Panamà… as we pronounce it would be Pànama… is a metaphoric inversion expressed by the different accents. I first went there as an intern in 1954-55, not yet age 22, interested- vaguely- in tropical medicine but more concretely in adventure. Among my 8 colleagues, half were preparing for missionary work, one for public health, one for psychiatry. Before 1903, Panama was an isolated part of Colombia, an oligarchy run by four or five families. It was inaccessible by land across the Darien. The current sometimes road, actually highway 5, or the Pan American Highway, is still often impassable.
A canal had long been considered to facilitate travel between the Atlantic and Pacific, which required a long sea voyage around Cape Horn or difficult overland Balboa took across the isthmus of Panama. A French venture acquired permission to build the canal under the direction of Ferdinand deLesseps ( Suez Canal, desert, flat, no locks). He wanted to cut a similar sea level swatch across Panama. 40,000 French (and French colonials) died there due to that miscalculation, graft, malaria, yellow fever, poor nutrition and dysentery; it was abandoned. But in 1903 the US felt it could big crazy things. Teddy Roosevelt tried to arrange a canal treaty with Colombia and failed. But because of the isolation of the isthmus from Colombia the locals felt like colonists, and resented their voiceless circumstances and distant and neglectful rulers, like the rebellious British Colonies in North America. They found common cause with Teddy Roosevelt who wanted a canal, and revolted, assisted by U S gunboat diplomacy.
The US Canal Zone was about 10 miles across and some 50 miles long. Panama is Water, and water is the Power that could operate the locks of a canal. A dam was required to store that water, and also control the swampland created by the ever flooding Chagas River; and thereby to control mosquito borne diseases. Incredibly the huge project was completed by 1914! The original locks still operate unaltered, today.
Overall, The US Army Corps of Engineers and Black Caribbean laborers really did the heavy lifting: John F. Wallace conceived the engineering of the canal but became a victim of the terrain, disease, and the political bureaucracy; he survived there for less than one year. John Stevens, a famous civil engineer, took seriously the yellow fever/malaria problem. The largest earthen dam ever built controlled the Chagas River, and drained the swamps; which controlled the mosquitoes, malaria and Yellow Fever, and provided the gravity flow water power to operate the canal locks. Col. George Washington Goethels was finally given unrestrained authority, and was able to complete the job over the next 7 years. William C Gorgas, a U S Army physician who understood the relation of malaria to mosquitoes, convinced the Army to drain the swamps, making it possible from a medical standpoint to build the canal. A second canal was started but abandoned because of WWII; now it has been completed, arguably by China, who also had studied the sea level alternative as across Nicaragua but abandoned it.
In 1954 the canal was still operated by the US civil Service. There was segregation of several sorts. First, upper level administrators and U S military had the option to live on base, with typical military housing and commissary privileges with access to US goods and food. Most privileged long term US citizen employees of the Canal Company lived in bungalows. Second, short term US citizen employees like MD interns, lived in curious multi family wooden apartment buildings, each apartment located upstairs from a parking area below. The apartment buildings were oriented with long sides facing the sea breezes. They were two story wooden structures with space for parking underneath, and 12 ft high ceilings. There were no internal doors; the kitchen, dining and bedroom were in one line so that that the sea breeze, could flow through open screens placed above 8 ft. Each apartment had a bathroom off center and a heat closet to keep clothing dry. Construction was so light that people learned to speak quietly, even quarrel in harsh whispers. Sexual revelry was often audible, though as invisible as the morning alarm clock, flushing of toilets. Notice the 6 ft eves, a traditional style there. In the city they offer much needed shelter for passersby on sidewalks but shoot waterfalls out onto cars in heavy rain.
When I was there in 1975 the buildings were scheduled to be torn down. But the location was ideal, and all the infrastructure already in place. They were acquired somehow and have been gentrified, rebuilt so nicely that the old structures can hardly be seen. In the photo above, some of the screened breezeways persist. The open lower floor also is still there, but made into a living area, like a covered outdoor garden or patio.
The third level of segregation was provided to ‘local raters’ whose situation devolved from the building of the canal. The US Army had recruited English speaking workers among blacks of the Caribbean. Communication was more practical in English, and the work performance was superior to indigenous workers. ( Only the Spanish had managed to induce los indios to work through a brutal choice made clear in a statue at a Mission in Baja CA: a priest holds a bible in one hand and a skull in the other. Believe or die. Work now to live, and die for the glory of God and the Catholic Queen. But the Caribbean blacks were different, perhaps in part because, though paid less than US citizens, and they had significant inducements: Local raters’ were provided decent livable wages, living quarters, medical care, and allowed to buy US imported goods at a reduced rate from a local rate commissary. In the long run, however local raters felt abandoned after September 7, 1977, when President Jimmy Carter gave the Canal to Panama; a long standing local resentment of blacks with special privilege boiled over. Soon many ex local raters had nether job, nor any apparent citizenship. Yet there was, and is, a Black American Atlantic Coast and black Carribean island archipelago; it may be largely invisible to most of us in the USA, though it consists of many black communities which are the source for much unique American and Brazilian music, art, dance, custom, and language. Therefore, the abandoned black local raters of Panama, did not live in limbo; they have adapted or relocated. It’s instructive to kindle and google the many American Black authors, and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement. The very first American revolution was black: Haiti. * Like most US citizens I often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere. We tend to forget that we are all Americans: one continent, one hemisphere, with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.
