crammed into an identical lifeboat with his captors before they were killed and he was rescued.

When the Colombian government learned of the collapse of their military effort, the subsequent declaration of Panamanian independence, and the signing of the Hay-Buneau-Varilla agreement, they scrambled to salvage the situation. Their government hastily sent a delegation to meet with the Panamanian leaders, hoping to persuade them to rescind their independence. Significantly, the meeting did not occur in a neutral location, but aboard the US Navy ship Mayflower and under the watchful eye of its officers. The Panamanians rejected all proposals for reconciliation and stood by their declaration. It was not until 1921 that Colombia recognized Panamá's independence, and that was only after a US payment of $25 million and the passage by the US Senate of a formal apology for the American intervention.

A telephoto shot shows the mules gently tugging their huge burden through the locks. In a later posting, I'll give you a detailed look at one of these homely, but absolutely essential, little vehicles.

Some of my blog readers might consider my take on the US acquisition of the Panamá Canal Zone to be a bit harsh. Perhaps I am just using 21st Century hindsight? Could it be that people simply looked at things differently in those days? Actually, the public reaction in the United States in 1903 was much harsher than anything I have said. The New York Times called it "an act of sordid conquest," while the New York Evening Post described it as "a vulgar and mercenary venture." Early 20th Century political cartoonists had a field day. One striking creation shows a covered wagon with "Panama or Bust" painted on its side. The wagon is pulled by a rampaging Republican elephant, while a whip-wielding Roosevelt sits in the driver's seat. Hanging on for dear life beside him sits a tiny child wearing a sombrero. The small figure represents the Panamanian leadership. The elephant and its wagon are shown flattening small obstacles marked "international law," "Colombian protest," and "precedent." In his memoirs, Teddy Roosevelt himself stated that "I took Panama, and while the Congress debated that, I built the canal." 

The crew of the Sextans gives a friendly wave as their ship passes. The Canal is a meeting point for all the world's maritime nations. 

The Panamá Canal was one of the great engineering feats of all time. The project took ten years, from 1904 to 1914, finishing just as World War 1 broke out. The US officials who led the project learned a key lesson from the French disaster under de Lesseps. The most important ingredient for success was a healthy, well-fed workforce. The first task, therefore, was to curb malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases that had decimated the French project's workers and their engineers. The US Army Medical Corps had learned a great deal about tropical diseases in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War. These lessons were effectively transferred to Panama and, after an intense and comprehensive health campaign, the project moved forward. Most of the actual work was performed by thousands of West Indians of African descent who arrived from the various Caribbean islands. In spite of health and safety measures, more than 5,600 men died during the course of the American project. This actually compares favorably with the 25,000+ who died under French leadership.

The final lock fills to receive the Sextans. The churning water along the right side of the lock shows where the water is pouring in under the surface. In earlier times, the water pumped into the locks was simply wasted when it poured out to the open sea. This became an issue when Panamá suffered a severe drought that lowered the levels of Lago Gatun, the major water supply for the Canal. Now, water from a series of holding ponds is used to supply the locks and is pumped back into the ponds when the locks are drained.

The building of the Canal required the removal of 252 million cubic yards of earth along the 50 mile route. This was in addition to what the French had moved during their failed project. Much of the earth was transported by railroad back to Gatun to build the dam that created the lake that would keep the locks operating. The cost of the US project was $352 million, the equivalent in today's US dollars of $7.5 billion. This was on top of almost $300 million that the French spent. The US project ended up spending 2.1 times its original construction budget. However the economic advantages the Canal provided to American businesses were great. In addition, there was the strategic advantage of easier passage for the US Navy's fleet between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

The last lock is now filled and awaits the opening of the gates to allow the Sextans to proceed. On average, it takes 8-10 hours for a ship to pass all the way through the Canal. This doesn't include time spent waiting for a ship's turn to move through. As of 2010, more than 1 million vessels have made this journey. Since, on average, 13,500 vessels pass through every year, as of April 2015, an additional 58,450 have transited.

The Hay-Buneau-Varilla Treaty remained in effect as signed in 1903 until 1936 when modest improvements were negotiated.  How did it work out for the US and Panamá and why were its terms so controversial among Panamanians?  The agreement included an initial payment to Panamá of $10 million in gold coins, along with an annual rent of $250,000 in gold coins. When originally offered this amount, the Colombian legislature had rejected it and demanded at least $25 million, on the basis that the US had paid the French $40 million for their failed canal company. 

The water has now equalized between locks and the gates begin to open. When they are fully opened, the gates will fold back flush against the walls of the locks, allowing smooth passage of the ships through the narrow channel.

