A century of hard work on the Panama Canal

A century of hard work on the Panama Canal
A worker walks at the Panama Canal expansion project site during an organized tour by the Panama Canal authorities in Panama City

PANAMA CITY - From painter Paul Gauguin's illness-ridden misadventure in the Central American rainforest to tugboat captain Eileen Vinueza's purple nail polish and sneakers, working on the Panama Canal has changed considerably in the past century.

Digging a massive trench across the Isthmus of Panama was grueling work for the men brought in from around the world to build the canal, whose 100th anniversary this Friday is a testament both to the engineering genius of the era and their backbreaking labour.

Historians estimate that more than 27,000 workers died building the canal, mostly of malaria and yellow fever.

One of those who fell ill was post-Impressionist master Gauguin, who took up a job on the canal for several weeks when he found himself stranded penniless in Panama, but left sick and unemployed as the French effort to complete the waterway collapsed.

The tropical diseases that ravaged the workforce were one of the main factors that caused the failure of the French project, launched in 1881 but abandoned eight years later in a haze of design flaws, corruption scandals and bad debts.

Today, a small French cemetery in a tree-lined grove near the canal stands as a reminder of the men who died on the project, its hundreds of nameless white crosses representing just a small fraction of the total.

Most who worked on the canal in the 19th century came from France, China and the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica.

Slogging away in rain and stagnant water festering with fever-carrying mosquitoes, they were typically abandoned by their companies when they fell ill, or even fired so the firms would not have to pay their hospital bills.

Poor nutrition and sanitation exacerbated their health problems.

Conditions were not much better after the United States took over the project in 1904, importing 150,000 workers in a massive push to the finish.

Some 5,600 workers died in the breakneck, decade-long American effort, adding to the 22,000 deaths during the French campaign.

- Long hours, demanding work -
Conditions have changed for the better in the century since the waterway finally opened, but a job on the Panama Canal still means hard work.

Vinueza looks relaxed enough with her enormous sunglasses, jeans and purple nails, but steering her 26.5-meter (87-foot), 6,250-horsepower tugboat around the canal is a challenge in its own right.

"This is my little house. Sometimes I spend up to 16 hours here. I had to give away my dog Aniara because I didn't have time to take care of her," Vinueza told AFP as she steered her tug toward her latest client, the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier CS Chara.

Guiding huge container ships into the canal's locks takes nerve and absolute control at the wheel.

It remains a profession dominated by machismo. Vinueza, 31, is one of just three women captains on a staff of about 200.

She was the first woman to land the job after the United States handed the canal over to Panama in 1999.

Tugboat captain is just one of a long list of employment opportunities on the canal, which provides 10,000 jobs and $1 billion a year for the Panamanian economy.

Employees say the jobs were once considered among the best in the country, but working conditions have deteriorated in recent years.

"Before, when you got out of school, everyone wanted to come to the canal. Now they're realizing that it's not a golden panacea anymore," said engineer Rogelio Bramwell, who has worked on the canal for 22 years.

"I have to leave at five in the morning to get here at eight, and we don't have a quitting time. You can't make any plans," added Edgar Gomez, a 55-year-old sailor, before abandoning his half-eaten plate of rice and beans to rush back to work.

But Vinueza says she is proud to be part of the canal.

"I'm excited to be working here for the 100th anniversary. I'll be part of history, and I'll be able to tell my grandkids about it," she said.

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