As Panama Canal Expands, Many In The Country Feel Left Out Of Its Windfalls

Jun 26, 2016
Originally published on June 27, 2016 5:15 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A band played and onlookers waved flags as a massive Chinese container ship started its journey through the expanded Panama Canal, which reopened today. While the country celebrates this modern engineering feat and its projected profits, there are many in Panama who feel they've been left out of the canal's windfalls. NPR's Carrie Kahn traveled to the city of Colon on the Atlantic entrance to the passage.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: A group of men stand in the shaded narrow alleyway between two buildings in the Patio Limoso neighborhood. The buildings, like all in the core of the city, are weathered, filled with weeds and crumbling. Sewer water flows openly to the street amid trash and graffiti.

ALEJANDRO DEL CID: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have this canal that brings so much to our country, but here, we only have problems," says 37-year-old Alejandro Del Cid. "No water, bad electricity and no jobs," he says. As Panama sets to inaugurate it's more than $5 billion expanded canal today, many here in Colon are asking what they will get out of it. Del Cid's mother, 53-year-old Leticia Henry, says leaders have long promised to fix the city, but nothing changes. It only gets worse.

LETICIA HENRY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They promise, promise and promise but don't ever come through," says Henry. She says her son just got released from prison after serving nine years for armed robbery but has only been able to work one job that lasted three weeks painting a nearby park.

HENRY: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There are plenty of people here without jobs," she says. Colon was once called the golden teacup of the Caribbean, renowned for its grand Central Avenue, bustling theatres and packed clubs. But the post-World War II boom saw Colon's fortunes dwindle as the capital blossomed. While skyscrapers went up along Panama City's ocean front, Colon's buildings crumbled and the middle class fled.

Even the free trade zone here, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, hasn't offset those losses. Colon's mayor, Federico Policani, just 33 years old, says the city has been on the losing end of the country's steady economic growth for more than four decades.

FREDERICO POLICANI: It's the second city of importance in the country, but it's the last city that the government make the investment.

KAHN: These days, though, construction seems to be taking place all over Colon.

POLICANI: Many people hate me because now the city is a mess.

KAHN: The streets are torn up to make way for new storm drainage and sewer pipes, says Policani. Nearly 200 buildings are slated for demolition. The government is investing $500 million on this facelift, which includes the relocation of up to 25,000 residents to new housing built two miles outside of town.

CESAR QUIJANO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This will all help," says Panama University history professor Cesar Quijano, but it won't solve Colon's deep-rooted economic problems, including persistent racism against the city's predominantly black population.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: On Colon's Central Avenue, local news booms from a weathered radio. Dalila Ariano, a retired schoolteacher, says she hopes her city reaps some benefits from the new expanded canal, which is projected to double the current passageway's paid cargo.

DALILA ARIANO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We hope it brings Colon back to what I remember," she says, "when everything was clean, in order and it was that little bit of gold on the Caribbean." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Colon, Panama.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say the Panama Canal reopened on Sunday. In fact, the canal never closed. A previous headline and Web introduction also made the same incorrect statement.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.