This year, the Canal is one hundred years old. It’s founding marked both Panamanian independence from Colombia, and the imperial turn of the United States. Today, the Canal is struggling once again to become the epicenter of the new global logistics revolution, based on the huge “post-panamax” container ships that no longer fit through the old locks designed by the US army engineers. The widening of the Canal – currently plagued by delays and cost overruns – is supposed to bring back profitability and ensure Panama its place at the center of global trade. But no one even seems to question the ecological consequences of so much “free” trade – whose costs are also measured in brutal inequality and the failure to even think about human development.
Presumably everyone knows I am a critic of capitalist excesses, and you’ll find more about that critique in upcoming posts. But I am also so terribly curious, so keen to see it all, to touch and feel it all – and it is almost impossible to describe the thrill of getting on that Panama Canal Authority tugboat, whose cabin and decks were opened to us by the good graces of Rafa Spalding, a former civil engineer and high-ranking Canal administrator. Thanks also to the warmth and openness of the crew, we were able to journey through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, across the Culebra Cut (where dynamite and steam shovels broke the continental divide) and all the way up to Gamboa where the man-made Lake Gatun starts to widen, opening a channel for the huge ocean-going ships. Here, humankind has exerted a truly tectonic force. By the end of the day, sunburnt and tired, we felt that much inside us had changed. Along the watery path that joins two oceans we experienced something a lot like continental drift.