Past, Present and Future of the Panama Canal

President Jimmy Carter applauds and General Omar Torrijos waves after the signing and exchange of treaties in Panama City on June 16, 1978, giving control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 2000. At far right is Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor. (AP Photo)

Remarks by
Ambassador Francisco O. Mora
September 7, 2023

Madam Chair, esteemed guests, and colleagues,

Today, we gather to celebrate a marvel of human engineering and ingenuity that has connected continents, facilitated global trade, and shaped the course of history—the Panama Canal.

This remarkable waterway stands as a testament to human determination, innovation, and cooperation. Moreover, it offers us profound insights into the intertwined themes of heritage, environmental stewardship, and the imperative for global collaboration in the face of pressing challenges.

The Panama Canal, often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” is a monumental achievement that has transformed the way we connect and trade. Its importance transcends infrastructure; it’s a symbol of human ambition that bridges oceans and economies.

This waterway, spanning 51 miles, is a lifeline for international commerce, cutting the journey between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and shortening travel distances for ships that traverse its waters. It is the beating heart of global trade, facilitating the movement of goods and resources on an unprecedented scale.

The enduring relationship between the United States and the development of the Panama Canal stands as a testament to both of our nations’ shared history and collaborative efforts in shaping global infrastructure.

Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States played a pivotal role in the completion of the canal, employing innovative engineering techniques and overcoming immense challenges such as disease and treacherous terrain.

This enduring partnership between the United States and Panama, Chair and colleagues, remains a remarkable example of international cooperation and technological prowess — with the canal remaining a symbol of our interconnected history and mutual achievements.

However, it is crucial that as we admire the canal’s regional and global impact, we also remember and honor the diverse hands that shaped its history. The construction of the Panama Canal was marked by the tireless efforts of countless individuals, many of whom were Afro-descendants.

These unsung heroes, who hailed from the Caribbean and beyond, played an integral role in the canal’s creation, often laboring in arduous conditions. Their contributions were essential, from excavation and transportation to the development of critical infrastructure. Despite facing racial segregation and unequal treatment, they persevered, leaving an indelible mark on this engineering marvel.

Colleagues, the historical linkages between the United States and Panama in the development of the Canal extend also to the OAS. One of my predecessors, deLesseps Story Morrison Sr. (sic), known as Chep Morrison, served as U.S. Ambassador to the OAS between 1961 and 1963 under the Kennedy Administration. He was a descendant of Ferdinand de Lesseps – the French diplomat and developer of the Suez Canal who championed the initial effort to build a Panama Canal at sea level during the 1880s.

And, of course, the Torrijos–Carter Treaties were signed in this Hall of the Americas 46 years ago today. The treaties were negotiated on the part of the United States by two other predecessors of mine — Ellsworth Bunker and Sol Linowitz – along with Bob Pastor, who later served at the Carter Center. The OAS played a crucial role in facilitating negotiations and providing the platform for the treaties’ signing, contributing to greater regional stability and goodwill.

President Carter was pivotal in lobbying our U.S. Congress to ratify the treaties in spring 1978, ensuring as a result that Panama would regain control of the canal after 1999. Ultimately, on December 31, 1999, the Canal was peacefully transferred to Panama, with Carter representing the United States at the historic ceremony, marking a significant moment in the history of the canal and our regional relations.

Madam Chair, several years after the Treaties were signed, Carter would write in Time magazine, “Were the treaties worth what we paid for them? There is no doubt that the answer is “Yes!” We are a nation that believes in equality, justice, honesty and truth.” His observation remains as true today as it did then.

Yet, as we reflect on the past, we must also confront the challenges of the present and future. In particular, the Panama Canal’s security has been linked to ongoing concerns such as piracy, smuggling, and potential terrorist threats, further underscoring the need for our collaborative security efforts to ensure its safe operation and the stability of our region.

Climate change, a defining issue of our time, also casts a shadow over the very waterway that has united us. Rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and shifting ecosystems pose threats to the Panama Canal’s operations.

As we gather today, we are called to recognize that environmental conservation is not a distant concern but a present imperative. The canal, which once tamed nature’s barriers, now finds itself vulnerable to the changing forces of nature.

In this context, our continued cooperation is paramount. Just as various nations united to build the canal, so must we come together to address the impacts of climate change and safeguard this vital conduit of global trade. So let’s reaffirm our shared responsibility to mitigate the effects of climate change and protect our environment for generations to come.

In closing, the Panama Canal stands as a symbol of human achievement and strong bilateral cooperation between the United States and Panama. It beckons us to recognize the power of diverse contributions, the urgency of environmental protection, and the strength of Inter-American collaboration.

Let us remember the sacrifices of those who labored in its creation and honor their legacy by protecting the canal for generations to come. Thank you very much.