Between pirates and freebooters

Panama, from its very beginning, has been a place in between: in between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in between North and South America, and in between the sources of the world's wealth and those who control it.

Panama, from its very beginning, has been a place in between: in between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in between North and South America, and in between the sources of the world’s wealth and those who control it. Some argue that from its colonization by Spain in the early 1500s, to its foreign-orchestrated independence from Colombia in 1903 until today, Panama has primarily served as a way station for the world’s wealth.

The original inhabitants, such as the Guna people of the San Blas Islands on its northern Caribbean coast, have been left on the margins of this country created to satisfy the interests of others, not the interests of its own peoples.

Jose Maria Vigil, a Claretian priest, theologian and editor of the Latin American Agenda, hosted my wife and me on a whirlwind visit of Panama City several weeks ago. Actually there are three Panama Cities. The original city, founded in 1519, lay on the Pacific Ocean end of the Camino Real, the royal road crossing the isthmus which the famous Vasco Nunez de Balboa had pioneered six years earlier. The vast outpouring of treasure dug from the mines of the Andes by forced native labour would pass through its gates bound for waiting Spanish galleons on the Caribbean coast. Francis Drake and other pirates and privateers raided the city for this wealth.

Henry Morgan sacked a burning Panama City in 1671. This led to the abandonment of the original city. Ruins of the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion and other once-prominent buildings can still be seen. A second city arose on a more defensible peninsula across the bay from the original site. Today Casco Antiguo is a world heritage site, its narrow streets bordered by stone buildings that stand three to four storeys tall and are roofed with red tiles.

This colonial city rivals old San Juan, Puerto Rico or Place Royale in Quebec City as an example of a 17th-century colonial city.

The El Chorrillo district borders Casco Antiguo near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. This impoverished area bore the brunt of the December, 1989 invasion of Panama City. U.S. soldiers and gunships under orders from the elder President Bush unseated General Manuel Noriega, who had once been a key drug-smuggling ally during the days of the Iran-Contra scandal under President Reagan. Father Vigil reminded us that as always the poor suffered. Residents were caught in the deadly cross fire. The collateral damage of the invasion included hundreds of civilian deaths and upwards of 20,000 residents displaced as their tenements burnt to the ground.

The modern downtown Panama City, which lays between the two older city sites, features extravagant skyscrapers like the corkscrew F&F Tower or the spinnaker-sail-shaped Trump Tower – yes, that Trump. Father Vigil pointed out the very few lights on in luxury high-rise apartments bordering the civic centre. He noted that today’s freebooters, foreign speculators, buy them and then leave them vacant in expectation of the next boom driving prices up in this country, where 29 per cent of the population lives below their poverty line, according to United Nations statistics. Panama has the second-most unequal distribution of income in all of Latin America.

As Jose Maria Vigil notes in his introduction to the 2014 edition of the Latin American Agenda, “Some people call freedom their alleged rights to subject others to their ambition for power or money. For them the common acceptance that ‘my freedom ends, where the freedom of others begins’ does not exist.” Retired Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga writes in the same edition that “True freedom is communal, an exercise of relationships that give and take. I am free if you are free.” The simple fact is as true here in the Yukon and Canada as in Panama. “There is no freedom without equality.”

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact