The Dreamers: Part 4 of 10
Pedro leaned on his cane watching ships pass through the marvel of the Panama Canal in 1923. Though nearly 70 now, he still came often to see his life’s dream in action. He never tired of witnessing vessels rising and falling in the massive lock chambers, eliminating the hazardous Cape Horn route around South America.
In just 10 years since opening, cargo tonnage transiting the canal had already quadrupled. Countless ships flying flags from around the world now connected the vibrant economies of the Atlantic and Pacific. The canal lived up to its billing as the “8th Wonder of the World.”
Looking around, Pedro marveled at how profoundly the canal had transformed Panama itself. The quiet colonial outpost was now a modern bustling hub attracting entrepreneurs, merchants, and visitors from everywhere. Panama City was booming with new construction, businesses, and luxury hotels. Fortunes were being made.
Yet Pedro knew this prosperity had come at great cost. Over 5,600 lives were lost in the American construction effort, though far less than the catastrophic French attempt. Hundreds more men, including many friends, had perished from accidents or illnesses in subsequent years maintaining the massive canal complex.
In Culebra, Pedro visited a modest memorial bearing the blurred names of men buried in the Cut’s landslides long ago. He left a handful of wildflowers. Progress never came easy here, he reflected sadly.
However, most Panamanians like Pedro were immensely proud of their canal and the country’s new place prominently on the world stage. The waterway generating over $2 million in toll revenues daily was transforming the national economy, funding improvements in infrastructure, education, and public health.
Yet this growing prosperity remained largely limited to white Panamanians and resident Zone workers while average citizens in the country still suffered poverty and lack of rights. A rising tide of resentment grew against the Americans’ paternalistic control over the Canal Zone surrounding the waterway. Tensions escalated as Panamanians demanded greater benefits from their national treasure.
The Canal Zone itself was an immaculate spectacle of order compared to chaotic Panama proper. The Americans administered the Zone as a colonial holding, with courts, postal service, police, schools, modern infrastructure and sanitation far surpassing the surrounding nation.
Pedro understood the roots of conflict between the Panamanians barred from the Zone and the elite American technocrats and military officers who lived in a pristine slice of US society transplanted overseas. Resentment simmered on both sides.
Over the years, Pedro had built warm relations with individual Zone residents. But overall the arrangement was a glaring emblem of lopsided power and inequity. And likely unsustainable.
Criticizing America openly was dangerous given the constant police presence. But in his old age, Pedro no longer stayed silent in the face of injustice. The struggle to build the canal had taught him solidarity with people of all nations and races striving as one.
In 1931, Pedro supported daring student protests demanding the right to raise Panama’s flag alongside America’s in the Zone. When police fatally shot protester Carlos Mendoza, a massive riot erupted. Pedro aided the wounded though teargas filled the streets.
The uprising forced America to abolish the deeply unpopular dual school system favoring white Zone residents. Pedro considered young Carlos the first martyr in Panama’s long campaign to regain control of its canal and destiny. More would undoubtedly come.
By the 1960s, anti-US protests and riots surged as Panamanian nationalism flourished. America’s military presence became a lightning rod. When three students were killed in 1964 protesting the Canal Zone flag outside Balboa High School, international condemnation grew.
Pedro, nearly 100 now, could feel history’s momentum toward Panamanian sovereignty over the canal. But America would not release its grip easily on this vital geostrategic asset allowing its ships passage between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.
However in 1977, President Jimmy Carter surprised the world by agreeing to a treaty transferring control of the canal to Panama by December 31, 1999. Pedro rejoiced at the news, feeling the sacrifices of his generation were finally being repaid. Though too frail to join the massive street celebrations, he proudly flew Panama’s flag outside his home.
In his final years, Pedro thrilled to watch jurisdiction over areas like the Canal Zone gradually return to Panama’s authority. Self-governance seemed like a dream finally emerging from the darkness.
On December 31, 1999 Pedro lay elderly but aware in a hospice bed, gazing out his window at the canal he had faithfully served since youth. As the clock struck midnight, church bells pealed celebrating Panama’s long-awaited assumption of full control. Fireworks filled the sky.
Pedro’s heart swelled with joy as the Panamanian flag was hoisted over the canal administration building. Though demurring credit, his spirit had helped will this moment into history. His life’s purpose felt complete witnessing a new era dawning.
With a weary smile, Pedro whispered “Misión cumplida – mission accomplished,” and finally gave himself permission to rest. He passed gently as the people of Panama cheered the rebirth of their canal and country. The old dreamer’s work was done. A new generation now charted the waters ahead.