I recently watched an anchor on CNN get into an argument with a grown man dressed in a boy-scouts’ uniform. The two were arguing over the merits of gay boy scouts and scout leaders. I got to thinking: is this the state of debate and concern in the US? Sure, this is just one of many issues that captures hearts and minds but it’s indicative of a huge problem. While not necessarily political, the gay boy scouts debate is part of a patchwork quilt of concerns about US life. And, we often fail to see how that quilt covers things outside of our borders.
What if I told you about a magical place, where a country’s government and electorate overwhelmingly agreed on something that not only made sense for them but for the world? That place might be Panama.
The people in Panama seem to know their numbers. The average person in this country makes $15,000 (€11,460) a year. A container ship that crosses from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Panama Canal can pay as much as $400,000 (€305,000) for it. Each year the country takes in $1bn (€764m) in transport fees. This information was gleaned from not one but two different drivers as I made my way around the country this past week. Had they all been briefed?
A 2006 referendum showed that more than 77 per cent of the electorate voted to expand the Panama Canal, making way for ships that don’t currently fit. The case for expansion was fairly straightforward – not accommodating the big ships meant them going elsewhere, which meant lost revenue.
The cost of the much-anticipated canal expansion is $5.25bn (€4.01bn). Most locals say it is money well-spent.
Beyond the money, it’s a move that preserves not just Panama but the balance of trade in the world. An enhanced continental shortcut is a Pan-American promise and it shows that Panama is done relying on its partners to keep the nation going.
When the US handed over control of the Panama Canal in 1999 it was symbolic. The small central-American country had always struggled to truly be recognised by the world. For the better part of modern times, some other nation had propped this place up. That’s no longer the case. People here have tasted self-made prosperity. From the tour guides to the politicians, Panamanians are speaking the same language and touting the same numbers. Which is a lesson in itself.
Panamanians may be a long way from arguing the merits of gay role models for kids, but at least they’ve come to terms on something that means a better future for many.
Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle.