Panama opened the long-delayed expansion of its shipping canal on Sunday with just a dozen of the 70 heads of state invited to see the debut of the third set of locks attending the ceremony.
Analysts said the rank of those leading the delegations was affected by the Panama Papers scandal, in which millions of documents were leaked from law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealing how some of the world’s richest people use offshore companies to avoid tax and launder money.
Panama’s foreign ministry said the event was a diplomatic success, with representatives from nearly all the invited countries in attendance, including from China, Japan, Peru, South Korea, Colombia and Mexico, as well as executives from top shipping firms and thousands of Panamanians.
But Panamanian trade analyst Ernest Bazan said that Panama’s reputation has “unfortunately been affected (by the Panama Papers) and that undoubtedly affects the business climate, including the Panama Canal”.
At 7.50 a.m. (1250 GMT), the Chinese container ship “Cosco Shipping Panama” entered the Agua Clara lock on the Atlantic to begin the first crossing of the roughly 50-mile-long waterway and was due to emerge on the Pacific side by 5.00 p.m.
The consortium led by Spain’s Sacyr and Italy’s Salini Impreglio led the $5.4 billion project that will triple capacity so that the canal can now host 98% of the world’s shipping.
Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, led the delegation from the United States, which finished building the canal in 1914, controlled it until 1999 and is still its biggest user.