Panama: A Tale of Two Cities

I’m conflicted about Panama. On one hand it’s the place where the Americas meet, both physically and culturally, and a place whose famous canal still serves, 100 years later, as the backbone of world trade. But it’s also a place that is rife with money laundering, drug-fuelled luxury consumption, and shocking gaps in opportunity which are evident in its biggest cities.

One short trip from the country’s Atlantic/Caribbean port Colón to Panama City, only 45 minutes apart by road and 1 hour apart by train, shows the mixed results of a country that takes in any money that comes its way. Particularly emblematic of what happens to a city when the economy leaves it behind is Colón, Panama’s second city and the gateway to the Caribbean. Even Lonely Planet, who usually has something good to say about even the most banal places, calls the city “a sprawling slum of decaying colonial grandeur and desperate human existence”. Just down the road in Panama City, however, is “a thriving center for international banking and trade..with a sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers that is reminiscent of Miami.”

Anyone who has spent any significant time in Newark, New Jersey, might see some parallels. But to pause and reflect on Panama, time and time again I heard the same thing from a range of different people, notably that Panamanians never really controlled the economy, something that still rings true today. And it’s entirely evident in its biggest cities.

To see the contrasts, you don’t even have to leave Colón. Instead of visiting the central square or anywhere in the actual city, all most non-Panamanians pass is Colón 2000, a giant mall that is actually linked to a cruise ship dock so that passengers can disembark and gleefully shop in the city’s duty-free stores. Nobody has ever accused cruisegoers of being intrepid travelers, but the photos below show the contrast between what those docking see and what lurks not two blocks behind the complex.

No-Worry Shopping for Cruises in Colón
NYT Credit
But Residents Are Not On Easy Street

Even better-off Panamanians have left Colón for dead. The city’s outskirts, a land of massive warehouses and shipping containers, have become the largest free trade zone in the world after Hong Kong, is host to emporiums run by traders from every ethnicity and nationality – receiving mainly Asian goods duty free and selling them on to Venezuelans, Colombians, and Brazilians eager to snap up merchandise to resell at home. Fenced in and heavily guarded, the Free Zone is one big wholesale playground that has netted little spillover benefit to local residents, other than better domestic service jobs and a smattering of professional positions.

So where does that leave Panama City, a city that could be mistaken for Singapore from above (until you get down onto the shabby streets and notice there are manholes missing from sewer drains, ripe to trip and fall into)? In a strange place, to be certain. A modern day Casablanca, Panama is home to people from all over Latin America and indeed the world. In two days, I have seen Japanese tourists speaking English in an Asian-owned coffee shop called Shalom Café. There was a Russian guy sitting next to me on the plane who didn’t speak a word of Spanish (and little English) but was visiting Panama for “business”. Then there was the realization that the city’s top food blogger is actually a woman of Chinese descent.

Some may say that nothing has changed from the freewheeling times before the most recent boom, but the scores of professionals from all over Latin America and the world that are working with multinational firms, legitimate banking institutions, and trading companies show that there’s a level of professionalization and “above-boardness” to the new Panama that evaded it for so long.

The question remains, however, are ordinary Panamanians benefiting from the boom? The Torrijos-Carter Treaty that returned the canal’s control to Panama from United States was borne of a nasty combination of Panamanian nationalism surrounding the Canal Zone and “Zonian” (Americans that lived in the Canal Zone) bravado and jingoism. There was great hope that returning the canal to Panama would return its fruits to its people. Nonetheless, I get the sense that the vast majority of Panamanians are watching wealth and power transit through their country and out of their reach the same way they did when the U.S. controlled the canal. Just ask the residents of Colón.

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