A Once-Vibrant City Struggles as Panama Races Ahead on a Wave of Prosperity

Randal C. Archibold, New York Times, March 23, 2013

On one end of the Panama Canal, the nation’s capital gleams with new skyscrapers; a subway, the first in Central America, is under construction; and new malls and restaurants fill with patrons. The city fancies itself a mini-Dubai on the Pacific.

Forty miles away on the other end of the canal, in the city of Colón by the Caribbean, rotting buildings collapse, sewage runs in alleyways, water service is jury-rigged, and crime and despair have sent protesters into the streets. Recently, Hollywood filmmakers made Colón, Panama’s second-largest city, a stand-in for Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.

Panama is booming, with an average economic growth of 9 percent in the past five years, the highest in Latin America. {snip}

Panama City, the capital, has the tallest building in Latin America, a 70-story Trump hotel and condo tower, and its skyscraper forest reflects the rush of foreign investment, real estate speculation, well-heeled foreign transplants and, American officials have said, some measure of drug money.

But Panama can also lay claim to some of the starkest disparities of wealth in Latin America, according to the World Bank, and the persistent poverty in Colón, an hour’s drive from the symbols of wealth in Panama City, remains a glaring, festering example inflaming friction here.

Colón, wedged between a busy port and a handsome cruise ship terminal, is a crowded, cacophonous city of 220,000, with street after street of faded colonial facades and concrete-block buildings with peeling paint and weeds growing out of some upper floors.

“There are hardly any jobs here,” said Orlando Ayaza, 29, who works occasionally at the dock. “Not ones with regular salary and benefits that we need here.” He has a two-inch scar on his face that he attributes to a policeman’s baton during unrest here last year.

When asked why he does not move to Panama City, he touched the dark skin on his arm. “They see this, and you say you are from Colón, and they say, no way,” he said. “They think we are all thieves there.”

Colón is predominantly black, whereas Panama City’s population is more of European descent, and many residents and analysts say they believe that racial discrimination has contributed to Colón’s stagnation.

Such disparities are growing starker in rising economies like Peru, Brazil and Ecuador, said Ronn Pineo, a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs who studies economic change in Latin America.

“Not every urban area has gone along with the growth,” Mr. Pineo said. “And if there is any kind of racial divide, it is hard for affluence to cross, with the poorer area tending to be one color.”


Colón used to shine. In the early 1900s, during the construction of the canal, and after, it blossomed with theaters, clubs, restaurants and finely manicured boulevards. Old-timers recall distinguished visitors like Albert Einstein.


But as Panama City grew and modernized in the post-World War II era, Colón’s luster wore off. The reduction and ultimate closing of American military bases with the canal’s transfer to Panama in 1999 accelerated Colón’s tailspin. Crime and poverty swelled, and middle-class strivers moved to the suburbs, Panama City or abroad.


“If we all go to Panama City, what’s left here?” said Alma Franklin, 25. She has worked at fast food stores and struggles to feed her three children, but has no faith that the government will help her. “This country,” she said, “would prefer to forget Colón.”


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  • The__Bobster

    Colón is predominantly black, whereas Panama City’s population is more of European descent, and many residents and analysts say they believe that racial discrimination has contributed to Colón’s stagnation.


    Interesting how you always get the same result the world over……and, of course, the same excuse.

    • Nathanwartooth

      I wonder when Obama will send in the drones to stop this injustice?

      • CoweringCoward

        I am thinking the American “tax payer” (read white folk) could NEVER afford enough drones to eliminate the “injustices” suffered by the Africans.

    • Guest

      The killer bee of world civilization.

    • StillModerated

      I took a tour on Google Earth/Panoramio and reached the same conclusion — knee grows are the cement overshoes of civilization.

    • Nate Miller

      Not true at all the demography of Panama city shows that the majority of her inhabitants are Mestizos, Amerinds, Afro-Panamanians & Mullatos with a minority Asian and white population.


      The Arabs, not whites are the wealthiest people in Latin America and even Panama. Carlos Slim Helu ( Arab-Mexican) is the world’s richest man since 2008. Panama’s richest real estate, industrial and infrastructure moguls are for the most part Arab. The richest man in Panama is Abdul Waked.


    • Rciky

      I take it the “y’all be rayciss” doesn’t work in Panama.

    • ANON

      I looked it up 68% Mestizo,15% White, 10% Black.

