Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Canal and Beyond

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Canal and Beyond

Article excerpt

On May 3, 2009, pro-business supermarket magnate and New York Yankees fan Ricardo Martinelli defeated equally pro-business former housing minister Balbina Herrera for President of Panamá by 22 points. Clearly, the majority of Panamanians thought that the proper business of Panamá was business. And in 2009, as today, business in Panamá centered on the Panama Canal.

The contemporary importance of the Panama Canal to world trade and Panamanian economic develop- ment is impossible to dispute. Panamá's unique geographical location and historical position show how various economic and political themes replay themselves over and over through time.

U.S. "exploitation" occurred in two steps in 1903-04: first when the United States strong-armed a bet- ter agreement than it could have obtained through voluntary negotiations, and then when it effectively separated the Canal Zone from the Panamanian economy. Active intervention in Panamanian politics soon faded, perhaps for the best, given America's inability to keep its own peculiar racial attitudes out of its foreign policy. Passive acquiescence in Panamanian authoritarianism became the norm.

The canal itself, however, would not be handed over until 1999, and the Neutrality Treaty provided the United States with a pretext to call off the handover should anything go seriously wrong. U.S. opponents of the handover doubted Panamanian ability to manage the canal for there was little in mid-century Panamá to reassure outsiders. Corruption ran rampant; parties existed essentially as patronage devices.

Ultimately, the United States did intervene by removing Manuel Noriega by force. Noriega had been useful for Washington's foreign policy; this led him to miscalculate his worth to the United States. Noriega very well might have survived had he not made it clear that he intended to use the Panama Canal for political purposes.

The 1989 U.S. invasion could by itself no more create democracy in Panamá than had interventions in 1904, 1912, 1918, 1921, and 1925. Fortunately, a critical mass of the Panamanian electorate no longer felt obliged to follow traditional politics. Noriega transformed Panamá in spite of himself, breaking traditional patronage networks in order to advance his own personal power. …

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