08/06/2014 07:02 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

The Panama Canal - Part 1 of 3

Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.

Theodore Roosevelt

It will soon be 100 years since the opening of the Panama Canal, a feat of engineering that still amazes us, and even as we speak it is undergoing expansion. In this blog entry I would like to share some extensive thinking on this subject that I will publish in three parts.

The complex labyrinth of events that led to the building of the canal represented a great human odyssey from which we can draw innumerable lessons. On August 3, 1914, a date very close to the outbreak of World War I, the Cristobal, ship carrying cement, unceremoniously undertook the maiden voyage through the canal and a few days later, on August 15, the Ancon was present for the official opening. Last year I had the opportunity to read the fantastic book by David McCullough entitled The Path Between the Seas, which in its more than 600 pages chronicles the monumental work of engineering, policy decisions, and financial arrangements required to build the Panama Canal.

This book, which is really three books in one, tells us of: the period of 1870-1874, when thanks to the unbreakable will of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, the colossal work was begun to study the possible routes and build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a dream present since the time of the Spanish conquest; the period between 1874 and 1900, when the project headed by France practically drew to a halt and through the efforts of another well-known figure of the day, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the United States followed up on the idea of building the trans-isthmus canal, instigating the "independence of Panama" through quite questionable means, and the launching and conclusion of project by the rising world power. Let's take a closer look.

Vision and lauching (1870 - 1874)

One of the recurring themes of this book is the epic leadership of some important figures of the day. One of them is precisely Ferdinand de Lesseps, who became something of a national hero in France after projecting, promoting, and building the Suez Canal. Not content with this huge achievement, De Lesseps took on the task of building another canal, this time in Panama.

The dream of a route that would connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean dates back from the time of the Spanish colonization, but by 1850 the idea of a canal was gradually gaining strength, especially in the United States, where this project was considered a question of national security.

Specifically, three places in the Western Hemisphere with the potential to be the site for an inter-oceanic canal in the hemisphere were explored: the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. Each of them offered advantages and disadvantages based on the low technological standards of the 19th century.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec had the appeal of its proximity to the United States, but the distance that would have to be dug between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean was the greatest of the three locations. Some leading figures of the day in Mexico were major promoters of this Project.

In the opinion of most of the engineers and politicians in the United States, a canal in Nicaragua was the most advantageous of all the locations, for several reasons. It would have been closer to the United States than Panama; it could count on the unrestricted support provided by the Nicaraguan government, and thanks to Lake Nicaragua the amount of land that would have to be dug and removed was considerably less than in the other locations.

Even though the Isthmus of Panama offered the least linear distance between the two oceans, it was not without great difficulties. These included a mountainous massif in the Cordillera de San Blas which made it very difficult to build a canal at sea level, an impenetrable jungle, the Chagres river, one of the largest rivers of Central America and two deadly diseases, malaria and yellow fever, also known as black vomit for which even today there is still no cure. The latter two factors represented insurmountable obstacles for De Lesseps who was unable to complete his dream. Along the way he spent millions of francs and bankrupted thousands of families.

De Lesseps failed for several reasons. First of all, he was blinded by his dream of building a canal at sea level, in contrast to a lock canal, a schema that doubled the cost. Although the U.S. government also considered the possibility of building a sea-level canal, in the end it concluded that this was not a realistic proposal, due to the inability of diverting the Chagres River in the rainy season and the huge mountain range blocking the route.

Instead, decades later, engineers in the United States decided that the best way to deal with the Chagres River was by using its massive strength and taking advantage of its waters, building a dam and a manmade lake, which is today known as Gatun Lake. This important possibility was raised with De Lesseps since he first presented his project to the French Geographical Society in 1879. However, he soon ruled it out due to his perseverance in building a canal at sea level. The other cause of DeLesseps' failure was the previously mentioned terrible tropical diseases, which claimed the lives of thousands of workers.

The colossal failure of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was one of the biggest scandals in global financial history, directly affecting 800,000 people who had pawned their assets, intently following De Lesseps'.

Part 1 of 3.