Tuesday, July 21, 2015


The most north American of all south American countries, and not simply because it provides the umbilical cord that connects the two halves of the continent; though actually it's only north American in Panama City and one or two holiday-towns outside the capital; the rest is still living, quite literally, in the dark ages.

It was with US backing that Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, and the Americans who built, and then retained control of the Panama Canal until 1999, at which time the US military bases in the country were also handed over to Panamanian authority. It was also an American invasion which ended the rule of its former ally Manuel Noriega in 1989, overthrowing a tyrant who had turned the country into a major drug-smuggling outlet.

The canal is what makes Panama famous; every year more than fifteen thousand vessels make the eight-hour journey through the waterway, which is strange, because I made the parallel journey by train, from Corazol to Colon, and it took just one hour, on a dead-slow, old-fashioned steam train 
– too short to qualify for one of the world's great railway journeys, and yet, nonetheless, one of the world's great railway journeys. As former Nicaraguan Vice-President Daniel Ortega has described in his wonderful novel "A Thousand Deaths Plus One", it was Nicaragua that made the first attempt to finance a canal that would unite the Atlantic with the Pacific, and Nicaragua is still working towards that goal, only the Yanks preferred the convenience and proximity of Panama.

But it isn't the canal that should make Panama famous; it's the rainforests with their unique collections of plants, animals and birds, and its human population which, unlike the elite of Panama City and Boquete, with their American-style lives of luxury, lives way below the poverty line, in rain-forest and banana plantation and bamboo hut, much as they learned to live three thousand years ago, feeding themselves by fishing. If you do make the trip to Panama, do not miss the opportunity to travel back in time, by spending at least one night in the San Blas islands.

Marks For: 365 (one, not for every day of the year, but for the number of islands that make up San Blas, though only 49 are actually inhabited)

Marks Against: $5.25bn (the amount being projected as the cost of modernising and expanding the canal; money that might be better spent alleviating the poverty of the three million Panamanians who gain no benefit whatsoever from the existence of the Canal; though, of course, this could be argued the other way: if the modernisation is successful and the Canal helps grow the country's economy, then those three million can expect to receive their share; sadly the evidence of history is not persuasive in this case)

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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