Gandásegui, Panama City’s quincentennial

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Pedrarias the Cruel, who in 1519 founded Panama City on the site of an existing indigenous settlement.

The Panama City quincentennial: What’s to celebrate?

by Marco A. Gandásegui, hijo

Panama City was founded in 1519 by Spanish conquerors who perceived the potential of the Pacific Ocean. A few years before, in 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa declared all of its littoral to be the property of King Carlos of Spain.

The national as well as the municipal authorities are preparing the celebrate the city’s quincentennial. However, they don’t have an agenda to guide them. The first question asked of them — What do we celebrate? — has been left without answer. The second question — Why do we celebrate? — is up in the air, looking for a place to land. The third question — Who are we who celebrate? — is completely ignored.

The Panamanian capital has had its moments of splendor and also those of decay. It was founded by a rising empire and has been coveted by others anxious to establish global domination. Panama City’s geographic location in large part determines its dynamics and its history. It rests on a narrow strip of land that separates the two largest oceans from the earth. It facilitated the maritime trade of the North Atlantic powers of Europe — and later the United States — with the Pacific. In the late twentieth century China and Japan joined in its interoceanic trade.

The Spanish conquerors exported enormous quantities of silver and gold from the mines of Upper Peru (now Bolivia) to Spain, crossing the barely 80 kilometers of the Isthmus of Panama. The colonial era businessmen and politicians who lived in Panama City prospered in the 16th and 17th centuries. The indigenous population was annihilated early on and the African slaves were brought in. From this epoch the social relations of inequality and discrimination — still with us — developed.

The precious minerals’ loss of value at the end of the 17th century was the starting point of a long period of colonial decline that gave way to the birth of republics at the beginning of the 19th century. The Spanish crown had tried to surmount the contradictions by creating in 1776 the Viceroyalty of New Granada and incorporating Panama within it aegis. The 1809-1924 wars of independence led by Simón Bolívar created the Republic of Colombia, to which Panama City adhered.

However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the city recovered some of its old commercial ways, with the discovery of gold in California and the construction of the interoceanic Panama Railway. But Panamanian businessmen were displaced by politicians in Bogota who pulled the strings of power on the isthmus. The businessmen, however, did not stay still, as they were always interested in enhancing the city’s potential in the world of global merchant shipping. In 1903 the Republic of Panama was born and the city was immediately declared to be its political capital.

The 20th century left it mark on the country and the city. Emancipatikno had a price — a very high price. The United States guaranteed the separation of Panama from Bogota. However, the businessmen negotiated a treaty with the United States that turned Panama into a protectorate. The construction of the canal between 1904 and 1914 transformed the city, enclosing it in a “cage” that with time became colonized, militarized and deformed. It produced rapid economic growth but without development. The Liberal politicians’ plans were systematically blocked by the United States. Both Liberal and Conservative politicians bowed before Washington’s power and it was the popular classes, with their student vanguard, who raised the banner of sovereignty. In January of 1964 a popular insurrection against the US occupation bathed the streets and plazas of Panama City in blood.

It was the prelude to the 1977 canal treaties, which put an end to the colonialism and the US military occupation, and in 1999 transferred the administration of the interoceanic waterway to Panama. Since that latter date, Panama City has alleged spectacular economic growth rates. However, there is no development. On the contrary, inequality has increased, poverty has become endemic and families are disintegrating in the city on the eve of its quincentennial. So I urge those who love Panama City to answer the three questions: What do we celebrate? Why do we celebrate? Who are we who celebrate?


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