Disease. Death. Bankruptcy. That’s how the Panama Canal got started. At the time, the nineteenth century, trade and economic activity boomed in this part of the world and with it, other nations tried to cash in. As the U.S., Britain and France competed to assert their influence in the region, they ran into one problem: land. They didn’t have a way to ship goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific without making the treacherous and lengthy journey around the tip of Cape Horn in South America. All three nations knew there was a need for a shorter sea lane connecting the two oceans. Unfortunately, the French got there first.
In 1881, the French sent veteran builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, who oversaw the successful construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, to build a canal in Panama (then a province of Columbia). In the first nine years of construction, the French spent hundreds of millions of dollars, lost 20,000 workers to malaria and yellow fever and only completed eleven miles of the canal. The project went bankrupt and failed. The dream of a connection between east and west seemed all but dead….then came Teddy Roosevelt. The former Roughrider, knew an opportunity when he saw one and seized upon it.
The U.S. was emerging as a world power and Roosevelt saw that having a shorter route to the Pacific and beyond was a way to expand American Naval Power and Economic opportunity. Such foresight proved correct in WWII. Roosevelt quickly got to work, having his Secretary of State, John Hay negotiate the Hay-Herran Treaty to purchase land in the Columbia province of Panama. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty. But there was a big hiccup: the Columbians wanted more money and refused to approve the treaty.
Roosevelt wasn’t about to be duped and pour more money in the project, perhaps ending up like the French. He knew that the Panamanians wanted the U.S. to complete the 51 mile canal and he knew that they wanted independence. (Some claim that Roosevelt took advantage of the unrest and stirred up Panama’s revolution against the Columbians, but that’s for historians to debate). The U.S. did not get involved in the fight, but helped the Panamanians by sending the gunboat, the U.S.S. Nashville, and ten other warships from both the Atlantic and Pacific to show support. This is now known as “gunboat diplomacy”. Panama’s non-violent coup-de-tat was successful, and the nation of Panama was born. With that, the U.S. and Panama ratified a treaty and construction of the canal began. One revolution, $700 million and ten years later the Panama Canal Zone –now US Territory-was completed in 1914.
Fast forward 99 years. After President Carter returned the canal zone to Panama, it has since maintained control of the security and operation of the canal. Panama has undertaken a critically important expansion of the canal. One that will add a third channel and a new set of locks, allowing larger cargo ships to pass through. Approved in 2006, this new expansion – dubbed PanamEx – will finally completed next year. Surprisingly, no Panamanian chapter of the EPA held it up, and only a few environmental groups opposed. Perhaps it’s a transportation miracle.
Of course, Panama benefits from this widening and deepening of the canal, but so will the United States. The recent implementation of the U.S. – Panama Free Trade Agreement approved by Congress, along with this $5.25 billion canal expansion project, ensures that free trade between the U.S. and Panama will continue to grow. And, because of our geographic location, this expansion will “expand Texas’ position as a global gateway for the nation,” according to the Panama Canal Working Group. That means a huge increase in exports from the gulf coast and our Great State, including the Port of Houston, to countries around the world.
Trade in Texas and Houston drives our economy, and the engine for trade is ports. With that, we’ll see more exports of dry and liquid bulk, agriculture products, coal, petrochemicals, military cargo, and consumer goods. Larger and wider vessels, like tankers carrying liquefied natural gas, will now be able to enjoy quick, reliable transit through the canal. That’s good news for us here in Houston and good news for our State.
Next year, we celebrate 100 years since Roosevelt’s dream became a reality. Thanks to Teddy’s dream, the U.S. built the canal and our economy and security have benefitted from the opportunities that it created. God bless Teddy. And that’s just the way it is.
Congressman Poe is the Chairman of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee and the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional PORTS Caucus.