Friday, February 27, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch.11

Pirates in the Canal Zone

The next day, the Panamanian government sent a man to show me around. His name was Fidel, and I was immediately drawn to him. He was tall and slim and took an obvious pride in his country. His great-great-grandfather had fought beside Bolivar to win independence from Spain. I told him I was related to Tom Paine, and was thrilled to learn that Fidel had read Common Sense in Spanish. He spoke English, but when he discovered I was fluent in the language of his country, he was overcome with emotion.

"Many of your people live here for years and never bother to learn it," he said.

Fidel took me on a drive through an impressively prosperous sector of his city, which he called the New Panama. As we passed modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers, he explained that Panama had more international banks than any other country south of the Rio Grande.

"We're often called the Switzerland of the Americas," he said. "We ask very few questions of our clients."

Late in the afternoon, with the sun sliding toward the Pacific, we headed out on an avenue that followed the contours of the bay. A long line of ships was anchored there. I asked Fidel whether there was a problem with the canal.

"It's always like this," he replied with a laugh. "Lines of them, waiting their turn. Half the traffic is coming from or going to Japan. More even than the United States."

I confessed that this was news to me.

"I 'm not surprised," he said. "North Americans don't know much about the rest of the world."

We stopped at a beautiful park in which bougainvillea crept over ancient ruins. A sign proclaimed that this was a fort built to protect the city against marauding English pirates. A family was setting up for an evening picnic: a father, mother, son and daughter, and an elderly man who I assumed was the children's grandfather. I felt a sudden longing for the tranquility that seemed to embrace these five people. As we passed them, the couple smiled, waved, and greeted us in English. I asked if they were tourists, and they laughed. The man came over to us.

"I'm third generation in the Canal Zone," he explained proudly.

"My granddad came three years after it was created. He drove one of the mules, the tractors that hauled ships through the locks." He pointed at the elderly man, who was preoccupied helping the children set the picnic table. "My dad was an engineer and I've followed in his footsteps."

The woman had returned to helping her father-in-law and children. Beyond them, the sun dipped into the blue water. It was a scene of idyllic beauty, reminiscent of a Monet painting. I asked the man if they were U.S. citizens.

He looked at me incredulously. "Of course. The Canal Zone is U.S. territory." The boy ran up to tell his father that dinner was ready.

"Will your son be the fourth generation?"

The man brought his hands together in a sign of prayer and raised them toward the sky.

"I pray to the good Lord every day that he may have that opportunity. Living in the Zone is a wonderful life." Then he lowered his hands and stared directly at Fidel. "I just hope we can hold on to her for another fifty years. That despot Torrijos is making a lot of waves. A dangerous man."

A sudden urge gripped me, and I said to him, in Spanish, `Adios. I hope you and your family have a good time here, and learn lots about Panama's culture ."

He gave me a disgusted look. "I don't speak their language," he said. Then he turned abruptly and headed toward his family and the picnic.

Fidel stepped close to me, placed an arm around my shoulders, and squeezed tightly. "Thank you," he said.

Back in the city, Fidel drove us through an area he described as a slum.

"Not our worst," he said. "But you'll get the flavor."

Wooden shacks and ditches filled with standing water lined the street, the frail homes suggesting dilapidated boats scuttled in a cesspool. The smell of rot and sewage filled our car as children with distended bellies ran alongside. When we slowed, they congregated at my side, calling me uncle and begging for money. It reminded me of Jakarta.

Graffiti covered many of the walls. There were a few of the usual hearts with couples' names scrawled inside, but most of the graffiti were slogans expressing hatred of the United States: "Go home, gringo,"  "Stop shitting in our canal," "Uncle Sam, slave master," and "Tell Nixon that Panama is not Vietnam ." The one that chilled my heart the most, however, read, "Death for freedom is the way to Christ." Scattered among these were posters of Omar Torrijos.

"Now the other side," Fidel said. "I've got official papers and you're a U.S. citizen, so we can go." Beneath a magenta sky he drove us into the Canal Zone. As prepared as I thought I was, it was not enough. I could hardly believe the opulence of the place — huge white buildings, manicured lawns, plush homes, golf courses, stores, and theaters.

"The facts," he said. "Everything in here is U.S. property. All the businesses —the supermarkets, barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, all of them—are exempt from Panamanian laws and taxes.

There are seven 18-hole golf courses, U.S. post offices scattered conveniently around, U.S. courts of law and schools. It truly is a country within a country."

"What an affront!"

Fidel peered at me as though making a quick assessment . "Yes," he agreed . "That's a pretty good word for it . Over there," he pointed back toward the city, "income per capita is less than one thousand dollars a year, and unemployment rates are 30 percent . Of course, in the little shantytown we just visited, no one makes close to one thousand dollars, and hardly anyone has a job."

"What's being done?"

He turned and gave me a look that seemed to change from anger to sadness.

"What can we do?" He shook his head. "I don't know, but I'll say


- pages 63-66

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