The Panama Canal as a mobility infrastructure represents a variety of ideas that can often contradict one another and actually exemplify the canal’s importance beyond its basic function of facilitating commerce. I approached the Panama canal from a historical point of view in an attempt to explore “how infrastructures provide new perspectives of politics of contemporary social relations” (Harvey and Knox, 2015, p.4). The ultimate aim here is to see how this supposedly progressive infrastructure that allows mobility between the two largest oceans has politically and socially shaped Panama.
Interestingly, despite the fact that the canal is still considered as one of the most ambitious engineering projects in history, it was created due to political reasons rather than economic or practical ones. Primarily, it was built to demonstrate to the world that the U.S. could intervene and take land abroad just like any other imperial power of the time. In fact, in order to build the canal the U.S. pushed for the creation of the Panama state itself by taking land away from Colombia. The use of Panamanian land by the U.S. to build the canal was resented by the Panamanians, however they were powerless against what was at the time the most industrialised country in the world.
Already, a few contrasting political themes emerge in relation to this canal: it is evident that the canal is intimately linked to Panamanian’s own national identity, whilst it is also a symbol for the Panamanian people’s initial oppression. The canal’s ambitious construction went on to symbolise U.S.’s newfound imperial power and even the idea of progress. Being aware of this history allows us to go beyond the common assumption that infrastructures are apolitical entities. This is further exemplified in the canal’s long history of social inequality.
When the canal was first constructed, it separated its labor into well-paid U.S. citizens who carried out high-skill labour and badly paid Caribbean immigrants to carried out the dangerous low-skilled jobs. Fast forward one hundred years later, we find that this inequality is maintained, but through new actors. Now that the US has handed over the canal to Panama, it is the Panamanian elites who profit from the canal revenue, rather than the vast majority of Panama’s population. Consequently, most Panamanians feel disillusioned about this, knowing that historically they never benefited from the canal earnings, despite the infrastructure being the pride of their country.
The final result? Through examining the Panama Canal as a typical “project of modernisation and integration” (Harvey and Knox, 2015, p.7) that implies socio-political change we can spot some obvious contrasts between expectation and reality. Instead of commercial integration in international markets this infrastructure also caused social segregation and the promotion of imperialist ideologies. Thus, it can be said that the Panama Canal as infrastructure provides us with a new perspective as to why contemporary Panama is the way it is today.
Harvey and Knox (2015) Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
n.a., 2014. History of the Panama Canal : Documentary on Building the Panama Canal (Full Documentary). Youtube. Available at: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-CaBIKTl4M [Accessed January 20, 2017]
Padgett, T., 2014. Panama’s Canal Divides A Country Into Haves And Have-Nots. NPR. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/05/30/317394468/panamas-canal-divides-a-country-into-haves-and-have-nots [Accessed January 20, 2017].