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Definition: Pan-American Highway from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Road linking the USA with Central and South America; length 25,300 km/15,700 mi. Starting from the US-Canadian frontier (where it links with the Alaska Highway), it runs through San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mexico City to Panamá, then down the west side of South America to Valparaiso, Chile, where it crosses the Andes and goes to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The road was first planned in 1923, and work began in 1928. Completion of the final section, across the Darien Gap in Panama, will lead to a major ecological transformation of the region.

Summary Article: Pan American Highway
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Pan-Americanism
  • Economics and Trade

The Pan American Highway (Carretera Panamericana) is a 15,714-mile system of roads spanning the Americas from Alaska to Puerto Montt in southern Chile. Conceived in 1923 at the Fifth International Conference of American States, the highway was completed in 1963, with the exception of the Darién gap, a seventy-mile stretch between Panama and Colombia.

The Pan American Ideal

In 1923 participants at the Conference of American States held in Santiago, Chile, proposed the idea of a Pan American Highway linking the Americas. A year later, a team of engineers from nineteen Latin American countries went to Washington, D.C., to plan the construction. Congresses related to the Pan American Highway followed in 1925 in Buenos Aires, 1928 in Havana, and 1929 in Rio de Janeiro. A formal multilateral agreement for construction of the Pan American Highway was signed in 1936.

  • Keywords
  • El Salvador
  • Pan-Americanism

A bridge built in 1943 spans a bridge over a mountain valley in El Salvador. Although the road was envisioned in the early twentieth century as a means of connecting both continents for travel and trade, it remains segmented into North American and South American sections due to the Darién gap, a dense jungle and swamp on the border of Panama and Colombia known as a haven of drug and rebel activity.

source:National Archives

The idea of the Pan American Highway built on the precedent of the Pan American railway, proposed in 1889 and 1890 to link all of the capital cities of the Americas. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook a survey for the railroad from 1895 to 1899, construction proved untenable. The Pan American railroad and its successor, the Pan American Highway, sought to facilitate trade by transferring U.S.-based transportation innovations to Latin America. The United States viewed the Pan American Highway as a means of encouraging trade and demonstrating the superiority of U.S. technology and material resources. While the United States offered the technological know-how for construction of the highway, Latin American governments oversaw most of the requisite construction surveys, with the United States providing small amounts to send delegations to Latin America. In 1929 the United States allocated $50,000 for a construction survey of Central America.

In the 1920s, business interests in the United States formed the largest and most vocal contingent of supporters for highway construction. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the American Road Builders' Association, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, the United States Corps of Army Engineers, and the United States Bureau of Public Roads, along with road builders and providers of construction materials, actively promoted the Pan American Highway. They participated in the Pan American congresses and invited Latin American officials, engineers, and businessmen to the United States to inspect its best highways. Journalists and U.S. legislators were also courted, with many receiving free trips to Latin America to participate in the Pan American assemblies.

In the 1930s, with the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy emphasizing ties of friendship rather than force between the United States and its southern neighbors, the Pan American Highway received renewed attention and resources. The Pan American Highway was described as a “ribbon of friendship” that would draw the Americas together. U.S. investment in the highway prior to the start of World War II nonetheless remained small, amounting to less than three million dollars and a bit of engineering advice from the U.S. Public Roads Administration.

After the advent of World War II, the United States viewed financial assistance to Latin America as strategically necessary. As a result, funding for the Pan American Highway increased. In 1941 the U.S. Congress authorized $20 million in aid for road construction through Central America with the condition that Central American governments match the funds with $10 million and that they allow the U.S. Public Roads Administration oversee the work. An additional $12 million was authorized in 1943 to build through the Darién gap, a dense jungle and swamp between Panama and Colombia, which is home to the Choco and Cuna indigenous populations. In the 1950s, the U.S. government authorized additional support for construction, bringing the total assistance provided to about $140 million. In 1969, the United States agreed to pay any necessary amount to close the Darién gap, but environmental groups halted this effort in 1978.

Life and the Pan American Highway

Stories abound of tourists and adventurers from the United States seeking to travel the length of the Pan American Highway. Efforts undertaken in the 1940s revealed that the highway existed more as an ideal than a reality. Travelers confronted frequent gaps in the highway requiring improvisation and detours. With the completion of the highway in 1963, travel and accounts of it increased.

Natural disasters and violent conflict in Central and South America limited access along the Pan American Highway at times. In the 1980s, leftist guerrillas and military officials closed sections of the highway in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In 2000 the Colombian military took control of sections of the highway it deemed at risk to guerrilla engagement. And in 2004, Peru's President, Alejandro Toledo, declared a thirty-day state of emergency when tens of thousands of farmers, teachers, health workers, and judiciary employees barricaded sections of the Pan American Highway to protest labor conditions in the country. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch destroyed large sections of the Pan American Highway in Nicaragua, and an earthquake in 2000 closed sections in San Salvador, El Salvador.

In the 1990s, after a decade of limited investment in infrastructure in Latin America, sections of the highway underwent privatization through build-operate-and-transfer (BOT) contracts. This led to road improvements, but tolls were established along some sections.

See also Calderón Guardia, Rafael; Fifth International Conference of American States, Santiago, 1923; Good Neighbor Policy; Panama Canal Expansion, 2007; Pan-Americanism; Seventh International Conference of American States, Montevideo, 1933

  • Hanbury-Tenison, A. R.Burton., P. J. K. “Should the Darién Gap be Closed?” Geographical Journal 139, no. 1 (1973): 43-52.
  • Rippy, J. Fred. “The Inter-American Highway.” Pacific Historical Review 24, no. 3 (1955): 287-298.
  • Salvatore, Ricardo D. “Imperial Mechanics: South America's Hemispheric Integration in the Machine Age.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 663-691.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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