Books instead of weapons, students instead of soldiers


Words by the former President of the Republic (1994-1999), Ernesto Pérez Balladares, on the 20th anniversary of the City of Knowledge during the Traditional Planting of Flags that is held annually to celebrate the Month of the Country.

As a result of the recent events in Chile, the former president of that country, Ricardo Lagos, expressed in an interview, a thought on which I have meditated a lot these days, when we prepare to celebrate the national holidays and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the City of knowledge. “Each generation has its epic,” were his words. It is a sentence with universal validity.

I thought then of the epic of those professionals and young people who, defying the jurisdictional limitations of the time, planted flags in the old Canal Zone.

I thought about the epic of those students from the National Institute and university students who on January 9, 1964 decided that sovereignty and our flag were worth more than their own lives.

I thought about the epic of the negotiations led by General Omar Torrijos, who, with no other arsenal than the strength of arguments and with no other resource than the moral of our claims, obtained from the greatest military power in the world the return of the canal and the end of their military presence in our territory.

And I remembered the epic that meant preparing ourselves to assume our responsibilities derived from the Torrijos-Carter treaties, to administer the canal as of December 31, 1999 and give these facilities the greatest collective use possible. If there is a place in our country that represents and remembers all those epics, it is this City of Knowledge.

Today we return to plant Panamanian flags to remember those acts of the 1950s and 1960s where they did it when this soil was still under foreign jurisdiction.    What was then coined as a slogan of the time, is a beautiful reality today: flags were planted and sovereignty was harvested.

From here, we can see this transit of ships through the Miraflores locks, to remember that less than 20 years ago they did so under the laws of another country, and that today they do so under an administration that is completely Panamanian.    There lies the symbol of the struggle and the cause that united our country.

And, in addition, these facilities that used to be the headquarters of the Southern Command, constitute a tangible proof of the way in which a gigantic foreign military structure has become a source of employment and knowledge. Sure enough, as we said more than 20 years ago (what seemed like just a rhetorical phrase to many): instead of weapons today we have books and instead of soldiers, students and professionals.

Sometimes the epics of each generation are determined by its people, sometimes their rulers, and sometimes by the circumstances they encounter.

Throughout the last century, the Panamanian people, especially its youth, decided that their priority, their historical role, was to initiate, at any cost, the full recovery of our sovereignty. And Omar Torrijos led the final part of that epic, and left us the immense task of implementing what he had achieved. That was not an easy task.

Those who today enjoy these facilities, those who today observe the transit of ships with curiosity and admiration, those who today see how the so-called Reverted Areas grow and develop, cannot even imagine the epic that meant recovering and reconverting them.

Preparing the legal infrastructure, which included a constitutional title, organic law and regulations for the operation of the Canal, was an odyssey itself, since in addition to the legal work, it was essential to build the necessary political consensus for the tasks before us.  

But it was not only about preparing ourselves to receive and start operating the Canal in an efficient, safe, and profitable way. We also had to decide what to do, how to manage colossal military and civil installations and incorporate them into national development.

That is how we came to the idea of turning the headquarters of the Southern Command into headquarters for culture, headquarters for entrepreneurship and for international organizations. In this regard, I would like to highlight the contributions of all those who helped make the City of Knowledge what it is today, from Gabriel Lewis Galindo and Fernando Eleta, at the beginning, the trustees of yesterday and today, and to all those who, like Jorge Arosemena and Irene Perurena,  work with mysticism, dedication, and patriotism.

I must say, without any false modesty, that I am proud to have directed the preparation of our country to assume the responsibilities that the 21st century held for us, and it fills me with immense satisfaction to note that this titanic task – impossible for many — was fully accomplished.   The results are visible.

But more important than highlighting how well we have done it or what we can improve, is to identify the epic that corresponds to this generation, because, just as it was to recover the Canal, we have to prepare ourselves to manage it and make the most of the facilities that were delivered to us. Today, there does not seem to be that mystique and unity of purpose required for great national tasks.

It has been said, and I hope it becomes a reality, that the great national crusade that is coming is for education and the eradication of poverty. The task is not an easy one, and hopefully the rich experience amassed on how to lead the country into one direction can serve that purpose.

Thus, those epics of the last century will acquire even more meaning, which were not so when they began. At the beginning, it was only just a few professionals (Aquilino Boyd, Ernesto Castillero, to name a few) and young idealists who planted the first flags; at first, there were six students from the National Institute who carried that sacred patriotic symbol on January 9, 1964; at the beginning it was a voice that shouted “Governor of what,” and on all other occasions afterwards it was the entire Panamanian people who embraced the aspiration of seeing a single flag fly in our territory.

That is why I say to you, dear friends, that the City of Knowledge, without those of us who conceived its creation setting out to do so, has become in these 20 years, the symbol of all those struggles, of all those epics past.   My hope and wish is that it will also be part of the future epics.

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