For centuries, Panama’s poverty, and the oligarchy that perpetuated it, shaped the country’s culture. For many people, hope never took root—never had a chance to blossom. People born into poverty usually remained there, because the “system” was stacked against them. Escape was virtually impossible, without using brute—and often illegal—force. It is difficult for Americans to comprehend such desperation without seeing it first-hand, without smelling the fetid slums in which many of them are forced to live.
Back in the early ‘80s, I watched poor Panamanians toil away in the hot sun for a few dollars. Back then, to be successful in Panama one needed connections—preferably bloodline connections—with the members of the elite families, who owned everything that was worth anything. No legitimate business could be started without dealing with one or more them, none of whom were prepared to provide the benefits of their status without receiving exorbitant compensation in return. That meant little profit for those who actually did the work and took the risks. Consequently, the poor focused on making enough money to go from one day to the next.
Today, things are much better. A recent study by the World Bank reported that from 2007 to 2012, Panama’s poverty (using the national poverty line) declined from roughly 40% to 26%, which was greater than the average decline in other Latin American and Caribbean countries that the study examined. In addition, only Bolivia saw a greater improvement in income inequality—the gap between rich and poor. Although the study found that many countries were experiencing growth in their middle class, the growth in Panama’s middle class was particularly pronounced. The report concluded that these positive developments were the result of the completion of the transfer of the operation and ownership of the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama in 2000; the transformation of Panama into a logistics and trade hub, as well as a financial center; and important public investment projects, including the expansion of the Canal with a third set of locks, capable of handling much larger ships, and the construction of the Metro in Panama City.
Despite these improvements, Panama still has a long way to go. It is my sincere wish that they remain on the path to a brighter future, so that Hope can, once and for all, take root.