TIME Turkey

The Election Loss for Turkey’s Erdogan Is a Victory for Democracy

Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir in Turkey on June 7, 2015.
Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir in Turkey on June 7, 2015.

Before power went to his head, Turkey's president empowered the voters who in Sunday's election abruptly blunted his rise

Turks dealt a staggering blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday in the only language he understands: votes. The invigorating result was to reaffirm the exciting changes that Erdogan engineered in Turkish society when he first emerged as the nation’s leader a dozen years ago—the same changes that Sunday’s result showed Erdogan failed to properly appreciate. He thought it was all about him.

The great and historic success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish-language initials AKP, was in empowering the heartland voters the country’s governing elite had never quite trusted. Built as a parliamentary democracy, Turkey was crippled through most of its first eight decades in existence by the paradoxical unwillingness of the people in power to abide by the wishes of the electorate.

Again and again, the country’s military grabbed power whenever things were going in a direction the generals deemed dangerous. Each time, their excuse for seizing power was safeguarding the “secular democracy” put in place by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic former officer who shaped a modern state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ataturk died in 1938, but the paternalism of his early state lived on. It even had a name: Kemalism, a kind of governing rigidity, hostile to religious expression and deeply invested in “the state,” that critics said Ataturk himself would have disowned for stunting the growth of a mature democracy.

And that’s what AKP’s 2002 ascendance appeared to announce. For most of its first decade in power, Erdogan’s party made Turkey’s democracy credible. Each election brought it a larger share of the vote for the party, and with it, the political clout that allowed AKP to finally sideline the generals. The party did so partly by governing moderately, despite Erdogan’s earlier embrace of political Islam. Under AKP, sharia was cast not as a replacement for electoral democracy but rather the a moral force that informed one party’s politics—not unlike the Christian Democrats of postwar West Germany, as Erdogan liked to point that out.

 

Another thing Erodgan liked to point out was that he constituted the personal embodiment of this morality. Unlike previous Turkish leaders, he was a working class son of the land, the self-described “black Turk” who took the country back from the elitist secularists known as “white Turks.”

The only problem: He did not govern as a democrat. “He thinks democracy is winning elections, period,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me last year. To Erdogan, a thumping victory at the ballot box is a mandate to do as you please, and he brooked no dissent, either within AKP or from outside. Famously thin-skinned (on the night of his first election, he took umbrage at a simple question by threatening to have me declared an enemy of the state), he not only sued journalists, but made Turkey what Reporters Without Borders called “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” with 42 then behind bars in 2013, the year Freedom House shifted its description of Turkish news media from “partly free” to “not free.”

As a majoritarian, Erdogan acted on the same presumption that doomed the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist party he admires—in Egypt, where the military had not yet been defanged. In Turkey, Erdogan sailed on, riding out mass protests over his high-handed style of governing, and a corruption scandal that produced a tape of him instructing his son to move tens of millions of Euros out of a home safe. Last August, 52 percent of Turkish voters made him him president, a largely ceremonial office that Erdogan made clear he had plans to expand. Erdogan set out to restructure Turkey’s entire system of governance to suit his opinion of himself—a presidential system, with powers as vast as the $615 million presidential palace he built in Ankara in anticipation of victory: 1,150 rooms, including space for five official food testers.

But to alter the constitution, AKP needed to win a supermajority of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly in the June 7 election. At the start of the campaign, Erdogan asked the public to give his party 400 seats—a super-duper majority. He fell a bit short—the 256 seats AKP won was not even enough for a simple majority. For the first time since 2002, AKP will need to find a partner in order to govern. None of the other parties say they want to serve as junior partner, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, the upstart whose 13 percent of the vote cost AK its majority . HDP is a Kurdish party, long linked to the guerrilla movement that fought a separatist war on behalf of the country’s largest minority, which Kemalists refused to recognize as an ethnicity. In the election, however, HDP campaigned on peace, and drew not only from the Kurdish southeast of Turkey but also the substantial population of ethnic Turks who no longer feel threatened by a minority identity in the land. And surely many who oppose Erdogan.

