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Pan-American Highway Just a Road to Nowhere

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Associated Press Writer

Painted chin to toe with the black juice of the jagua fruit, the bare-chested 19-year-old mother sits atop her raised wooden hut and wonders about a place far away.

Marta Manjoma says she would never go to Panama City, a 12-hour canoe trip down the Pirre River to the nearest road, followed by a day-long bus ride along the muddy track that leads to the developed world.

“People can’t bathe in the river there, and I imagine that would make them feel bad,” the Embera Indian said, smiling shyly. “Besides, I think I’d get lost.”

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Surrounded for miles by a jungle of monkeys, iguanas and spiders, 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 scheme in the Western Hemisphere, a broad road leading from Alaska to Argentina that was to spur commerce, tourism and development throughout the Americas.

Designed early in the 20th century as “the greatest single achievement towards the goal of American unity and solidarity,” the Pan-American Highway stands unfinished at the dawn of the 21st, a crumbling monument to the ephemeral dream of an Americas united.

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Like many grandiose schemes, this one was hatched in the United States.

It was the early 1920s, a time of grand visions and hope for the future. The stock market was booming; prosperity was in the air. A recent invention, the automobile, was revolutionizing the way that people and products moved. And the United States, triumphant in World War I, was trying out its new role as a world leader.

Although ambitious, the vision seemed natural enough: a road that would stretch for thousands of miles through mountains and marshes, jungles and deserts, from the United States’ southern border to the far reaches of South America.

In early 1923, leaders of the Americas 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 original route of the Pan-American Highway now traverses 8,909 miles from Laredo, Texas, through 13 countries to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Head north from Laredo and you can travel on good highways all the way to Alaska. Head south, and it is a different story.

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All along that highway, people are trying to get to the end of the road: the promised land of the United States.

The pilgrimage north is a rite of passage in many Latin American towns. Young men -- and, less frequently, women -- find work in the United States and send money home to their families. In some regions, entire towns are empty of working-age men.

“We old people are the only ones left here,” Roberto Chantac said in his roadside shack in El Salvador, Mexico. It is his 63rd birthday, but he is alone. None of his 12 children lives near enough to celebrate it with him. All have made the journey north.

The money these workers 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. 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 immigrants to illegally cross 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.

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Just as there is no completed Pan-American Highway, there is no Pan-American identity. Scenes along the roadway reveal a continent still struggling with its sense of self.

The highway passes skyscrapers and hovels, computer factories and subsistence corn plots, dust storms and blizzards. It cuts through civil war and enduring peace, oil booms and mineral busts, pristine rainforests and toxic rivers. It passes a variety of races, religions and languages; it glimpses dreams and disappointments.

The very concept of Latin America has little meaning along the road.

It is a term used by outsiders to refer to those Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking peoples living in all those culturally diverse countries south of the border. Within the region, it has never coalesced into an identity.

“Latin America is a North American idea,” said sociologist Marcos Gandasegui in Panama. “That identity doesn’t exist.”

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The nations along the Pan-American Highway have failed to come together internally as well. Throughout the region, rich and poor contemplate one another across a huge economic and cultural divide.

Latin America’s upper classes employ families of servants, shop in Miami and play golf in country clubs.

At the Salute! restaurant, a Mexico City “in” spot, bodyguards loiter among valets parking armored sport utility vehicles. Waiters with dark faces hover over tables where people with white faces drink champagne.

A few miles away, in Mexico City’s Valle de Chalco slum, Griselda Lazo considers what she can buy with the $4 she makes in a day working as a maid. In her hand she holds three tiny tomatoes, four jalapeno peppers, a small bunch of cilantro and a stack of tortillas.

“I try to eat meat once a week,” she said. “Even if it’s only bones, it takes away the craving.”

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All along the Pan-American Highway, signs of American 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 American 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 widespread official use of the greenback. But the transition isn’t always smooth.

In 2000, a coup brought down President Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador after he proclaimed the country’s change from the sucre to the dollar, but his successor, Gustavo Noboa, went ahead with the plan.

“It was a very unpopular measure,” Noboa said. “But I’m not Mr. Congeniality.”

The last sucres were exchanged at 7:35 p.m. June 8, 2001, when 18-year-old Juan Vallejos, at the very end of a long line at Quito’s Central Bank, finally got to the teller windows.

He didn’t know how many sucres he had in the plastic bags he carried. He knew only that his mother had told him to exchange them rather than watch their savings disappear. After his sucres were counted, he timidly reached out for his dollars.

The teller deposited a nickel and two pennies in his hand.

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Every year, billions of dollars in goods and millions of carloads of people move on sections of the Pan-American Highway. But there is still no road linking North and South America. A single break still 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 in the Colombian countryside amid guerrillas and poppy fields.

There are no prospects that this gap will be closed. 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, politicians have cited engineering hurdles and the multimillion-dollar cost. But there are larger problems too.

Environmentalists worry that the road would encourage development and 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 continuation of the highway makes no sense,” said Jose Manuel Perez of Panama’s Economics and Finance Ministry.

The men who devoted their youth to building the road are dying off 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 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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