Ambassador of Panama to Türkiye Mariela Sagel marked the 45th anniversary of the Torrijos-Carter treaties, which paved the way for the country to gain control of the Panama Canal, and also detailed the historic struggle involved.
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Sagel said Panamanians are proud to have gained control of the canal and there have been several businesses that have developed around the waterway, including ports and logistics that support a very dynamic economy around the canal.
She reiterated that the construction of the canal was started by the French company that had also built the Suez Canal in 1888, but its attempt failed. The United States initiated talks with Colombia, of which Panama was part at the time, to restart the project, but the negotiations were rejected by the Colombian government.
In 1977, the Panama Canal treaties, calling for the U.S. to eventually turn over control of the waterway to Panama, were signed in Washington by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos.
“The United States, which has always seen Panama as a strategic land for its interests on the continent, started to negotiate a contract with Colombia to continue works on the canal, but Colombia rejected it.
«At the time, Panama was the forgotten province of Colombia and there was unrest and dissatisfaction among the Panamanians. So, there was a desire to be independent of Colombia.
«Later, ways were sought to gain support from the United States for independence, while it was agreed that Washington could continue to build the canal in return, a treaty was signed – one that did not include a Panamanian signatory,” the ambassador highlighted.
Explaining that the treaty for the canal included several privileges for the United States, Sagel said: “Besides building the canal, the United States also had the right to control 5 miles along one side and 5 miles of the canal on the other.”
“That actually created a colony. This was called the Canal Zone,” Sagel said, indicating that the Americans had everything ranging from their own governor, jails, markets, police and post offices. For them it was like a paradise, Sagel said, “They had benefits they did not even enjoy in the United States,” including houses, cars and long vacations.
“Panamanians started to complain and saw the disadvantages the situation created for the country. The city of Panama is on one side, and the rest of the country is on the other side – so you have to cross the Canal Zone and we were not allowed to go to the zone.”
So, a long struggle for control of the canal started in the country against the U.S., Sagel said.
“In 1964, something happened that broke the chain of events.”
She explained that students one day crossed the border to the Canal Zone in an act of protest that lasted around four days. Some 22 Panamanians and four U.S. citizens were killed in the protests against U.S. management of the canal.
“The president at that the time suspended diplomatic relations with the United States. He said he would not reinitiate relations until he got the promise of a new treaty,” Sagel said.
After Torrijos took office, he made it his mission to change things, she added, saying he engaged in agricultural and educational reforms.
“He designated the best negotiators and traveled around the world to gain support,” Sagel said about Torrijos’ efforts, which led to the signing of the treaty with Carter – an event which was attended by all Latin American leaders and others as well as famous figures such as Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“In 1977, a 23-year process started to take back all the installations in the Canal Zone, which included 14 military bases. Everything had to be dismantled and integrated properly. It was a process that was very well organized. Panama had to be in the position to administer the canal – that meant also to train people, to identify good professionals to be administrators or board directors because until that time the United States ran the canal,” Sagel continued.
She also underlined that under U.S. management, Panama only received $1 million, while 20 years later Panama received almost $2 billion per year.
The Panama Canal is also the biggest employer of the country and has significant economic implications. Along with related economic activity, the canal is responsible for about 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The canal revolutionized global sea traffic by shortening long voyages around Cape Horn on the tip of South America.
She said that one important aspect was also that the canal was not put under the control of the government and was therefore not politicized or influenced by elections or other political upheavals.
Sagel also drew attention to the importance of mediation and negotiations in international events and said that this is more important now as the world faces the Ukraine-Russia war.
“Türkiye has also become a successful mediator and is trying to establish an agreement between the two conflicting countries.”
Saying that Panama and Türkiye enjoy positive ties, Sagel also said that Turkish Airlines (THY) flies daily to the country, contributing to relations.
Sagel also pointed out Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Panama in April and said that agreements were signed in the fields of tourism and commercial and economic issues.
“We have other agreements coming,” she said.