Panama celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal in 2014 by throwing a yearlong birthday party. With formal events and new attractions, all attention is focused on the emergence of a 21st-century waterway. Panama’s true celebration is about connectivity, and the old canal and the new provide the foundation of the most important transportation hub in Latin America.
At last, a canal
The dream of shortening the passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific began long before the first shovel sank into Panama’s soil. Surveyors first explored a possible route across the isthmus as early as the 16th century under the aegis of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Europe and the United States had eyed a Central American passage since the early 1800s, and in 1850, the United States and Great Britain brought their rivalry over routes to an end with the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which focused on a passage through Nicaragua. The project never evolved beyond the planning stages.
The French plan for a canal made better progress and a number of routes were considered. The first aim was to build a sea-level canal without locks, but those routes through Nicaragua and Panama proved unworkable. Excavations began in 1880 in Colombia’s Panama Province along the present route under Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal. Persistent malaria and yellow fever brought on the loss of about 20,000 lives and put the French project into bankruptcy.
3% of the world’s maritime commerce, or some $270 billion, passes through the canal every year.