Panama City. Friday night. The old town, the Casco Viejo, the historical centre of the city. It is raining. In fact it’s pouring. The weather forecast shows 32 or 33 degrees with torrential thunderstorms for the next six days.

I sit in the white brightly-lit bandstand in the centre of the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia. This is where Panamá declared its “independence” from Colombia in 1903. At that time all of Panama City was contained within the Casco Viejo. Within a few years the Canal was creating a boom and the city expanded. Today this area is barely more than an urban slum with the trappings of past wealth, not alike the centre of Havana, Cuba. Tonight, the plaza is practically deserted.


My photo set “Panama City Contrasts” on flickr

Below, still guarding their jewellery stall in the twilight are two indigenous Kuna people, the woman immediately recognisable with her colourful blouse, gold piercings and naked tightly-beaded calves. Above in the bandstand with me squat two gringos around their laptops, taking advantage of the bandstand’s power outlets. I think they live in the large van I saw on the corner. Something tells me they’re running Linux. Two dogs join us, one belonging to the gringos. A middle-aged Panamanian asks the gringos what their dog is called. She misunderstands him and gives him her name. I think she is Australian. He is shaving his face, very slowly and without a mirror. He has two different razors, as if he fears one might not do the job. It is unclear to me whether he has any water, or soap. He picks slowly to remove hairs from the blade. I think he might be also charging his phone. I presume he has a home, but his shoes are held together with neat loops of string. For all I know everything he owns could be in the carrier bag beside him.

Suddenly the sound of the rain thumping the high white roof of the bandstand becomes overwhelming. I look up: a wall of water is cascading from the lip of the roof and falling just behind my back. I feel strangely aware of and at ease with my surroundings, but a mixture of alert and sad. The rain continues. I have nothing to do, and don’t want to do anything. It is Friday night. My feet are swollen. My neck is hurting me. My best friend is mad at me.

In the local store several people were having an argument with and racially abusing the Chinese shopkeeper, something to do with a bottle of cooking gas. He and his sister play back the security footage to make a point and other customers watch with concerned nosiness. I paid for my purchases in between accusations: a carton of pear juice, a small bag of fried plaintain chips, and a small, cold can of Guiness. I don’t think I’ve seen Guiness for well over a year.

I give the stray dog, who is very pretty, a shard of platanito. She is not interested. She looks sad. This area is dangerous, especially at night – so says the guide. But I believe it. Walking the streets earlier men had shouted at me indistinct yet threatening questions. I ignored them.

Facing me is a great baroque colonial church: the old Cathderal in fact. All around the square the buildings are in their characteristic state of half colourful colonial glory, half decrepit condemned shell. My photos from over a year ago show the buildings of the Casco Viejo in contrast with the modern city of Panamá – shells of a different kind. From one of the buildings falls a large hand-painted banner: “Ricardo! The capitalists come and extract our wealth thanks to your free concessions and poison and dry-up our rivers!”. Ricardo is Panamá’s president, a former pupil at the same US military school as Barry Goldwater, and a business graduate, chairman of the board of a supermarket chain. “Capitalists” is spelt wrongly.

I’m happier than I thought to be back in Panamá. I haven’t been in a very good mood lately but even so I smiled to myself several times on the bus from the airport. But then I also cried behind my sunglasses so smiling is not necessarily an indication. What made me cry was not so much the feeling of being yanked away from South American soil by the short flight I’d taken yesterday morning from Ecuador. Although that made me cry too. And I don’t normally cry. It was the feeling of profound connectedness I discovered: the threads of social history that run through Central, South and North America and bind them tightly together. Flicking through my Central America on a Shoestring guide I realised how many things in it, about the country, even things I had already seen, suddenly made sense. Sociology and the social causes and consequences of history seemed to literally shout at me, from the page, from street corners, from people’s faces.

When I left Panamá nearly a year and a half ago for the brief sail across the Caribbean to South America, we had left from the very old port of Portobelo. Like here in the Casco Viejo, I found Portobelo to be a ruin of the thriving metropolis that it used to be. On my way around the bay to get to my sail boat I had to pick my way along a path strewn with the rubble and remains of people’s homes. Mud had slid off the side of the close-by mountain one night in the rains only a few months before, and not stopped til it reached the bay. The houses were flattened. Many had died, someone told me – their last memories presumably being crushed, drowned or suffocated in their own bedrooms. The rubble stood as evidence not just of their deaths but the poverty of their lives. So poor and seemingly so irrelevent that no local authority had had the decency to start clearing the wreckage.

