Reflections on the U.S. experience in Panama come these days from former zonians
transplanted to the United States. Walter Dryja, who now works for the Department of
Veterans Affairs in Cleveland, grew up in Panama, the son of the assistant director
of the marine bureau in charge of canal operations. He left for good in 1968 and didn't
return to visit until last February, when he was amazed by the threefold increase in the
population of Panama City and the heavy traffic through Balboa, lying as it does between
the city, the locks, and new industrial parks. "It was a surprise to see my old high
school surrounded by a chainlink fence," Dryja said.
In the '50s and '60s, "it was a different atmosphere," Dryja went on. Things were frozen in amber. Going back, I realized that the zone is a very small place.... I'm not sure it will survive."
At the Panamanian embassy in Washington, I learned that the primary school in Balboa was not to become a tourist facility after all, as the regional commission had hoped, but was to be bought by a private school in Panama City. The Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had shifted its operations to Quarry Heights, the only resident so far. Plans for converting the Gorgas Hospital into a regional medical center had fallen through, but discussions were under way with a number of unnamed North American universities interested in a collective Central American campus there.
In Gamboa, a tourist center was to be built by the Panamanian Institute of Tourism and the Organization of American States that would presumably preach ecology on sightseeing tours. But what of the historic houses among the 4,000 in the interoceanic region that did not fit into the regional commission's or the Panama Canal Commission's immediate plans?
I put the question to the ambassador, Eloy Alfaro de Alba, who said, "When you get through looking into this, you may be more worried than you were before."
Alfaro did not know of any agency that was focusing on old buildings. "People are concerned about ecology, but not preservation. I'm not making a value judgment, but we have had to make up for lost time in accepting responsibility for the canal. Other things in the pipeline are more urgent."
The regional commission's commitment to preservation "is very feeble because it must dispose of its properties before the agency self-destructs. Preservation is further complicated because some of the properties are within its realm and some within the PCC's. If they are bid out to a commercial interest, you may be in a hell of a fix." In other words, structures will be razed to make way for more profitable enterprises.
Alfaro pointed out that legislation was pending in Panama, a representational democracy, to make the designation of historically and culturally significant sites easier, and that the commissions and the Institute of Culture were to work together to preserve significant structures. "Some of those companies [moving into the interoceanic region] should contribute to such an effort," he said. "Like McDonald's. Why did they put up those arches in the old train station when they ought to be preserving it?"
Apparently preservation is an idea that occurs to the collective consciousness of a nation only after the territory is firmly established and the work of nation building firmly in the past. "Maybe one reason Panamanians haven't focused on this until now is that it has just become ours," the ambassador said. "For so long, you know, the zone was another country"
|This article has been
reproduced with exclusive permission for publication on the Canal Zone Images Web Site
Robert Wilson - Editor,
Photos not taken by Scott Warren are from the Panama Canal Public Affairs Office and Library of Congress.