Led by a former human rights activist named Selahattin Demirtas, the campaign signaled a healing of the Turkish body politic that only a few analysts, such as Cagapty, saw as inevitable, given the forces that the rise of AKP had set in motion — from the empowerment of the electorate, to the economic boom that, though fading lately, nonetheless created both new wealth and new expectations of governance.

“I think Turkey’s future is it will be governed by liberals,” Cagapty said last year. He reasoned that Erdogan’s days were numbered by the “large, liberal middle class” spawned by economic growth in the Anatolian heartland that the elite had long ignored. “So he’s in fact created his own political nemesis.” And in the process, accidentally produced a bit of good news in a region where authoritarianism is rising unchallenged almost everywhere else.

TIME Israel

This Is Why It’s Hard to Boycott Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu cabinet meeting jerusalem
Ronen Zvulun—AP In this May 26, 2015 file photo, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem.

Israeli leftists actually began the boycott movement against settlements, but it's grown larger—and provides a cover for anti-Semitism

The drumbeat of boycott is being heard again in Israel, faint, but persistent and disquieting. On June 3 the head of the French cell phone company Orange said he would he would pull the brand from Israel “tomorrow morning” if he could escape the penalties for voiding the contract. A day earlier, the national student union of Great Britain voted to boycott Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the first “a miserable statement” and the opposition leader Isaac Herzog called the rise of boycotts “a new form of terrorism.”

What’s the truth? The boycott movement was actually started by Israelis—Zionist liberals who support Israel’s existence on land it won in the 1948 war that gave birth to the country, but object to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory on the West Bank and Gaza Strip conquered in 1967. The liberals, however, wanted only to boycott goods produced by Israeli companies that operate on Jewish settlements atop Palestinian land—vast truck farms and small factories that profit from what critics call an essentially colonial arrangement.

It’s both a political and a social matter. A lot of the produce found in Israeli supermarket—and lots of the wine in liquor stores—comes from Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and Tel Aviv liberals will remind one another to avoid it, much as many Americans boycotted table grapes in the 1960s, to pressure California farmers to improve the lives of the Mexican migrants who picked them.

Over time, people outside Israel took up the cause—especially in Europe. The continent was once a great champion of the Jewish state, but as Israel became more powerful and the occupation dragged on, people grew more sympathetic to the Palestinians (far more, according to polls, than in the United States). “Solidarity,” says Stein Guldbrandsen, a board member of the huge Norwegian public employee union, Fagforbunde, which has been a major force in the boycott.

Israel exports a lot of produce to Europe, and several supermarket chains there have been labeling the bell peppers and mint grown in West Bank settlements so consumers could avoid buying them if they wish. But Fagforbunde plays at another level. Along with advocates like Norwegian People’s Aid , the union promotes boycotts against whole companies, not just product by product. Any firm that does business with Israel on the West Bank faces “disinvestment” by Norway’s $890 billion sovereign fund. Believed to be the world’s richest, its board publishes a list of shame, naming companies “excluded from the investment universe.” The list includes firms that make cluster bombs, nuclear weapons, cigarettes and (as of Friday) mine coal. The list also includes companies that help build Jewish settlements on the West Bank, deemed a “serious violation” of human rights for contravening the 4th Geneva Convention, which bars settling residents of an occupying power in occupied territory.

How do they know what companies are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? The information is right there on WhoProfits.org, a website maintained by a handful of liberal Israelis operating out of a shabby office in downtown Tel Aviv. The activists gather photos, annual reports and other public information, confirm its veracity, and publish it for the convenience of any investor interested in avoiding companies vulnerable to being labeled part of “the Israeli occupation industry,” as the site calls it. WhoProfits provides one-stop shopping for boycott activists.

“At the end of the day, they read the same website,” says Daniel Reisner, an international law specialist in Tel Aviv, where his firm does a growing business counseling companies on the risks of investing in and around Israel. He prefers not to name those clients. “I find that companies who are accused by boycotters react quite like victims of sexual assault,” Reisner tells TIME. “A: They want to keep it quiet and don’t want to tell anyone, because they appear to be ashamed–this guilt by accusation. And B: They want the matter to be handled as discreetly as possible. They won’t tell the press. They won’t tell the government. They won’t tell the shareholders.”

