Panama is an example of how the USA has often voiced dogma about the virtues of democracy while supporting dictators subservient to US policies the same time. It is not the only example but it is a simple and obvious one. American historical sources say that the US helped the Colombian province of Panama, who wanted independence, to break away from Colombia. Many Americans sincerely believe in that image of the "Good American Forces" supporting freedom loving people out of the fathomless kindness of the American heart.
Reality is perceived somewhat differently by Colombians and by most South Americans. According to them, american agents conspired to create friction between the province and the government in Bogotá and the US sent in the Marines in 1903 to prevent the Colombian government from exercising its sovereignty over the isthmus when the Colombian Senate rejected a draft treaty that would have granted the US the right to build a canal under conditions they did not wish to accept.
Since that forceful takeover, Panama has had two governments, one for the Canal and one for the country. Wealth and power has been concentrated in the hands of a very small elite whose interests are said to be linked more to their US supporters than to the people of Panama. The average man on the street will just shrug and say "no hay democracia en Panama porque no conviene a los gringos".
|Lonely Planet CIA|
Panama City is really three distinct cities. This is the skyline of the modern financial center associated with the Panama Canal which is largely controlled by American interests. There is also the romantic legacy of the ancient historical city of Spanish times and sadly, the sordid reality of today's underdeveloped Panama with its attendant poverty and high crime rate. I will try to give you a feel of each.
This proud "Bridge of The Americas" joining North America to South America or vice versa, is as foreign to the average poor Panamanian as is the great canal joining the Pacific and Caribbean oceans. The "modern" Panama has unfortunately acquired a strong smelling reputation for corrupt officials and politicians, drug dealing, money laundering and street crime.
According to the 1977 Torrijos - Carter accord, the property of the Panama Canal Zone is supposed to revert to Panama at the end of 1999. Opponents to the transfer are numerous inside and outside of the country.
Some opponents say that closing the American military bases would cost 300 million $ in foreign exchange and 5 000 jobs sorely needed by Panamanian workers. Others claim that Panama would not be capable of defending the canal and of guaranteeing its availability to all.
Although the case of Egypt's Suez Canal shows that a developing country can manage an important international canal in a professional and honorable manner, many feel that the transfer will give free rein to gouging by corrupt officials and politicians. It seems that only officials and politicians are for the transfer! It will be interesting to see what happens if the transfer does take place... Maybe a second, bigger, sea level canal to compete with this one?
If modern Panama has strife and problems, San Felipe, the old historical Panama, has charm, old churches and an air of civility.
Below, the San Felipe Cathedral on the left and the Church of St Francis of Assisi on the right.
Avenida Central once was the elegant heart of San Felipe. It is now poor but it retains an old world flavour that keeps it from being a slum.
Down this old side street you can glimpse, in the distance, one of the sky scrapers of the new Panama.
Tourists can come here during the day to see the churches and the quaint narrow streets but the area is best avoided after sundown.
In between the old Spanish and the new American cities lies Calidonia, today's third world part of Panama, busy, noisy and unsafe.
I stayed in the red and white hotel in Calidonia's calle 25.
This run down place on calle 26 has no historical saving grace, it's a dump.
Panama's rich get richer and live in the new city or in the hills and the poor get poorer and live where they can...
It was time for me to go home to get ready for my trip to China and the ex-USSR. I was happy to have seen my Colombian friends again and had enjoyed "limin" in Trinidad. I had paid outrageous prices in French Guyane and relaxed in charming Grenada. I had seen how the media image (north american media), and the flesh and bones reality can be different in Panama and had tasted how cultural diversity can be managed more or less well in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname. All in all, it was a pretty good trip. I flew back to Cartagena and from there to Montreal.