Tugboat Gatun, first boat to enter the Panama Canal in 1913, passing through the west chamber. Photo by Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
It isn’t often that a visiting Latin American political leader starts a talk to a Washington audience reciting verses from English poet John Keats. But Panamanian presidential candidate Juan Carlos Navarro tends to wax lyrical whether talking about his country’s bounty of flora, fauna and rare birds or one of the most thriving economies of Latin America with a growth rate between 8 and 10 percent. (Panama also has become a major retirement destination for Americans, who can live on $1,200 a month on a currency aligned with the dollar and in a largely bilingual society without learning much Spanish.)
And if there is a consistent thread between poetry and the economy, it is Panama’s geography, a Central American isthmus slightly larger than South Carolina that has served as a bridge or pathway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Panama’s discovery by European explorers in the 1500s, which provoked a Keats poem three centuries later attributing the sighting incorrectly to Cortez rather than Balboa, has been the country’s blessing and curse since, especially in its relations with the United States.
The appearance of the 51-year-old former Panama city mayor Navarro, a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard University, at ease in colloquial English is one more sign that relations with the U.S. are in a period of calm. Quite a contrast to the storms that have brewed since Theodore Roosevelt helped push Panama to separate from Colombia, then accept an American built and owned canal, which only reverted to Panamanian control after nationalist rioting in the 1960s, a Carter administration treaty barely ratified by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. ouster of military strongman Manuel Noriega in the first Bush administration.
A second canal is set to open by the end of 2015, one year behind schedule and over budget, in contrast, Navarro said, to the first U.S. canal that came in under budget and a year ahead of schedule. But at considerably smaller human cost than the first canal, whose death toll by accident and disease numbered several thousand. The new $5 billion canal, he added, is part of the web of Panamanian connections — by sea, air, rail and highway to the rest of Latin America that helps make the country a major regional commercial and banking hub.
Navarro insisted “Panama’s economic miracle is based on an open economy and democratic beliefs.” But he acknowledged that at least 25 percent of the country’s 3.5 million people still live below the poverty line and that the country’s education system is rated among the world’s worst, especially for Afro-Panamanians and indigenous citizens.
The businessman and environmentalist told the Inter-American Dialogue audience that outside his country he would not criticize the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, elected in 2009. His measured stance was in sharp contrast to an appearance by Martinelli’s vice president Juan Carlos Varella at a Washington conference last year.
Varella’s party had dropped out of the ruling coalition, and he sharply criticized the president for suppressing democratic institutions and press freedoms as thousands of Panamanians were taking to the street, successfully winning a rollback of proposed election law changes.
Navarro’s PRD party is the same one that brought nationalist leader Omar Torrijos to power in the 1970s and his son Martin Torrijos as the third democratically elected president since Noriega’s ouster. In contrast to their nationalist populism, Navarro would make only a glancing joke about the U.S. budget deficit and said his challenges, if elected, would be to reform the country’s judicial system and keep the budget balanced while pushing programs for education and to aid the poor.
He noted that every presidential election since Noriega’s departure has been won by a different political party.
“Thank the Lord,” Navarro commented on that augury for his political prospects.
And for poetry buffs, here is the excerpt from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, recited by Navarro:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Looked at each other with wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.