And yet, none of this amounts to boycotting Israel the country. All these activists—liberal Israeli Jews and ardent Scandinavians alike—take careful aim at punishing companies only for doing business on the West Bank (Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005). Other activists are not so restrained, however. They call for a broad boycott on all of Israel. And that’s where the issue gets difficult, and where Israel actually adds to the difficulty of taking discerning action.

For the last ten years, the most prominent voice for boycotting Israel is a group called BDS—short for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It was begun by a Palestinian in Ramallah, Omar Barghouti, who promotes a campaign of economic isolation and opprobrium against Israel inspired by the one mounted against apartheid South Africa. The group publicizes almost every pro-boycott development around the globe, and in the process frequently appears to take credit for each—even the discreet, surgical decisions of northern European pension funds that say they want nothing to do with BDS. The pension funds, and many other groups, are wary of BDS because its agenda reaches well beyond Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. BDS calls for Israel to allow back Palestinians who in 1948 either left or were driven out of what is present-day Israel—a maximalist position that Israelis understandably say amounts to the destruction of their country.

The Zionist liberals who started all this? They don’t like the sound of that one bit. “Because right now they are boycotting not only the products of the settlements,” says Tamar Hermann, a pollster for the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv resident who has long avoided settler vegetables and wine. “They are preaching for the expansion of the boycott to all Israeli products. For me, it’s problematic.”

What’s more, a broad boycott of all things Israeli offers convenient cover for anti-Semitic feeling —both the virulent strain lately resurgent in Europe, and the latent sort that doubtless accounts for a measure of the extraordinary level of critical scrutiny directed at Israel.

But Israel’s government does nothing to clarify the situation. One of the reasons it’s so hard to enforce a “surgical” boycott on, say, bell peppers grown on a West Bank settlement is that the things are shipped abroad in boxes marked “Product of Israel.” Which is how the Israeli government sees things too. For decades, no Israeli government has chosen to observe the Green Line—the boundary separating Palestinian and Israeli territory in 1967 —as a border. A freeway runs from Tel Aviv to a settlement 10 miles inside the West Bank without a checkpoint. The speed traps are run by Israeli cops. The same big green busses that run on Israeli roads stop at bus stops outside West Bank settlements.

By every important measure—budget, voting, administration—the 200 settlements Israel has built on Palestinian land over the last 48 years are regarded, inside Israel, as part of Israel. Which may be very shrewd, or foolish, depending on how the boycott threat proceeds.

TIME Middle East

You Really Can’t Tell Your Terrorists Without a Scorecard

Shootouts between four Mideast terrorist groups reveal what the label obscures

Hopscotching the headlines of the day, we see that Hamas and Hizballah were both active on Tuesday—though not against Israel, the country each was created to oppose. Both groups, rightly listed as terrorist organizations, were going hammer and tongs against other terrorists: Hamas took out a Gaza Strip fundamentalist associated with ISIS, the extremist group in control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria, while Hizballah battled al-Qaeda’s powerful Nusra Front near Lebanon’s border with Syria. All four sides claimed victory.

What to make of all this? Maybe only that though they all wear black, and often appear delighted with the role of Bad Guy, the groups gathered under the great enveloping cloak marked “terrorist” are far from the same. And the differences are not only sectarian. Three of Monday’s four combatants—Hamas, ISIS and al-Qaeda—are Sunni Muslim groups. The exception is Hizballah, which Iran created to solidify Lebanon’s Shi’ite population and bring the fight to Israel after Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1982.

None of the groups is any one thing, but some can at least be safely approached. ISIS and quite possibly al-Nusra would arrest me, and in time perhaps saw off my head. Hizballah serves reporters Doner kebabs—said to be delicious—and Hamas issues journalist visas in Gaza. Both are essentially political organizations, which also operate what they call “military wings.” Those wings have carried out terrorist attacks, but they are calculated toward achieving a political end. Usually that end involves Israel—Hamas’s charter calls for its elimination, yet the stated goals of last summer’s Gaza war was an extra three miles of fishing rights in the Mediterranean—but the clash on Monday was about eliminating a rival: ISIS.

