Monday, November 10, 2008

A Man, a Plan, Etc.

by Andrew

The juxtaposition of wealth and crushing poverty left us gob-smacked in Panama City. The gulf between rich and poor is more extreme in South Africa, but for some reason it struck me harder here. In South Africa, the differences go beyond purely economic--race, language, and culture all combine to make the disparity somehow more comprehensible. In Panama City, though--at least for an outsider--the Panamanian people do not seem to have such clear-cut lines of division. Some are rich, some are poor. Eso es todo.

Magnificent restored mansions in the Casco Viejo district sit cheek-by-jowl with crumbling tenements with no running water (residents erect plywood outhouses on their balconies). Entire neighborhoods look like something out of a Dickens novel with palm trees, while a block away luxury high-rise apartment blocks form a skyline that shames Miami. Que pasa aqui?

Remove the historical bugaboos about what makes an underclass--race, language, immigrant status--and you start to consider other ideas about how such a bi-polar society develops. Does the cream really rise to the top? Are the smartest, hardest-working folks also the richest? I doubt it. Quite frankly, I have no idea how Panama came to this pass, but I know one thing: I would have been a card-carrying something or other if I had been born on the wrong side of the canal here.

Even after a few days, you get the sneaking suspicion that the cards are stacked to preserve the status quo. We arrived in time for Panama's Independence Day celebrations, a three-day fiesta involving lots of flag-waving and amor patriae. The Panama Canal, which was turned over to Panama by the U.S. in 1999, is a source of undying pride among its citizenry. Put it this way: their bladders are not the only waterway that is near and dear to the hearts of the average Panamanian. But scratch the surface a little and you start to wonder if the patriotic fervor whipped up about the canal simply provided cover for a good old-fashioned land grab.

I had an illuminating conversation with a birding guide who stopped by our hotel to pick up some clients. Sitting on the balcony watching tamarind monkeys fighting over bananas, he expressed his wish that the U.S. had held onto the waterway, because at least the Panamanians knew where all the money was. Now great wads of it are simply disappearing.

According to my little bird friend, the 8,000 Panamanians employed by the U.S. were all fired and replaced by friends of the governing party. The Panamanian president is now apparently the richest man in the country. Areas of rainforest that were preserved to prevent the canal from silting up have been parceled out to political cronies for development as resorts. Hearing all this, I hated to tell the birding guide what I suspect is the real truth--Dick Cheney is now running their country.

We arrived in Panama during the Independence from Colombia celebration.

Presidential Palace

Presidential bird

This hombre ain't workin'

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