Posted January 29,2022
Our fourth Viking port of call was the country of Panama, at the port of its huge modern capital, Panama City. Panama originally was part of its Southern neighbor Columbia. But American “gunboat diplomacy” separated Panama early in the 20th century into an American “protectorate”. This allowed the US to proceed with the ambitious project of constructing the Panama Canal, whose length of approximately fifty miles qualifies it as one of the greatest engineering projects in human history. President Jimmy Carter initiated the transfer of ownership of the canal from the US to Panama in 1997, which was finalized in 1999. The US withdrew its soldiers but reserved the right to intervene against any threat to the canal.
The Panama Canal currently employs ten thousand Panamanian workers who maintain operations twenty-four hours a day. The locks on the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the canal raise ships from sea level to eighty-five feet above sea level. Spanning the isthmus required the creation of the biggest man-made lake in the world in the previously dry interior of Panama. The huge amount of rocks and soil removed to make the canal was used to create islands off the coast of Panama City, which were used by the American military to house the large contingent of soldiers and workers who constructed and protected the canal early in its history. There are numerous buildings that served as barracks for American troops which were constructed on these canal-debris-landfill-islands. In fact, the Viking Star is docked at a new facility still under construction on one of these artificial islands.
The original canal locks had to be enlarged to accommodate the huge container ships that now deliver goods to and from China and other foreign manufacturers. Indeed, due to their expertise and available capital, the locks at both ends of the canal are managed by a Chinese company. Our Panamanian tour guide strongly denied that the assertion that the canal is “run by the Chinese.” The canal earns over three billion dollars/year from an average of forty ships/day that pay an average toll of approximately three hundred thousand dollars. Based on the size, the maximum toll paid by the largest ships is over a million dollars each to transit the canal in one direction!
Viking offered several excursions for its passengers, including a Panama City tour, a Panama Canal tour, a crocodile viewing tour, and a gondola ride over the rain forest. We chose the rain forest tour, which took us to a national park which adjoins the canal and a large river which feeds the upper level of the canal. It is the only river in the world whose waters reach both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Panamanian rain forest is close to sea level, as opposed to Costa Rica’s mountain forests. Thus, the vegetation was somewhat different in Panama. But like Costa Rica, the Panamanian rain forest is home to many species of orchids, birds, and animals. For the first time ever, we saw a sloth sleeping high up in a tree close to the parking lot. Our tour included the gondola ride, ascending a ten-story observation tower, and three special reserves housing orchids, butterflies, and sloths.
Sloths are peculiar animals that sleep during the day hanging from trees. They move very slowly, and thus their name has taken on a negative meaning in the English language. They eat leaves and perhaps insects, managing to escape predators by staying high above in the trees. The sloths in the national park reserve are “rescue sloths,” meaning that they are tame (from being fed by their keepers) and thus are not prepared to survive in the wild.
From 1983-89, Panama was ruled by a dictator, Manual Noriega. Noriega had assumed power following the death of the previous dictator in a mysterious plane crash. In the 1989 election, Noriega was defeated by a popular opponent by a margin of three to one. Noriega promptly annulled the election, citing massive US interference and embarked on new repression. When Noriega was charged with drug trafficking, the American military intervened to depose him. I remember at the time, when Noriega had barricaded himself into a fortress-like building, the American military played obnoxious rock music at a loud volume for days on end, until Noriega, cut off from food and supplies, finally capitulated. He was sentenced to forty years and died in prison after twenty-seven years. Following Noriega’s imprisonment, the US government installed the popular political leader who had won the vote in the 1989 election. [Source-Wikepedia.org]
Panama shows more visible sign of its previous American occupation than any other country I’ve ever visited. We can count Panama as a successful military intervention (unlike Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan) in which the US army deposed a dictator and reestablished a democratic government. English is taught to all school children from a young age. Panama has a high level of economic development and prosperity based on the tremendous earnings of the canal. Many American corporations are established in Panama, such as what our tour guide called “the second American embassy,” McDonalds.
Like Costa Rica, Panama does not have a military. Starting at the beginning of the 19th century with the Monroe Doctrine, the US has always had the policy of using its military forces to exert control and oppose governments that the US doesn’t support. Examples of this include the fifty-plus-year economic blockade of Cuba, the invasion of Granada, and the support for the Nicaraguan Contras during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Though ownership of the canal was transferred from the US to Panama in1999 under president Jimmy Carter, there can be no doubt that the American military would be quick to send in the military in the future should any country or group seek to interfere with the Panama Canal’s functioning.
Below, enjoy some orchid photos from the Panamanian Nature Reserve’s Orchid Garden: