It’s clear that Panama is growing — economically and physically — but articles in the country’s daily papers question whether its citizens are truly reaping the benefits. The money gushing into the tourism industry remains stagnant at the top and government resources are diverted away from important sectors like health and social services.
I briefly referenced these articles in a conversation with my flatmate — a 31-year-old businessman originally from Venezuela — and he vehemently disagreed. The poor, he said, are always making excuses for why they’re not succeeding. They’re just not trying hard enough to get access to money that is being deftly invested in the country’s development.
Interestingly, he prefaced these statements with a classic telling phrase, “I’m not racist but…” referencing the fact that socioeconomic status in Central America, like in the U.S., is racially stratified. Colon, one of the poorest cities in Panama, is also predominately black. The connection between the two facts is more than coincidental — during the construction of the canal in the early 1900s, the U.S. instituted Jim Crow-esque policies that economically and socially marginalized black workers, the effects of which reverberate even today.
I’m looking forward to hearing the diverse range of opinions among Panamanians about their country’s recent jumpstart and about the way they see race as playing a role. So far, people seem more open to talking about race and class issues than I expected, which bodes well for my project.