Panama to expand canal

PANAMA CITY, Panama — PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Panamanian voters overwhelmingly approved yesterday a $5.2-billion proposal to expand the country's national treasure, the Panama Canal.

With 64 percent of votes counted, ballots in favor of the project led those opposed, 78.7 percent to 21.3 percent, prompting Panama's electoral tribunal to declare the "yes" vote victorious. That gave the green light to the first major modification to the 50-mile waterway since it opened in 1914.


President Martin Torrijos staked his considerable popularity on voters approving the proposal, which he described in a recent interview as the "chance of a lifetime" for Panama. In a telephoned response to the tribunal's declaration last night, broadcast over Panamanian television, Torrijos called the vote a victory for Panamanian democracy and the nation's future.

Little construction is planned over the next several months as the Panama Canal Authority, the quasi-independent administrative body, prepares an environmental impact report and final construction blueprints. But the project is expected to take eight years and create 7,000 jobs, with employment for thousands of people tied indirectly to the proposal.


By late next year, excavation will begin on the expansion's single largest component: a four-mile bypass of the southernmost locks of the canal to permit the passage of container ships capable of carrying 8,000 shipboard containers, or twice the cargo that fits through the existing waterway. On the Caribbean side, the new shipping lane will occupy a partially completed trench excavated from 1939 to 1942.

Later, two sets of parallel locks half again wider and longer than the existing sets will be built.

"Panamanians have taken a courageous vote, and the canal authority will use all its resources to meet their expectations," Ricaurte Vasquez, the canal authority's board chairman, said in an interview yesterday.

Torrijos' government has promised voters that the expanded canal and the added ship traffic would make Panama the "Singapore of South America."

Panamanian and international investors expect the project to stimulate economic growth. The vote is expected to touch off several private and public construction projects that have been in abeyance until the balloting.

Dozens of high-rise office and residential towers are planned for the capital, including three structures over 80 stories tall. The canal's sixth container port, west of the Pacific entrance, is also expected to go forward, at an estimated cost of $600 million.

The government is expected to ask Panama's congress to approve hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new sewage system to clean up highly polluted Panama Bay, which fronts the capital. The money also would fund a four-lane highway to connect Panama City, on the Pacific, with the city of Colon on the Caribbean side.

Fill dirt from the bypass excavation would be used to build a highway called the Coastal Strip, across Panama Bay.


But some analysts worry that expectations about the project's positive effects are unrealistically high, with too many Panamanians viewing the canal expansion as a cure-all for a country where an estimated 40 percent of the population is living below the poverty line.

The government faces daunting social problems, including unemployment, substandard education and a troubled health care system.

"The expansion will raise the stakes for Panama's democracy because in a few years, when the project is finished, it will be unacceptable to say that the Panamanian state does not have the resources to improve the conditions of the people," said Jorge Giannareas, professor of constitutional law and consultant to UNICEF in Panama.

Interviews yesterday morning with a dozen voters at polling places around Panama City reflected strong support and optimism for the measure.

"I voted 'yes' for my grandchild. She will be one to fill the professional jobs that the expansion creates, not me," retired government worker Rosa Garcia said in Chorrillo. "I voted for globalization, for progress."

Although he thinks the canal should be expanded, accountant Samuel Godoy said he voted 'no' because he had little confidence in the government's ability to manage the project honestly and efficiently.


Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times