Colombia Wants Own Canal, an Idea Panama Ridicules

By Jon Mitchell, | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Colombia Wants Own Canal, an Idea Panama Ridicules


Jon Mitchell,, The Christian Science Monitor


Another Central American shipping canal? The idea has been kicked around Colombia off and on for 30 years, and now the nation's beleaguered president has dredged up the idea again.

"An interoceanic canal could be our trademark," Colombian leader Ernesto Samper said a few weeks ago. "This country needs to think about big things." (What Mr. Samper does not want people thinking about are allegations that his 1994 election campaign was partly financed by drug money.)

Samper contends the rival canal could be built for $1.65 billion and draw traffic from large ships such as oil tankers that currently cannot fit through Panama's channel.

But the initial reaction to his talk of a new canal has been laughter, at least here in Panama.

"It's totally ridiculous," says Michael Ross, manager of Norton Lilley Lines, reflecting the attitude of many Panama City shipping executives.

For one thing, critics say Colombia's canal, traversing perhaps 240 miles versus 50 for Panama's, would cost more than Samper allows - by one estimate $45 billion, or twice Colombia's current foreign debt.

And the market for "post-Panamax" ships, those too large to fit through the Panama canal, is slim, analysts say. About 35 container ships are too big to use the canal, and 60 more are under construction. But many of these have routes that don't take them from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa. As for tankers, a transisthmus oil pipeline in northern Panama recently closed, reflecting a decline in demand.

Though scoffing at talk of Colombia, Costa Rica, or Guatemala creating economically viable canals, Panamanians are laying plans to improve their own trademark waterway.

The Galliard Cut - currently the narrowest part of the canal - is being widened to allow traffic to flow in both directions simultaneously. Currently, canal traffic is near the 50 ships per day that the waterway can handle. …

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