Hamas, which promotes both Islamist and nationalist goals—it wants a Palestinian state—and appears to crave U.S. recognition, simply is not radical enough for the extremists of ISIS, some of whom live under its rule in Gaza, the coastal enclave between Israel and Egypt. There, Hamas police stations have been bombed, and its military wing rocketed, by groups that consider the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate unworthy. In response, Hamas has set up checkpoints, trying to cull the herd. Its officials said the man killed on Tuesday, Yussef al-Hatarman, was shot after threatening to blow himself up along with the Hamas police officers who had come to arrest him. The Hamas Interior Ministry released photos of suicide belts and other arms apparently confiscated in the raid—embracing a great law enforcement tradition.

It wasn’t the first time Hamas has defended its monopoly on force in Gaza against more radical groups. In 2009, its police attacked a compound held by a fundamentalist who had just declared Gaza an “Islamic emirate.” The death toll then was 28, but officials expressed regret at the loss of life. Hamas had sent a local theology professor in to try to coax the rebels to see the error of their ways, something the professor later told me he’d been able to manage in the past. But then, as even terrorists are finding out, six years ago the radical fringe in the Middle East was still out on the fringe, and not nearly so radical.

TIME Aid

Most Foreign Aid Does Not Go to Neediest Countries, Report Finds

Advocacy group ONE urges donor nations to designate 50% of their aid budgets to "least-developed countries"

Amazing strides have been made in reducing poverty worldwide over the last quarter century — the rate has halved since 1990, from 36% of the world’s population to 18% — but rather than clapping themselves on the back, aid organizations are now calling for rich nations to go even further, and help eradicate “extreme poverty” altogether.

Extreme poverty is defined as living on no more than $1.25 a day, a figure that encapsulates not only an absence of cash, but often of clean water, education, and even a meal. The circumstance still applies to more than 1.2 billion people, a disproportionate number of whom live in Africa, where poverty has actually increased. Yet most foreign aid goes to countries that are better off.

“We all find it quite surprising how little—32%—of U.S. aid goes to the poorest countries,” says Tom Hart, North America director of the advocacy group ONE, which on Tuesday released a 127-page report calling for donor nations to designate 50% of their aid budgets to “least-developed countries.”

The 50% goal is at the heart of a new global strategy against poverty, aimed at picking up with the conclusion of the 15-year international campaign known as where the Millennium Development Goals. The new effort, dubbed Sustainable Development Goals, will be articulated at a conference in Ethiopia in July, and adopted in the months beyond by assorted convocations of the international bodies ranging from the G-20 to the Committee on World Food Security.

But the brow-beating has already begun, as advocates struggle both to correct misperceptions about foreign aid among the U.S. public, and lobby Washington and other major donors to direct the roughly $140-billion they give each year to where it is most needed.

The fact is that only about 1% of the U.S. federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average American thinks it’s more like 28%, according to a Kaiser poll from earlier this year. And though that American is likely to shelve reflexive objections to the spending when informed of the reality, polls show that the misperception persists year after year.

Advocates for aid believe it can be more effective with the advent of technology that allows aid dollars to be tracked at every stage, including the stages where some of those dollars have in the past disappeared into the pockets of corrupt foreign officials.

The new global strategy expects more of receiving governments — calling for each to provide a basic package of health and education services, with help from donors as needed. For example, Liberia, which was an epicenter of the Ebola outbreak last year, spends $6 per person on basic services each year; it needs to spend $300, and requires $317 million to make up the difference.

The new strategy also calls for specifically directing aid to women and girls. “Poverty is sexist,” the ONE report states, noting that by almost every measure life is harder for women and girls in the poorest countries than it is for men. But at the same time, helping females serves to lift the whole of the societies in which they are so central.

