|In the contrast of nature and industry lies an intimation of
irreconcilable conflict and an irrefutable record of the unnatural cataclysm that was the
building of the Panama Canal.
Fifty-one miles long, it remains one of the world's great feats of mechanical engineering, running northwest by southeast across the isthmus to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, thus revolutionizing world shipping and essentially collapsing the distance between the two coasts of the United States. The canal and the 10-mile-wide zone that insulates it are to be handed over in their entirety to the Panamanians on Dec. 31, 1999. After that the canal itself is to operate more or less as always, at least in theory; but the fate of the support structures built by the North Americans seems highly uncertain.
I went to Panama to contemplate the remnants of the long U.S. presence-broad verandas in the shade of palms that I remembered from an earlier visit and parade grounds lined with neat, red-roofed Army barracks and to learn something of their future. I found these buildings still in place, though some are down-at-the-heel. I also found official views of Panama's role as curator impossible to determine from official sources. Neither Panamanian nor U.S. officials in Panama would discuss the endgame of one of the most audaciously imperial relationships of the modern era. The canal, and those structures that rose in support of it, had an impact on both the U.S. and Panamanian cultures, and the shrugging off of the architectural evidence of a great engineering and social experiment seemed grossly inappropriate to me.
Just down the hall from the rotunda of the Administration Building, the public affairs office of the Panama Canal Commission, now staffed predominantly by Panamanians, was perfectly willing to supply me with a thick, four-color press kit and to arrange a tour of the not-too-distant Miraflores locks, standard tourist fare. But the administrator, Alberto Aleman Zubieta, was too busy to be interviewed, as were other ranking officials within this vast, air-conditioned warren built on a man-made hill in the early years of the century.
The press attaché at the U.S. embassy in Panama City was no more helpful. Ambassador William J. Hughes was too busy to be interviewed, the attaché said, as were the ambassador's underlings. The embassy faxed me some old copies of the Canal Record, a newspaper put out by U.S. citizens for close to a century; and suggested a hotel from which I might sally forth into what is now known as the "interoceanic region." But that was all.
I asked one old hand in Panama, a North American, why officials from both countries were so cagey about the transfer of one of the world's prime pieces of historic real estate. He said, "Everybody's watching his own ass.
"THE CREATION OF THE PANAMA CANAL," wrote David McCullough in his seminal work on its construction, The Path Between the Seas, "was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama." The 1880s canal-building attempts by the French in Panama succumbed to the ravages of malaria and yellow fever and ended in financial scandal-Lesseps himself was convicted of embezzlement, though the sentence was reversed.