A business micro-climate at a glance

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From the food court
View from the food court upstairs from Super 99 into the backlit beyond of Coronado and Las Lajas, photo taken about 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. In the glare what you can’t see is a usual sign of a slow economy, a series of empty billboards along the Pan-American Highway. In this neck of the woods that mean a shortage of businesses with the money to rent billboards and things to offer for sale to upscale customers.

What you see and what you don’t

Panama by bus, with photos and story by Eric Jackson

Behind this reporter, and to his left, what you don’t see are all the closed businesses on the second floor (third, US-style) of the Coronado Mall. Is Sunday business just too slow for the family running the last food outlet up there, or are they gone for good. They were the ones braving it through the pandemic, and when possible I had made a habit — even before the virus arrived — of getting some shiu-mai dumplings there. To my right the little children’s ride area has been out of operation for a long time, but some of the rides have been moved downstairs and kids are using them, which suggests that the business just retreated but did not close in the face of adversity.

Get into my political science education about polling, and it warns that on a Sunday when traffic is heavy with cars headed back to the city will not be a “random” time to look at Coronado. I encountered fewer vendors there than usual, and the charity children’s toy sale guys left early, too. 

Super 99 was not understaffed — Ricky Martinelli wants to be president again. At the dollar store, they were squeezing the aisle to add another row of shelves, and had changed the merchandise around a bit, with extra employees completing this labor — is there a new franchise owner? And Mailboxes Etc. has moved from across the street — new ownership there, too?

The informal sector? Not as many fruit and vegetable vendors — those proliferated earlier, into a market glut. A lady taking a break in her stall, with her jewelry pliers at the ready. The percentage of female vendors is up, and micro-manufactures are up as against the agricultural sector.

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Small formal businesses, and little branches of substantially larger enterprises like banks, are moving around. Some are closed, some have been sold to new owners who then moved to other nearby venues. One gathers that the landlords of business properties have been taking a beating in these times. There have to be a thousand reasons for the moves — landlords thinking about recovering from plague time losses by jacking up the rent, all manner of inducements to attract tenants away from the competition, new calculations about old business or political ties….

There are some hopes for tourism, but when the bus turns into Farallon to drop off a family of passengers, there just aren’t very many at Decameron. Same as stops at Playa Blanca. That said, a year ago such turn were much rarer than they were now. Tourism as the salvation of Panama? Perhaps, but it’s not going very well just yet.

If Nito declares an end to the emergency before the usual peak tourism season hits, and if this new pill that’s said to cut the chances of death way down from its current one and one-half percent proves as good as promised, perhaps we will see the return of dry season tourism in the months to come. Lingering fears, beaten down fortunes and all the real or imaginary concerns about red tape may work against that. But you just know that there are millions in the Global North aching to just fly away, eager to go to the sun for a few days or weeks of vacation.

Shopping tourists? The plasto-shoppers might as well go to the unmasked and unvaccinated malls of Miami for their Asian imports. But the adventurous tourists in search of cool Panamanian handicrafts will likely find unusually large selections by craftswomen — mostly women, but also some men — who have been producing throughout the epidemic but finding few customer. (Get me slightly ahead in the financial resources and one might be me. It has been more than two years since I have been chacara shopping and even longer since I have been to Santa Fe de Veraguas. MAYBE the handicrafts market near the Father Gallego monument is still there and would have just the replacement for my departed humongous Bugle-style bag.) Perhaps you might find that in the artisans’ market stalls in Panama City, but if you’re a tourist getting out into the Interior, to Santa Fe and El Valle and Tole and all the other places where people sell their craftworks, is a big part of the fun.

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THIS PHOTO is from an ad. The corporate chain convenience stores where you can grab a bite to eat are proliferating during the epidemic, while the restaurants and merchants that were organized as small formal businesses have been disappearing.

So, what’s this scientifically non-random and regionally small survey in the eyes of a guy just passing through by bus? A tiny crust of big businesses have made out like bandits — in some cases actually HAVE BEEN bandits — in these troubled times. Almost everyone else has suffered. Those with payrolls to meet, obligations to permanent employees and Seguro Social reports to file along with payments? Some will use political connections to cut the sharp corners, some will take their chances at evasions that they could not evade. But many a small business owned by someone who tried awfully hard to play by the rules and do right for employees is going or more often gone. It has been a terrible massacre and you can see it at a glance, zooming by on a coaster.

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This reporter does not weep for the advertising cartel. But the shortage of customers is bad news for Panamanians of most walks of life. These are hard times.

 

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