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The Un/Comfortable Zones of Panama

By Marina Reyes Franco
On Mar 2, 2018

Marina Reyes Franco, recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award, writes about Panamanian history, urban development of Panama, and artists whom she met during her trip.

Image: The home of Feoclassical architect Jesús Díaz in Panama City.

I’ve visited Panama’s Tocumen International Airport - deemed “the hub of the Americas” by Copa Airlines - many times. Whether coming or going to Buenos Aires, Bogotá or Santiago, I would always stop in Panamá, read the Panorama airline magazine and wonder what else was out there. Being Puerto Rican, it’s always good when there’s another place trying to be more Americanized than us. For over a century now, Panama has had an image of itself literally carved out of the landscape as a transient space. A 2008 study by the University of Florida found that the isthmus of Panama was most likely formed by a Central American peninsula colliding slowly with the South American continent through tectonic plates movement over millions of years. This formation helped populate the continents and, fast forward thousands of years later, the isthmus is still strategically located. First North to South, and now also East to West and viceversa, Panama is at the center of the globalized world due to the Panama Canal’s role in international trade and commerce; it is a connector between goods, consumers and the wealth that is created and often also “disappears” into its intricate web of secrecy laws and real estate ventures. I went to Panama to finally see the Canal Zone, and primarily meet with artists José Castrellón, Donna Conlon, Jonathan Harker and Darién Montañez, who are making work that reference Panamanian history and idiosyncrasies, from its complicated history with the United States, to the city’s wannabe Dubai skyscrapers, mall culture and money laundering schemes. Hosted by Castrellón, I got to know Panama City in the Pacific, Portobelo in the Atlantic, and the Zone along the way. I visited two weeks after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and just being able to stay in a place with electricity and running water was a luxury my friends and family didn’t have. The bushy green landscape I admired was so like Puerto Rico’s, I would get emotional wondering when the island would look like that again.

The first thing a casual visitor might notice in the airport is that its famed duty-free shops won’t take credit cards anymore. The Riviera duty-free shops are owned by Abdul Waked, a businessman who is on the “Clinton list,” which basically means that reputable companies and banks won’t deal with you, even in the absence of an indictment. The guy is internationally black listed due to his association with money from drug trafficking and asset laundering. This little fact would become more and more important as my time in Panama progressed. Waked was one of the developers of the ghostly Soho Mall, a practically abandoned but still functioning shopping center that features a cineplex, Louis Vuitton and Valentino shops and a covered-up Fendi store, among many others whose brands he used to represent. He was a patron of the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, a scientific museum highlighting biodiversity in the isthmus, as well as various real estate ventures, including Ciudad del Sol, a majority-Muslim enclave near the city of Colón, in the Caribbean side of the former Canal Zone.

Image: The empty interior of the Soho Mall.

The history of modern-day Panama is intricately linked to the history of the Panama Canal, which starts with the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, the triumphant builder of the Suez Canal, trying and failing to build a canal across the isthmus. In 1903, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French citizen and a shareholder in the original company, founded his own Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, and proclaimed himself Panama’s ambassador to the United States. He negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which sold the rights to acquire the canal company, build and administer -in perpetuity- the Panama Canal and gave the US prerogative to take over an area covering 5 miles on each side of the waterway. These privileges were granted in exchange for military support to the separatists who wanted independence from Colombia, forever linking the canal and the military occupation of the Zone to the foundation of the country. Under the motto “The land divided, the world united,” the Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1914 and stayed in American hands until the The Torrijos–Carter Treaties were signed in 1977. The territory was reverted back to Panama starting in 1979 and concluded on Dec 31, 1999, with the country regaining full ownership of the Zone. Most Panamanians I know would argue that Panama truly became independent on that day in 1999.

Image: Map of the Canal Zone.

