Over one hundred years ago, the US influenced the creation of the independent nation of Panama as a means of undertaking the construction of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While the Panama Canal was an engineering and commercial triumph, it also introduced tension between the people of Panama and the US. Join Active Minds as we discuss the history of Panama's journey out of the shadow of the US, as well as gain an understanding of Panama today.

Key Lecture Points

  • The nation of Panama is located at the strategically crucial isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, forming the narrowest piece of land separating North and South America.  For centuries, humans aspired to create a man-made connection of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in this place.
  • In 1903, the US took advantage of a civil war in the region to foment the creation of an independent Panama. Under the US-supported leadership of a French engineer, Phillippe Bunau-Varilla, the newly independent Panama granted the US in perpetuity a 10-mile wide strip of land for constructing a canal. In 1904, the US began what would be a ten-year effort to construct the Panama Canal, facing the challenges of disease and difficult working conditions.  Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal is a 52-mile conduit that currently allows 15,000 ships per year to reach from one ocean to another without having to sail under South America.
  • From 1914 on, the US maintained sovereignty over the Canal and the Zone surrounding it. Under pressure from a resentful Panamanian populace, the US began to give up that sovereignty in 1977. In 1999, the US officially handed sovereignty of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government.
  • As of 2006, almost 40% of the world’s container ships were too large for the canal. In 2007, the Panamanian government launched a $5.25 billion, seven-year project to update and improve the canal. The project was completed in 2016 and has doubled the capacity of the canal.
  • A prolonged drought, due to climate change, threatens the stable operation of the Panama Canal.
  • Panama, whose economy has benefited enormously from the canal, has also faced problems with corruption and scandal as the country’s lax regulation and canal-related financial services industry made it an attractive “tax haven” for shell companies, money launderers, and dictators.

Exploration Questions

  • What motivated people and countries to sacrifice so much for the building of the Panama Canal?
  • How did the building of the canal affect the people of Panama? The country of Panama?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your thoughts about how the United States has handled its involvement with the canal?
  • Have you passed through the Panama Canal? What impressed you most about the canal?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon & Schuster, 1978.  698 pages. The author chronicles the creation of the Panama Canal.
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  • Buckley, Kevin.  Panama. Touchstone, 1992.  304 pages.  A detailed journalistic accounting of the US involvement with Panama during the regime of Manuel Noriega.
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