PANAMA CITY, Panama — The Spanish explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, was so inspired by Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the new world, including Columbus’s last trip in 1502 to Central America, that Balboa undertook his own expedition.
In 1510 Balboa and his men set ashore in the Caribbean rainforest near present day Colombia and established Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.
Three years later Balboa, setting out on a search for stores of gold, marched through the rain forest to the summit of Cerro Pechito Parao in what is today Panama’s magnificent Darién Province and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.
For 91 years a heroic statue of Balboa that recreates his claim to the Pacific for the Spanish crown, a scepter outstretched like a cross in one hand, the other clutching his nation’s flag, has occupied an iconic spot along Balboa Avenue, Panama City’s impressive Pacific shoreline drive. The statue emphasizes a central idea about Panama: A Spaniard is the nation’s principal hero.
Indeed, until December 31, 1999, when Panama gained full control of the Panama Canal from the United States, all of the region’s previous 490 years were largely influenced by governments beyond the isthmus. Spain relinquished its hold after 200 years and the isthmus became part of Colombia. Colombia, in turn, ended its oversight in 1903, when with the help of the United States, which was about to start construction of the canal, Panama established itself as a republic.
Panama’s relationship with the United States is, shall we say, complicated. Unlike the allegiance to Spain and Balboa, there are no iconic statues of Americans in prominent public spaces. No statues of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president at the start of canal construction in 1904; or Woodrow Wilson, president at the opening of the canal in 1914; or Jimmy Carter, the president who initiated the process of turning over the canal to Panama in 1977; or George H.W.Bush, the president who launched the 1989 invasion that pushed Manuel Noriega and the generation-old military dictatorship from power.
It’s not that Panama shows America the back of its hand. It doesn’t. Americans retire here in droves now. Panamanians are warm and very much interested in American visitors. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in Panama to protect the Panama Canal during World War Two. Hundreds of thousands more transited the canal in troop carriers and other Navy vessels to take on the Japanese in the Asian theater.
By and large Panama also recognizes the contemporary value of the United States — responsible for two thirds of the record levels of cargo that transit the canal — to the logistics infrastructure investments that are the foundation of the remarkable 10 percent annual GDP growth that has unfolded here over the last decade.
Still, there’s chatter in the relationship between Panama and the United States. Psychologists and anthropologists, no doubt, would suggest that America’s by-the-book and often stern military management of the canal for 86 years stretched Panama’s patience with colonialism. A clash over flying the Panamanian flag in the canal zone early in 1964 prompted three days of clashes that left 21 Panamanians and four Americans dead. There’s lingering resentment about the number of civilian deaths and the damage sustained by Panama City during the 1989 U.S invasion.
It’s these influences, no doubt, and something more that underlies what Panamanians now think about the U.S. There’s an unmistakable, and understandable chip on Panama’s shoulder today. Freed for the first time from diplomatic and military influences of a foreign government, Panama is proving to itself that it is capable of managing a modern government. It is building a magnificent global city. And Panama is capably operating a vital revenue-producing maritime trade route.
Panama, in short, is a country unleashed with a fervor and approach matched by few other developing nations. Its waters are clean. Half of Panama’s natural forests are still standing. The air is clear. Incomes, home values, and business starts are rising. The rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the world. Panama also succeeded in keeping out of its borders the heavy drug production and export culture that made its neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so dangerous.
The result is that this small nation of 3.9 million people has an opportunity to do something rare — developing an operating system that fits the conditions of this time and this place. Panama has a real chance to build the commercial eco-paradise that people here talk about, a nation that respects the land, the water, the law, and its people. TIP — this is Panama.
During a month of travel and reporting in Panama, a number of other characteristic TIP traits emerged:
Warmth and Honesty — Panamanians that I encountered were universally engaging, candid, and trustworthy in every way. Waiters, shopkeepers, drivers, bystanders, hotel personnel, strangers — all were so helpful in translating, finding directions, making change, assisting with SIM cards, you name it. One evening, while exercising in the seaside park along Avenida Balboa in Panama City, my cellphone dropped from the side pocket of my shorts. I discovered it missing an hour later as I approached my hotel, rushed back to the park, couldn’t find it, and beat myself up silently for doing such a dumb thing. I was upset enough not to want to talk to anybody, even Gabrielle, who was with a friend out of town. The next morning the hotel phone in my room rang. It was Gabrielle. “Did you lose your phone?” she asked. “You didn’t call me.” She paused. “Well somebody found it.” A woman named Ilma picked up the phone, dialed Gabrielle’s number, and made arrangements for me to retrieve the phone at a restaurant near the airport, after her morning at church. Ilma and her husband showed up at the appointed hour, handed me the phone, and refused to accept anything from me other than a smile and a hug in gratitude. TIP — this is Panama.
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