Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In The Zone

Panama is known, of course, for its canal and hats, the latter of which, paradoxically, are actually Ecuadorean. Its strategic location as the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific has always made it an important place on the geopolitical stage, which has been both a blessing and a curse. The country gets substantial revenue and employment just from the simple fact that it is where it is, but that has also made it victim to the whims and caprices of greater powers throughout its history.

Despite the Spanish language American influence is more predominant in Panama. Not just the predilection for  skyscrapers, but also fast food, bland urban architecture, and shopping malls.

Panama has always been the dividing line between North and South America, though previously it was in the south rather than the north as was part of Nueva Granada and the Colombia in the colonial and independence periods. It was the main transit point for gold and silver plundered from the new colonies heading back to Spain. Treasure would be shipped along the Pacific coast to Panama City before being carried by mule trains across the isthmus to the harbour at Porto Bello before being transferred to Europe-bound galleons. This made it the focus of attention for (mainly English) pirates and buccaneers, who would harry these floating jackpots throughout the Caribbean. Francis Drake, Blackbeard, Black Bart and Henry Morgan are all legendary names from the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean (and great inspiration for Hollywood). All along the coast cities were fair game for pillage and plunder: Panama, Cartagena, Granada, Havana and Campeche all suffered severe destruction at the hands of English, French and Dutch corsairs. All this means that the grandiose colonial cities that one finds inland in Latin America didn't get the chance to flourish as they'd be burnt down by a bored buccaneer every other year. Instead there are old coastal forts and the ruins of where Panama once used to be, before it got razed by Henry Morgan in 1671 some eight kilometres to the east of where the new city is (although urban sprawl has now caught up with it and much of the masonry got reincorporated into local houses).

Panama's most important historical site, the ruins of Old Panama (City). At one point one of Spain's largest cities in the Americas it was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 during a daring raid from the Atlantic (landward) side.

This constant pillaging up until the 19th century means that there is precious little of historical interest to see in Panama and the largest attraction, both literally and figuratively, is the canal. Having seen it up close and personal on my way to Cartagena I felt no need to see it again, but being on the ground allowed me to learn about it more thoroughly. That it was built by the Americans following French failure I knew. But that in order to get the approval to build it the Americans (and French investors who were looking to sell their canal rights to the Yanks) instigated the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903. Or that the canal and 8km strip of land on either side of it was ceded to the Americans in perpetuity (this atavistic anomaly of geopolitics was rectified in 1979 and the canal finally handed over to the Panamanians in 1999). And that the Zone was used as a springboard for the States to launch an invasion of Panama in 1989*. Unfortunately I was only 9 at the time and it was close to Christmas, so I have no recollection of it from the news. This US exclave, known locally as The Zone, gave rise to a strange duality in which Americans, known as Zonians (the most famous being senator John McCain), lived in ersatz American houses, going to American malls and shops, and leading normal American lives, albeit in the tropics, whilst Panamanians lived their separate lives outside. I was lucky to meet some wonderful hosts who helped explain the fascinating love-hate Panamo-American relationship, Zonianism, what it's like to live with sloths in your back garden, as well as their own childhood memories of the US invasion. An odd place indeed.

"Let's have a typical Panamanian breakfast." And off we went for dim-sum, perfectly showing the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is Panama. With my hosts Marko and Stephanie.

*The bad boy of the hour was Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, who had just annulled elections where his side were slated to lose. Interestingly Noriega got to power by graduating from the US military School of the Americas, the place to study for all aspiring dictators and human rights violators, and then becoming the CIA's go-to man in the country, helping smuggle arms to the Nicaraguan Contras as well as drugs to the US. All this while George Bush Snr was the head of the CIA. Interesting then that he should use defence of democracy and drug smuggling as a justification of the invasion once he became president, seeing as he had no problem with it only a few years before.

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