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America's Cold War Legacy in Central America (Panama Part I)

Extending my literary research to former U.S. military bases in Panama.

View Panama 2008-2009 on AC Frieden's travel map.

Colon, Panama (Dec. 30, 2008) -- Well, some people prefer a white Christmas and New Years, sipping egg-nog and watching tree lights flicker, while others opt for blistering heat-filled holidays loaded with literary research objectives. Just as I did last year, I headed south. I arrived in Panama at 3 a.m. to start my research for two novels and focused part of my time on collecting information on the country's former U.S. military presence, a footprint that remains quite evident throughout central Panama today, even after all the U.S. troops have gone.


My first stop was at the former Fort Gulick, near the northern town of Colón. Fort Gulick used to be the home of the infamous School of the Americas (Esquela de las Americas), known best for its anti-communist training programs and sometimes referred to as the "school of the assassins." Today the base is a refurbished residential area and hosts the Melia Panama Canal Hotel, in the same building as the former school, where I stayed two nights for my research.

Above: I'm standing in front of an abandoned barracks at Fort Gulick, a former U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone, just south of Colón. Other barracks nearby have been renovated and turned into multifamily residences.

Above and below: The former Fort Gulick's main building that once served as the School of the Americas, and prior to that, as a hospital.


Located near the Quebrada Ancha portion of Lake Gatun, Fort Gulick was built to accommodate increased troop levels in the Canal Zone during the Second World War. Between 1949 and 1984, Fort Gulick became the home of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, where 29,000 military personnel, mostly from Central and South America, underwent training in various fields, including jungle warfare, counterinsurgency, interrogation techniques, and combat communications, among others. The former hospital served as the School of the Americas' headquarters building (Building #400). A U.S. Army Special Forces Group was also stationed at Fort Gulick since the 1960s.

Above and below: Inside the former Building #400, the main building of the School of the Americas, as it appears today -- as a luxury hotel (today the hotel is in need of additional renovations).


On September 7, 1977, the U.S. and Panama signed the Panama Canal Treaty that governed the gradual transition of U.S. territory in the Canal Zone to Panamanian control, which would be finalized in December 31, 1999. Under the Treaty, the U.S. retained control of various defense-related sites, including on the Pacific coast: Corozal, Albrook Air Force Station, Howard Air Force Base, Rodman Naval Station, Camp Semaphore, the Cocoll housing complex, Forts Clayton and Kobbe; and on the Atlantic/Caribbean side: Galeta Island, and Forts Davis and Sherman. There were other installations that were shared during much of that transition period, including on the Pacific side: Quarry Heights, Fort Amador, Curundu residential complex, Gorgas Army Hospital, Naval Station Rodman-Fort Amador, Summit Naval Radio Station, Chiva Chiva, the Empire Range, and, on the Atlantic/Caribbean side, Fort Gulick.

In the mid-1980s, control of a portion of Fort Gulick was turned over to the Republic of Panama, which renamed it Fuerte Espinar, and the School of the Americas was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia. The U.S. retook control of the base following its 1989 invasion of Panama. At the time of the invasion, Panama's security forces based at Fort Gulick were made up of the Octava Compañía de Infantería (Eighth Infantry Company), with 175 troops.

Above anb below: The pool and carefully manicured foliage was added when the building became a hotel.


Above: Aerial view of the former School (now the Melia Panama Canal Hotel) as I flew over the area on January 4, about ten days after staying at the place.

Above and below: Aerial views of the base.


Above: The west entrance linking Fort Gulick to Colon was controlled by this U.S. military checkpoint (Building #330). The north entrance (not pictured) led to the Boyd-Roosevelt Hwy.

Above: The former residence of the base commander and other top officers (four buildings in all in the area known as Cronkhite Loop). The homes have stunning waterfront views on the other side.

Above and below: The base's former theatre, which along with the nearby bowling alley and adjacent oversized pool, offered military personnel a luxury not available to the average Panamanian in those days.


Above: View of the main base road leading to the former School.

Above: The principal power and engineering facilities for the former base.

Above: Former military housing has been transformed into residential units, some as single-familiy and others as duplex/triplex. Most of the inhabitants are upper middle class, given the cost of these refurbished homes.


Above and two below: An aerial view of Howard Air Force base, including its aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings, housing facilities and other installations. I took the photo while flying directly above the former Rodman Naval Base.



With the conclusion of the Cold War, highlighted by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the United States military was trying to redefine it's role in Latin America while attempting to preserve it's former influence. Many in Congress and in the military were crafting a new primary focus to maintain influence over the continent: counter-narcotics. It is no coincidence that at a time when U.S. voters were increasingly looking for a peace dividend, the United States launched Operation Just Cause, to invade Panama and overthrow former ally General Manuel Noriega. It has only recently become clear that part of the long-term objectives of the invasion was to legitimately initiate renegotiations of the Panama Canal Treaties. Senior U.S. officials wanted to keep their military bases from transferring to Panamanian control, as the agreement had stated. In particular, U.S. officials wanted to maintain Howard Air Force base as a center of power projection for the region, albeit publicly calling its mission an anti-narcotics campaign. However, the political establishment in Panama was able to thwart U.S. policymakers by soliciting the support of human rights groups, other Latin American political bodies and, to a lesser extent, discouraging any U.S. support from neighboring countries.


Above: The Panama Canal Administrative Building sits atop Balboa Heights, at the foot of Ancon Hill. This picture was taken during my final approach to Galebert Airport (formerly Albrook Air Force Station).


Above and below: The Panama Canal Administrative Building.





amador and causeway

in amador






Above: The former Rodman Naval Base (below, right) was a key U.S. military facility until it was turned over to Panama in 1999. This picture was taken as I was flying south past the Miraflores Locks.




Above and below: The Panama Canal Zone Penitentiary was operated by the U.S. military until 1999.




----- Travel Essentials Summary (and ratings) -----
Hotel: Bananas Village Resort Isla Grande (8.0); Radisson Decapolis (8.5)
Restaurants: x (x); x (x); x (x)

All photos and text Copyright © 2009 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 12:38 Archived in Panama

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