When the Pullmantur cruise ship, The Monarch, sailed into Colon many of the older passengers were suffering from a respiratory infection that we had caught at the half-way point of our journey from the Canary Islands. We had sniffled, coughed and brought up gallons of mucus. Our cabins were our prison cells but also our sanctuaries and so we had mixed feelings as we woozily disembarked.
Having heard that Colon was one of the more dangerous ports on earth I had booked passage on a bus from the dock to Panama City. Panama City looked familiar with its high rise buildings and wide streets. It could have been any large city in the US or Europe. There are innumerable sky scraping bank buildings and hotels all built on an economy as wobbly as my legs felt as I swayed into the air conditioned shelter of the Hard Rock Hotel. I wasn’t staying there but it gave me a chance to check out where my hotel was. It wasn’t within walking distance but given my shakiness nothing was. Reluctantly I grabbed a cab and went to my hotel.
The lobby was filled with boisterous Costa Rican soccer fans who were there for a world cup qualifying match against Panama. Costa Rica has a respectable soccer team, Panama not so much, and so my fellow hotel guests were loudly confident. The US was scheduled to play Trinidad and Tobago on the same night and so it looked settled that the US and Costa Rica would be heading to Russia for the main event.
I was sick. I floated off to my room and slept. I woke up a few hours later to a Costa Rican sing-along. I thought I should eat something and went out searching for whatever would be the least nauseating. I couldn’t find it but I spotted a small grocery store and thought maybe crackers and beer. I found the crackers but just as I approached the beer an attractive young woman appeared and asked what I was doing. I was confused and gave her a muddled stare.
“Do you like me?” She asked. “Do you want to have fun?”
Finally I understood. “I’m very sick.” I said.
“But I’ll do all the work.” She offered. The store owner ignored us.
“I’m really sick.” I repeated.
“If you’re really sick you shouldn’t be drinking beer.” She reprimanded.
“It will put me to sleep.” I said.
She gave up on me. I paid for my groceries and went back to the hotel.
The next morning the Costa Ricans seemed no worse for wear from their partying and were tucking into their breakfast. I wasn’t hungry. I called an Uber to take me to the Hard Rock which I now thought of as the city center. The Uber was half the price of yesterday’s cab. In Panama cabs don’t have meters. I had asked what the fare would be but of course I had nothing to compare it to. Now I had and I would be using Uber in the future.
From the Hard Rock Megapolis Center I spotted a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. I bought a two day ticket and set off for the old town. It felt good to sit down. I looked out of the window at all the modern buildings. It was hard to reconcile them to a third world country but then I remembered the Panama Papers. They were the records of eleven million financial transactions that were leaked, in 2015, to a German newspaper by an anonymous source who was upset by economic disparity. It seems that most of the transactions were legal but they were still embarrassing to the famous people involved who including the British and Icelandic prime ministers, celebrities, Russian oligarchs and of course the Mexican and Columbian drug cartels. Tax avoidance and money laundering were shown to be still the way of the world. Shortly before, the British prime minister David Cameron had said “No government has done more than this one to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance.”
Panama isn’t the only place that gives shelter to the rich. The Caribbean, the Channel Islands, Bermuda, Switzerland and many more places provide shell companies with international banking services. Most of these places have a history of piracy and smuggling in fact Henry Morgan razed Panama City in 1673.
The city that Morgan razed was the old city and the Spanish rebuilt it in grand colonial style. Although some of its grandeur has faded there are some impressive buildings, especially the Palacio de Grazas which is the presidential palace. The Panamanian presidency has never been very powerful. Panama was part of Columbia when the Americans decided to finish the Panama Canal. Columbia and the US had trouble agreeing on a price for the rights to build the canal and so Teddy Roosevelt sent warships to both Panamanian coasts and Panama declared its independence in 1903. The new government was easier to deal with. Even when the U.S. invaded the last time in order to oust Manuel Noriega he was not the president. As head of the military he more or less selected the president. Five days before the invasion he declared himself Maximum Leader of the National Liberation. Anyway enough history let’s talk about me.
It was hot as I dizzily stumbled from square to square and bench to bench. I took pictures, sipped water and kept moving until I realized that I was lost and that the area I found myself in was extremely blighted. There were stripped cars parked on the street. Ragged children and curious adults stared at me. I was nervous. I saw a couple of policemen , a sergeant and a cadet, standing on a corner and I walked over to them. They didn’t speak English. I’ve lived in Spanish Harlem and Florida for most of my life and hear Spanish and see Spanish signs every day. You would think that I would understand it. It seemed so familiar but none of it made a lick of sense. The cadet took out his phone and we tried to communicate through an app. The sergeant tried to find a passerby who spoke English but the passersby quickened their step when the cop approached. They wouldn’t even make eye contact. The sergeant called his station to have a patrol car pick me up. He said something and made a gesture then pointed to my camera. I wondered if he was asking for money. I didn’t know what to do. I just stared at him. A patrol car drove by but didn’t stop. The sergeant spotted a cab parked on a side street. He walked me over to the cab and ordered the driver to take me to the bus stop. I thanked him. In retrospect I don’t think he was asking for a bribe but was warning me to hide my camera.