“When we invest in girls and woman, that has more catalytic results that pulls everybody out of poverty,” says Eloise Todd, global policy director for the ONE campaign. Over time, that investment should be made as directly as possible, not necessarily through governments, adds Gargee Ghosh, director of policy and finance for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “We need to focus more on poor people,” Ghosh says.

But the first message to rich countries is that they need to focus on the poorest. Of 29 donors, only Iceland directed more than 50 percent of its aid to the least developed countries. “Something’s going really wrong in the way a lot of donors are allocating their aid,” says Todd. “Finding the end of extreme poverty is going to be a lot harder than the previous 15 years.”

TIME Crime

The Generation Gap Behind the Waco Biker Shootout

The shootout between motorcycle clubs and cops in Waco, Tex. that left nine dead and led to more than 190 arrests may have been caused by competing claims of dominion over the state of Texas. But according to experts on outlaw biker clubs, the melee traces its roots to a larger generational shift in the makeup of the clubs themselves.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs sprang up in the late 1940s and were especially popular among combat veterans returned from World War II. Membership surged again in the wake of the Vietnam War, and seems to be experiencing another spike from younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. While there’s money in the mythos– many clubs have websites and gift shops and attorneys for Hell’s Angels routinely file trademark infringement suits–none of that diminishes the potent appeal that draws members. Besides a love of riding, that lure is often the unit cohesion that’s the bedrock of any military unit, and the extraordinary bonds created by shared risk.

“We’re entering now a third generation in this subculture, and I think that’s as much as anything what’s going on, what happened in Texas,” says Don Charles Davis, who writes the Aging Rebel blog from Los Angeles. Davis says he has no reason to doubt that the Waco shootout broke out, as widely reported, over turf: One club, the Bandidos, has controlled Texas since shortly after the club’s founding in the mid 1960s, mostly by Vietnam Vets, coloring its logo in the red and gold of the Marines Corps, and under the rubric, “We are the people our parents warned us about.” But Davis said he was struck by the relative youth of the Cossacks, the upstart club that also claimed Texas, and rolled into the Waco meeting of motorcycle clubs uninvited and in force.

“They’re young. I’m old,” Davis says. “Vietnam vets who were the last big impetus to outlaws, we all have gray hair now. [Hell’s Angels founding member] Sonny Barger is like 76 now. ..A younger club isn’t scared.” He sees the Cassocks rolling on the Bandidos “the same way the Mongols decided to get it on with the Hell’s’ Angels, because they’d been to Vietnam and they weren’t afraid of anything. It’s not only a dispute over territory, but also a matter of generations. We’ve been at war for about 12 years now. There are a lot of disaffected combat vets, and that’s mostly where motorcycle outlaws come from, for various social and psychological reasons.”

Not every expert is fully on board with that theory. Randy McBee, a history professor at Texas Tech and author of the forthcoming “Born to be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist,” wonders whether anyone who might be dealing with the stress of combat would hang around anything as loud as a Harley engine. Yet the affinity of bikers to military service is on full display each Memorial Day weekend, when thousands assemble in Washington D.C. for the gathering called Rolling Thunder.

“The argument the Easy Riders were making in the ’80s is, the brotherhood that surrounds service, that surrounds conflict, that there’s no equal to that,” McBee says. “And the closet thing you can get to it is riding.”

Still, McBee sees a difference between the older clubs–McBee calls the ’60s and ’70s “kind of the golden age of motorcycling”–and the upstarts. “It seems like there’s a boldness to it that’s hard to make sense of,” he says. “Most of the crimes that I’m familiar with from the ’60 and ’70s, were in [private] clubs, or bars, not in a restaurant in Waco, Texas.”

“Motorcycle clubs are function of military service, period,” declares William Dulaney, who is both national president of Hell on Wheels Motorcycle Club and a professor of organizational communication at Air University, located on Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “Chain of command is very strictly adhered to. Its’ about identity for a group of people who, outside this social structure, don’t have much identity. You’re talking about a core identity to a bunch of warriors.”