For the $10 million initial payment and annual rent, the treaty gave the US control of a 10-mile-wide strip of land extending across the isthmus, as well as access to any lakes and bodies of water nearby which might be used in constructing and operating the canal. US control was to extend "in perpetuity" and, in effect, the Canal Zone became a territory of the United States. The US could build whatever fortifications and use whatever military means it chose to defend the Canal. It had complete operational control over the Canal and full rights to use the ports of Colón and Panamá City. In the construction process, the US was not required to use Panamanian labor, but could import as many workers as it chose from any nation it chose. Under the terms of the treaty, no change of government or laws in Panama could effect the treaty. Panamá itself became a "protectorate" of the US, a term often used by imperial powers to describe their colonies. The "protectorate" status provided the legal framework for repeated US military interventions whenever the Panamanians became restive about their lack of sovereignty. 

A mule moves down a ramp created to allow its passage between levels. While the ships are raised and lowered by water levels in the locks, the mules travel by land and so must utilize these ramps.

So, the US used a thinly disguised imperialistic strategy to acquire the rights to the Canal Zone, then negotiated a thoroughly one-sided treaty to nail down those rights, and finally compelled the treaty's acceptance at the point of a gun. But surely Panama itself benefited from the Canal? Not remotely as much as the US benefitted, it seems. An economic analysis of the distribution of benefits does show some initial positive results in terms of Panamá's economic growth between 1915-1930. However, during the life of the US Canal Zone, the returns to Panamá were paltry. The chief beneficiaries were US corporations, whose shipping times and expenses were radically cut, especially for oil companies with operations in Southern California. The ships of other nations pass through the Canal, it is true, but the lion's share of traffic has always been American.

The Sextans has now moved into Miraflores' last lock. As soon as the gates shut behind the ship, water will begin to drain, lowering the craft to the level of the harbor and the Pacific.

Panamanians were angered when some of the great economic benefits from the new Canal failed to materialize. These included the opportunity to sell goods and services to the Canal Zone, and to the transiting ships, and to work in the Canal Zone itself. As it turned out, US policy explicitly prohibited either the Canal Zone or the ships to purchase from Panamanian businesses. In addition, West Indians were given hiring preference over native Panamanians in Canal Zone employment, just as had happened during the construction phase. The best jobs were part of what was called the Gold List, while all others fell under the Silver List. In the early days, some Panamanians could access the Gold List, but after a while only white Americans could get those jobs. Canal Zone workers, whether American, Panamanian, or West Indian, used their pay in US-government owned stores to buy goods imported from America. Passing ships could only buy supplies from those same stores. Panamanians were further angered when the US refused to turn over the initial $10 million payment directly to Panamá's government. Instead, the funds were handed to the financier J.P. Morgan who was given the job of investing them "on Panama's behalf." Part of the money he used to speculate in New York real estate and the remainder he deposited in Wall Street banks. The Panamanians had intended to invest most of the $10 million in fixed income securities. Morgan's investments produced a rate of return below that which Panamá could have earned by investing on its own.

The final set of gates opens and the Sextans is finally floating at sea level. It was unclear to me whether she would anchor in Panamá City's harbor to take on supplies, or steam directly out into the Pacific.

From almost before the ink was dry on the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, Panamanians resented it and the arrogant and selfish way US officials chose to operate the Canal Zone. They also objected to repeated US military interventions, not just in the Canal Zone but throughout the Republic of Panamá. US troops were used to break strikes, intervene in elections to protect favored officials, break up student demonstrations over sovereignty issues, and otherwise "put down public disturbances." Such interventions occurred in 1904, 1908, 1912, 1918, 1920, 1921, 1925. In 1936 the treaty was revised and the US agreed to increase the annual payments to Panamá and give up the right to intervene in the Republic of Panamá. Despite this, interventions occurred in 1958, 1964, and 1989. In the last case, the US sent a massive force to remove General Manuel Noriega, ostensibly because of his involvement with drug smugglers. In fact, Noriega had been a paid agent of the CIA from 1967 until 1988, just before the invasion. His real offense appears to have been his growing friendliness to Cuba and Nicaragua. The Panamanian politicians the US installed to replace Noriega were themselves heavily involved in money laundering for Colombian drug cartels, a fact well known to US officials at the time. During the invasion, as many as 1000 Panamanians, most of them civilians, were killed and an entire neighborhood was flattened.

And off she goes! The Sextans has now left the Miraflores locks and faces open water at last. Her passage through the Miraflores locks had been smooth, rapid, and without incident.

The 1964 intervention was the result of a student demonstration. The students entered the Canal Zone and tried to raise a Panamanian flag to fly next to the US flag. The incident escalated into violence in which 19 Panamanians and 2 US military personnel were killed. Which side initiated the violence is still disputed. However, the incident convinced US President Lyndon Johnson that things would finally have to change. A series of negotiations then began. Both sides sat down with the understanding that the 1903 treaty would have to be abrogated in favor of a new treaty that would recognize Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. US control would not longer be "in perpetuity" but would have a specific ending date. The negotiations ultimately resulted in the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaty. In 1999, Panamá assumed full control and jurisdiction over all of its territory including the Canal Zone and all US military bases. Panamá was finally a free and independent nation and in possession of one of the most important economic waterways in the world.

This concludes Part 6 of my Panama series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, feel free to leave comments or questions either in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim