Panama Rises

The Central American nation, now celebrating its centennial, has come into its own since the United States ceded control of its vital waterway

Ships have made some 850,000 transits across Panama since the canal opened in 1914. Brian Smale
One-third of Panama is tropical rain forest. Much of it is protected, including Sobrenía National Park, which borders the canal. During the eight-month rainy season, the nation's rain forests store the water needed for each transit—52 million gallons per ship. Brian Smale
A leaf-cutter ant. Christian Ziegler
A keel-billed toucan. Christian Ziegler
A former U.S. military radar station, the Canopy Tower hotel in Soberanía National Park is a mecca for bird lovers. Panama's warm climate, beaches and abundant animal and plant life (there are 940 recorded bird species) attract a growing number of eco-tourists. Brian Smale
Electric towing locomotives guide the Astral Ace through the Pedro Miguel Locks. Says lockmaster Dagoberto Del Vasto, who began as a janitor and has worked at the canal for 22 years, of Panama's four-year stewardship of it: "I am very, very, very proud." Brian Smale

The freighter Falstaff, nine days out of San Francisco and bearing a cargo of Korean automobiles, slid slowly into a chamber of the Miraflores Locks near the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. Like her Shakespearean namesake, the Falstaff is broad of beam. Her sides, painted green and streaked with rust and scuff marks, rose straight from the water and towered more than 100 feet above a two-story building where the lock’s controllers work. She looked blocky and top heavy, like a warehouse on water.

Four small locomotives on narrow-gauge tracks running along both sides of the lock’s concrete trench slowly guided the Falstaff by means of steel cables fastened to her bow and stern. It was like squeezing a hippo into a bathtub. The Falstaff is roughly 106 feet wide. That left just two feet to spare on either side.

Massive steel gates shut behind the freighter. Asystem of subterranean valves and culverts that has been in operation since 1914 began letting water into the lock. No pumps are involved; the pressure of gravity suffices to raise the water level. Almost imperceptibly, the Falstaff began to rise.

The ship’s stern glided past, and I could see a gaggle of men gathered around the tethering cables. The elaborate lockage process that so fascinated me was simply another part of a routine day to them, and they paid more attention to the lunches they were eating from white Styrofoam containers. A pelican soared lazily above the lock, heading slowly toward the green, tree-clad hills of the Panamanian isthmus. Even it looked bored.

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Senate, at the urging of President Jimmy Carter, ratified by a two-vote margin the treaty that transferred the canal to Panama, the ordinariness of the Falstaff’s transit struck me as a remarkable thing. During the debates, in March 1978, the Senate chamber echoed with dire fears and warnings. Although the treaty provided for a gradual, 20-year transition from American to Panamanian control, there were worries that Communists would take over the canal, or that Panama would close it or would invite in foreign forces.

Nothing of the sort has happened. Instead, Panama is running the canal at least as efficiently as the United States did. After some missteps, Panamanians are building on their American legacy—not just the canal, but the protected virgin rain forests, a railroad and long, regimented rows of creamcolored former U.S. barracks. And there’s excitement about further development in eco-tourism and bio-prospecting.

Mark Falcoff, a Latin American specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., says the gamble the United States took in turning the canal over “has paid off brilliantly.” In his estimation, the United States has enhanced its credentials as a good neighbor in the Western Hemisphere and avoided both the necessity of stationing a big garrison in Panama to protect the Canal Zone and the expense of upgrading the canal.

The turnover has pleased most Panamanians as well. At the Miraflores Locks, on the outskirts of Panama City (the nation’s capital), lockmaster Dagoberto Del Vasto, whose job it is to notify the pilots who guide each ship through the canal when the locks are ready to receive their vessels, told me he had worked at the canal for 22 years. “I started out as a janitor,” he said. “At that time, most of the lockmasters were Americans. I went to an apprentice school and graduated as an electrician. Now I supervise 20 men.”

I asked how he felt about the canal and Panama’s stewardship of it. He smiled. “I am very, very, very proud,” he said.

Panama celebrated the centennial of its independence last November, and throughout the country a visitor could discern a sense of pride similar to Del Vasto’s. Bunting hung from buildings in Panama City. Street vendors peddled Panamanian flags for drivers to mount on their cars. On Independence Day itself, church bells pealed, fireworks exploded and salsa singer Rubén Blades gave a free concert.

Panama, an s-shaped isthmus with a land area roughly equal to South Carolina’s, was a province of Colombia when President Theodore Roosevelt convinced the U.S. Congress in 1902 that it made a better site than Nicaragua for the canal he wanted to construct to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (and thus permit the United States to more quickly project its naval power). Roosevelt chose Panama despite the costly (in francs and lives) failure of the French to build a canal across the province in the 1880s. Panama offered the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific— approximately 50 miles. But much of the country is covered by thick tropical forests, and a chain of rugged mountains forms its spine. Tropical diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, and the difficulty of digging a sea-level channel through mountains, had defeated the French.

Roosevelt wanted to take over the remains of the French project. But Colombia would not agree to the American terms. AU.S.-supported plot was then hatched to separate Panama from Colombia. A few days before the plan was launched by a cabal of prominent Panamanian families on November 3, 1903, Roosevelt dispatched the U.S.S. Nashville to Panama. The gunship deterred Colombian troops from suppressing the rebellion, and the United States immediately recognized Panama as an independent country.

A few weeks after the “revolution,” Roos-evelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, signed a treaty with Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman in on the plot who then got himself appointed the fledgling nation’s representative to the United States. Bunau-Varilla owned otherwise worthless stock in one of the French companies involved in the earlier canal effort, and the treaty he negotiated enabled the company to sell its concession and property to the United States for $40 million. The treaty gave the United States control of a strip of Panamanian land ten miles wide and 50 miles long, stretching from ocean to ocean.

There, in 1914, after ten years and a cost of $352 million and 5,609 lives, the United States successfully completed the canal. The Americans had corrected two fundamental flaws in the French plan. They understood, as the French had not, that the mosquito was responsible for spreading diseases like malaria and yellow fever. By controlling mosquitoes, they made the country a more tolerable place to work. Second, they abandoned the idea of a sea-level canal. Instead, they dammed the principal river in the canal’s path, the Chagres, creating a body of water, GatunLake, 85 feet above sea level, then dug a channel, the Gaillard Cut, through a mountain ridge. They used the spoil from the cut to fill in lowlands along the route and built a series of three lock chambers on each end to raise incoming ships to lake level and lower them again to sea level before exiting to the ocean. From the air, the largest portion of the canal looks not like a ditch at all but a reservoir, dotted with islands and surrounded by tropical vegetation. The construction of the canal proved both an imaginative solution to a formidable engineering problem and a signal of the United States’ emergence as a great power.

Panamanians know, of course, about the doubts expressed regarding their fitness to inherit this American triumph. I asked Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the canal’s current administrator and the second Panamanian to hold the job, if he had heard from people who thought the canal would fall apart when Panama took over. “Oh, yeah. Many times,” he said. “People used to ask me what would happen after December 31, 1999 [the date the transfer was completed]. My answer was January 1, 2000. Nothing was going to happen.”

One reason for the smooth transfer was that Panama had, over the years, developed a cadre of American-trained specialists. Alemán Zubieta, whose ancestors were among the founding families of Panama back in 1903, is one of them. He got his higher education at Texas A&M, earning degrees in both civil and industrial engineering, and he is a man who could be as thoroughly at home in Houston as he is in Panama. He drives a BMWX-5, and he plays golf to a single-digit handicap.

We talked, in fact, on a golf course near the Continental Divide, not far from a cemetery that contains the mossy tombstones of Frenchmen who died attempting to build the canal. It is off a potholed road near the Trans-Isthmian Highway that links Panama City, on the Pacific, to Colón, on the Atlantic. Along the road, exhaust-spewing trucks rumble through villages of concrete homes painted in pastel shades of green and yellow. Young girls in plaid skirts walk to and from school. Egrets can sometimes be seen flying over the highway.

The golf course was built in the 1940s and 1950s for canal personnel. It has recently been refurbished by a Panamanian businessman and opened for public play. It’s a hilly course with holes bounded by tropical forests and head-high elephant grass. Howler monkeys could be heard in the trees as we played our shots. Alemán Zubieta said that when he was a boy, the only way he could play this course was to pretend he was a caddie and participate in an occasional caddies’ tournament. When I asked him how the canal was doing, he rattled off statistics like a salesman giving a presentation: “One measure of quality is the average time, including waits at the entry points, that a ship needs to make the crossing,” he said. “In 1996-97, we were about 32 hours on average. Today we are below 24.”

The canal operated in both 2001 and 2002 with only 17 accidents per year in a total of more than 26,000 transits— the best safety record in its history. In the four years since the turnover, total employment has gone from more than 10,000 workers to between 8,000 and 9,000, with claims of greater efficiency.