  • Michigan Patriot

    Again & again writers on economic & racial dominate areas of one type or another , never put two & two together and name blacks as the cause of their own poor economic & high criminal areas; being tough to live in but always look for the White skin scapegoat for the black crisis.They never fail to create hatred towards Caucasians. Look at Detroit or any destroyed American city; what demographic group caused this destruction ? It is always the same one; what a coincidence ! Like the Emperor’s New clothes; one must never speak the truth.

    • brengunn

      I suppose there is a certain amount of racial discrimination. But enough to see these same results every time? No way. Any way I think about it leads me to the conclusion that these trends are biological in origin. Blacks end up living in the poor areas because they can’t compete with Europeans. And even when there are no Europeans to compete with, they lack the relevant skills to lift themselves up. It’s very depressing.

      • MikeofAges

        The areas end up poor because of the inability to create a commercial economy, something everybody else is able to do. What Hispanic community in the United States, however bad off, does not at least have an autonomous commercial infrastructure of independent businesses which even outsiders can patronize if they wish? Or any other “minority” community?

        • brengunn

          True. I see this where I live, too, though not to the extent it happens in the US.

          I have read theories about the desegregation of the US, that say it wasn’t all good for black communities, as the black strivers took up jobs in the civil service and moved to white areas and left black areas without internal economies as the blacks who left, otherwise would have been business people. It left a void for more entrepreneurial peoples like Koreans to move into black neighbourhoods and profit in their absence.

          I think that’s an example of how egalitarian policies can often have detrimental effects that no one expected, if it’s true.

          • IstvanIN

            When the so called talented 10th was forced to live among their own they exerted a certain control over the 90% behavior. Blacks controlling blacks because their was no escape. Desegregation and forced integration destroyed the black internal societal controls.

          • MikeofAges

            I don’t know if blacks ever had much of a record of operating independent businesses such as furniture and appliances stores, grocery stores and convenience markets, or business providing supplies and services to other businesses, beyond the usual hairdressing and barbering, funeral services and maybe a few restaurants. It seems to me that there is a confluence of reasons here — lack of entrepreneurial aptitude, too many people without a enough income and the inability to maintain a community others would want to come into to spend their money even in broad daylight.

          • Howard W. Campbell

            Up to the 1950’s or 60’s (depending on the area), black neighborhoods did have some businessmen. About all that is left are the barber shops/hair salons and the local undertaker. The talented 10th would crack skulls if necessary to keep the police at bay. It was a shame when the government demanded that whites remove the lid from that pressure cooker. We have been paying for it for the past 60 years or so.

          • MikeofAges

            Some. But we have the autonomous commercial economies of Hispanic neighborhoods as a reference and closest comparative in the North American context. No comparison, really.

        • StillModerated

          Drunkenness, gambling, lack of accountability or responsibility, and tolerating their childrens’ petty thefts and other crimes are what create poor neighborhoods. It’s much more prevalent amongst Africanos.

  • CaptainCroMag

    So Colón is the colon of Panama? Looks like Panama could use an enema.

  • Scott

    I wouldn’t glorify Panama City too much. Yeah there’s skyscrapers but also tremendous poverty. And not just poverty, but filth. Panamanians have spectacularly low standards when it comes to living amongst garbage. You walk down sidestreets and it’s not uncommon to come upon a mound of trash right in the middle of the sidewalk. When it’s low tide and the Pacific Ocean recedes, you see many years’ worth of garbage on the ocean floor. No one seems to care. You can see why Panamanians drove the Zonians out; the Canal Zone was a clean, successful colony that showed up the rest of Panama. It was humiliating for them.

  • I was stationed at Fort Davis, just outside of Colon in 1960, it was not too bad then, but you could tell the difference in Colon and Cristobal in the Zone with nothing but a street between…..

  • IKantunderstand

    Racism is not the problem. The problem is stupidism. Nobody wants to hire stupid. Now, if the shoe(sandal, bare-footedness) fits…

    • MBlanc46

      Stupidity and, very likely, propensity for crime. It’s not for nothing that the residents of PC think they’re all thieves.

  • cecilhenry

    Do white people own the world a living??

    NO: AS Horus says:

    AFricans have the world largest continent, 50% of the world’s resources, all year growing seasons, over one quarter of the world’s population. Blacks live as a minority in white countries, whites are a minority in the world population. The United States has a black president, and affirmative action and special privileges: there isn’t any more whites can do for blacks.