The Canal Zone constituted a very strange sort of socialist yet uniquely American Middle Class utopia where civilians who worked in the canal company and military families lived together. They had access to housing, shops, entertainment, and education - including a University of Florida campus - with the odd fact of being an American company town and military enclave literally in the middle of a Latin American country. The Canal Zone split the country into sections that made traversing Panama more difficult for Panamanians, who had to go through check points within their own country. It also hampered the growth of the capital city, which started growing east and even gaining territory to the Pacific Ocean because there was little space to grow. The architecture and planning of the Canal Zone was structured according to the City Beautiful movement developed in the United States between the 1890s and 1920s, as well as the European Garden City model. This movement, which claimed that design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement, gained traction in 1893 when Daniel H. Burnham built the temporary “White City” for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Its influence was most prominent in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. and heralded a society shielded from crime and poverty, promoted the integration of the population with the natural environment, the use of public spaces, the creation of monuments, civic centers and grand boulevards, as well as sanitation systems. All these elements are present in the tropical American utopia created by the Canal Zone administrators, but also resonate to anyone familiar with suburbia, “white flight” in Northern cities, and the creation of ideal communities that shield residents from Black and Brown people.

Clearly, this tropical utopia was not the same for everyone. While the Zonians, as the residents of the Zone came to be called, had subsidized housing, affordable medical care, annual paid vacations and preferential prices at the local commissary, they were also subject to the authoritarianism of the system that supported that middle-class lifestyle. The canal company and the military shared the Zone and also imposed a “gold” and “silver” tier system in which White men earned more than the other Caribbean workers, and education was segregated well into the 1970s. The architecture of the different housing units and company towns within the Zone differed according to this system too. As we drove through the town of Paraíso, I was struck, not only by the name, but also by the architecture of the place - a lot of the buildings in this silver tier town looks a lot like Puerto Rico’s public housing units and schools, which didn’t exactly surprise me but made evident the racist planning of both occupations.

Image: Entrance to Fort Sherman, on the Atlantic coast, in the former Canal Zone.

One of the highlights of my visit was the trip to Portobelo, which I made with Castrellón and Jennifer Choy, a young curator and one of his partners in Antítesis, a contemporary art space in Panama City. Portobelo is famous for the Congos, or descendants of Maroons, that have a deep affinity to their heritage. The town is best know for the Black Christ of Portobelo, and its namesake festival on October 21. Portobelo, which is on the Atlantic coast, and the places we saw along the way, couldn’t be any more different from the image Panama City projects to the world nowadays. The former military bases we encountered along the former Canal Zone there are totally abandoned or still used by the Panamanian border police. Only Colón, a free trade zone, holds any interest to capital. Portobelo is mostly overlooked by tourism, and even considered dangerous, but its religious festival attracts thousands of believers every year. The town square even boasts a sculpture of one of the most famous followers of the Black Christ: Salsa legend Maelo Rivera. This beautiful coastal town is also home to a group of painters organized as the Portobelo Painters Workshop, whose most well known painter is Yaneca Esquina. Started around 1993, with the help of photographer Sandra Eleta, who has a very respected body of work centered on the Congos of Portobelo, the Workshop is located next to her guest house, La Morada. The paintings are sold in the neighboring Portobelo Foundation shop, as well as in Panama City’s Karavan Gallery. Though I didn’t get to meet Yaneca, I met his son, who promptly told me that he paints some pieces for “the tourists” (namely, pieces created by indigenous groups that also work with the foundation, and which he ‘decorates’), while others are his real works of art.

Image: Painting by Yaneca. Title unknown.

If Panama became truly independent in 1999, so did its art scene. By 2002, Panamanian art critic and curator Adrienne Samos had identified Gustavo Araujo, Jonathan Harker and Brooke Alfaro as some of the artists who had reverted the usual gaze towards the countryside in the search for Panamanian identity and instead focused on the city itself as its cultural and social engine. These artists had studios in the Casco Antiguo or colonial part of the city, and its poverty and impending transformations were not lost on them. Now the city looks extremely, almost uncomfortably groomed, yet also derelict, often in the same block. Nowadays, Casco Antiguo is getting populated by fancy restaurants and gelato shops, and it reminds me of the perils of ongoing gentrification in Old San Juan and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. In any case, the artists I came to meet were part of this group that Samos referred to, or are directly influenced by them. They make social critique and use humor in their work to refer to national history and certain absurdities of Panamanian life. This too is an affinity we share.

