A Note on the Country of Panama
by Mike Press -- October 12th, 2008
As told by Humberto and then interpreted [butchered] by me and then somewhat censored.
A long time ago (more than 150 years ago), Panama was part of Colombia. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Panama region of Colombia tried to break away and form its own country many times, but each time, Colombia brought them back under control.
In the meantime Europeans and Americans got sick of sailing around South America because they all got killed and lost their cargo off the Cape. So they decided it would be better to drill a hole through Central America. However, Colombia would not acquiesce to all the conditions demanded by the Americans (who took the French plan of working with the country to get the canal going). So, the US began to take an interest in Panama´s interest in breaking away. Different people have different accounts of what happened, but the US played a role in supporting certain generals in the permanent formation of the country of Panama which was not retaken by Colombia. These generals did very well for themselves and although this government was not exactly democratic, it was friendly to US interests. Most ships had to pay obscene amounts of money in cash to get through the canal; American ships which went for free.
Then, when the contract concerning the canal was not renewed, under Jimmy Carter, Panama gained control over the canal and the US pulled out of what was the Canal Zone–essentially American territory. So now the US no longer has as much presence in Panama (the question of ‘natural born citizen’ wouldn’t hold if John McCain were born there today). It costs about $250,000 to take a boat through the canal, always in cash. This is a major source of revenue for Panama. Fortunately, the government is, to an extent, more democratic and some of this wealth gets to the citizens.
Nevertheless, many in Panama are dreadfully poor. Parts of Bocas del Toro, where we are remain in poverty. Different regions have different character based on their history and geography.
One region of Panama, Kuna Yala (far east area on the Caribbean side) remains controlled by indigenous peoples who live as they please quite independently from the Panamanian government. Darien, the region immediately to the South is where the main thoroughfare from Californian southwards throughout Central America ends in dense jungle. It is a place of intense drug smuggling where and very dangerous for outsiders as they are assumed to be DEA.
Bocas is relatively safe. I just walked through town the other night to buy some delicious Caribbean rum and didn’t feel threatened at all. Apparently there are some, as Humberto calls them, ‘pushers’, but I wasn’t bothered. The town is a little shady around the edges, but cute downtown and we expect to spend a few nights there.