The next morning I ate some breakfast. I didn’t recognize most of the dishes but ate some plantains and bread and drank coffee. The Costa Ricans were excited. Their team was to play that night. I took the hop-on hop-off bus to the Canal Zone.
On the way to the Miraflores Lock the bus driver drove through the old residential areas. It still looks like 1930s American suburbia. The canal professionals and managers had been encouraged to bring their families to live in two story quadruplexes. Single men lived in hotel type apartments with maid service. Household appliances, consumer goods and even food was imported from the US and sold in commissaries. There were movie theaters, restaurants and all forms of recreation and entertainment. Employees and their families never had to leave the Zone.
There were two classes of employee. The Gold Roll and the Silver Roll. Gold Roll employees were US or northern European whites. Southern European and non-Europeans made up the Silver Roll. Black Americans were not hired and white Americans were not hired as laborers. The children of employees went to segregated schools. Florida State University even had, and still has, a branch campus there. The campus is across from the Miraflores Lock in the Ciudad Del Saber which used to be Fort Clayton. It was here that the new Panamanian president was sworn into office at the beginning of the 1989 invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.
Noriega was a disgruntled CIA employee. He had begun his career as a high school student by informing on his left-leaning classmates. As a young officer in the Panama National Guard he spent time at the US run School of the Americas in the Canal Zone and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He worked with American intelligence during the Kennedy administration and continued through the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1976, while George H.W. Bush was the head of the CIA, Noriega was caught bribing US soldiers in the Canal Zone in order to get information from the US spy center for Latin America. He shared this information with Cuba who in turn shared it with the USSR. He was known to be heavily involved in drug trafficking but was still asked to join Reagan’s “War on Drugs”. In his own notes his handler, Colonel Oliver North, admitted to knowing about Noriega’s drug involvement but obviously decided it was worth using him and he had been useful in smoothing over the Grenada invasion with the Cubans. This was in the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic and the Miami Vice style was just becoming fashionable. It seems everyone was in the drug trade in those days, the real war was against the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Although Congress had banned support of the Contras, North thought it was a “neat” idea to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to support the Contras. He also got money from the Sultan of Brunei and the Saudis. The planes that left Florida loaded with military equipment made the return journey loaded with cocaine. North is now the head of the NRA. That’s the organization for good guys with guns.
There was a falling out during the Bush administration and the US supported several attempts at a coup. When nothing seemed to be working Bush decided to send in the troops. Colin Powell led 26,000 Americans against a Panamanian military of 20,000. Air power was used to bomb Noriega’s military headquarters causing catastrophic fires in the poor district of El Chorrillo. 23 Americans and about 600 Panamanians were killed. Noriega supporters claim 8,000 Panamanians died and former US attorney General Ramsey Clark estimated 3,000 after his investigation.
Noriega escaped to the Vatican Embassy leaving behind his collection of teddy bears dressed as paratroopers, portraits of Hitler and Gadhafi, and a small bust of Napoleon. He was forced out of the embassy with loud rock and roll music and flown to Florida to stand trial. The judge ruled that details about his CIA work and his relationship with Oliver North and George Bush was inadmissible. Noriega was found guilty.
At the lock there is an observation deck where you can see the lock filling up and watch as the ships go by. You can also buy snacks and souvenirs.
There was a large crowd at the bus stop. City busses came and went but there was no sign of the hop-on hop-off bus. The crowd dwindled. Some decided to take taxis. I decided to take a city bus to who knows where. I didn’t have a ticket or correct change but the driver said “hop on” and so I and everyone else did so. We ended up at a large shopping mall. I’d met a couple of young English women and we decided to share an Uber. I’m always surprised when I see these young women backpacking and staying in hostels. It seems so dangerous but I guess they can handle themselves.
Early the next morning I ordered my Uber to take me to the airport. I was still woozy and was looking forward to getting home. As we drove through the city the sidewalks were piled high with bottles and cans. It seemed that the whole country had been celebrating their victory over Costa Rica. There was talk of a ghost goal. A ball that didn’t cross the line but was given anyway. The bigger shock was that the US lost to Trinidad and Tobago but then a lot of strange things happen in this part of the world.