Panama: Summing Up

I like Panama.  I really do.  Although I might not be willing to suffer Miami International Airport to get there again, I’m glad I went this one time.  As you may know, this was one of our “Twelve Year Old Trips”.  No, it’s not a trip we take every twelve years.  It’s a trip we take when each of our grandchildren reach the age of twelve.  It’s lost in history who came up with this idea, but it has been a really, really great one.  Panama, at first glance, was not an ideal choice for such a trip, as it had little of the sizzle as some of it’s predecessor trips (Galapagos Islands, Paris, London).  About all it had going for it was the Canal, one of Central America’s longest zip lines, and lots of birds.  And the fact that I’d never been there.

Panama has a population of about 3.6 million about half of which live along the Canal corridor from Panama City to Colon, the first and second largest cities.  The GDP of Panama is almost sixty billion dollars and in 2012 grew at a pretty amazing 10.6%.  We were told that unemployment is effectively zero.  That is, everyone who wants a job can get a job.  Just looking around though, there seemed to be a fairly large number who either had a lot of days off or who didn’t want a job.  The services part of the economy is the largest and most highly developed comprising almost 80% of the total.  Banking is the largest segment of the services part of the economy, and there are literally, banks on every corner as well as financial institutions of all stripes populating many of the skyscrapers that have been built in the last ten years.  I saw reports referring to Panama as a “tax haven”, but these same reports left the definition to one’s imagination.  The high GDP growth rates of the last several years and the proliferation of services business have not led to equality in economic well being for its citizens.  Indeed, the UN reports that Panama has the second most unequal income distribution in Latin America.  As you might imagine, that is not a particularly good, sustainable model.

Panama is divided not only by the Canal, but by a ridge of mountains which makes up its own continental divide and stretches from the eastern border adjacent to Columbia to the western most border with Costa Rica.  Yes, Panama runs east and west, and the Pacific ocean is to their south.  It confused me too.  One other divide is important, and that is the divide between the highlands and, well, I guess you would call it, the lowlands.  Even thought Panama is about six hundred miles from the equator, it is climatologically, an equatorial country.  That is to say that the temperatures in any one region are relatively constant throughout the year, and the highs and the lows do not have a very large spread. What this means to you and I is that Panama City is pretty much always hot and humid as are all the rest of the coastal and low lying areas of the country.  The highlands, on the other hand are pretty much always more moderate with humidity and temperature about fifteen degrees lower.  It rains a lot everywhere.

Seven days isn’t long enough to develop a very credible sense of a country and its people, but that won’t stop me from telling you what I think.  We divided our time fairly equally between Panama City (including the Canal) and Boquete which is in the Chiriquiri highlands near the border to Costa Rica.  There were the sharp differences one would expect between urban and rural, highland/lowland (sea level vs. 1500 meters), and big business vs. tourism/agriculture.  I won’t dwell on the differences, but I would like to generalize about the similarities, both good and bad.

1.  Basura.  Trash.  Garbage.  Litter.  What ever you want to call it.  It was the first thing I noticed.  It was every where.  In the streets, in vacant lots, and even in the country side. It wasn’t as bad a India, but it pretty much disfigured what was otherwise a very pretty place.  I can’t figure it out.  I asked Ivan (our guide and tutor in all things Panamanian).  He said that it was indicative of a far deeper problem.  That got my interest.  He said that Panamanians, in general, do not have a respect for those behaviors that are for the good of the community or society as a whole.  They tend to separate those behaviors that are in their own personal interest and those that they judge to be good for others.  To wit:  they take care of their own space, but care little for public space or the space of others.   Hmmm.  The fellow traveler of indiscriminate littering, is graffiti.  It’s every where.  On old buildings, new buildings, bridges, fences, etc.  I’m sure there must be some deep sociological scar tissue somewhere in their society, but I hope they get over it.  They will never realize their potential until they do.  Even the Chinese have figured this out.

2.  No one is in a hurry.  I suspect this is both a good and a bad thing.  If you’re trying to have lunch in less than an hour and a half, it’s a bad thing.  If you want to smell the roses, so to speak, it’s good.  We had lunch at a charming small restaurant at Finca Lerida coffee plantation.  Their were five of us and only one other table was occupied.  We ordered the standard stuff, nothing fancy and forty-five minutes later, after I had gone back to the kitchen twice, our food started to dribble out…one dish at a time.  This scenario repeated itself, more or less, every place we ate.  Our trips to Mexico have acquainted us with the mañana houses. You know, the houses that they start to build but never finish.  When asked when it will be done, it’s always, “mañana”.  In Panama they have mañana meals.

