American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
Feb. 11, 2007
THE UGLIER AMERICAN, AS SEEN FROM PANAMA
BALBOA, PPanama, Feb. 11, 2007 -- When the White House "talking points" this week spread the headlines that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "is destroying his country," the reaction in Panama, the Crossroads of the Americas, seemed to be "Who complained when George W. Bush destroyed the United States of America?"
U.S. foreign policy in the Americas, China, North Korea, Palestine, and Iraq were still front-page news in four of the seven daily newspapers here, while U.S. media outlets were trying to figure out what killed Anna Nicole Smith. But the popular "publicly hate America but privately envy the Gringo" game so long popular in Latin America is wearing thin. The level of dismay and disgust is palpable.
In the ultra-exclusive sanctum of Panama's Union Club, the weekly Kiwanis meeting (still male-only) heard that "A group of Kiwanis leaders were invited with a list of special guests to watch the Super Bowl and feast on 'Southwestern food such as chicken wings' at the home of the U.S. Ambassador."
For such a seemingly harmless event there were more than the usual sarcastic snickers, ranging from the Ambassador's "German wife" trying to serve Yankee food, to the menu containing fare usually found at Hooters rather than an ambassador's gold-trimmed late. Mayeit was all good-natured - and maybe not.
From global warming and the invasion of Iraq to decadent Gangsta Rap and Hip Hop culture as the theme song of violent youth crime, visiting and expatriate Americans, Canadians, Panamanians and many others are expressing growing concern about a lack of global leadership and the fallen image of the United States.
A businessman in Colon, married to an American, and holding U.S., Italian, and Panamanian passports asked me, "If the first election of Bush was a mistake, or stolen, or an accident, or whatever it was, how do you explain to the world how Mr Bush got re-elected? Americans come to Panama and for the first time in their lives think about getting a local passport and not caring if they go back to the States. How did the American voter allow this to happen?"
Luis Juliao, 31, who earned his degree in performing arts from the University of Florida in Gainesville, married a fellow student from Nicaragua, has a Panamanian dad who served in both the U.S. Navy and Army during the Vietnam Era, and made good money as a Screen Actors' Guild member in Hollywood. "I've got three young kids now, and money is not as good here in Panama, but I am involved in a new business with vibrant young entrepreneurs," he said from his new Toyota Prado SUV.
Working for a real-estate marketing firm catering to foreigners, he explained, "I thought about my family, and a government in the U.S. that lies to its people about why its children are sent to a war to die. ... I know the soldiers are brave and respect that they are doing what they were trained for; still, it's a small thing, but in Panama the whole family sits down for dinner every night, no matter what. I limit tv to one hour and the kids don't hang out with kids who are using violent video games or playing curse words in rap lyrics."
He and others claim that the rise in gang activity and even warfare in some areas are caused by a blanket influence of imported music and videos mostly by Black U.S. artists.
At another Super Bowl party, Guillermo "Billy" St. Malo Arias, 62, from a prominent social and political family, pointed to a young man about 25 in a wheelchair across the room. "My nephew. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The kids convicted were part of a gang which had an initiation to shoot two people in one day. He took two rounds in the back, one which cut his spine."
Canadians Ken and Sherry Miller from Edmonton were amazed to see so many foreigners, especially Americans in Panama who are planning to buy homes and stay here. The husband, a retired store owner, said over lunch at the beach resort of Coronado, "It is very difficult for a Canadian to criticize a U.S. President or a U.S. Administration. It's not in our culture, and it's not in my personality. But I have a sadness for my American friends. It is as if everything leading up to the war was planned as a blatant lie in advance. Get into Iraq at any cost. Get the oil at any cost. And of course when it didn't work out, my province and other oil-producing areas reaped the big rewards from $70 oil. It's almost as if the whole world felt sorry but now will not forgive or have any more sympathy for the American people and their own stupidity. Anyone who first heard [President] George Bush in his first campaign knew how limited he would be as a leader."
Mrs. Miller, a marathon runner who speaks with pride of their 30-year-old firefighter son, says "my son and his colleagues respond to accidents and fires and are part of a generation of really fine kids who hope to make a difference in the world. There is no way to explain my feelings when I see America's sons going off to war, when there were UN officials who repeatedly said Iraq had no concrete evidence of any threats of mass destruction."
So, on it goes. Soccer has replaced baseball in some neighborhoods as the sport of choice. At the President Remon racetrack you are as likely to see races simulcast from Uruguay as from California, and many standard U.S. grocery store brands are being shoved aside by those from Denmark, Australia and Mexico.
"I think Americans are welcomed here in Panama more than other places because of a long history of American involvement. It is exciting to be part of the new Panama," a smiling young business consultant told me. But then again, he was a Russian-born Jew who grew up in Toronto, and now resides in Panama working with Americans. Go figure.