School of the Americas Now Center Of Peace And Splendor
by Eric Jackson

Most Latin American countries have at one time or another been ruled by army officers who graduated from the US Army School of the Americas, which from 1946 until 1983 operated from the former Fort Gulick. Now the facility is being converted to more peaceful uses, and the odds are good that a new generation of Latin American leaders will get to know the place.

Three buildings that used to house the School of the Americas are becoming the Melia Panama Canal, a hotel, casino and conference center that will also serve as a school for the hotel management trades. The first building to be renovated,

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dubbed by the company the "Niña,"  opened on March 11. It offers 70 rooms of "Royal Service" for an upscale business clientele, and all the computers, meeting rooms and other facilities needed to finalize the details of major international business transactions. As expected, the first guests mostly came to negotiate deals in the Colon Free Zone.

The "Pinta," a building with 20 family-oriented apartments, and the "Santa Maria," the former army school's and present hotel complex's centerpiece, will be finished and open for business over the next few months. All construction and rehabilitation work will be complete by November.

On the floor of the Santa Maria's lobby, there's a new logo with the points of a compass and the designation "Terra de la Pax," land of peace in the Catalan language that's the Melia chain founder Damián Barceló's native tongue. Directly above, a stained glass skylight dubbed "La Rosa de los Vientos" brightens the building's conversion to peaceful purposes.

The complex is situated on a peninsula in Gatun Lake and features great jungle views. Looking inside, there is a tasteful mixture of Spanish-style arches, Italian stucco walls that look very much like marble, inlays of tiles from Chitre, Guatemalan mahogany furniture and paneling and Mayan-style frescoes.

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Outside, this is a lakefront resort, but the main swimming hole is a huge multi-level pool, without a doubt the best in Colon province. Melia also has plans to turn Fort Sherman's Devil's Beach into the saltwater option for hotel guests only.

The Melia Panama Canal will be a laid-back place for entrepreneurs to consider their next Free Zone transactions during the week, and from which upscale traveling families can base their discoveries of Panama's many attractions on the weekends. It will not be a loud partying place for the masses. As the resort's Elias Menacho put it, "quality standards for Melia hotels are very high."

March 28, 2000

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