- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

PIJIBASAL, Panama Marta Manjoma, a 19-year-old mother, says she would never go to Panama City, a 12-hour canoe trip down the Pirre River to the nearest road, followed by a daylong, bone-jarring bus ride along the muddy track that leads to the developed world.
"I think I'd get lost," said Mrs. Manjoma, an Embera Indian.
Surrounded for miles by a jungle of monkeys, iguanas, and thousands of species of spiders and snakes, Mrs. Manjoma's village, a collection of 15 thatched-roof huts on stilts, has never seen electricity, running water or a telephone.
And yet it was supposed to be at the center of the most-ambitious development plan in the Western Hemisphere. Pijibasal lies smack in the middle of yellowing plans for a broad road leading from Alaska to Argentina a road that was to spur commerce, tourism and development throughout the Americas.
Designed early in the 20th century, the Pan-American Highway stands unfinished at the dawn of the 21st, a crumbling monument to an ephemeral dream hatched in the United States.
It was the early 1920s, a time of energy and hope for the future. The stock market was booming; prosperity was in the air. The automobile was revolutionizing the way people and products moved. And the United States, triumphant in World War I, was trying out its new role as a world leader.
Though ambitious, the vision seemed natural enough: a road that would stretch for thousands of miles through mountains and marshes, jungles and deserts, from the southern border of the United States to the far reaches of South America.
In early 1923, leaders of the Americas gathered at Santiago, Chile, for the Fifth International Conference of American States. There, they endorsed the proposal for a Pan-American Highway.
With infusions of U.S. cash, laborers and construction equipment began to work their way out from the major cities, leveling dirt and laying asphalt along trails previously used only by horses and pedestrians.
The Pan-American Highway traverses 8,909 miles south from Laredo, Texas, through 13 countries to Buenos Aires.
Head north from Laredo and you can travel on good highways all the way to Alaska. Head south, and it's a different story.
True, the Pan-American Highway broadens to a smooth, 12-lane toll road as it passes mirrored office buildings on the approach to Buenos Aires. But much of it is bad road. It turns into a muddy rut near Yaviza, Panama, where the roadway comes to an abrupt end, and trucks often have to be winched out of the muck.
All along the Pan-American Highway, people are trying to get to the end of the road: the United States.
The pilgrimage north is a rite of passage in many Latin Americans towns. Young men and, less frequently, women from poor countries find work in the United States.
The money they send home is the largest source of foreign income in some Central American countries. It accounts for billions of dollars a year in Mexico, where President Vicente Fox calls the migrants heroes.
But the journey becomes more dangerous and arduous every year.
For Mexicans and Central Americans, it involves long trips on battered buses, some still bearing the names of the U.S. school districts from which they were retired, up the Pan-American Highway to the border. For South Americans, it can mean airplane rides to Mexico followed by perilous hikes through the desert.
Completing the Pan-American Highway would make that trip easier. That is one of the main arguments against finishing it.
The U.S. government doesn't want to make it easier for illegal immigrants to reach its borders. Mexicans don't want to make it easier for South Americans to use their country as a way station to the promised land.
Just as there is no completed Pan-American Highway, there is no pan-American identity. The very concept of Latin America has little meaning along the road.
It is a term used mainly by outsiders to refer to those Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people living in all those culturally diverse countries south of Texas.
"Latin America is a North American idea," said sociologist Marcos Gandasegui of Panama's Center for Latin American Studies. "That identity doesn't exist."
All along the Pan-American Highway, signs of U.S. corporate influence abound.
Domino's dominates the pizza-delivery market in many countries. Roads are clogged with Fords and Chevrolets. Televisions light up with "Temptation Island." People shampoo with Clairol.
From the beginning, the Pan-American Highway was envisioned as an artery for U.S. goods and influence. Even though the road was never finished, both have arrived in abundance an invasion that does not always benefit the people of Latin America.
One of the clearest signs of U.S. influence is the greenback.
Panama has used the dollar since gaining independence in a U.S.-sponsored secession from Colombia in 1903. The dollar has helped give the economy stability and avoid the hyperinflation that has plagued some of Panama's neighbors. Panama remains one of the few places in Latin America where people can buy houses and cars on credit.
Following the Panamanian example, El Salvador and Guatemala have both adopted the dollar alongside their local currencies. But the transition isn't always smooth.
Argentina's economy is in shambles after a 1991 decree linking its currency to the dollar backfired and forced a savage devaluation.
In 2000, a coup brought down President Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador after he proposed the country's change from the sucre to the dollar. Hours later, Vice President Gustavo Noboa went on national television to announce he was the new president and that dollarization would go ahead.
"It was a very unpopular measure," Mr. Noboa says. "But I'm not Mr. Congeniality, I'm the president."
The last sucres were exchanged at 7:35 p.m. June 8, 2001, when a line snaking through the parking lot of Quito's Central Bank finally came to an end. They came from a few plastic bags in the hands of Juan Vallejos, an 18-year-old student who traveled 45 minutes by bus and waited three hours in line.
He didn't know how many sucres he had, just that his mother had told him to exchange them rather than watch their savings disappear. He timidly approached the counter and handed over his money, which the teller ran through a counting machine. Then he reached out for the dollars.
And the teller deposited a nickel and two pennies in his hand.
Every year, billions of dollars in goods and millions of carloads of people move on sections of the Pan-American Highway, crossing borders as diverse as the nations of the Americas.
But there is still no road linking North and South America. A single break, known as the Darien Gap, separates the road systems of the two continents.
The highway peters out in the Panamanian jungle outpost of Yaviza, crawling to life again 85 miles to the southeast, across the Darien Rainforest, in the Colombian countryside amid guerrillas and poppy fields.
There are no prospects that this gap will be closed.
A new proposal for an Americas-wide free-trade zone, which the Bush administration has pushed aggressively, makes no mention of the highway.
The final stretch through the jungle was scheduled to be built in the late 1950s, but the United States, concerned about cattle diseases spreading north and security along the Panama Canal, backed out.
In the years since, obstacles have mounted. Politicians have cited the engineering hurdles and the multimillion-dollar cost of building a road through a swampy rain forest straddling two poor countries. But that is the least of it.
Environmentalists worry that the road would encourage development, and thus, deforestation, in Central America's most diverse ecosystem.
Panamanians fear the spread of Colombia's civil war and refugees crossing their border. Americans and Mexicans worry that the completed road would make it too easy for migrants and drugs to move up from the south.

The men who spent their youth building the road are dying now, disillusioned with the dream of bringing the Americas together.Amado Araus, 79, says he is the only surviving member of a four-month expedition that felled trees and improvised rafts to travel from Panama City to Bogota, Colombia, in a publicity stunt for the unfinished road in 1960.
"Time tells us that our project is a failure," he said. "This is no longer a matter for politicians. It is a matter for dreamers, like we were so many years ago."


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