Political Theater

With less than a year to go before the Republic of Panama elects its next president, frantic construction activities in and around Panama City are the norm. It’s a familiar ritual in this South Carolina-size nation of 3.6 million. The country’s presidents serve a single five year term, so the pressure is on to create public works projects that will forever bear their name. The previous chief executive, Martín Torrijos, son of the late military ruler, General Omar Torrijos, put his stamp on Panama City by tearing apart and rebuilding the entire strip of land that borders the metropolis on the Bay of Panama. Parks and a new expressway called the Cinta Costera were the result. Crews worked 24 hours a day to complete the project before he left office.

Not to be outdone, the current president, Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket mogul whose business savvy earned him a turn at the country’s wheel, is extending the roadway project further into the Pacific Ocean at the western edge of the city to circumvent the colonial San Felipe district. Although it will speed the flow of traffic to an increasingly important commercial sector along the entrance to the Panama Canal, the project is mired in controversy because its proximity to the historic zone might endanger its tourist-luring designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Martinelli is also forging ahead with an ambitious subway project for the city. At a time when conventional subway construction is so cost prohibitive that few municipalities would dare undertake such a project, many locals believe it will prove to be the ultimate white elephant.

These kind of so-called “Legacy Projects” have been a hallmark of Panamanian politics for decades. With the arrival of each election, skeptics and admirers alike hold their collective breath to see what the new president has in mind. Most accept the reality that the incoming CEO will pack top administrative posts with cronies and relatives and that endemic corruption will continue unabated. Martinelli, according to his many critics, has set a new standard for corrupt behavior. A former mayor of Panama City likened him to Al Capone while a past electoral tribunal judge recently charged that the president is “a threat to democracy.” Martinelli has engaged in an ongoing feud with the media and has acted to restrict public assembly and place limits on press freedom.

Yet, in typical Panamanian style, the country chugs along as though scandals and public discord are just an accepted part of life---a kind of perverse political theater to be tolerated while the nation’s robust economy and high quality of life reflect a different and more positive reality.

Consider that a recent Gallup poll of citizens of 148 nations found that Panamanians are the happiest people on earth. The century-old Panama Canal, which is being doubled in size to accommodate the largest container vessels afloat, has been operated efficiently since the U.S. turned it over to the country 14 years ago. The canal is the ultimate cash cow, generating income for Panama’s coffers around the clock while serving as a stable source of employment. The abandoned U.S. military and civilian facilities in the former Canal Zone today serve as home to a university campus, the headquarters of numerous NGOs and government agencies, new housing developments, and centers of retail commerce. A recent building boom created jobs for anyone who wanted one. The country also benefits from its role as a center of financial services and as a trading and transportation hub.

Panama has recently become known as a prime destination for those seeking high quality medical procedures at a much lower cost than in the U.S. and Europe. And, despite the volatility of the political scene and its proximity to such illegal drug exporting nations as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the country is well policed and to date has been spared the high level of violent crime that has been unleashed on such nearby countries as Honduras and Guatemala.

It’s not surprising, given the use of the U.S. dollar as its currency, the widespread use of English as a second language, a favorable tropical climate, and relatively low cost of living, that Panama has become a leading destination for foreigners seeking a safe and affordable retirement haven. New U.S.-style subdivisions now dot the landscape from the cool highlands of Boquete near the Costa Rican border to unpretentious little towns like Pedasí in the agriculturally-productive Azuero Peninsula. Those who prefer an urban lifestyle and covet a luxury condominium with an ocean view will find a dizzying array of options in the ever expanding skyline of the architecturally glitzy and culturally cosmopolitan Panama City. Further, the country rolls out the red carpet for foreigners who take up residency there, offering a variety of attractive incentives, including tax breaks and discounts on such essential services as public transportation.

Panama’s many positives seem to transcend the obstacles its troublesome political culture produces. But there are strong views on what could make the country even better. “What we really need,” quips one leading businessman who realizes that most of Panama’s wealth and almost half of its population is centered in the capital city, “is a good mayor, not a president. A problem-solver. An organizer and an administrator. Someone above the petty corruption that reigns today.” It may be a long wait.

Mark Holston