Panamanians Wary of Canal Expansion

According to the Panama Canal Authority , (ACP) on July 14, Panama’s National Assembly unanimously approved the proposal to expand the Panama Canal. In addition, the Assembly created and passed a law mandating a national referendum in which the people of Panama will vote to approve expansion. The referendum will be held October 22, 2006, the first Sunday 90 days after the legislation is signed. According to the New York Times , ¨the The 92-year-old Panama Canal, once state of the art, today is a bottleneck. It is slow and congested, and too narrow for modern superships.”

However, many Panamanians are expected to vote against the expansion plan.  This includes Tomás Drohan, the recently retired as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Authority, who is a critic of the expansion plan.  He, along with many other Pananamians, predicts the project will cost more than the $5.2 billion government estimate. ”He also says he is sure that the corruption that pervades the upper reaches of Panamanian society will find its way into this megaproject, which is almost as large as the country’s annual $6.5 billion budget.”   26 yr old student leader Razne Pette agrees: ”We know the politicians in this country, and we know they are drooling.” The canal, transferred to Panamanian control in 1999, is seen by many Panamanians as a resource, like Venezuelan oil, but the 40% of Panamanians who live in poverty do not feel that they are benefiting.  

Engineer Harry Díaz Strunz comments in an article written for ”What defines this project is that it is NOT for the STATE, but it IS for the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) [and the] ACP.¨ He also points to pages 40 and 41 of the Canal Authority´s proposal, noting that ACP documentation shows that the use of existing sluices could be maximized to allow as much nocturnal as daily use.  BY adding lights to the channels and sluice gates, widening the Corte Culebra section of the canal, deepening the channels and other changes could augment capacity by 9 to 11 passages a day, claims Días Strunz.  After these improvements, he asserts, the canal would not meet capacity for the next 15 years.  He says that more time is needed to find qualified construction firms, and to provide citizens with a transparent and complete version of costs involved before the referendum.   ”To vote YES, is to sign a blank check,” he writes.  ”Obviously, the logical procedure would take approximately two and a half years, but the government of the PRD can’t wait that long because they would lose the presidency.”  


According to La Prensa, president Martín Torrijos has announced that ”Neither the government, nor the PRD, nor Martín Torrijos are looking to make political profits from the expansion of the canal.”   Torrijos has renewed promises to construct the Panamá-Colón Highway and to build a hospital, as well as obtaining a 25 million dollar loan for programs to prevent juvenile delinquency.  The issue has lead to political battles with the Panamanian Society of Engineers and Architects (S.P.I.A.), in which the government has ignored the reports prepared by the politically active society.  

An alternative proposal, the  " Report to the Country: About our Canal and our Megaport. For Our National Development Now!  Alternative Uses of the Surplus Canal.”  According to one supporter, the report demolishes the government plan by using the same data, and according to another, by asking   ”Why not use the enormous surplus canal to construct a Megaport that would be property of the state, (and not of transnational naval companies as the government is planning and has announce) and to carry out the actions that were suggested by the five SPIA experts to create more than 175, 000 permanent jobs, attend to the urgent situations of education, health, city security and, as if it were a little thing, to promote the internal demand of Panamanian businesses passed over by the ultra liberalization driven by the last two presidents under the rules of the most orthodox neoliberal catechism.”