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Vol. 78/No. 32      September 15, 2014

Panama Canal expansion
underscores trade rivalry
(feature article)

PANAMA CITY — The Panama Canal, one of the most impressive feats in history of human labor and a triumph of engineering, began operation 100 years ago. A yearlong program of activities here marking the centennial of this strategic international waterway has been more than a commemoration of the accomplishment of the canal’s place in Panama’s history. It has reflected the deep pride among the Panamanian people in their century-plus struggle to get the U.S. imperialist boot off their neck.

At the same time, an expansion of the canal currently nearing completion provides a window into intensifying rivalries among capitalist powers worldwide today — and the class struggles their competition is already generating.

Among the centennial events was the commemoration of a related anniversary: 160 years since the arrival in Panama of the first shipload of Chinese indentured workers. Laboring under conditions of virtual slavery in the mid-1850s, these bonded workers helped build a predecessor to the canal, the Panama Railroad, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts nearly 15 years before the opening of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad.

An Aug. 6-9 regional conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas, which focused on Chinese in the history of the Americas, was one of the activities timed to coincide with the anniversary. The gathering was organized to help participants learn about the history of this strategically located country.

Washington controlled the canal and the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone that divides the country in half from 1903 until the end of 1999, when these were turned over to Panamanian jurisdiction under the 1977 treaties signed by Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos and U.S. President James Carter.

Today the 48-mile waterway remains a major trade link, providing passage for up to 14,000 ships a year — about 5 percent of international shipping.

The anniversary celebrations come at a time when a massive project is underway to expand the Panama Canal’s capacity in order to accommodate a new generation of giant container ships. Completion of a new set of locks, scheduled for the end of 2015, will change international trade and shipping patterns. The scramble among capitalist rivals for who will win and lose in the sharpening competition has already begun.

From the visitors observation center at the Gatún Locks, on the Caribbean side of the canal, Militant reporters witnessed the huge scope of the expansion project, initial work on which had begun in the early years of World War II. When completed, it will double the tonnage that can be shipped through the seaway.

Many of today’s freighters — as well as battleships and aircraft carriers — are too large to go through the canal’s two sets of locks, so they must take alternate, more costly routes. Chinese superfreighters, for example, currently dock at U.S. and Canadian ports on the West Coast and the cargo is shipped cross-country by rail or truck.

The third set of locks, now under construction alongside the existing ones, will provide a wider and deeper lane for larger military vessels, cruise liners and super-size cargo ships bearing up to 12,800 containers each.

Altered world shipping patterns

The canal expansion is fueling fierce competition among capitalist shipping companies and owners of port facilities around the world. The United States and China are the two principal users of the Panama Canal, based on tonnage and point of origin.

Many U.S. harbors, from the West Coast to New Jersey, Miami and New Orleans, are being deepened and their port infrastructure upgraded in the high-stakes drive to accommodate the mega-freighters. Owners of U.S. West Coast port facilities have stepped up their drive against the wages and conditions of longshore workers, truckers and other port personnel in an effort to be more competitive.

The government of Egypt recently announced an $8.4 billion project to expand the rival Suez Canal. The Nicaraguan government has endorsed a plan by a Chinese company to build a waterway across its territory. And Panamanian authorities are studying a proposal by another Chinese company to dig a fourth set of locks along the existing canal route capable of handling even larger freighters.

The canal expansion has also spurred a wave of construction in Panama in the past half-decade, fueled by hopes of turning Panama into a new center of capitalist finance and trade. In the capital city, office towers, tourist hotels, and high-rise condominiums have been going up, a new subway system opened its first line this year, and a beltway has been built along the shoreline to ease traffic congestion. The resulting demand for labor is attracting workers from across the region and as far away as Spain.

As a result of these economic and social changes, the working class in Panama is growing. Expectations of better living standards are rising.

In April 70,000 striking construction workers, organized by the SUNTRACS union, shut down the canal expansion and other building projects in Panama for two weeks. Workers on canal construction and other big projects won an 11 percent raise and further increases over the next three years. Until then, many skilled workers on the canal project earned $3.99 an hour.

The commemorations of the Panama Canal centennial have offered a reminder of the pivotal role of the waterway’s construction in the consolidation of finance capital and the rise of the U.S. as an imperialist power. Participants in the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas conference got a better grasp of that history — including the place within it of Chinese workers — through several conference panel discussions as well as visits to the canal.

Conference on Chinese in Americas

Titled “From the South of China to the South of America,” the conference brought together about 100 people, mostly academic researchers studying international Chinese migration over the last two centuries. A majority were from North America and several Latin American and Caribbean countries, with others coming from Asia and Europe.

Panelists covered a range of topics, from “Canadian Immigration Policies and Chinese Students’ Migration Intentions” to “Chinese-Mexican Resistance During the 1930s Anti-Chinese Campaign in Tampico” and “The Struggle Against Anti-Chinese Racism in Cuba and the United States, 1865 to Today.”

About a dozen presentations discussed the history of the Chinese in Panama. Several Panamanian panelists highlighted the fact that at least 5 percent of this nation’s population is of Chinese descent — one of the highest in Latin America.

Hosted by Chinese-Panamanian associations, conference participants were taken to several sites around Panama City and at the canal. A high point was an Aug. 8 trip to the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, where the observation deck affords a view of the huge freighters navigating through the channel’s gates. At the visitors center, a four-story museum documents the history of the canal.

A special ceremony that evening inaugurated an exhibit on “The Chinese Presence in Panama” that will become a permanent addition to the museum. In attendance were leaders of the local Chinese community and top government officials, including Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela. One of the speakers at the event, Mario Him, a leader of the Association of Chinese-Panamanian Professionals, noted with pride that the new display was the fruit of an eight-year campaign by Panamanians of Chinese descent to gain official recognition of the place of the Chinese in the historic undertaking to build an interoceanic route.

A centerpiece of this display is a replica of the Sea Witch, the U.S. clipper ship that 160 years ago — on March 30, 1854 — brought 705 indentured workers from the Chinese port of Swatow (today Shantou) to labor under brutal conditions on the construction of the trans-Panama railroad, which was completed in 1855.

The museum illustrates how the effort to build a short route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, spurred initially by the 1848 discovery of gold in California, culminated with the opening of the U.S.-run Panama Canal nearly 70 years later.
Related articles:
Centennial highlights canalís place in rise of imperialism, struggle against US domination
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