Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Beauty and the Beast in Panama City, Panama

November 22, 2005

I’m back in Panama City. I’m flying back to Toronto tomorrow, will pick up my car at the hotel where I left it and then drive about two hours to get home. It’s going to be a long day.

As far as my stay in Panama is concerned, it went by very quickly. I feel as though I just got here. I’m definitely coming back to visit.

Panama has had its ups and downs over the years but I think that the trend is for continued improvement. As more dollars and Euros pour into the country, infrastructure will continue to improve. Roads will get better. Maybe there will even be a budget for road signs, something Panama could use more of. It is not too late to invest in Panama. It is harder to find bargains, but with some effort they can still be found.

Panama has had a reputation for corruption over the years. It is not alone, of course. Most developing countries have bureaucrats, functionaries and policemen on the take. Panama, though, appears to take the matter seriously enough to have billboards equating corruption with starving children. I suspect that what they are trying to say is that if the country has a reputation of being a backwater banana republic where you never know who to trust, foreign cash inflow will decrease and the people in the country living in poverty will suffer.

That is, of course, absolutely correct. Investors want to know what they are up against. Trying to figure out who needs to be paid off to get anything done slows things down. It adds unpredictability. It costs not only the amount of the actual bribes but the opportunity cost of the lost time and inactive assets, etc., while waiting for something to get done. It think Panama is already ahead of many other countries in recognizing corruption as a problem and trying to do something about it.

They aren’t quite there yet, though. They need to try a little harder.

Panama has a confusing array of police forces. In Panama City, there are policemen who look like soldiers, dressed in olive drab fatigues. They appear to be the ‘National Police.’ There are others who have more traditional police uniforms and I believe them to be Panama City police. On the highways, everywhere in the country, are policemen in brown uniforms with orange vests marked ‘Transito.’ They, as their name suggests, appear to be traffic cops.

Yesterday, during the long drive from Boquete to Panama City, I knowingly and deliberately broke the law. I was driving along the main Panamanian highway that links one end of the country to the other, when I came up behind a big, shiny, brand new SUV. Although the speed limit was 80 kph (about 50 mph,) the driver of the SUV was travelling at about 40 kph (25 mph.) There was no traffic coming from the other direction. I wanted to pass, but there was a double yellow line. I couldn’t imagine why there was a double yellow line on that stretch of road, because it was perfectly flat and straight. I figured that it might have had something to do with the road work that was being done along some parts of the highway. I followed behind the SUV, expecting the driver to pull over somewhere, but he or she just kept on driving along at the same slow speed. More and more cars queued up behind me, so finally, in exasperation, I pulled out and passed the SUV. About a mile further down the road, a Transito stepped from where he was standing beside the road and flagged me over.

I pulled over and rolled down the window. The Transito came over to my car. He didn’t ask me for any identification. He reached out to shake hands. He told me that there was no passing on that stretch of road and indicated by writing on an imaginary notepad that he could be writing me a ticket. I nodded, fearing the worst. He took out a pen, wrote $20 on his palm, and put his hand out, palm up, through the car window. I figured a $20 bribe was better than paying an official ticket, so I slipped him a twenty. He asked me for the map he saw on my seat and showed me where he lived. Then he shook my hand again, waved me on and I left.

That was my first bribe, ever. I laughed to myself about it, because although the cop was a rascal, he was a charming rascal. As I got further and further away from the incident and had time to think how things had unfolded, I realized that the policeman couldn’t possibly have seen me pass the slow-moving SUV. He would have been too far away.

Hmmm. Do you think the SUV driver and the policeman might have a little scam going? Then, I got pissed off. I don’t like being taken, whether by charming rascal or asshole, it doesn’t matter. Leave me alone.

That is the sort of mood I was in when I awoke very early this morning. I drove to old Panama to photograph some of the ancient colonial buildings and ruins there. After seeing so many beautiful sights and friendly people, I was positively mellow.

That mellow feeling was, sadly, not to last. I had just taken a series of photographs when three National Police pulled their vehicle over to where I was parked and told me that I was in a ‘Red Zone’ and that it was illegal to park there. I looked over to see if there was some indication that there was no parking. Nope. No red paint. No signs indicating that there was no parking, in English, Swahili or even Spanish. There were other cars parked in front of and behind my car. There is no way I was going to pay another bribe. I just listened to the policeman rant and looked impassively at him. After a few sentences, he would stop, look at me and expect me to say or do something. I just looked him in the eye and said or did absolutely nothing. The situation was getting quite uncomfortable. The guy either had to arrest me and face the possibility of my telling the whole story to his superiors or he could leave me alone. He shook his head in disgust, beckoned to his two fellow officers and they all climbed into their police vehicle and left.

I walked towards my car to drive to another part of the city. I heard someone call out and turned to see what was going on. In the few seconds it had taken for me to turn and walk towards my car, three Panama City police got out of their car and beckoned me to them. I walked over. The oldest of the three policemen asked for something I didn’t understand, so I pulled out my drivers licence. The policeman glanced at it and told his companions that I was from Canada. He then kept on repeating two words to me in English, interspersed with many sentences of Spanish. The two English words were: “Very dangerous.” I had been photographing in the old parts of Panama City for hours, even in the slum areas, and the most danger I experienced was an occasional curious look from people who wondered what the crazy gringo was up to.

I am sure that these policemen also wanted me to contribute to their personal retirement fund. Sorry, guys, no deal. I did the same as before. I stood and looked at them. I didn’t do anything that might appear threatening, but also didn't do anything to indicate I would comply and play along with their game. After about five minutes of this standoff, the lead officer handed me my licence back and walked away. He was perceptively angry. His two younger partners had looked away every time I tried to make eye contact with them. They were embarrassed.

They should be embarrassed. It is a good thing that they were embarrassed. It shows that the younger policemen understand that soliciting bribes is wrong. Maybe in a few years this despicable process will stop. Let’s hope so.

I photographed the lovely littler girl in the accompanying picture just around the corner from where the policemen harassed me. I had asked the girl’s mother for permission to take the photograph. She was thrilled when I showed it to her on my camera’s display screen.

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