This could be Miami. The thought hits me for at least the hundredth time since I arrived here in Panama City, Panama. Blue waters, green parks, and tall glass buildings blend together in, if not harmony, at least a reasonably peaceful understanding. It stands in sharp contrast to most other major Central American cities I’ve visited, a financial center that has risen – quite literally with all of the skyscrapers – in a short period of time, rivaling places like Singapore in its rapid ascension.
I walk down the busy streets, gazing skyward at high rise condominiums and banks of every nationality, wondering how this all came to pass, and if it is even real. I mean, of course the buildings are real, but is this image of wealth a reality? Or is it a mirage, a projection of international importance while being of little respite to those who live in the shadows of the buildings?
Panama City could easily be Miami.
Panama City was founded by the Spanish in 1519, on the Pacific coast of the isthmus of Panama. Its location made it the launching point for Spanish conquest of Peru, and colonization of the west coast of the Americas, as well as the transportation of those riches back to Spain via road and the Chagres River to the Atlantic. (This route has been replaced by the Panama Canal.) Razed by English privateer Henry Morgan in 1671, the city was rebuilt in 1673 in a slightly different spot, what has become known as the Casco Viejo, the old quarter. (The original city is now a jungle covered tourist attraction.)
It is the Casco Viejo that I seek out today, walking parallel to Panama Bay past numerous buildings and more numerous construction projects, along a sidewalk that is in sore need of repair I realize as I nearly fall into a Jonathan-sized hole. Traffic is heavy, a mixture of the old cars common in this part of the world and the new vehicles one would find in any American city. I brave crossing the street, and find myself in a wide plaza, lined with trees and flowering plants, a view of part of the city skyline across the water.
Gazing at the skyline from the Casco Viejo
From this plaza, cobblestone streets run in a grid along colorful buildings with wrought iron balconies, church towers rising from among them, narrow shaded parks filling up small gaps in the urban jungle. From here, this narrow jut of land into the bay, the Spanish ruled much of an empire. Through here the riches of South America were exported, the gold and silver used to decorate churches and palaces of Europe. More of California’s gold was transported via this city than any other. Panama has played a role in so much of the history of this part of the world.
The center point of the Casco Viejo is Independence Square, and it is here that I journey, marveling at the shops, restaurants, and nightclubs that have transformed this old quarter into a thriving hub of activity in today’s city. The Metropolitan Cathedral, dedicated to St. Mary, dominates one side of the square, an imposing stone edifice completed in 1796. Along another side, the Panama Canal Museum, dedicated to the thriving commercial activity that has made Panama City what it is today. Independence was achieved for Panama in 1821, and the isthmus joined the Republic of Colombia (or Gran Colombia – and later the Republic of New Granada) as a province until 1903.
The Metropolitan Cathedral
The far corner of the Casco Viejo, the end sticking furthest into the water, is the Plaza de Francia, a monument to the international coalition that made Panama what it is today. Still home to the French embassy, it honors the people who helped to envision and construct the Panama Canal, telling perhaps the nice version of a story of relative subjugation by France and the United States (and their partners) of the isthmus in the world-altering digging of a shipping channel connecting the oceans.
This dominance of Panama by foreign powers would continue in the form of propped up military dictators like Manuel Noriega from 1983-89. In the name of fighting communism, but also to protect the commercial interests of companies like United Fruit, the US backed dictators all over Latin America. Ultimately, the United States invaded Panama in 1989 to oust the Noriega regime after popular elections resulted in a change of leadership.
Modern Panama City is visible from here, and from so many spots in the Casco Viejo. In 1999, Panamá took control of the Canal from the United States, the result of a treaty signed by Jimmy Carter a decade earlier. Within just a few short years of the military withdrawal of the US from the Canal Zone, foreign investment began pouring into the country, and construction of the modern financial metropolis began in earnest. Today, the city plays host to 78 domestic banks, along with numerous foreign financial institutions, and is the regional fiscal hub, the sign of at least relative political stability, also uncommon for the region.
The colors of the Casco Viejo, vibrant and charming
During these two decades, the GDP of the country has nearly quadrupled, with a GDP per capita nearly three times that of Guatemala, for instance. But has this improved the lives of ordinary Panamanians? I stop for dinner and a rooftop drink at a local Casco Viejo hotspot, Spanish tapas rivaling any I’ve had outside Madrid. Prices here are equivalent to those of a popular venue back home in Los Angeles – the finances are easy to understand with Panama using the US dollar as its official currency – and certainly there seem to be locals able to afford to dine here. Likewise, housing prices and cars reflect similar pricing to US markets, with condos in the high rises topping a million dollars. Can an average Panamanian afford such things?
Nighttime view from a rooftop lounge
The short answer is no. Most of the luxury market is dominated by foreign nationals taking advantage of the country’s generous tax laws to invest in local real estate, both in terms of purchasing and financing construction. However, with foreign investment does come some advantage to locals. Panama has good roads, better plumbing than any other country in the region, modern buses, world-class museums, and its own flag airline, things denied most other Central American people. The poverty rate is still over 18% as of a 2014 World Bank report, but that reflects a decline from more than 26% as recently as 2008.
I finish my exploration of the Casco Viejo, returning to the bustle of the more modern section of Panama City. Regardless of what caused this huge influx of investment, of who benefits most from it, or even of whether or not it is a good thing, this city is both historic and modern, combining the vibrancy of Latin America with the hubbub of a world-class metropolitan area.
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