Story by Mark Hungerford
U.S. Embassy Panama City sits on a hill surrounded by a lush rainforest that still covers much of the former Canal Zone—the roughly 5-mile stretch of land that hugged the Panama Canal on both sides when it was administered by the U.S. government. The forest, much of which is still protected parkland, served a practical role by preventing the surrounding hillsides from eroding into the Canal, and to this day it boasts some of the best hiking, mountain biking and bird watching in the Americas. Embassy Panama City’s peaceful setting is misleading; however, as it belies the frenetic pace of Panama’s economic activity and the country’s central role in global transportation and regional security.
The city’s population and economy have grown at breakneck speed, the former doubling since 1990 and GDP doubling in just eight years. The result of this growth is probably most notable from the Amador Causeway, a roadway connecting the mainland to islets in the Pacific at the entrance to the Panama Canal. From the vantage point of the Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Biodiversity on the causeway—an area frequented by embassy joggers, bikers and stand-up paddle boarders—you can see modern, glimmering skyscrapers rise for miles from the Pacific shoreline. In the opposite direction, scores of tankers, container ships and an occasional Coast Guard Cutter out at sea await their turn to cross through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, overhead, jets regularly follow the coastline to the city’s main airport, which serves as a major hub for the Americas. This is indeed a city on the move.
“Copa, the national airline, has turned the city into a major transit hub linking almost 81 cities across the Americas, including 14 locations in the United States,” said Christopher Barks, the Federal Aviation Administration director based out of Embassy Panama City. Just next to Amador Causeway, there is a small peninsula that is home to the Casco Viejo district, the city’s “old town” of cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial architecture, which provides a contrast to the surrounding modern areas. The old town neighborhood had once fallen into a state of decay, but it has experienced a revitalization in the past 20 years, due in part to Overseas Private Investment Corporation infrastructure investments. Today, tourists and locals alike visit its churches, party on its rooftop bars and dine in its many innovative restaurants. This area has long been the heart of the city after the original location of Panama City, known as Panama la Vieja was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. This year, Panama la Vieja will celebrate 500 years since its foundation as one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World.
In 1903, backed by the United States, Panama declared its independence from Colombia. A treaty with the new nation granted the United States the rights to finish what the French tried unsuccessfully to complete: construction of the Panama Canal. The Canal, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through a system of locks—one of the world’s most impressive engineering feats—is now administered by Panama and fuels the country’s economy; about 40 percent of its GDP is related to Canal activity. As Economic Counselor Isabel Rioja-Scott points out, “The Canal is also critical for the U.S. economy as shipments between the U.S. East Coast and Asia account for 68 percent of all Panama Canal traffic.” Panama also has the world’s largest flagship registry, which puts it in a unique position to support global U.S. priorities on maritime issues.
Many multinational corporations, including Procter & Gamble and Dell, have built regional headquarters in Panama since the country offers attractive incentives. The financial sector is also booming with more than 90 banks from 30 different countries establishing a presence in the country. Given the size and complexity of this regional banking hub, the embassy and the Panamanian government have focused resources and efforts on combating money laundering and terrorist financing. Panama has a dynamic economy, but one of its main challenges is income inequality. Despite recent growth, some Panamanians have struggled to adapt to a higher cost of living, and many in some areas of Panama still live in extreme poverty.
The wide range of U.S. economic, security and cultural interests keeps Panama at the forefront of American interests in the region. Panama switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 2017 and is home to a sizeable Chinese community with origins from the time the Canal was constructed. The United States still remains Panama’s top partner: we are the top foreign investor, the top trading partner and the largest destination for educational and tourism travel.
“Mission Panama has programs that remind Panamanians of the important historical ties that we share and the stark difference in our investment potential between the U.S. and China,” said Chargé d’Affaires Roxanne Cabral.
Embassy programs like Super Chef, a reality-TV show featuring U.S. products, recipes and guest chefs coaching entrepreneurial up-and-comers, showcase shared values between the two nations and the U.S. commitment to Panamanian youth. The winner receives a free trip to Delta Airlines’ hospitality headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Embassy Panama City’s Green Team held Panama’s first ever “Bike to Work Day” which corresponded with the start of the school year and received accolades and headline news for promoting the environment and doing its part to curb traffic jams. Such programs are excellent examples of America’s shared values with Panama.
Cabral spent three days in late February in the Darien Gap—the jungle that separates Panama and Colombia—to spotlight the Darien Fund, a debt-for-nature swap that provided more than $10 million to preserve the Darien National Park. In the same area, using U.S. technology and training, Panamanian security services have successfully obtained the biometric information of thousands of migrants crossing into Panama from Colombia, an impressive feat highlighted in 2018 on National Geographic’s show “Chain of Command.” Those who intend to enter Panama illegally fly from Asia and Africa to South American countries with loose visa restrictions and then attempt to make their way north. U.S. law enforcement works with their Panamanian counterparts to collect biometric data to identify those with terrorist or other transnational criminal organization ties and ensures those individuals do not make it to the United States. To thwart criminal organizations and the flow of narcotics, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement partner with Panamanian authorities to interdict a staggering amount of narcotics, 75 metric tons in 2018 alone, primarily in the form of cocaine—the most outside of Colombia and more than the rest of Central America combined.
Nearby, and in other areas of Panama left behind by Panama’s economic boom, the Peace Corps has more than 200 volunteers working in health, agriculture, environment and education. In an indigenous territory in the northwest of the country, Peace Corps volunteers raise awareness about how HIV is spread through skits enacted in local communities and shared via video over WhatsApp, a popular messaging app that can send files over the internet. The star of the videos is Panama’s first indigenous woman to win their national beauty pageant, Rosa Montezuma, who urged her community to take advantage of Department of Defense-provided HIV testing kits.
Many American citizens have found Panama an attractive place to retire with easy visas and relatively good health care. The influx of expats has altered the landscape of tourist areas like the mountain towns of Boquete and Volcan and the beach areas of Bocas del Toro and Coronado. This American community adds to a growing number of U.S. volunteers in Elks Lodges, Rotary clubs and veterans associations that help to preserve the shared U.S.-Panama history. The American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery in Corozal is home to more than 5,000 American veterans and recently created a memorial for Julius Kroehl, the inventor of the modern submarine and a Civil War veteran, who died in Panama in the 1800s. Kroehl’s submarine still exists and is a quick boat ride away from Panama City in the Pearl Islands.
Given the small size of Panama and its historically friendly ties with the United States, embassy personnel have ample opportunities to work in close partnership with their Panamanian counterparts. The city offers many of the comforts of home as most consumer goods are easily available and there is a vibrant—albeit pricey—restaurant scene. Tropical beaches with clear water, white sand and palm-lined shores on both Pacific and Atlantic coasts are reachable in just a few hours, and opportunities to explore the nearby mountains and jungle are numerous. Panama is home to a diverse community of immigrants from around the world. The fascinating mix of global issues, a deep bilateral relationship and a relatively good quality of life make Panama a post to watch and helps explain why Vogue magazine and The New York Times have recently ranked Panama as one of the top five locations to visit in 2019.
Mark Hungerford is a consular officer at Embassy Panama.