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Marvin orders a café con leche and a chicken empanada. We are sitting at Boulevard Café in Panama City amongst a surprisingly large lot of other full-bodied men who look just like him. They all wear suits, recipe have drivers waiting outside, and speak in loud, demonstrative terms. They are all exactly like Marvin except I can pretty much guarantee none of them are explaining how it feels to be part of a weird country—with freakish growth—that has somehow become one of the world’s most gossiped-about destinations.
Panama has done what all great countries are eventually supposed to do: they have reinvented the tropics.
“Panama’s in a bizarre spot right now,” Marvin tells me. “To be honest, I have a hard time believing all these people come here to invest and go on vacation. I have a hard time believing all the towers and the malls and the international flights and the banks. As the years go by, I start asking myself, ‘What are we getting from all this?’ You have to wonder where the true Panama went. Is all this so-called progress really necessary or even valuable? The answer is I don’t know.”
Marvin is, without a doubt, the smartest Panamanian (and probably one of the smartest non-Panamanians) that I know closely enough to comfortably answer my cell phone while we are hanging out. He makes his living as a political consultant (whatever exactly that means) and he meets regularly with the country’s most influential figures (whatever that means) consulting them on what is good (whatever that means). Marvin is large, articulate, and smelling vaguely of shaving cream. Marvin’s name is, of course, not Marvin. (I have found that these kinds of guys are much more revealing under conditions of anonymity so I request to give him an alias. Marvin happened to be the name of our waiter.)
As we talk, Marvin speaks in full, confident sentences, occasionally lowering his voice, leaning in, and sharing controversial messages, which the politicians around us – the same ones he greeted upon walking in – probably shouldn’t hear. Marvin is unique in this country because he’s something of a closet-conspirator. This is why I like him and why a lot of people don’t.
Marvin – Panamanian-born and US-educated – thinks that if you ignored Panama’s canal, the country would be nothing more than a novelty act: it has all these real estate projects that no one lives in, explicit corruption, no sense of the past, plenty of malls, and its built its public persona around a fabricated premise (it claims to be “where the world meets,” but the world doesn’t meet there. “The world meets in London and New York and Hong Kong.”) The last thing you do is base your branding on delusional positioning, but what concerns Marvin most is the false sense of success brought about by cranes and hard hats. He believes that the effects of hyper development could be ruining Panama not only because debt is piling up: but the country is simply not equipped to handle this kind of influx.
“The last ten years have been filled with projects. Projects, projects, projects. People interpret this stuff as good when they see the economy “growing” and metro stations being built. Panama has become obsessed with progress, so now you have all these evolution-fools who want to turn the place into the new Miami. But we cannot win that race. That wasn’t the idea.”
Marvin’s argument could easily be construed as regressive or closed-minded or maybe even hippie. But what Marvin won’t argue, and that which we pretty much all agree upon, is that Panama represents a breed (cosmopolitanish) from a specific place (the tropics), and it’s packaged within a deliberate mix of unrealistic promises and severely undersold natural resources. Panama has done what all great countries are eventually supposed to do: they have reinvented themselves.
The world is full of sunny, consciously cheesy destinations all vying for the same type of consumer. But Panama remains the most conflicted of media sweethearts: unlike the rest of the competition, they have a legitimate infrastructure, a relatively blank canvas, and a tradition that makes the Canal a concept as much as it is a waterway. But what really makes Panama the biggest little country since Kazakhstan is more difficult to explain: people see something in its progress that’s so confounding it almost seems clear.
According to Marvin, what they’re seeing is decline (or at least, Marvin’s version of it).
“I grew up in the 50s and 60s and Panama didn’t have any of this stuff back then. I’m not saying that progress isn’t good, but it’s a certain type of progress that’s best. It’s an order of progress that is necessary. Which comes first? The car or the horse?”
“Cart,” I say.
“The word you wanted was cart. The cart or the horse.”
Marvin doesn’t even hear my correction because he is standing up to warmly greet a small posse of businessmen who are all dressed super smart. I would later learn that these men represented the top management of a construction conglomerate in charge of the President’s new proposed Cinta Costera Phase 3, which would destructively wrap a highway around the historic peninsula of Casco Viejo. It’s this type of weird moment that makes Panama so confusing yet so compelling.
In and of itself, it’s not so strange that a Panama purist hugged the reps from a company actively trying to renovate his country. But this small gesture emphasizes Panama more than words ever could. Everything has a price tag. Image means a whole lot. And in order to beat them, you have to join them and simply wait until no one’s looking.
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