Panama Rises

The Central American nation, now celebrating its centennial, has come into its own since the United States ceded control of its vital waterway

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When I asked Bedoya what motivated young men to follow El Roquero’s path, he summoned a young fighter named JoséMena. José is 15 years old, weighs 108 pounds and has already had 36 amateur fights. “I want to be a professional when I turn 18 so I can get my mother and my sister out of this neighborhood,” he told me. “It’s dangerous. Sometimes the gangs here have trouble and shoot at one another.”

And bystanders can get hurt?

He nodded, then showed me the jab, hook and uppercut combination he hopes will be his ticket out.

The odds against that, of course, are long. I talked to another, slightly older boxer named Jairo Arango. He was short, slightly built, with a scarred left eyebrow that marred an incongruously soft and boyish face. He had occasionally been a sparring partner for Pedro Alcazár, and he had gotten almost to the pinnacle in the 105-pound division. He’d had a shot at the title bout, fighting champion Jorge Mata in Mata’s home country of Spain, but lost the decision. He held two fingers less than an inch apart to show me how close he’d come to being champion of the world.

I asked him how much he’d cleared from that fight. “Six thousand dollars,” he replied. It was enough to buy some furniture for his wife and daughter. It was not enough to get out of Curundu.

From Curundu, Arango could see the wealthier parts of Panama City. The capital is compact, spread along the shore of a broad bay of the Pacific. From almost anywhere in the area, a person can see the glass-and-marble towers of the banking district and the gleaming, high-rise condominiums of Punta Paitilla, where the wealthy live. In between Curundu and Punta Paitilla there are narrow, crowded streets full of traffic and American fast-food restaurants; markets where the poor can buy plastic shoes for about a dollar; storefront Protestant churches and graceful Catholic cathedrals; squat houses with sagging shutters and newer projects with paint peeling from their concrete facades.

But in Punta Paitilla, boutiques sell the best Italian shoes and the cars on the streets tend to be sedans from Germany and SUVs from Japan and the United States. Security guards protect the entrances to the condominium towers.

Punta Paitilla’s union club was founded by and for Panama’s rabiblancos. The name means, literally, “white tails,” and it is a reference to skin color, the traditional elite of the country being descended from the old Spanish gentry. The club has diversified its membership somewhat in recent years, admitting a few Jews and a handful of darker faces. But the membership is still overwhelmingly white and Christian. The club occupies a modern stucco building on a low bluff overlooking the bay. When members drive up under the porte-cochere, they face an open lobby that affords a view of surf breaking on the rocks below and, in the distance, ships waiting to enter the canal. It is an elegant setting for business lunches, wedding receptions and family meals on Sundays, when Panama’s maids and cooks have the day off. I dined there with a Panamanian businessman on white damask tablecloths embossed with the club seal. Through the windows we could see children frolicking in the club pool.

My host, who preferred not to be identified by name, makes his living in part as a consultant to companies doing business in Panama’s zona libre, or free trade zone, which is in Colón. Merchants in the zone, an enormous, enclosed district of storefronts and warehouses, may import goods without paying duty as long as the goods are reexported to another country. There are no retail sales in the zone. The customers are themselves retailers, mostly from the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s the place to go if you are, say, a small Peruvian electronics dealer looking to purchase a stock of Japanese computers and television sets.

One of the services my host provides, he said, is the offthe- shelf shell corporation, fully registered for business in Panama. Aclient can buy it from him for $20,000 and put it to whatever use he pleases, including establishing a business in the zona libre. Sometimes, he says, a client will balk and say that $20,000 is too much to pay for what amounts to a folder full of paperwork.


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