Forever changing what we are - Rosa Maria Britton

Forever changing what we are - Rosa Maria Britton

In 1905 a small country called Panama began to be divided in two halves to open up a canal between two oceans, forever changing what we are. Numbering 90,000 throughout the entire territory, Panamanians had to adjust to the presence of more than 30,000 workers who came to work on the excavations for the Canal. Although most of the workers were African descendants from the Antilles, they were joined by Spaniards, Portuguese, Scots and other nationalities from around the world, in many ways changing the social and cultural make-up of the country. Once the work was completed, they gradually integrated into the exploding isthmus population in a kaleidoscope of languages, customs, foods, and religions. Long before this, since the construction of the intercontinental railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese workers and many adventurers — trying to get to California — stayed on the isthmus and began to sow the seeds of what is Panama today. The Chinese introduced rice, which became the staple food of Panamanians, unlike the rest of Central America who resort to corn.

Since the days of the American administration the Canal has been an equal opportunities employer, not discriminating on the grounds of sex or race.

After the construction of the Canal, the country remained split in two for over forty years, connected by ferry for crossing vehicles along the Canal with all the inconveniences and delays that this entailed.

To the east of the capital is the Darien Gap, and to the west, the country's productive area. In small boats and cutters, some farmers managed to bring their products to the city market— avoiding the strong Pacific tides and inclement weather. It was not until 1960 that the Bridge of the Americas was completed, connecting the two sides of the isthmus that had been separated for half a century. It is a country whose citizens made many concessions and sacrifices for the Canal. The nationalist struggles over the following years, demanding the return of land occupied by the Americans and strong geopolitical maneuvers by General Torrijos in the 1980s, culminated in the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which returned full sovereignty to Panama in 1999. Military installations in the Canal Zone were gradually closed and in the 1990s, for the first time, a Panamanian administrator took over the operations of the Canal. Many at home and abroad voiced the opinion that Panama would not be able to run the Canal with the same efficiency as the Americans, but they were proved wrong. The Canal employees were prepared to continue working with dedication and enthusiastic pride for many years. The loyalty to the Canal from the time of its US administration is notorious. Most Canal workers devote their whole professional lives to the Canal. Many have exceeded fifty years on the job, including Cecil B. Hynes, who worked on the Canal for seventy-two years, making him the oldest US federal employee, duly decorated by President Clinton.

In 1997 its enlargement was extensively discussed at the Universal Congress on the Panama Canal, organized to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. They immediately began to study the possibility of expanding the Canal. Both domestic and international experts carried out over one hundred studies. At the end of the investigation, the Panama Canal Authority estimated the project would cost about $5 billion. According to the Panama Constitution, the project would first have to be approved by the Asamblea Nacional de Diputados [Panama National Assembly] before being proposed to the people in a national referendum. An investment of this magnitude would boost the economy for many years, but such a momentous decision required the approval of the electorate.

The proposal was submitted to the people of Panama on April 24, 2006, and so an intense campaign immediately began by the different groups in favor, as well as the nationalists who questioned the government's cost estimates and claimed that corruption would spoil the successful completion of the project. The government was not authorized to support the "Yes" vote. Campaigning was intense and different groups got involved in television commercials supporting the project, including artists, intellectuals, several descendants of Afro-Antillean workers — citizens from all over the country.

The referendum took place in October 2006 and the proposal passed by a majority. For many years, the Americans maintained a visitors observation area at the Miraflores locks with open-air stands and information about the locks delivered by megaphone.

In 2002, after Panama had taken over the Canal, they began building a four-floor visitor center with terraces next to the locks, restaurants, cafes, a biodiversity museum, and a theater hosting video installations and other shows for visitors arriving daily from all over the world. Since then efforts have been made to attract young students and other groups so they can learn more about the Canal. The thousands of Panamanians who travel every day over the Canal via the Bridge of the Americas and the new Centennial Bridge look on at this narrow expanse of water, along with the ships of all sizes that glide across it, unaware of the efforts made to take them across the isthmus.

Once the extension was approved, the Canal Authority began an intensive training program to meet the huge volume of skilled labor required in the excavation areas—the first phase of the project. Indeed, since the days of the American administration the Canal has been an equal opportunities employer, not discriminating on the grounds of sex or race. Since the 1980s, there are women who scale the dangerous ladders to join the crews from the Canal Authority that take over ships from their pilots in order to guide them through the Canal. Women started to take control of some of the mules, the small locomotives that pull ships, soon replaced by a large fleet of tugs. The consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC) was responsible for the design and construction of the third set of locks.

The foreign influx was immediately felt. New hotels and restaurants opened their doors, shopping malls, office buildings and condominiums rose up from one day to the next, and a metro system was built extending from one side of a precipitously changing city to the other. The eyes of the world were on this expansion. Feverish work began immediately to bring the ports of Miami, South Carolina, and Georgia to the standards of the large Post-Panamax freight ships, requiring billions in investment.

Since 2007, the expansion work has created more than 40,000 jobs and 90% of them have gone to Panamanians. The remaining 10% was made up of an international force from eighty countries across five continents, especially from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Mexico, and the Philippines, to name but a few.

The purchasing power of the Panamanian worker drove the construction and expansion of large districts of family homes to the west, middle-class condos in the capital, and also led to a significant increase in private vehicle ownership. In short, the economic boom was caused by this notable expansion. It is important to note that 10% of the workforce involved in the expansion of the Canal was made up of women.

The Panama Canal is an inseparable part of our history; this expansion has, once again, been highlighted as one of the wonders of the modern world.

The ACP [Autoridad del Canal de Panama] continued to offer training programs to improve skills and create career opportunities both in the technical and administrative areas for tem-porary workers to incorporate them into the ACP workforce.

El Nino resulted in a significant decrease in rivers and lakes in the Canal basin once again, provoking cause for alarm once more. The new Canal has largely contributed to reducing water waste, with a new system aimed at reuse of the water for each ships passage. Moreover, the ACP is making significant efforts to conserve water resources in order to ensure both supplies to the population and the passage of ships. Due to the extensive deforestation affecting the central areas, especially Azuero Province, rivers, lakes, and streams have been drying out despite the many efforts made by the authorities requesting that citizens conserve water.

In these years, the Canal has brought much prosperity to the country thanks to an economic boom. Panama has been visited by the rich and famous from around the world and millions of tourists. Artists from all over have come to showcase their lavish exhibits, attracting thou-sands of foreign visitors. Once more, as in the early twentieth century, many foreigners who came to work on the extension have integrated into the country in a mix of races. But others will return to their lands, with the beat of the tamborito ringing in their memories.

The Panama Canal is an inseparable part of our history; this expansion has, once again, been highlighted as one of the wonders of the modern world.

Rosa Marfa Crespo Justiniani de Britton, born in Panama in 1936, is the country's most prestigious and internationally acclaimed writer. She is also a highly esteemed oncologist and gynecologist.