Two of the artists that are part of that generation are Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker. Though they make work on their own as well, Conlon and Harker have worked together on videos that use discarded objects to highlight their role in the shaping of identities, consumerism, waste and climate, since 2006. Their video Drinking Song features the U.S. national anthem played using Panamanian beer bottles and cans. The brand names of the four beers —Atlas, Panama, Soberana (“Sovereign”), and Balboa (from Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish conquistador)—conjure images of Panama’s geography, history, and constructed nationhood. While Conlon searches her immediate surroundings, collecting images and objects that then she reconfigures to speak about the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of contemporary life, Harker likes to use irony and hyperbole in work that highlights the fabricated nature of cultural identity in Panama, often including himself in the works. A favorite of mine is Harker’s 2002 series of postcards that poke fun at tourism slogans, and even includes one that says “Total Sovereignty!” and pictures him climbing a fence.

Image: Visiting Jonathan Harker’s studio in Casco Antiguo.

José Castrellón is an artist who has done a lot of photographic work on the Canal Zone before. He has a series of photos titled Zoned Out in which he documented many of the areas and buildings along the canal. A more recent project centers on the January 9, 1964 conflict between students about the Panamanian flag - a previous reworking of the canal treaty stated that the Panamanian flag had to be flown inside the Canal Zone, but students in a high school there resisted it and that caused violence when students from another school entered the zone to raise the flag. Castrellón’s most recent exhibition references a famous photo taken by Stan Weyman for LIFE Magazine that documents the events of January 9. He relates the image to a popular tradition in María Chiquita and other rural parts of the country where every November 3, to celebrate independence from Colombia, people climb up a greased up pole to claim a flag in exchange for money. This odd juxtaposition of commemorations and celebrations is what Castrellón highlights in his pieces, particularly in a video in which the flag is altered to remove the stars. A common conversation topic during my visit was the issue of Panamanian “identity” in relation to the US and the many unresolved issues brought on by, not only the occupation of the Canal Zone, but also the 1989 invasion to remove their president, the dollarized economy and economic aspirations.

Image: A January 1964 edition of Life Magazine depicting the student protests over the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone.

According to Darién Montañez, Panama is an ideal case study for the atrophied development of a nation state. In its architecture, Montañez identifies Feoclásico as the reigning style of the aspirational moneyed class in Panama City. “A spectre is haunting Panama—the spectre of Feoclassicism. Whence springs this glorification of bad taste, bad both as in flawed and as in evil, yet so bad it approaches greatness?” Glass towers with ornate decorations and names like The Mirage, Bellagio Tower, Venetian Tower line the urban landscape. Anyone trying to understand contemporary Panama needs to read Montañez’ The Feoclassical Architecture of Panama. His essay gives a historical and theoretical context to the Feoclassical genre, “which good snobs find so repulsive” with the intention of signing it praises “as a clear expression of our culture and national spirit.”

Every year, Montañez asks his architecture students to draw their favorite building and every year, the Trump Ocean Club tower wins. This city, which is literally being built on the Pacific Ocean through extensions like Punta Pacífica and Punta Paitilla, is now even developing its own artificial islands for luxury residences, called the Ocean Reef Islands. His work is extensive and ranges from numerous tumblr accounts that document city architecture and its inherent scandals, as well as video, photography, writing and even watercolor painting, in an attempt to produce an object. His videos Dark Side of the Moon Side 1 and Side 2 are particularly interesting and pertinent to my research. The videos juxtapose two tourism campaigns, 1983’s “My Name is Panama”, and 2013’s “Panama, The Way”, and exchanging the audio. The result is an equality fictitious representation of Panama, one that promises pure exotic landscapes and indigenous peoples, while the other is the safe, glass tower no-place for the moneyed elites.

Image: Another example of the Feoclassical architectural genre.