And yet, even as Harley sales soared and weekend warriors, known derisively by outlaw clubs as RUBs, or rich urban bikers, crowded highways, the clubs that started it all lost a lot of their juice. “Back in the ’80s, or like 1995, dude, gangland, no doubt about it,” Dulaney says. “But those days are gone. ” Federal RICO prosecutions and other law enforcement efforts have dramatically reduced the criminal threat level from outlaw groups, as perhaps has aging. Dulaney now numbers himself among the older generation, and understands the violence in Waco as a problem of kids these days.

“They don’t have years and years if not decades in the subculture, understanding that there is hierarchy,” he says. Young bucks may enjoy the swagger of wearing a leather vest, but they fail to respect the full import of the patches, or “colors,” sewn on the back, he says. The diamond-shaped patch reading “1%” denotes the wearer as a member of the outlaw elite. And the place name — “Texas” — sewn at the base of the vest in the embroidered crescent bikers call the bottom rocker, announces more than a claim on turf.

“The way to understand the bottom rocker, with 1 percenters, is it’s territory, yeah, but it’s responsibility,” Dulaney says. “Because they have responsibility to enforce peaceful coexistence in that area. Because if they don’t, law enforcement will come in and be all over you.”

 

 

 

TIME Panama Canal

The Panama Canal Gets Grander

panama-canal-expansion
George Steinmetz for TIME Larger locks on the Pacific end of the canal will feed bigger ships into a new, parallel channel.

More than a century after it was built, the waterway grows to take bigger ships

The last time someone dug a trench through the Isthmus of Panama, the result was declared the greatest wonder of its age. It’s being done again–mountains toppled, earth moved by the millions of tons, oceans connected–and the wonder this time is that anyone notices.

Consider the crowd that assembled on April 28 to see the last, most impressive piece of the new and improved Panama Canal being literally slotted into place. A massive sea gate standing 11 stories tall moves on its own down the great concrete sluice that Caterpillars and Putzmeisters have carved from the jungle. Atop dozens of little rubber wheels, the behemoth creeps along, steered by a man in a hard hat toggling a remote control slung around his neck. And the only journalists on hand to document the historic moment are local ones, save for one reporter. “You get lots of calls from foreign reporters,” says Monica Martinez, who handles media relations for the canal expansion. “But mostly from shipping magazines.”

Clearly we are in a different age. When the Panama Canal was first cut, ships were the only way from one continent to another, and canals were what shrank the world. They still do, in maritime terms, and with shipping driving global commerce as never before, a second age of canals is upon us. The Suez, which has connected the Mediterranean to the seas of Asia since 1869, is adding lanes to accommodate two-way traffic on much of its 120 miles (193 km) through Egypt. Turkey has plans to dig a canal parallel to the Bosporus Strait linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And China is planning to spend up to $70 billion on an entirely new canal across Nicaragua, the route the U.S. championed before bisecting Panama.

But wonders these days are something you hold in your hand–the tiny computers that construction workers are extending at arm’s length to snap selfies as the 9 million-lb. (4 million kg) gate pivots into its slot. Small drones whiz past with a dragonfly buzz, carrying even smaller cameras, miniaturization being very much the current direction of progress, even as ships grow larger. And larger.

Supersize

The Vessels the Panama Canal was first built to accommodate, when it was completed in 1914, were 106 ft. (32 m) abeam, a width that dictated the maximum for oceangoing ships known as Panamax. But after accepting control of the canal from the U.S. in 2000, Panamanian officials surveyed shipbuilders’ intentions and glimpsed a future that spelled the canal’s obsolescence.

The problem was not the largest ships on the sea–the gargantuan bulk carriers known as Capesize. No canal can accommodate them. The problem was the more modest ocean workhorses, the container ships that account for 60% of the world’s shipping–a great deal of it between China and the U.S. East Coast. Though a million vessels passed through Panama in the canal’s first 100 years, shipping–like globalization itself–operates on economies of scale. And the scale was outgrowing the canal. A ship 106 ft. wide and 965 ft. (294 m) long–the maximum Panamax–can carry perhaps 5,000 containers. Widen the beam to 160 ft. (49 m) and the length to 1,200 ft. (366 m)–the size of a ship that can fit in the new channel–and the container count rises to 13,000. If Panama didn’t make room, those new ships would reach America from China via the wider Suez, imperiling Panama’s surging national economy.