    That’s it!!! We’re DONE.

    • MikeofAges

      If you listen to Lyndon LaRouche, international environmental policies have prevented Africa from developing its own water resources. That’s one thing you can blame on whitey, or at least on Western environmentalists. Hard to say what Black Africa would do with increased economic resources if it had them, though. Probably just increase the population until the standard of living was back to less than subsistence.

      • MarcusTrajanus

        But why on Earth would you listen to Lyndon LaRouche?

        • MikeofAges

          He was right about a few things, and actually is philosophically correct in his take on the contemporary conflict between neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. The Wikipedia material on LaRouche gives a pretty good account of his ideas and what the issue is generally.

  • SargeInCharge

    Human nature has the darndest way of staying constant wherever humans are located.

  • SargeInCharge

    “This country,” she said, “would prefer to forget Colón.”

    Sounds about right.

  • zimriel

    This is how Chavez took over. Venezuela was just like this.

  • LHathaway

    “even when there are no Europeans to compete with, they lack the relevant skills to lift themselves up”.

    Sounds like a job opening for some social workers. . .

  • bigone4u

    Bigone’s Law: Blacks everywhere and always are to be found on the bottom rung of society’s economic and cultural ladder.

  • BonusGift

    Captain Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

    American taxpayer: “I am shocked, shocked to find that blacks create poverty and disgusting blight in Panama.”

  • St Francis

    Panama is only 15% White European, and even then those “official statistics” will be greatly inflated with Mestizos claiming to be White. Im surprised Amren would publish an article as pathetic as this one. Is Amren now endorsing Latino immigration just like the Republican party? There are many countries in sub-Saharan Africa wilth growth raths similar to Panama’s.

    • jeffaral

      I always laugh at race stats. Panama’s neighbour, Costa Rica, is supposedly 90% White European. I laugh…..

  • TheAntidote

    ‘………the water supply is “jury-rigged.” I suppose there aren’t any proof readers at the old grey lady anymore. Either that or the writer is unfamiliar with English because Spanish or Ebonics is his first language. I believe he was trying to convey “jerry-rigged.”
    Years back there was a breakdown of a cruise liner, and all the first world passengers had to be landed at Colon and put up in an old hotel. The natives felt an irresistible impulse to become acquainted with these beings from civilization, and quickly started to crawl all over the hotel. The accounts read like the farmhouse scene in ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

  • Latin America is sounding better and better. With most of the worst Mexican and Central American non Whites now here in Chicago, maybe I should go to the Whiter parts of Panama, Mexico.

  • Paleoconn

    The name Colon seems pretty fitting.

  • Call Me Ishmael

    I went through the Panama Canal in ’05 with the requisite layover in Colon to obtain the necessary permit and had to wait nearly a month for the privilege. I went back and forth regularly between Panama City and Colon. I sat with a residents of various hues on both sides of the country. The one factor cited by everyone I spoke with was the withdrawal of the American presence and American money when Jimmy Carter ceded the US’s rights. I spoke with people who had been educated in American schools who spoke textbook English – a crackhead who spoke as well as any American attorney in particular, whose parents had both been employed by the US military, but were now just scraping by.

    In Colon, sailors awaiting transit were mugged regularly outside the guarded gates of the ostentatiously named “Panama Yacht Club” when they insisted on walking into town. I was told by a kindly shopkeeper that if I stood on a corner any longer, I was sure to be robbed. Police attired like characters from Mad Max rode around two-up on dual sport motorcycles brandishing short fully-automatic weapons with zero concept of muzzle control. Anti-government rallies were a daily occurrence. No one of any means goes anywhere except by taxi, even for short distances. Colon, however, has an incredible duty-free zone where the riches of the world can be had. Yes, there are a lot of Arabs there – I speak a good bit of Arabic and heard them shouting into phones in the internet cafes where cheap international calls could be made. They are not uniformly rich.

    To pretend that Panama City is the mirror image of Colon, all safe and rich is plain nuts – it’s only safer and richer by a matter of degrees. The wealth in Panama is highly concentrated and the poor are very, very poor. In keeping with this site’s POV, Panama is an Hispanic culture – vastly different from the black slave culture of Belize, which is entirely corrupt, entirely dysfunctional. The attributes which make American blacks American blacks is not a significant factor in Panama, but grinding poverty is.