A Man, A Plan, A Canal – Panama

If you’re a word nerd like me, my palindromic title will be familiar to you. The man referred to is Teddy Roosevelt, who said in a 1911 speech at UC Berkeley:

The Panama Canal I naturally take special interest in because I started it. … But the Panama Canal would not have been started if I had not taken hold of it. … I took the [Panamanian] Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the Canal, but to debate me.

This is quite far from the truth. The reality is that Teddy Roosevelt was initially in favor of building the canal in Nicaragua, and a whole lot of people – bankers, military men, politicians – were involved in changing his mind and developing a vast plot to make a canal in the Panamanian territory of Colombia, and a corresponding “independence” movement, come to fruition. Then, a whole lot of people got rich off the purchase and Panama became not so independent after all.

That’s another reality. A whole lot of Americans have been getting rich off making Latin American countries dependent on us for a long time. Take this passage from Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins. I first read this in 2009 while I was in grad school and reread it while in Panama. This passage is about Ecuador, but the book covers a number of countries, including Panama.

In the years since I first went to there (to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer) in 1968, this tiny country had evolved into the quintessential victim of the corporatocracy. My contemporaries and I, and our modern corporate equivalents, had managed to bring it to virtual bankruptcy. We loaned it billions of dollars so it could hire our engineering and construction firms to build projects that would help its richest families. As a result, in those three decades, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent; under or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent. Public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion dollars; and the share of national resources allocated to the poorest citizens declined from 20 percent to 6 percent. Today, Ecuador must devote 50 percent of its national budget simply to paying off its debts, instead of helping the millions of its citizens who are officially classified as dangerously impoverished.

The situation in Ecuador clearly demonstrates that this was not the result of a conspiracy. It was a process that had occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations; a process that had involved all the major multinational banks, many corporations, and foreign aid missions from a multitude of countries… Although unconscious, deceived, and in many cases, self-deluded, these players were not members of any clandestine conspiracy. Rather, they were the product of system that promotes the most subtle and effective form of imperialism the world has ever witnessed. No one had to go out and seek men and women who could be bribed or threated. They had already been recruited… The bribes consisted of salaries, bonuses, pensions, and insurance policies. The threats were based on social mores, peer pressure, and unspoken questions about the future of their children’s education. The system had succeeded spectacularly. By the time the new millennium rolled in, Ecuador was thoroughly entrapped. We had her… We had taken our time. We could afford to be patient, knowing that beneath Ecuador’s rainforests lies a sea of oil. Knowing the the proper day would come.

Back to Panama, starting with the Canal Zone and running up to 1989 invasion of Panama in which we murdered thousands of innocent civilians under the dubious defense of human rights protections, our history of interventionism and abuse in this country is disgusting.

The United States acted as sovereign within the zone. To keep the Panamanians out, Americans built a tall fence and guarded it with armed military officers. Inside the fence, silver-haired GIs cut the the grass, kept their wooden houses freshly painted, played golf in the manicured courses, and eradicated every tropical disease. Outside the fence, West Indian blacks lived in pestilent wooden shacks on streets plagued by crime and poverty. [Former president] Amador’s dream of a prosperous country free from diseases, a “model for the tropics,” did not materialize, except inside the Canal Zone.

Generations born after after the events of 1903 could not understand why Panamanians were not allowed inside their own land, or why the United States flag fluttered atop the flagpoles. … The rest of Latin America rallied to the cause of the Panamanians, as the fence came to symbolize the twentieth-century imperialism of the United States.

In 1964, riots broke out when a group of students, fueled by national pride, scaled the fence and raised the Panamanian tricolor flag over the Canal Zone’s Balboa High School. The Americans responded by gunning down the unarmed students, killing nine and crippling others.

How Wall Street Built a Nation, Ovidio Diaz Espino

After the manipulation and corruption with which we took over the failed French canal project back in the early 1900s, we later assassinated populist president Omar Torrijos for negotiating the handover of the canal zone back to Panama and advocating for the sovereignty of this country against US intervention.

Negotiations began on February 17, 1977, and continued for almost two years. Panamanians wanted nothing less than the immediate dissolution of the insidious Canal Zone, which had made them outsiders in their own heartland, forcing them to gaze “like the poor looking through their lodge gates at some unapproachable estate.”

The fence came down in 1979 and Torrijos came down in a mysterious plans crash in 1982, one that was eerily similar to how Ecuadorian president Jaime Roldós Aguilera, who opposed the expansion of US industrial and mining interests further into the Amazon, had died just a few years earlier.