Panamanians have installed computerized navigational and tracking devices that enable canal officials to follow every vessel in the canal. They have also accelerated the pace of maintenance in the Gaillard Cut, which requires constant dredging because the soil on either side is unstable and prone to mud and rock slides, especially during the long rainy season. The dredging has widened the cut by some 120 to 200 feet since the treaties were signed a hundred years ago. Panama expects to be able to allow 24-hour two-way traffic in the cut soon, even with vessels the size of the Falstaff. (At present, the biggest ships transit at different times. Atlanticbound traffic might go through the cut in the morning, Pacific- bound traffic in the afternoon.) On top of all that, Alemán Zubieta told me, the canal has managed to double the annual payment it makes to the government of Panama from $135 million in 1999 to $270 million in 2002.

But the canal is not a spigot that spits out money. The Panamanians are, in Alemán Zubieta’s words, “constrained by the market.” Tolls have been raised four times since the turnover (the Falstaff paid more than $143,000 for its transit), but if tolls get too high, shippers might choose to go through the Suez Canal or unload containers on either coast of the United States and ship them onward by rail. Thus, if Panama wishes to grow its economy, it must look beyond the canal.

As if to underscore the point as I spoke with Alemán Zubieta on the golf course, a train chugged by on the Panama Canal Railway, pulling open carriages, each laden with two truck-size containers. Completed in 1855, it once shuttled prospectors en route to the California gold fields across the isthmus. More recently it has proved a training ground for Panamanians in managing assets transferred by the United States. Their record after the 1979 takeover was not encouraging. The railroad became a fiefdom of the military, which at that time controlled the country. (Strongman Manuel Noriega, who was removed by American troops in 1989, was convicted in 1992 of six counts of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering. He is currently serving a 40-year sentence in a federal prison in Miami.) Track and rolling stock deteriorated for lack of maintenance, and the payroll was bloated with politically connected employees who did little more than collect checks. By the 1990s, the railroad was unsafe, ran few trains and required millions of dollars a year in government subsidies.

In 1998, the Panamanians tried another approach—privatization and foreign management. The government granted a 50-year concession to operate the railroad to a joint venture created by the Kansas City Southern Railroad and Mi-Jack, an Illinois company that manufactures freight-handling equipment. The new venture has rebuilt tracks, renewed rolling stock and improved freight carriage. Recently it bought and refurbished six passenger cars, including a glass-roofed 1938 Southern Pacific observation car, which had been serving as an ice-cream parlor in Jacksonville, Florida. The observation car now has air-conditioning, mahogany paneling, leather seats and wall-to-wall carpeting.

The passenger train, which leaves Panama City at 7:15 a.m., permits passengers to see a cross section of the country. Pulling out of the station, you can see remnants of the old Canal Zone, row after row of precisely positioned buildings, formerly used as offices and barracks. They are now given over to a variety of uses, but still testify to the American military culture that built them. Next comes a district of blocky, concrete structures with patchy lawns and low palm trees. Once housing for American administrators and technicians, they are now sold on the open market for about $100,000.A few minutes later, the train slips into a rain forest. Trees crowd the tracks. Heron take flight over algal ponds. GatunLake appears on the western side of the track, freighters churning through it. Within an hour, the train enters Colón, the country’s chief Atlantic port. Laundry flaps from clotheslines and paint peels in trackside neighborhoods. The only thing gleaming in Colón is the sweat on the backs of its inhabitants.

Privatization, accompanied by foreign management, has had an impact not just on the railroad but on other key sectors of Panama’s economy in the six years since concessions were given out. Major ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal are run now by Hutchison-Whampoa, Ltd., a Hong Kong firm. The Panamanian government has sold its electrical utilities to several foreign-owned companies and 49 percent of its telephone company to Britain’s Cable & Wireless.

If there are Panamanians who see this as colonialism via the backdoor, I met very few of them. “The model chosen to open the railroad to private investment and to bring in the most efficient technology has proved to be the right one, and it’s already paying dividends to the Panamanian economy,” says Juan Carlos Navarro, the mayor of Panama City, who has degrees from both Dartmouth and Harvard.

The Panamanians I met were less concerned with colonialism than with making a living in a poor country under the auspices of a government plagued by corruption. I dropped in one afternoon on a boxing gymnasium in Curundu, a neighborhood in Panama City filled with grim, concrete tenements. The gym is a humid place with a tin roof, concrete walls painted a fading blue, and a concrete floor.

