Harrington, The Panama Canal and international media


The scant coverage of PanCanal woes in international media

by Kevin Harrington-Shelton

It is hardly surprising that the Panama Canal expansion´s travails have received scant coverage in international media: from its onset it has been shrouded in secrecy. And this has damaged both Panama’s democracy and its sustainable economic development.

The canal is one of the few things in Panama which does not defy logic. Working with — rather than against — nature, tropical rainfall is gathered into a man made lake in the highlands, and then eased downward onto either ocean by gravity, carrying with it the oceangoing vessels. Its expansion follows the same logic — for larger ships. 

The cause of Its travails lies elsewhere. The current canal (begun in 1904) was financed by the US Federal Treasury. In 1881 the (failed) French effort had relied on private shareholders. The expansion (2006) is to be financed by shippers using the international public utility, rather than opting for widespread ownership giving Panamanian investors a stake in their country´s future (in the manner Egypt financed its own expansion in the Suez canal). To a man, Panamanian politicians preferred to retain their short leash on the pork barrel. But, as the $5 billion expansion here was intended to kickstart some $60 billion in public works abroad (as major ports improved existing facilities to handle the wider and longer ships for which the expansion was designed), its international media profile has been kept intentionally low.

Perceived corruption has hampered the expansion from day one. The 2009 international public tender was a fracas, with disparities so huge as to inferr that it was hardly at arm’s length. The executed contracts have never been made public, despite repeated freedom of information requests. As The Economist reported, Bechtel, one of the losers, suggested the winning consortium’s bid would barely cover the costs of the cement involved. This proved prescient, as cement quality did indeed pose technical problems from commencement of works (2010), and last week social media carried photos of widespread leakage in concrete poured into semi-completed locks. None of which were reported in the local press.

Succesive governments since 2006 have flounted the rule of law, disregarding extant legislation which calls for mandatory progress reports to Parliament every six months. And, despite his repeated claims to a transparency patently lacking during former President Ricardo Martinelli’ s allegedly-corrupt administration, no such reports have been rendered since President Juan Carlos Varela took office on 1 July 2014 (see WikiLeaks).

With grass root reactions to governmental corruption a sign of our times, the mounting erosion in president Varela’s credibility bodes ill for Panama.


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