Local port shouldn’t be hurt by Panama Canal’s new status

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 1999

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / December 15, 1999

LAPLACE – The Panama Canal becomes truly Panamanian on Dec. 31. That’sthe day, according to the controversial treaty inked in 1977 by then- President Jimmy Carter, ownership of the canal is given up by the United States after 85 years.

For the Port of South Louisiana, encompassing St. Charles, St. John theBaptist and St. James parishes, the long-range impact will most likely beminimal, according to interim port director Don Hays.

In 1998, 63.4 million tons of bulk cargo left the port. Sixty percent of thatpassed through the canal on its way to Far Eastern trade partners. PacificRim customers also get 38 million tons of grain from local grain elevators in the port.

Some observers fear that much of that trade could instead go to West Coast ports, as shipping costs could skyrocket, depending on continued U.S.access to the canal by Panamanian authorities.

On the other hand, Hays said, the Port of South Louisiana on the Mississippi River provides a matchless front porch into the American heartland, unrivaled by the West Coast transportation infrastructure.

“The West Coast is already jammed up with railroads. Barges are still themost economical way to transport grain and containers,” Hays observed.

The turnover is a critical one in world history, Hays agreed.

“It’s like the turnover of Hong Kong to the Chinese,” he commented.

However, Hays added, concerns about management or security at the canal will prompt the United States to keep a close eye on matters there.

“I think it’s critical enough so that the U.S. will monitor it,” he said.The Panama Canal had a rocky start. From the time of Balboa, the Spanishexplorer who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean in 1513, it has been the dream to open the Far East to European shipping, saving the time and expense of looping the tip of either South America or Africa.

The first trade route across the Isthmus of Panama was established in 1519 as a mule trail, carrying goods from shore to shore. This operatedfor 16 years before the Changres River was opened up to small-boat navigation, shortening the time for transit. However, this remained thesole method for transporting goods across the Isthmus of Panama for at least 275 years.

The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, provided the motivation to improve transportation across Panama, and the first railroad was opened in 1855 after five years and $8 million of construction by an American company under license by New Granada, of which Panama was then a part.

In 1850, Great Britain and the United States signed a treaty favoring construction of a canal, but the Clayton-Bulwar Treaty, as it was called, was politically unpopular and stifled American involvement for decades.

Meanwhile, in 1879, the Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who earlier built the Suez Canal, formed a company to repeat his success in the Americas.

However, 10 years later, the company collapsed in financial ruin after having built a canal only one-third of the way.

In 1890, President William McKinley formed a commission to study the notion of a canal across Nicaragua because the French company wanted too much money for the rights in Panama. Before long, though, the Frenchreversed themselves and cut the price from $109 million to $40 million.

By this time, Panama was a province of Columbia and a treaty was necessary. One was negotiated, signed by both nations and ratified by theU.S. The Congress of Columbia, though, balked at ratification, and othermeans came to hand in 1903.

The Panamania Revolution that same year booted out the Columbian government and, backed by U.S. gunboats and a constitution and flagprovided by friendly Americans, the new nation promptly agreed to a new treaty. In May 1904, construction began. At the same time, U.S. Armysurgeons successfully conquered yellow fever and malaria. The canalfinally opened on Aug. 15, 1914.The entire length of the canal, from deep water Atlantic to deep water Pacific, is about 50 miles. From shoreline to shoreline is about 40 miles.The official seal of the Isthmian Canal Commission carried to motto: “The Land Divided. The World United.”

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