Headlines - Sun-Sentinel.com - "Panama's New Prosperity"

Panama's new prosperity

Published June 14, 2007

Panama City, Panama · My passport says I'm writing this column from Panama, the country, not the city in the Florida panhandle. A quick auto trip to the old Panama Canal Zone to see the boats crossing the isthmus confirms I'm in the right country.

Yet, I get confused when I look all across the city. The skyline is much like that of Miami between the Rickenbacker Causeway and the MacArthur Causeway, where dozens of cranes signal upward growing skyscrapers. If Miami's real estate boom still shows growth in buildings to house offices and homes for new urbanites, despite a recession in the overall market, Panama is heading only in one direction. Upward! Forever upward! The sky is the limit!

All this in a city of little over a million people; one in three Panamanians live in the capital or its nearby suburbs.

The signs of the building booms are everywhere.

Building cranes crowd the horizon as one looks across the bay that gives access to the Canal from the Pacific Ocean. Ask people for the reasons for the boom and most give two answers: an enormous inflow of foreign capital, and little crime.

"Panama is only second to Canada in the lowest number of crimes per capita in the hemisphere," said a newspaper editor. You can sense that on the street. Walking to a drug store open 24 hours a day a few blocks from the hotel at midnight brings no warning from hotel employees.

As in South Florida days of a booming real estate market, "everybody" one asks is either in real estate or getting into the business. Money is flowing from a plan to double the capacity of the Canal by the year 2014, a $5.2 billion dollar investment. Triple that amount with three new oil refineries being built in the next four or five years.

Add to that a still undetermined amount of money from retiring Americans who are moving here, where many people still speak English, and where the cost of living is much cheaper than in the United States. One remembers Florida of another era, of decades, long ago.

When Panamanians brag about their booming real estate market they are only stating the obvious. As many as 100 new buildings are just opening, under construction, or in the permit state. Personally, I counted over 30 cranes hovering over new skyscrapers. One of the new buildings will have 104 stories, making it the highest in the western hemisphere, south of Chicago.

Over the weekend, one talked about new hotels joining the construction boom. It said in the next three years they planned on building 9,000 new hotel rooms. Money for them comes from large European and American hoteliers, as well as other well-known investors such as Donald Trump, who will spend $220 million to build his new Trump Ocean Club with 312 rooms.

The hotel industry hopes to attract 1.7 million new tourists to the area by the end of the decade.

Other investors coming into the country to explore the possibilities include Mel Gibson, although some say he is just seeking a hideaway home in a new plush retreat away from the press photographers who hound him.

Truthfully, Panama looks and sounds like much of the countries that border the Caribbean. Its population is truly a rainbow of colors, ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, nationalities. The country is home to Jews, Hindus, blacks, from Caribbean nations, as well as to a growing number of Venezuelans and Colombians.

Nobody could have imagined this growth, prosperity or tranquility when President Jimmy Carter decided to turn over the Canal to Panama in 1980, or when in 1989 American soldiers deposed Gen. Manuel Noriega. Many silently thought that the Canal would not function as efficiently under Panamanian rule it went 100 percent into their command by the end of 1999.

They were wrong.

Traffic in the Panama Canal keeps growing yearly. Panamanians have approved doubling its capacity to permit passage of larger modern cargo vessels. Democracy flourishes amidst the economic bonanza. A city of knowledge for new entrepreneurs and scholars now resides in the same buildings that housed American servicemen for decades.

The economic leaders of the country know they face important infrastructure problems if unbridled growth continues. But for now they are confident in the future. Their record in recent years gives reason for optimism.

Guillermo I. Martínez is a journalist living in South Florida. He may be reached at guimar123@gmail.com