3.  Everything costs less.  Houses, food, hotel rooms, clothing, taxes, and most importantly, beverages.  By beverages, you surely know by now of my Gin and Tonic Index.  I have measured virtually every country in the civilized world, and some not so civilized, on this index and found that the higher the price for a standard G & T the less I like a given place.  For example:  S. and I were whiling away an afternoon on the terrace of a lovely spot in Venice, and I thought to indulge in a cool beverage while watching the gondolas float by.  I placed my order, and after in inordinate wait, was presented with a glass with two small ice cubes, a tiny tankard of gin (of unknown origin) and a miniature bottle of Schweppes finest tonic water.  The tab (converted to American dollars) came to roughly $32.00.  Twenty buck for the gin, ten for the tonic, and I dunno, maybe the other two bucks was for the ice. I swore at that moment, that Venice would never have the pleasure of my company again.  So you see how the index works.  For reasons that will become apparent, Panama now ranks number one on my list of top, low cost gin and tonic places.  Up in the highlands, in a very charming bar at the best hotel in a small village, my libation of choice set me back only $4.34. Don’t ask me about the $.34.  At the best hotel bar in the best hotel in Panama City it was $5.49.  And this for a man sized pour.

4.  The people are really nice to Americans.  Maybe  because they had to fiddle so long with Americans related to the Canal, they are more tolerant of our idiosyncrasies.  Surprisingly, only fifteen percent, or so, speak english, but they’ve all studied it in school.  They are proud of their culture and proud of their history, much of which includes gringos of all sorts, including Americans.  I suspect that they also like it that a lot of us Norte Americanos park our money in their banks.  I would say it definitely is an American friendly place.

5.  It’s growing.  The economy is good.  GDP growth in 2012 was over twelve percent and has been consistently in the high single digits.  Their infrastructure still needs work, but it looks like they will have the money to invest.  The Canal is a strategic asset and they are using it to good effect and making necessary improvements to remain competitive.  They have a growing wealth gap that they must address, but we are facing the same situation as well.  The skyline of Panama City looks like Singapore or Dubai, so they have the look of success.  The danger is that without further growth and investment, it could become little more than a Potemkin village.  A facade for wealth and a healthy economy that may not be sustainable.

6.  The food is good.  Anyone who travels very much or very far, knows how important this is.  We all know about the Ugly American (actually there are several versions) who, upon arriving in Korea complains about the garlic and wants to know why his Quarter Pounder doesn’t taste the same as it does back home.  My theory has always been to try it.  Spit it out if you can’t get it down or hide it under a lettuce leaf.  In Panama, that’s not necessary.  Their’s is a unique cuisine among latin countries.  Their main dish is rice not corn or corn based foods.  I’ve heard lots of theories why, but none of them make much sense.  It’s just one of those things.  Beef is not a big thing in their diet, although it seemed to be on every menu.  I ordered it twice, and both times, the waiter told me, “we are out of it today”.  Fish and other forms of seafood abound, and it’s really good.  I had cerviche with every meal.  Well, not with breakfast, but every other meal.  I guess one of the reasons why I liked their food so much is that it has incorporated something from all of the cultures that have been a part of Panama’s history.  West Indian, African, Spanish, Asian, and American.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

On the whole, I see Panama as one of the good guys in the family of countries.  It’s a little like the teenage boy who’s growing six inches in a year and still has a few zits popping out when he least wants them.  Ivan, our guide, kept stressing that Panama is not yet a developed country, but it is developing fast.  I may not have the time or energy to revisit Panama in the future, but if you haven’t been there, put it on your bucket list.  It’s worth the effort.




Panama: The Middlings

I told you in Panama: The Beginnings that I would come back to the subject of the Canal for the bottom line.  Ok, here it is.  The bottom line that is.  Wow!  I saw it by being on it in a passenger ship transiting the system of locks.  I saw it from a small outboard as we looked for monkeys and birds, and I saw it from the air as we flew back and forth to the highlands.  It defines Panama more than the pyramids defines Egypt.  It defines Panama more than the Great Wall defines China, and the Leaning Tower in Pisa and the Colosseum are mere dots on the culture of Italy compared to what the Canal is to Panama.  There is no other country that is defined so much by a single edifice as is Panama.  When the Panamanian Isthmus arose from the sea either three or seventeen million years ago, it started a chain reaction, albeit a slow one, that not only shaped our climate but defined commerce, culture and biodiversity of the planet.  When The Ancon, the first ship to pass the Canal finished its passage, it completed the most amazing engineering and human management event of its time. The isthmus once again redefined, in part, how life was lived and how commerce was done.  I won’t go into details, but I think you can see what I mean.  Among other things that might not have occurred to you, work in the canal was a primary causal factor in defeating Yellow Fever, which was one of the killers of the age.  Just use your imagination.  The Canal also defines Panama.  I know.  That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true.  Without the Canal, Panama, as a republic, may not even exist, and it certainly would not exist as it does today.