We visited Panama City in late 2016. Much has conspired to make it the commercial and banking center of South America, rivaling Miami. The canal was gradually and totally transferred to Panama control by 2000. Panama has retained the $US as their currency, which stabilized the economy; despite many problems it became a place where people with means could find refuge from chaos at home, or for various thieves to hide money, including drug money.
The former head of the militarily, Manuel Noriega, a cooperator with the CIA, became de facto dictator and drug lord .The US invasion to depose him in 1989-90 was complex, while brief was a real war that has left a shambles of Noriega’s base of operations still unpaired. And the whole episode has became the source of many true lies: afterward there was an election at the insistence of the US; but the winning candidate was assaulted and Noriega declared the election null and void. While US invasion was widely supported by the populace, it was real warfare against a well prepared military, deadly and destructive. It was hugely condemned, as customary, in Europe and the UN; The Panamanian military was dissolved. However, the emergence of Panama as a commercial and banking center, and a repository for suspect money, continued.
The second canal has been completed, financed largely by the Chinese. Transit fee $100,000,000. A Trump hotel, shaped like a huge sail, looks like a twin to one in Dubai. A metro was completed last year.
Upscale barrios and yacht harbors, continued to appear. Old is being gentrfied, the president lived there near a fast growing tourist area, and expensive restaurants flourish. As to the currently strong US dollar, Panama is something of an exception, comparable to Chile. Most other countries today are, by comparison, a bargain. But it is a good place to visit, safe for the average sane foreigner, usually cool at night, when the ocean breeze is up. In the 50’s that meant street dancing to Lucho Ascarraga’s wild electric organ: Cha Cha Chas, with typical flat foot moves, keeping the whole foot including the heel on the floor and moving The Rest… none of that heel-high stuff. That, happily, is the same today.
Ancon Hill is the highest spot overlooking the Pacific entrance of the canal, with old gun embankments at the top, set among tropical forest. Several hundred yards down hill is the site of Gorgas Hospital where I interned in 1954. My oldest daughter was born there, delivered by a descendant of one of the founding families.
My Grandparents, Leon and Anna founded the Methodist church just at the edge of the Canal Zone. It was built and supported by the North American population of the Zone who operated the canal, and large number of military people who guarded it. But when the canal was given to Panama that U S population very quickly disappeared. The old church is imposing, but obviously neglected now. There was no pastor, but we spoke with a woman in the parish and she took us inside the elegant but sad and tired building.
We visited the site of the old Gorgas hospital, of French design. It had a stolid central administration building surrounded by a series of white one story buildings in colonial French style… a series of medical units, white wooden buildings with 11 foot high ceilings where the top four feet were open screens. The units were interconnected by covered walkways among sculptured tropical gardens to allow for air circulation. How well I recall doing a femoral stick on babies or spinal taps, sweating in the humid night air. At least that is the way it all comes to my mind; it is all gone. One wing of the admin center where interns stayed and sometimes slept during 36 on and 12 off shifts looks down darkly past the surrounding neglected padlocked wire fence strangely dressed in banners left over from some event. No one was around to ask if we might go in; and yet that seemed a small loss. I didn’t much want to view the corpse from the inside.
Even most of the relics of Old Town were full of color and life, on the way to being restored. thier roof still extended out 4 feet over the sidewalks and balconies to shelter people from the rain.
And the restoration was everywhere evident as well, set among the colorful lives of a small rich country whose future seems bright.
And we pretended to be rich turistas nortamericanos:
*You may want to kindle and google the many black authors of the Americas, the John Woolworth and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement, and the first American revolution, which was black: in Haiti. Like many US citizens I often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere. But we are Americans: one continent, one hemisphere, with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.
* * There is a 645 pp third edition of a book Americas by Peter Winn. But frankly, it seems to me simply a compulsive compilation of the ‘news’ we read in the US. Whenever the author treats places and peoples I know very well, the omissions and commissions of errors really rankle me terribly. My bias is this: The record of a people and a time are found in between the lies, and lines; and in fiction, poetry; in other words in Literature. Usually what we call News or History is moribund fiction without flesh or soul.