Wednesday, April 23, 2014


 Panamanian Dollar
The "Balboa"

Latin American countries frequently celebrate leaders of their revolt against Spanish rule by placing their images on their currency.  The Panamanians however honor the Conquistador Balboa on their most common coin, the Balboa.  It is equivalent to one US dollar.

Balboa was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama seeking rumored riches to be found in a kingdom to the south.  Following the great rivers of the Darien, he enlisted the help of friendly indigenous tribes, fought, subdued, enslaved, and plundered the villages of those who were not so friendly.  He soon reached the other side of the isthmus becoming the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. 

His glory was short lived.  A few years after claiming the Pacific Ocean and all lands that bounded it for the King of Spain he was seized by Pedro Arias, the Governor of Panama and his father-in-law, as a traitor.  Arias charged Balboa with plotting to usurp him and make himself Governor.  The charges were false.  Arias was jealous and fearful of the wildly popular Balboa and wanted him out of the picture.  Balboa was quickly tried, found guilty and along with four of his trusted officers, beheaded.  Arias watched the execution while hiding behind a screen.

Some 500 years later it seems strange that Panamanians would honor the first of many Spanish conquistadors that plagued Latin America, by placing his portrait on it's most circulated coin.

It's one strangeness in a strange country.  Some others:

Panama has been one of the strongest economies in the post war world yet about 25% of the population lives in poverty.  It has the worst income distribution in Latin America.

The indigenous Indians living in tribal areas, the poorest of the poor, are charged $10 tuition per week for each child attending public school, while compulsory free schooling through the 10th grade is provided everywhere else.

Panama is the most beautiful place we have visited so far.  I don't think Costa Rica is anywhere near a nice as Panama, but almost no one knows this.  Panama, strangely, makes almost no effort to lure the snowbirds that flock to Mexico into coming a little further south.  

Panama has strong governmental transparency laws yet the current president, Ricardo Martinelli, refuses to publish the contract he made with the Spanish company that is building the Panama Canal expansion.  It is the biggest and most important project in Panama, but the deal Martinelli  negotiated remains a secret.   Panamanian courts, strangely, show no interest in enforcing the law.  The largest Panamanian newspaper attempted to obtain a copy, but lost interest in the story when their freedom of information request was denied.  Two major sources of ad revenue for the paper are government PR campaigns and Martinelli's own "Super 99" supermarket chain.

It's strange that Panama would accept a bid for the canal expansion that was one billion dollars less then the next lowest bid from a nearly bankrupt, under-resourced, Spanish company well known for buying into contracts. 

Panamanian authorities were warned of serious design flaws in the design of the new locks, but strangely began the project without addressing any of them.  The proven practice of  guiding and holding ships motionless while up or down locking using shore based locomotives has been abandoned.  The new plan is for ships to be held in place inside the locks by having a tug at the bow and another at the stern.  Retired canal pilots say the tugs will not be able to completely control sideways movement caused by strong currents within the locks or by cross winds  blowing against the sides of ships. Ships will be hitting lock walls.  I can't imagine an owner putting his ships at risk in the new canal.

The retired pilots believe shore based locomotives will eventually be installed and put to work, but the lock structures were not built for their weight or the stresses caused by controlling a ship of up to 120,000 tons displacement.  The changes will get done, but will cost a lot and take a lot of time.  They may or may not finish before the Artic ice pack melts enough for ships to make use of the much shorter and cheaper Northwest Passage across the Artic Sea.

There is more: Environmentalists warn that the plan to recycle water in the new much larger locks will introduce salt water into Lake Gatun, the source of domestic water for Colon and Panama city.

And also:

The Administrator of the University of Panama was charged, a few years ago, with selling university diplomas, enraging students who felt this destroyed the university's reputation and the value of it's diplomas.  President Martinelli undertook an investigation of his good friend, but strangely, could find no proof of illegal activity.  So Bachelor of Arts degrees still remain available at a really really great price.  No, no, sorry I just made that last part up.  

Panama thinks of itself as the "Switzerland" of Latin America.  Banking generates nearly 10% of it's GDP, probably because Panama, strangely enough, makes no attempt to restrict money laundering.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has Panama on it's grey list of countries where money laundering is prevalent.  Panama failed to meet 43 out of 44 OECD anti-money laundering standards.  This item was lightly reported in Panama and caused some snickering about the OECD's gutlessness.  Strange that a 98% failure rate only gets one on the "grey" list.

Strangely, there is little community spirit.  Editorials have commented that Panama seems to be occupied by renters who don't care about anything beyond their own personal interests.  Panamanians acknowledge they share a trait they call "juego vivo", or game of life.  The object of the game is to come out ahead of anyone you deal with, by any means necessary.  Life is a zero sum game and, down here, the other guy is out to eat your lunch.   This mind set destroys the sense of "community".  Living "juego vivo" in politics is the rule. Community projects are undertaken only after the pols steal their fair share of the money.

A contractor told me, over beers in the Balboa Yacht Club, that his workers show little pride in craftsmanship, but take great joy in slamming out work and laying around the rest of the day.  Collecting money for nothing is a big juego vivo win.

The Balboa coin may provide a clue to some of this strangeness.

Pedro Arias, who beheaded Balboa, was the first Arias in Panama.  His direct descendant Jose Domingo Arias is currently the leading candidate for the Panamanian Presidency.  In no other Latin American country have the earliest colonial families survived like in Panama.  They have done more then survive, they have ruled almost uncontested since Balboa's time.  And these guys really like Balboa. 

Strange as it may seem, I think the Conquistadors are still in Panama.  Still ruling.  Still plundering.  For the last 500 years they have set the standard of behavior and by example taught the Panamanians "juego vivo".

This is all strangely uninformed speculation, but here is one interesting fact:

The United States has the unilateral right to conduct military operations in  Panama whenever it chooses.  This right was granted the U.S. in the 1840's when Panama was part of Columbia.  The Columbians gave this concession in order to have the US protect the new railroad, that connected the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, from unruly Panamanians who had been robbing and terrorizing travelers crossing the isthmus for years.

The US has retained this right through the treaties we have entered into with Panama, including the Carter/Torrijos treaty that gave the Canal back to Panama.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I really like it here.



  1. This is facinating reading. I'm remembering why I miss seeing you so much! Can you make it to NZ this year? Australia?

    Why oh why did you leave so late? The thing is, you will like the Galapagos. They are much greener than you think. Isla Isabella is the best one to stop at. San Christobal is second choice but still fun. And the big crossing is not so tough. It will take you about a month. Be sure to make landfall at Fatu Hiva. It is the most beautiful island in the south pacific.