A bright brass plaque on the outer wall says the gym was named for Pedro “El Roquero” Alcazár, a local boy who had trained here and was the 20th Panamanian boxer to hold a world championship. Alcazár won a World Boxing Organization championship in 2001 and held it until June 2002, when, in Las Vegas, a Mexican fighter named Fernando Montiel pounded Alcazár’s body and head until the fight was stopped in the sixth round. Two days later, Alcazár collapsed and died of brain swelling.

“He left five children by five different women,” Franklin Bedoya, a volunteer coach at the gym, told me. “None of them has seen any of his purse. It’s been held up by some sort of investigation.”

Around us, young men were hitting heavy bags, sparring, skipping rope. Panamanian fighters tend to be from the lower weight, as well as the lower socioeconomic, classes. Their bodies are pared to bone, muscle, and skin the color of coffee, from mocha to black.

When I asked Bedoya what motivated young men to follow El Roquero’s path, he summoned a young fighter named JoséMena. José is 15 years old, weighs 108 pounds and has already had 36 amateur fights. “I want to be a professional when I turn 18 so I can get my mother and my sister out of this neighborhood,” he told me. “It’s dangerous. Sometimes the gangs here have trouble and shoot at one another.”

And bystanders can get hurt?

He nodded, then showed me the jab, hook and uppercut combination he hopes will be his ticket out.

The odds against that, of course, are long. I talked to another, slightly older boxer named Jairo Arango. He was short, slightly built, with a scarred left eyebrow that marred an incongruously soft and boyish face. He had occasionally been a sparring partner for Pedro Alcazár, and he had gotten almost to the pinnacle in the 105-pound division. He’d had a shot at the title bout, fighting champion Jorge Mata in Mata’s home country of Spain, but lost the decision. He held two fingers less than an inch apart to show me how close he’d come to being champion of the world.

I asked him how much he’d cleared from that fight. “Six thousand dollars,” he replied. It was enough to buy some furniture for his wife and daughter. It was not enough to get out of Curundu.

From Curundu, Arango could see the wealthier parts of Panama City. The capital is compact, spread along the shore of a broad bay of the Pacific. From almost anywhere in the area, a person can see the glass-and-marble towers of the banking district and the gleaming, high-rise condominiums of Punta Paitilla, where the wealthy live. In between Curundu and Punta Paitilla there are narrow, crowded streets full of traffic and American fast-food restaurants; markets where the poor can buy plastic shoes for about a dollar; storefront Protestant churches and graceful Catholic cathedrals; squat houses with sagging shutters and newer projects with paint peeling from their concrete facades.

But in Punta Paitilla, boutiques sell the best Italian shoes and the cars on the streets tend to be sedans from Germany and SUVs from Japan and the United States. Security guards protect the entrances to the condominium towers.

Punta Paitilla’s union club was founded by and for Panama’s rabiblancos. The name means, literally, “white tails,” and it is a reference to skin color, the traditional elite of the country being descended from the old Spanish gentry. The club has diversified its membership somewhat in recent years, admitting a few Jews and a handful of darker faces. But the membership is still overwhelmingly white and Christian. The club occupies a modern stucco building on a low bluff overlooking the bay. When members drive up under the porte-cochere, they face an open lobby that affords a view of surf breaking on the rocks below and, in the distance, ships waiting to enter the canal. It is an elegant setting for business lunches, wedding receptions and family meals on Sundays, when Panama’s maids and cooks have the day off. I dined there with a Panamanian businessman on white damask tablecloths embossed with the club seal. Through the windows we could see children frolicking in the club pool.

My host, who preferred not to be identified by name, makes his living in part as a consultant to companies doing business in Panama’s zona libre, or free trade zone, which is in Colón. Merchants in the zone, an enormous, enclosed district of storefronts and warehouses, may import goods without paying duty as long as the goods are reexported to another country. There are no retail sales in the zone. The customers are themselves retailers, mostly from the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s the place to go if you are, say, a small Peruvian electronics dealer looking to purchase a stock of Japanese computers and television sets.

One of the services my host provides, he said, is the offthe- shelf shell corporation, fully registered for business in Panama. Aclient can buy it from him for $20,000 and put it to whatever use he pleases, including establishing a business in the zona libre. Sometimes, he says, a client will balk and say that $20,000 is too much to pay for what amounts to a folder full of paperwork.

