by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
December 14, 2003
AT THE MULTI-CENTER MALL OF PANAMA, IT'S CHRISTMAS-MANIA
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Dec. 13, 2003 - Both the temperature and humidity are around 85 and in full red dress uniform - hat, boots, beard, gloves - Santa Claus was waving at traffic on Avenida Balboa, and well, to be honest, as shoppers walked by they whiffed the fact that St. Nick was getting, shall we say, a little ripe.
Now, all you good little boys and girls saddle up to the world trade table, and learn that the United States of America has lost the balance of trade battle to Japan, and definitely to China. But do not despair; if there is such a thing as the Santa Claus Cultural Balance of Trade, good old-fashioned U.S. commercialism has won, hands down.
You really have to see it for yourself.
On one side of perhaps the most dangerous and congested traffic corner in the Crossroads of the Americas sits the residence of the Papal Nuncio, a.k.a., the Vatican's ambassador to Panama. Sounds familiar? Yup, it's the same sylvan half-block mansion where Gen. Manuel Noriega met his Waterloo, or rather his Metallica, when U.S. Army Psy Ops blared him into captivity with gigantic loudspeakers. The Vatican's tropical mansion is the last private home in a row of skyscrapers called Paitilla. In the past six months a quad-level shopping mall and casino opened across the street. Think about putting a gigantic shopping mall and casino on Park Avenue near the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. What would that do for traffic? Or maybe in the middle of Georgetown in the District of Columbia? Let's try to build a totally incongruos ultra modern mall - which could easily be in Minneapolis or Denver, with 40-foot rotating, flashing neon "Casino Majestic" signs at Harvard Square - or atop Telegraph Hill?
Santa Cash, er, Claus, directs people into the Multicenter Mall of Panama, and straight into the arms of Tommy Hilfinger, Nine West, McDonald's, and upscale stores from around the globe. Don't spoil the seasonal joy with salsa, cumbia, or religious songs here. The food court blasts Kenny G's "I'll be Home for Christmas," and later the glitzy casino entrance into the mall, next to the Habana cigar store, broadcasts a nice Alan Jackson rendition of one Christmas standard or another.
The local financial press says overall the economyin Panama this year will grow 3.4 percent. Much of Japanese and Chinese (mainland and Taiwan) to the eastern United States and Europe comes through the Panama Canal. Anyone who made money this year, or had a credit card, was at the Multi-Center Mall.
Anyway, it's really not surprising that I had trouble finding anything at all not made in China. Back in Florida, it's the same way.
A Hindustani family that settled in Panama has anchored the ground floor of the mall with sort of a Pier One Imports on steroids. Called Khazakh as in the "stan" of the same name, the store flashes elaborate displays of goods from Turkey, India and, of course, China.
"It's our first location, but business is so good, it might not be our last," one clerk said. Eclectic goods range from hand-carved wooden boxes from Ecuador which hold to sets of dice (or is it die?), to silk and rayon saris. Prices are reasonable and the staff is knowledgeable.
At an upper level the local equivalent of the One Dollar store looked like a Chinese merchandise mart. The only non-Chinese items I noticed were a U.S.-printed Merriam-Webster Spanish-English dictionary, and a $1 remainder CD from unsung (well maybe they were singing) artists from Australia, Hungary, and South Africa.
The only thing Panamanian in the mall was an arts and crafts gallery with stainless steel shelf build-out, teak highlights, and strategically recessed spotlights. The finest indigenous Panamanian weavings, carvings and baskets were sold at fair retail prices. Of course the store wasn't actually Panamanian; it is owned by Colombians.
The Aliss department store was mobbed with shoppers buying Chinese-made Christmas tree decorations, Santa candles, lights, and table linen.
Three Kings Day (Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas), the traditional gift-giving apex of the season in Latin America, has given way to Christmas mania.
Did I mention that there is a celebrity approved store called "J-Lo" in the mall, with J-Lo posters in the window? Now this is what real journalists call "buried" in the story, so you really get rewarded for reading this far (I know my wife stopped reading in the third paragraph, so it's now safe to share this sexist tidbit with y'all). Near the J-Lo store is a party, dance, hip-hop dress shop whose window mannequins are narrow at the top with big J-Lo butts.
It's really too bad, because any Latin stereotypes don't cut it the world of mall-watching. The grandmas, moms, daughters, and especially teenaged daugters, looked a lot more like Elizabeth Hurley and Nicole Kidman than Mama Cass.
Shop till you drop, and rest assured that Santamania has spread around the globe.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co., members of the Boston Stock Exchange wwwkaplansecurities.com and business editor for Doug Stephan's Good Day radio program www.dougstephan.com