Panama City skyline from Casco Viejo, with the Cinta Costera viaduct development project in the center.
Panama has the fastest growing economy in Latin America. According to the CIA World Factbook, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by more than 10% in 2012, miles ahead of its closest regional competitor, Peru, at 6.6%, and nearly double the growth rate of Chile. In fact, Panama’s economy grew faster in 2012 than all but six other nations’ worldwide – faster than China, faster than India, and far faster than the United States.
The gleaming skyline of the capital pays tribute to this unprecedented expansion. Of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America, nine are located in Panama City. Of the tallest twenty, Panama boasts fifteen, and all of them—all of them—have been completed since 2010. In step with this expansion, the country’s GDP per capita has risen from $6,200 in 2002 to $15,900 in 2012. According to the International Monetary Fund, Panama now boasts the fourth highest GDP per capita in Latin America, surpassing Costa Rica and Venezuela in recent years, and following close behind Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
SJR uses art projects like this mural depicting the stages of displacement as a form of therapy for many of its refugee clients.
On a wall in the office of Jesuit Refugee Service – Panama (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados, SJR) hangs a mural, painted by SJR’s clients, depicting their journey from violent displacement in Colombia to relative safety and self-sufficiency in Panama. The mural synthesizes the stories of hundreds of SJR’s clients – refugees, asylum seekers, and the like – and serves as an expression of the human consequences of the armed conflict in Colombia.
No one knows precisely how many refugees are living in Panama today. A January 2013 estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) placed the number at just over 17,000, but the agency readily admits the reality could be quite different. In recent years, other human rights organizations have estimated the number could be as high as 75,000.
About a month ago I had just finished bathing and was wearing nothing but a soggy sarong as I approached the casa cultural, and much to my surprise, five members of the US military were standing at the entrance. Turned out they wanted to pay a visit to the tienda upstairs, where the women sell handmade jewelry and ¨canastas¨ (woven baskets and plates), and the men sell animals carved from cocobolo, or rosewood. At any rate, as it turns out, the military is on some humanitarian mission based out of Metetí, a little ways east on the Interamericana. ¨Center Front¨ troupes of Panamanian police, who usually man the Colombian border in the Darien Gap, have been removed from their duties and assigned to the Americans, who are required to remain unarmed. As everything east of Agua Fria is technically considered a war zone, the Americans are supposed to have armed accompaniment at all times. So, apparently they wander form village to village, building clinics and schools, while Panamanian police with assault rifles look after them.