“I explain to the client that he can indeed establish his own corporation and get it licensed to do business,” my host told me. He paused to order a white wine and an orange juice from a waiter in black tie. “But he will find that he needs the signatures of 36 different bureaucrats to accomplish this. And then he will find that each of these bureaucrats happens to be ‘on vacation’ when he needs his paper signed, and only for the inducement of, say, a month’s salary, can the man be persuaded to return to the office and sign.”

The waiter returned, and my host mixed the wine and orange juice together.

“Eventually, most of them realize that the most efficient way to do business is to buy the shell corporation,” he said. He shrugged, almost apologetically.

The cynicism in that shrug seems to permeate all classes in Panama. In an indoor shopping mall one morning, I spoke to Carmen Sota, a tall, dark-skinned woman wearing a shirt emblazoned with a popular American export, the yellow smiley face. The mall, which featured a range of goods from clothing to housewares at low prices, could have been transplanted from any typical American city.

Her husband, Soto said, is an auto mechanic whose income ranges from $600 to $800 per month—a middle-class wage in Panama, where the per capita annual income is about $6,000. She herself used to work in a plant that stamps designs on shirts, but she quit when she decided her 13-year-old son needed her at home. The family had tightened its belt, selling a car. She’d come to the mall to buy jeans for her son.

“The politicians here are insincere and dishonest,” she said. “They promise things like roads when they’re campaigning, but then they don’t do anything. They forget about the people when they are elected.

“I don’t vote,” she added.

“We’re in the process of learning to be a country,” Victoria Figge told me one morning. She works for a company that specializes in fraud prevention and analyzes risk for potential foreign investors. “We are learning how to be dependent on ourselves. Don’t forget that even though we’re celebrating our centennial, we’ve really only been independent for a few years, since the last American troops left.”

I did hear words of cautious optimism from some quarters in Panama, particularly those involved with the country’s enormous natural bounty. As Panama seeks to diversify and improve its economy, it is looking to use the resources of its rain forests and parks and develop eco-tourism. I got a glimpse of its potential one morning at a hotel called the CanopyTower, about 20 miles outside of Panama City in a national park called Soberanía (Sovereignty). The structure is a corrugated metal cylinder 50 feet high, painted aqua, with a yellow fiberglass sphere that looks a little like a soccer ball perched atop it. It began life as an American military radar station, on a ridge called Semaphore Hill. In the last years of the American military presence, it tracked drug runners’ planes coming from Colombia.

When the Americans left, a Panamanian businessman and birding enthusiast named Raúl Arias de Para acquired the rights to manage the property and set about beating the American sword into a plowshare. He installed a dozen wedge-shaped bedrooms inside the cylinder. On the top level, he built a casually elegant lounge and dining area encircled by windows. Atop that, wedged under the yellow soccer ball, he built an observation deck with a 360-degree view of the surrounding rain forest and, in the distance, the canal.

The beauty of this is that it allows guests to see the birds face to face. Near dawn on the day I visited, I climbed through a hatch to the observation deck to watch and listen as the forest awakened. Astaff member provided fresh coffee. Howler monkeys bellowed somewhere to the north. Mist floated over the forested hilltops of the Continental Divide. The sun came up from the general direction of the Pacific. (Because of the way the isthmus lies, the Pacific end of the canal is southeast of the Atlantic end.)

Using binoculars and the naked eye, the guests around me began to spot birds. Some 15 yards away a pair of keel-billed toucans preened. They were green, yellow, carmine, aqua and orange—and those were just the colors in their enormous beaks. (They are the colors, not coincidentally, that Arias de Para’s decorator chose for the hotel.) To the east, a pair of green parrots flew over the treetops. Farther in the distance someone pointed out a blue cotinga, its feathers the intense color of a flame. The cotinga seemed to be watching us watching him.

Arias de Para and his guests have logged roughly 300 different species around the hotel in the five years since he opened it. After breakfast, he and the cheerful guides on his staff take the guests out in search of still more species to add to their life lists, advising them first to smack a sock filled with powdered sulfur around their ankles; the yellow dust repels some of the forest’s less appealing species, such as chiggers.

This is the sort of tourism that Panamanian environmentalists hope to develop. They would like to avoid the Cancunization of their country’s beaches and forests. They would prefer a network of small lodges with very light footprints, catering to tourists who want to see Panama’s birds, reefs, rain forests and national parks without destroying them.

Their vision is possible in part because of an accidental American legacy. The United States permitted very little development in the former Canal Zone, though not because it cared about eco-tourism. The canal requires huge amounts of fresh water. Every large ship that makes a transit requires 52 million gallons from GatunLake—26 million to raise it and 26 million to lower it. That water is flushed away into the sea. Avirgin rain forest was therefore good for canal operations. It soaked up water in the rainy season (the Atlantic half of the isthmus alone gets about 120 inches of rain in an average year) and released it slowly during the four-month dry season. So, compared with those in some other tropical countries, Panama’s rain forests have been well preserved. In addition to hundreds of species of birds, they harbor an impressive variety of flora and wildlife, from orchids to ocelots.

“Fifteen percent of Panama’s territory is in national parks,” I was told by Lider Sucre, director of the National Association for the Conservation of Nature, Panama’s leading environmental organization. This, according to the World Resources Institute, makes Panama’s biosphere one of the world’s most extensively protected. It is roughly five times the percentage of national territory devoted to parks in the United States.

Tourism is only one way Panama hopes to capitalize on its rain forests. There is also bio-prospecting. I got a look at this enterprise on a visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (see “World View,” page 14), or STRI, which is located on an island called Barro Colorado in GatunLake. Since 1923, scientists at STRI have been studying the ecology of rain forests.

Research biologist Joe Wright showed me around the island. Arain forest at ground level looks and smells much different than it does at canopy level. On the ground, it is dark and shadowy. The air is humid, thick. Insects are seen more often than birds.

Wright pointed out a line of large, red leaf-cutter ants making their way toward their nest. Each ant had a bit of leaf perhaps half again its size clenched in its jaws. These ants, he said, have played a part in bio-prospecting.

Leaf-cutter ants are farmers of a sort. Foraging members of the colony march about the rain forest in long lines, cutting pieces of vegetation from a variety of plants and carrying them back to the nest. In the nest, other ants chew the leaf bits into pulp. The masticated leaf material is packed into an underground chamber about the size of a football. This pulp becomes a field on which a fungus grows. The ants feed on the fungus.

A biologist named Stephen Hubbell, who worked on Barro Colorado in the mid-1980s, began a study of the plants that leaf-cutter ants selected—and did not select—for their farming needs. Hubbell enlisted a young biologist named Jerome Howard and a chemist named David Wiemer in the work, which was conducted partly on Barro Colorado and partly in Costa Rica.

They found that among the trees leaf-cutter ants avoided was one called Hymenaea courbaril. The team performed a series of tests on extracts from its leaves, observing which extracts the ants avoided. Eventually, they isolated some 70 compounds with potential antifungal applications, though none, thus far, has proved commercially viable.

The lab work that led to the discovery of these compounds was carried out at the University of Iowa, not in Panama. Panama’s challenge in the post-American era is to make certain that intellectual products from its rain forests create jobs and wealth for Panamanians.

The country now participates in a program called International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG). Its goal is to develop new drugs and pharmaceuticals from molecular compounds discovered in Panamanian rain forests, doing the research—from specimen gathering to lab analysis—in Panama. Some of that work is done in what was an American military base—FortClayton. The base is now known as Ciudad del Saber, the City of Knowledge, and several of its old buildings have been refurbished as laboratories, where researchers are looking for compounds to use against HIV and tropical diseases.

There are promising signs. Using a biological assay technique developed in Panama, an ICBG researcher in Puerto Rico recently reported isolating compounds in the Caribbean gorgonian coral that are active against the parasites that cause malaria.

It makes for an interesting neighborhood. Ciudad del Saber is very near the canal and the Miraflores Locks. In a short time, it’s possible to walk from what may be a source of future marvels to a source of marvel in 1914.

I made that walk when I watched the Falstaff on its canal transit. The canal may no longer be as strategically vital as it was when it first opened. There are vessels, both naval and commercial, that are too big for its locks, and Panama will have to decide soon whether to try to expand the canal with a new, much larger set of locks. Expansion could be fraught with unforeseen consequences, both to the country’s treasury and to its environment. But even in its present form, the canal is still an impressive testament to the politicians who conceived it, to the engineers and laborers who built it, and to the Panamanians who run it today.

The Falstaff spent 13 minutes rising 27 feet in the lock. A bell rang. Gates at the far end of the lock swung open. The water under her fantail began to froth as its propeller churned. Slowly, the ship moved out toward the Atlantic. She was bound for Brunswick, Georgia. She was scheduled to arrive in four days.

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