When I asked about the Panama Papers scandal, I was told that it was taken as a national affront in the mainstream media. There are lawyers in every respectable family, so all of society is involved. There are several ways to get tax benefits in Panama: the Colón Free Trade Zone, which was established in 1948 and is administered by a “semi independent” government agency; the Panama Pacífico Special Economic Zone, which is being built in the former U.S. Howard Air Force Base is envisioned as a small city for call centers, offshore/maritime/aviation services, as well as high tech manufacturing, among others. Another very popular one is the Panama Tax Free Processing Zone Investor Program, which allows foreign investors and their families to relocate and establish residency in Panama by renting a plot of land, office, or an entire building with at least a 10 years lease within one of Panama’s Tax Free Zones. Panama is not only a destination for the international entrepreneur who wants to evade taxes and park their money, but also a premier destination for retirees. When the Canal Zone reverted to Panamanian hands, they kept and expanded many of the exceptional qualities the canal zone offered the world.

Image: A real estate advertisement and a book that peddled Panama as a retiree’s paradise. Courtesy of Walo Araujo.

Closer to Panama City proper - and another one of the tax free zones - is the City of Knowledge, a project started by its namesake foundation in 1995 that took over the former Fort Clayton area in the Canal Zone. When the canal zone was handed back to Panama, a lot of its former bases were kept by the government for military training and future redevelopment; houses were sold to Panamanians, a few Zonians, and other to land developers who created malls and gated communities. The City of Knowledge campus is comprised of 200 buildings and is described on their website as “a booming international community established for the purpose of business, academic, scientific, and humanistic collaboration.” Now the former barracks house many regional of NGOs, including UN and affiliates, as well as start ups and universities. Foundation employees live in the houses where the officials used to live, there’s a theater, a bowling alley, etc. The vibe of the place is definitely like that of a start up; corporate culture permeates in the foundation and innovation is the buzzword. They also have a business accelerator, convention center, sports complex, dormitories and host several public events like concerts and festivals.

In my visit to the City of Knowledge, I met with Eduardo “Walo” Araujo, Vice President of Communications for the foundation and an important cultural agent who co-founded the cultural magazine Mogo in the early 2000s, and used to direct the now defunct Panama Biennial. We discussed many things, from land use to his late brother’s Gustavo’s beginning in photography and the turn to painting before his untimely death in a car accident in 2008. One of the reasons why I’d wanted to come to Panama was the canal, but also to find out more about the biennial he, along with Mónica Kupfer, helped steer. The Panama Biennial had existed for several iterations as a salon-style competition with an international jury, but was transformed in 2005 when the co-directors invited Guatemalan curator Rozina Cazali to organize the exhibition. In 2008, Araujo and Kupfer invited Mexican curator Magalí Arriola, who proposed two important changes: a theme and an international roster who, along with other Panama-based artists, would address the history and legacy of the Canal Zone through commissioned works. The resulting texts and catalog is a great testament to how art can contribute to history, and features analysis, descriptions, scans and photos from remarkable archives and pieces of art by 17 artists, including Humberto Vélez, Francis Alÿs, Sam Durant, Jonathan Harker, Donna Conlon, Michael Stevenson, among others. Almost 10 years after the hand over of the Canal Zone lands, this exhibition served as an artistic examination of what the Zone has meant to Panamanians, who have only begun to know this land in the 21st century.

A common thread among the countries I’ve visited - not to mention the one I live in - is the constant flip-flopping of political parties and economic development proposals, and an emphasis on tax-free schemes, along with poor investment in culture and education. According to Araujo, this short sightedness only allows for roads and bridges to be built, not a society. In Panama, the public sector is only efficient when it comes to the administration of the canal. Like many Caribbean countries whose “identity” came into focus as it was defined for its people in tourism campaigns, Panama’s is shaped by the world’s relationship to their canal. Now, increasingly, the image of the country is associated with the dirty laundry of a fiscal paradise, but that is also something artists are willing to take on. This zone of exemption that was devised by the United States to operate as a segregated, planned community within Panama, ended when the Americans left in 1999, but it has been extended to the financial sector and its global beneficiaries. As ever, artists pull at the seams of the crafted narratives.