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Who Built the Panama Canal?

Donald Trump might not know it, but the United States didn't build the Panama Canal. Workers did.

Panama canal laborers. SSPL

On June 19, 2017, President Trump met with Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela and commented, “The Panama Canal is doing quite well. I think we did a good job building it, right?” President Varela looked stunned and Twitter lit up with derision and jokes.

Yet politicians from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan would not have found the statement controversial. What has changed?

For more than one hundred years the Panama Canal has been a flashpoint for how Americans think about themselves and the world. Trump’s comment seemed clueless because Americans’ understanding of sovereignty and US power in the world has changed. Almost twenty years ago, at long last, the United States transferred the Panama Canal to Panama. Panama’s ownership of the canal constructed through the heart of its territory has changed the story — and the history — in complex ways.

United States politicians have long stressed that their nation built the canal, and indeed have historically regarded it as a symbol of US engineering and medical know-how as well as its selfless gifts to civilization. If President Trump meant simply that the United States built the original canal, Roosevelt would certainly have agreed.

The United States facilitated the coup that gave Panama its independence from Colombia, then quickly negotiated a treaty that gave it permanent and complete control, “as if it were sovereign,” over the broad strip of land that cut across the young republic. The United States also organized the building of the canal between 1904 and 1914, spending $375 million on the project.

The acquisition of the Canal Zone by the United States was initially controversial — the New York Times declared the coup a “national disgrace,” and said that if the United States were to follow by building a canal there it would be an act of “dishonorable intrigue and aggression.” Yet Roosevelt ultimately triumphed by arguing that the needs of international trade and civilization outweighed mere matters of law and sovereignty.

In addition to providing funding and governmental oversight and designing the project, the United States sent as many as six thousand Americans to work on the canal at any time, and thousands more family members traveled to join their menfolk. Americans worked as engineers, doctors, nurses, and provided skilled labor as machinists, carpenters, and steamshovel engineers.

But they were just the tip of a truly global workforce arriving from dozens of countries. During the construction decade as many as 150,000 people of African descent traveled to the Canal Zone from the Caribbean. Most came from Jamaica and Barbados, but the islands of St. Lucia, Martinique, Antigua, Grenada, Dominica, Bahamas, and Trinidad were all represented as well. When Caribbeans weren’t working hard enough for the liking of US foremen, southern Europeans were recruited, particularly from Spain and Italy. Smaller numbers came from as far away as India.

All these workers, particularly those from the Caribbean, confronted a harsh working environment, including possible jail time or deportation if they failed to show up for work, high rates of disease and workplace accidents, and a pervasive system of racial segregation seeking to keep them under control. Thousands of Afro-Caribbean women also traveled to the zone to work as domestic servants, laundresses, or cooks.

But the Republic of Panama played the most important — and the most overlooked — role in the building of the Panama Canal. This is the key fact that President Trump leaves out. No contribution has been as erased as Panama’s in the American mythology connected to the canal project.

The treaty giving the US control over the heart of the young republic was negotiated without any Panamanian present. Panama’s land gave way to the canal, quite literally making the construction project possible. Panama also provided thousands of laborers, its cities provided the launching ground and supply networks for the project, its entertainment districts became needed sites for government employees to recreate and let off steam, and its land and water were confiscated at will by the United States.

Panama’s economy became dominated by US interests. Its elections were monitored by US military personnel, and its politicians had to curry US favor to remain in power.

In some ways Panama certainly benefited from the construction project as well — for example, the US laid sewer and electrical lines and fought the mosquitos spreading yellow fever and malaria. But these benefits were small compensation for the absolute nullification of Panamanian sovereignty that lasted more than ninety years.

When the Panama Canal officially opened in 1914, it was celebrated at a grand world’s fair in San Francisco — the Panama Pacific International Exposition. No building celebrated Panama’s role there, and the State Department even refused to invite representatives of Panama to join the opening day celebration. Instead, they held a luncheon and allowed Panama’s representative, Don Lefevre, to address a small group.

He politely praised the United States but also noted, more darkly, that many towns in his nation had been destroyed to make way for the canal. He pleaded: “We should not forget the important share that Panama and its people have taken in this unparalleled undertaking. We have had our territory pierced in two through the powerful arm of Uncle Sam,” to make way for the canal joining two oceans.

Since acquiring full control over the Panama Canal in 1999, the Republic of Panama has by all accounts managed it very well indeed. The United States had not made money from the canal for many years; Panama improved overall management, made the canal a highly profitable enterprise (earning a profit of $1.4 billion in 2006, for example), and ran ships through the channel more efficiently and with fewer accidents, which in turn increased traffic, particularly from Asia.

As ships grew larger, however, the Canal seemed destined for gradual obsolescence. In 2006 a referendum passed, authorizing the building of a third set of locks in order to accommodate larger ships. After a decade of construction, in June 2016, Panama completed its expansion project, creating thirty thousand jobs along the way, at a cost of 5.25 billion dollars. The new locks were made possible by an ingenious engineering design that recycles water in order to limit environmental damage.

Although the expansion project was not without problems along the way (labor disputes, technological challenges, and tensions between the Panamanian government and the European consortium carrying out the work), it is as much a spectacular achievement of engineering as the original US project and it allows the canal to remain competitive in the twenty-first century. The people of Panama are tremendously proud of their success managing and now expanding the Canal — seeing it, much as the United States once did, as a monumental symbol of their modernism, economic strength, and place in the world.

A Chinese ship, renamed the Cosco Shipping Panama to celebrate the expansion, was the first to pass through the expanded canal in 2016, while thousands of Panamanians watched, waving their national flag. During the official celebration, President Varela proudly declared “Today marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere, and the world.”

Meanwhile, just last week Panama severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan, signaling a closer relationship to China — which could also suggest the declining influence of the United States and emergence of a new global power in Central America.

All this provides a larger context in which to understand President Trump’s patronizing comment to his Panamanian counterpart: “We did a pretty good job building it, right?” No wonder President Varela, who had personally overseen a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction of the canal, followed that statement by softly responding: “Yes, one hundred years ago.”

He might as well have added: it’s no longer 1917, and the United States is no longer the rising global power. The age of Theodore Roosevelt is gone. As time and history have moved on, as the global role of the United States has changed, so have understandings of sovereignty and who truly built the canal.