How many of you remember our invasion of Panama in 1989?  I thought so.  Not many.  I’m guessing that less than one in a thousand of our estimable citizenry could give you even the barest of outlines of the story.  I reported to you in a previous blog that the United States has participated in twelve official wars.  I haven’t tried to count the “unofficial” ones, but our invasion of Panama would surely count as one.  It also may be the shortest of our wars in that most of the shooting and all of the shouting was finished in about six hours.  Yes, I said six hours.

Let me start at the beginning.  First there was Noriega.  Manuel Antonio Noriega born February 11, 1933 and now residing in an a Panamanian hoosegow that was formerly the main prison in the Canal Zone.  Some irony, huh!  He was a career soldier that came to like money and intrigue far more than he liked soldiering.  Not surprisingly, his military training was assisted no little bit by….guess who…our own Uncle Sam.  He received specialized training in intelligence at Ft. Glick in the Canal Zone and in Psy Ops at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.  It is also widely reported that Manuel was on the payroll of our  CIA.  His job?  To gather intelligence and report on all the dreaded commies roaming the region and presumably threatening our homeland.  I guess he must have done a pretty good job of it because one report has him being on the CIA pad from 1967 until almost the time that we hauled him to the Federal Detention Center in Dade County, Florida.  By hook or crook, he became El Jeffe of the country in 1983 and stayed so until we determined that he had gotten too big for his britches.  Ostensibly, our main complaint seemed to be that Noriega found out that the South American drug cartels paid even better than we did and that he could use banks in Panama that he indirectly controlled to launder his and other peoples dirty money.

Here’s the interesting part.  He actually lost an election in 1988, and we could have flexed some muscle and kept him out of power if not out of the money, but we didn’t.  He threw out the duly elected guy and resumed control. Or we could have gotten some friendly gun-totter to plunk him and be done with it.  But we didn’t.  We decided to take him out by invading the country.  Seems a little overkill don’t you think.  But there’s more to the story.  We had about twenty thousand troops in the Zone at the time, but they barely got their hands dirty.  No, we decided that we needed the 82nd Airborne from Ft. Bragg to do the deed.  And they did. They attacked with the full force and fury of the US military establishment.  Well, not exactly, but they did land forces at several points though out Panama including Casca Viejo in Panama City.  They also dropped a couple of precision guided bombs on Noriega’s traditional stronghold of El Chorrillo and scared the bejesus out of everyone within a couple of miles.  There were some more bullets fired and flags waved elsewhere in the country for a bit, but it was basically over almost before it started.  It was not without cost though.  We suffered twenty-three KIA’s, and presumably some number of wounded, and the Panamanians lost somewhere between five hundred and twenty-three hundred killed.  I know that’s a wide range, but that’s how things are around here.  Noriega wrapped himself in the white flag, figuring I guess that being a prisoner of war was better than being a casualty of war.

Why really did the US attack Panama in what clearly was an unprovoked act of war.  To protect the Canal?  I think not.  It was already pretty well protected by the twenty thousand or so troops stationed there.  To get rid of Noriega?  I think not.  There were plenty of easier, quicker, cheaper ways to get that done.  To show that we are plenty tough and willing to project our power whenever and however we chose?  Well, maybe.  The neo-conservative ideology of force-projection had not yet been popularized, but maybe this was its antecedent.  Many people here believe that we took the action we did as a more or less a trial run.  We had a lot of new weapons we hadn’t actually used in combat yet.  The F17A fighter, the Blackhawk helicopter, and even the Humvee people carrier, not to mention the precision guided bombs that were to become so popular years later in Iraq.  Then the whole military concept of rapid deployment was only an untested theory.  Would it really work?  We had to find out and where better that Panama.  Not too far away, good weather, good food and a foolish tin-pot quasi dictator to blame it on.

The name of this operation.  You could almost guess.  Operation Just Cause.  Wow! Who thinks this stuff up.  And of course, you remember who was president of the United State then.  You got it.  George H. W. Bush.  What is it about these Bushes that seem to allow the clever fellows around them and the military to get them in to unnecessary wars?

Under the rubric that all’s well that end’s well, I guess things turned out as they should.  The economy of Panama is alive and well.  People are starting to discover it as an eco-tourism alternative, and American expats, looking for a cheap place to retire are driving up real estate prices.

More later on the promise of Panama.