So in 2007, digging commenced. When the new locks open, probably early next year, ships arriving from the Pacific will pass under the Bridge of the Americas and approach what amounts to a toll plaza. Smaller vessels will bear to the right, toward the locks that for a century have lifted ships 85 ft. (26 m) to the level of the Gatun Lake, the giant man-made pond that makes up much of the canal. At the other end of the lake, another set of locks will lower the boats back to sea level, to continue their journey into the Caribbean.

Bigger ships will bear left to the new locks, mammoth chambers wide enough that vessels no longer need to be guided through them by cables attached to the “mules” that still operate on the old locks. Cheerful little locomotives the color of a chewing-gum foil wrapper, they delicately center a Panamax with just 2 ft. of clearance on either side. With a roomy 20 ft. (6 m) extra in the new locks and rubber bumpers, tugs will shepherd the ships through, the norm at other canals.

The new locks also operate differently. While the old chambers feature miter gates–which open and close like double doors–the new gates, made in Italy, slide in from one side, like a pocket door. The freshwater from the lake above will rush in and out through cavernous, curving culverts that, as workers complete the finishing touches, feel like something from King Solomon’s Mines. Basins next to each lock will store water for a single reuse, reducing freshwater usage by 7% per passage. The same new locks are also being installed on the Atlantic side, but in the midsection of the isthmus all ships will continue to steam along the original waterway, which has been upgraded. Curves in the famous Culebra Cut, named for the mountain ridge the original canal had to be cut through, are being widened to ease turns for the bigger ships. Metal communication towers are going up behind the picturesque lighthouses that string the length of the canal, along which 625 new lights are being installed.

Everything is bigger and more efficient–but also a bit less interesting than in the old canal, like a dull I-95 compared with the kicks of Route 66. But superhighways are what the Seven Seas have become. The number of cargo ships worldwide has more than quadrupled over the past 20 years, to 50,000 vessels carrying $13 trillion in goods each year. In a world economy bound together by supply chains–cars to China, sneakers to Houston–sea travel long ago ceased being leisurely. The canal takes reservations months in advance, collecting a 15% booking fee on a toll that often runs to $400,000 but guarantees passage in no less than 18 hours.

The economic rewards of efficiency have made Panama City’s vertiginous skyline the equal of Miami’s. A third of the nation’s GDP flows from the canal, counting ancillary businesses like the railroad–first built to carry California gold miners across the isthmus–and the ports, which do a brisk business shuttling containers from large vessels to smaller ones. The $5.25 billion expansion is projected to double the canal’s capacity. Panamanian officials hope their country can ultimately become the place things not only pass through but also come together–the pieces in all those containers assembled and shipped onward with value added. “We could be a Singapore,” says Rodolfo Sabonge, a former senior canal official now heading the University of the Caribbean.

So one era’s engineering wonder finds itself another era’s logistical hub. The Age of Progress that the original canal crowned has hummed along so long that the marvels of the new wonder might best be described by absences. “I haven’t been stressed on this project before,” says Ilya Espino de Marotta, who has ultimate authority over the expansion, as she finishes a tour taking in cavernous basalt mines, four miles (6 km) of new levees and a couple of hills scheduled to come down. “I’m starting to become stressed.”

Canal construction can do that: building the original Panama Canal toppled a government in France, which dug from 1881 to ’89 through a pestilential land dubbed “Death’s Nursery” for the perhaps 25,000 workers who died there, thanks mostly to malaria and yellow fever. But for Marotta, easily identified on the job site by her pink hard hat and safety vest, the source of creeping unease was simply the project deadline, which requires dovetailing the final efforts of contractors who until now had worked independently. Deaths on the current project have totaled six so far, she says, detailing the circumstances of each one. “Our target was zero,” Marotta says. In any age, you’d have to call that progress.


This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.

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