Soberania contains part of the Las Cruces Trail used by the conquistadors to cross the isthmus. It is paved with river stones set in place by enslaved Indians. The trail was the only way across the isthmus before the building of the railroad and also served the gold-obsessed forty-niners bound for California, who had to slog through this part of the passage. It will no doubt be opened up as an attraction for ecotourist lucre.
On the way back to Panama City, Urena drove over the arching Bridge of the Americas, which spans the canal. "This side is more vulnerable," he said, "because it lacks the protection of the national parks." Shacks stood in what was the old zone, amid charred remains of trees and mounds of litter, evidence of "the machete invasion" by the poor, among them Panama's indigenous Cuna Indians. For two decades people have squatted here; bare land shows like flesh through tattered clothing, reminders of an impoverished past and present. And ranchers were clearing jungle deep inside the former zone on the other side of the highway. "One good thing you can say for the generals," Urena said, of Gen. Manuel Noriega and his regime, "is that they kept people-and cows-off the land."
NEIL SMITH, AN ORNITHOLOGIST with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, has lived in Panama for more than 30 years. His office in the main Smithsonian complex, on land once occupied by the old Tivoli Hotel, faces Ancon Hill on the edge of Balboa. "I could find 80 species of birds right out there," he said, gesturing at the heavily forested hill, "and two species of sloth, two of anteater, plus agouti and white-tailed deer. But this is not 'virgin' forest that North Americans talk about in their search for Arcadia, part of their guilt syndrome."
What became the zone was already denuded by farming and other activity before excavation on the canal ever began, he pointed out. Millions of cubic yards of earth had not yet been blasted out and dumped into the ocean, and a major river had not yet been redirected to fill a 50-mile-wide trench. The land that remained regenerated and would do so again, provided it isn't burned or covered in concrete. The way to prevent these possibilities, in his view, is ecotourism, the most viable solution to the problems of unemployment and a sudden bonanza in exploitable land.
"Panama doesn't have just the canal and the railroad, it has beaches, oceans, a warm and pleasant climate, macaws, monkeys, jaguars, eagles," Smith said. "No other Central American country has all this. The Panamanians know that if they lose it, they will get the political problems of El Salvador or the violencia of Colombia."
The abundance of birds in Panama makes the country a birder's paradise; the history embodied in the canal and its architecture, plus the architecture of Panama City and on the Caribbean coast, adds a complex cultural component to a country well established in the North American mind, not as a fiefdom but as a vital player in the history of the century now passing.
I pointed out that many buildings in the old zone look neglected and that squatters and developers are already taking a toll on the environment. "Is it fair," Smith responded, "to ask a country that had a peculiar, long-standing relationship with a dominant northern neighbor to do all the right things straight off? The hand-over is not that all-fired simple, the people being released after almost a century. Give them a break."
AS IT HAPPENS, one can learn more about Panama these days in the United States than in that country, as I found upon my return. Not, however, from the U.S. State Department, which may be wary of discussing preservation in the old canal zone because it wants no upsetting of the reversion apple cart. What-ever the reason, the deputy director of the office of Central American affairs, Christopher Webster, was unwilling to answer any questions about Panama, and the public affairs section could locate no one who was.
A former State Department official was more forthcoming. Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs during negotiations with the Panamanians after the 1989 invasion, said, "We were always trying to encourage the Panamanians to plan. It took time for the reality of the transfer to register on them, and for a while there they didn't really think the Americans would ever leave."
Aronson wasnt involved in the dispensation of land and structures. But he noted, "For a small country, it was an awesome amount of property to inherit."
The question of maintenance-of the functional antique that is the canal, of the watershed, and of the structures long associated with it-I took to David McCullough.
"That's the thing on everybody's mind," said McCullough, a National Trust trustee. "If [the Panamanians] intrude too much on the interior, it will upset the whole system. They won't have enough water, or they'll have too much.... Thousands of Americans are now seeing the canal from cruise ships. It blows them away. Not only is the canal attractive, it's just great to see it. It doesn't make noise, it doesn't pollute. It works naturally and looks marvelous. That's what people respond to. It would be terrible if the operation declined or if the look of it was vitiated."