Panama, the Beginnings

The word “Panama” is either a corruption of a Kuna (one of the indigenous peoples) word meaning “far away”, or a misnomer of the early Spanish explorers of a native village name meaning “many fish”.  There you have it.  That’s all you need to know that Panama has been and remains much of a mystery to most of us in the US of A.  Of course, we know  of the Panama Canal, and certainly we know Rod Carew.  A few of us may even be able to call to mind the name Noriega without knowing exactly who he is or what he may have done to deserve our notice.  When pressed, in Rorschach fashion, I would throw out Panama hat which, of course, is not primarily made in Panama, but in Equador.  My darling wife S., who has been a reader of the great English spy novelist John Le Carre, remembered one of his best sellers named The Tailor of Panama.  Nothing else.  We could not, before we arrived here, think of another intelligent thing to say about Panama.  I’ll bet you’re right there with us.

Two million, or thereabouts, visitors come to Panama each year.  Visitors from America comprise roughly ten percent of that number.  The rest come from neighboring South and Central American countries, Canada, Russia, and increasingly the whole gamut of Asian countries. Considering that Panama City is only three hours as the crow flies from Miami or Houston, and that we pretty much controlled the country and every thing in in for nigh on to a hundred years, it has miles of beaches, casinos on every corner, and legal “ladies of the evening”,  it seems more than a little odd that Panama gets so little of our travel attention.  I suspect that change is in the offing.  I’ll tell you why later.

You know that I can’t help but give you a little dose of Panamanian history before I proceed.  Let me start at the beginning…if I only knew when the beginning was.  What we now call the Panamanian Isthmus (of course you know that an isthmus is a narrow strip of land connecting two land masses) arose from the sea somewhere between three million and seventeen million years ago.  I know that this seems like a fairly wide range of years, but there you go, more of the mystery.  In any case, at some point, as a result of eruptions of underwater volcanos, the build up over eons of sediment, and lots of failed sand castles for all I know, the isthmus was born and the world was changed.  Just think, once a land bridge was erected between South and North America, the migration of four footed critters between the two was possible.  If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t, among other things,  have armadillos in Texas now.  More importantly, we wouldn’t have the gulf stream, and big Ernie wouldn’t have been able to write The Old Man and the Sea.  Some people, far smarter than I, opine that the polar ice cap would not have formed and there goes Santa Claus.  So you see, this was a really, really important event.  And that’s just the start.

It’s thought that peeps of various stripes have lived here for about ten thousand years, but no one knows exactly where they came from or how they got here.  Another of the mysteries.  But they were, as far as we know, pretty happy campers before the Spaniards got here in 1503.  Note the large gap from three or seventeen million  BCE and ten thousand BCE.  It looks like some of the smart guys in our universities who study this kind of stuff ought to be able to give us some clue.

An old Spanish sailor by the the name of Bastida is reported to have sailed down the coast of the isthmus in 1502, but it was his first mate, Vasco Nunez de Balboa who made the big hit by discovering the Pacific Ocean…how could we have missed it all those years…and claiming Panama for the Spanish crown.  Even Columbus wanted in on the act and on his fourth voyage to the new world laid down a claim.  Success has many fathers as we all know.  Shortly thereafter, the Catholic church, knowing a good deal when they saw it, sent their first Bishop to Panama, and, as they say, it was all down hill after that.

For the next three hundred years, the Spanish did what they were wont to do with all of their colonies in the new world.  Looked for gold, saved the heathens, built churches, and supported the crown in their efforts to suppress the natives.  While further to the north, Simon Bolivar was stirring things up in what was then called New Granada, now Columbia.  The Spaniards hated him worse than the Tea Party hates Obama, but he succeeded in hiving Columbia off from Spain.  Panama rode his coat tails and escaped the oppression of Spanish colonization in 1821, but Bolivar didn’t stop there.  He had a dream of a “Gran Columbia” which he brought into reality with the support of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama.  Alas, it didn’t last long.  Bolivar’s dream imploded in 1830, but Panama stayed the course and continued as a part of Columbia until 1903 at which time Panama became it’s own republic.  Panama became one of the few countries that could legitimately celebrate two independence days.

In the mean time, a few other things were going on.  The canal had become more than a gleam in a dreamer’s eye.  The French were out and the Americans were in.  What a story.  No I’m not going to give you the history of the big dig.  David McCulloch has already done that.  If you haven’t already done so, you must read The Path Between the Seas which is the definitive history of the Panama Canal.  It’s the only history book that falls into the category of a page turner.  I couldn’t put it down.

I’ll give you the bottom line on the Canal thing.  In Part 2.  I know you’ll be on pins and needles.