We Americans sure love our fences. In Argentina, I lived a few blocks from the American Embassy. It’s on a major, eight-lane thoroughfare that traverses the city. I ran by it every time I went to exercise in the park. In Panama City, the American embassy is way out of the city center. It is difficult to get to and heavily guarded, while plenty of other country’s embassies are in the city center. To me, that says all I need to know about our relationship to the people here. Even down to my very last minutes in the country where I had already gone through Panama airport security screening, I had to go through a whole second screening to board a flight to America. Everyone did. Because we think we’re so damn special and love to throw our weight around, making our own laws and regulations in Panama, even to this day.

Maybe if America weren’t such a massive humanitarian disaster of its own, I wouldn’t be judgmental. But between people going bankrupt over basic hospital visits, rents rising 30 percent while wages rise 2 percent, the religious right promoting misogyny everywhere you look, and corporations taking over every single industry and treating people as completely expendable, I have no idea why we act like we’re better than everyone else.

For much of my time in Panama, I felt embarrassed to be American and ashamed that they have to tolerate us because we run the global economy. It’s undeniable that many people in the country are doing very well for themselves and have a lot of opportunity compared to people in most Latin American countries thanks to the Canal and American development of the region. But every time I heard an American talking about their development projects there, it made me angry. Especially given how little we seem to be doing to clean up the problem parts. If ever a country had a reason to nationalize and take everything back from foreign hands, it would be Panama. But they won’t. They can’t.

Now that my time there has come to an end, I’m not feeling so great about being back in the United States either. It probably doesn’t help that I spent my first week in Baltimore, one of the top five most dangerous cities in the country, although the place I was staying was an entirely different Baltimore from what most residents know. But let’s be honest, there’s nowhere safe in America. All the news that comes out of the United States is mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting. Movie theaters, the workplace, churches, schools, subways, and the latest trend, grocery stores. According to the World Population Review, the United States is the 36th most dangerous country in the world. Ecuador is 92nd and Argentina is 88th. Panama, despite Glock advertising via billboards on the highway (something I have never seen in gun-loving America), is 115th, which means it’s a way, way, way safer place to be than the United States.

So if you go to Panama, try to have a little humility and try to be a little respectful of the past. If you retire here (or to Nicaragua or Costa Rica or anywhere else in Latin America), maybe don’t lock yourself away in an exclusive, walled off expat community, acting like the US owns the place. We’ve done that for far too long in Latin America.

Here are a few other things you might want to know about Panama if you’re thinking about coming here:

  • Panama uses the US dollar. Technically they have a currency – the Balboa – but it has the same value. When you get change (coins) back in a store, you’ll get a mix of US coins and Balboas.
  • Some things in Panama were really, really expensive, especially packaged food stuffs in the grocery store. Sometimes it was so expensive that I’d see the Bs/ for Balboa (instead of $) and think it must be a currency with a different value. But nope, same value as the dollar.
  • But in general, Panamanian prices are like living in a midwestern US city with a permanent 20 percent discount. So, it’s cheap, but not anywhere near as cheap as Guatemala, Honduras, or Nicaragua.
  • You can also get a great business lunch anywhere in the city on a weekday (full plate with rice, chicken, veggies, etc.) for as cheap as $3.50.
  • There are separate tourist police in some locations, which I appreciate. This is probably part of why it’s safe. The Dutch girls that went missing in 2014 brought a lot of bad publicity to Panama, but if you compare that to all the people who go missing in the US wilderness every year, it seems absurd to worry.
  • Your apartment might not have hot water. I lived in a modern building in a good part of town, but there was no hot water in the building. I didn’t have hot water when I lived in Honduras either, so I should have expected it. There’s just no need. It’s hot and humid outside 100 percent of the time, so you never want a hot shower, and the groundwater isn’t freezing like it is in North America.
  • You will find nearly every American chain restaurant in Panama City. Of just the ones I saw: Burger King, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Smashburger, Papa John’s, Little Caesars, Dominos, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, TGI Fridays, Olive Garden, Hooters, Wing Stop, Hard Rock Café, Tony Roma’s, Benihana, and a Subway literally on every other corner.
  • There’s no recycling and I already posted about the garbage issue.
  • Everybody in Panama City speaks English and they speak it really well. It’s nice if you don’t speak Spanish, but frustrating if you do because they switch to English immediately. I always started conversations in Spanish, but when they heard my accent, they almost always switched to Spanish. Or if I didn’t hear something (because of street noise or a COVID plastic barrier), they assumed I didn’t understand and switched to English.

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