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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“I explain to the client that he can indeed establish his own corporation and get it licensed to do business,” my host told me. He paused to order a white wine and an orange juice from a waiter in black tie. “But he will find that he needs the signatures of 36 different bureaucrats to accomplish this. And then he will find that each of these bureaucrats happens to be ‘on vacation’ when he needs his paper signed, and only for the inducement of, say, a month’s salary, can the man be persuaded to return to the office and sign.”

The waiter returned, and my host mixed the wine and orange juice together.

“Eventually, most of them realize that the most efficient way to do business is to buy the shell corporation,” he said. He shrugged, almost apologetically.

The cynicism in that shrug seems to permeate all classes in Panama. In an indoor shopping mall one morning, I spoke to Carmen Sota, a tall, dark-skinned woman wearing a shirt emblazoned with a popular American export, the yellow smiley face. The mall, which featured a range of goods from clothing to housewares at low prices, could have been transplanted from any typical American city.

Her husband, Soto said, is an auto mechanic whose income ranges from $600 to $800 per month—a middle-class wage in Panama, where the per capita annual income is about $6,000. She herself used to work in a plant that stamps designs on shirts, but she quit when she decided her 13-year-old son needed her at home. The family had tightened its belt, selling a car. She’d come to the mall to buy jeans for her son.

“The politicians here are insincere and dishonest,” she said. “They promise things like roads when they’re campaigning, but then they don’t do anything. They forget about the people when they are elected.

“I don’t vote,” she added.

“We’re in the process of learning to be a country,” Victoria Figge told me one morning. She works for a company that specializes in fraud prevention and analyzes risk for potential foreign investors. “We are learning how to be dependent on ourselves. Don’t forget that even though we’re celebrating our centennial, we’ve really only been independent for a few years, since the last American troops left.”

I did hear words of cautious optimism from some quarters in Panama, particularly those involved with the country’s enormous natural bounty. As Panama seeks to diversify and improve its economy, it is looking to use the resources of its rain forests and parks and develop eco-tourism. I got a glimpse of its potential one morning at a hotel called the CanopyTower, about 20 miles outside of Panama City in a national park called Soberanía (Sovereignty). The structure is a corrugated metal cylinder 50 feet high, painted aqua, with a yellow fiberglass sphere that looks a little like a soccer ball perched atop it. It began life as an American military radar station, on a ridge called Semaphore Hill. In the last years of the American military presence, it tracked drug runners’ planes coming from Colombia.

When the Americans left, a Panamanian businessman and birding enthusiast named Raúl Arias de Para acquired the rights to manage the property and set about beating the American sword into a plowshare. He installed a dozen wedge-shaped bedrooms inside the cylinder. On the top level, he built a casually elegant lounge and dining area encircled by windows. Atop that, wedged under the yellow soccer ball, he built an observation deck with a 360-degree view of the surrounding rain forest and, in the distance, the canal.


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