I read in my guidebook at the time that Portobelo – the beautiful port – had once been the most important port in all the Americas, for a span of 200 years. I thought I understood it then. But now having been to Cusco, having been to Lima, having been to Potosí, I know where the silver was coming from, where it was processed, who benefitted. I know of the six million – 6 MILLION – indigenous people and African slaves who died over three centuries in that single mine in Potosí. And I’ve been in the mine.

My photo set “Potosí” on flickr

I feel the connection, viscerally, and it brings sociology and history into sharp sharp focus for me. It makes things very simple. The faces of most of the people that I saw on the bus from the airpot, including the woman who so kindly swiped her metro-card on my behalf and patted 50 cents back into my hand when I tried to give her extra. Why were they black, or at the very least of clear African heritage? Answer, because of the slaves that were brought here by the Spanish. What were the slaves here to do? Answer, whatever they were told to do. Where did the products of all that work go (because it was barely Casco Viejo and certainly wasn’t the rest of Panamá which didn’t even exist until 1903)..? Answer, Europe (and not just Spain, because Spain was in debt to the English, the Germans, the Dutch…). Where did those products leave the Americas? Answer, Portobelo. Why else was Portobelo important? Answer, because also across Panamá, on a similar route to that which the canal and railway now occupy, came the silver of Potosí, the gold of Quito and Cusco, the spoils of Atahualpa’s fallen Incan empire.

But these insights don’t just explain the dry history, the facts, the dates, the things that seem to be so in the past. They explain the everyday things, the human things, the things like why, as in so much of North America, here in Central and indeed in South America, most especially Brazil, the unwritten rule is still – after all these centuries – the blacker you are, the poorer you are. These people started off with not just nothing, but with less than nothing: owned and abused for generations by their white European and local masters. Every day for the modern population of Panama City – at least, the poor, majority, mixed-race population – their lives continue to be shaped not so much by their decisions or their hard work or by their hopes, but by history. The same history shared with the rest of Latin America, that leads a friend of mine in Lima, Peru to proudly self-identify herself as a “chola”. Since the 16th century whiter people have been using the word “cholo” to put browner people in their place. In this instance, not people of African heritage, but people with indigenous American indian heritage. The term cholo – at least as I’m familiar with it in Peru and Ecuador – is analagous to the English “chav”, and simulatenously has the connotations “from the highlands”, “brown”, “poor” and “under-educated”. All of which, unfortunately, are sociologically true. It’s no coincidence that in Mexico and the United States “cholo” basically means “member of a street gang”.

Reclaiming the word, there is a certain amount of cholo-pride, exemplified in one Peruvian president Alejando Toledo being known as “El Cholo”. Ironically his very poor birthplace, brown skin and enthusiasm for indigneous rights seemed to hide from many the fact that he was also an enthusiastic neo-liberal free-marketeer, an economics graduate of Standford University, and on personally chummy terms with George W Bush. And in this way Latin America continues to fulfil the role that was assigned to it centuries ago: as workhouse and raw materials bunker of the rich, whiter world.

Sitting in the dark, wet Plaza de la Independencia, with the dogs, the wandering gringos, and the homeless man, all of these things connect in my mind – not academically, not in a sociologically intriguing way, but in an emotional way that I feel in my gut, affecting almost all of the people that I have met, laughed with, cared for and been helped by over the last two years.

And of course even the Plaza de la Independencia, even at its height, when it was still intact, is a lie. Just a lie. We know better. Panama’s “independence” was an enforced military annexation from Colombia, which had already been an independent nation thank-you-very-much since 1819. The sepearation of Panamá was largely an orchestrated prelude to the next near-century of ownership by the US, purely for the sake of the Canal. No matter that that century saw Panamá suffer dictator after dictator. Indeed, the US owned the Canal lock, stock and barrel until 1977, when one US Senator argued against giving it “back” to Panamá on that basis that “we stole it fair and square”. Teddy Roosevelt boasted after leaving office “I took the isthmus!” and while still president after claiming that in the rebellion against Colombia the people of Panamá “rose up literally as one man”, a member of his own senate commented snidely “Yes, and that one man was Roosevelt”.

I met a very wonderful and rather old man, the cobrador – the conductor – on a local ex-US-school bus. The kind of bus with knick-knacks like it was someone’s garage or bedroom dresser. He had a constantly smiling benevolent face, full of wrinkles. He ended up talking to me in English, better than my Spanish. “My parents were from the West Indies” he explained. “My father from Jamaica, my mother from Barbados”. We talked in simple English about my time in the Bahamas, about his dislike of the patronising bossy greedy Americans, and where I would be best getting off the bus. To explain where I should go to me, he got down from the bus and gave me a two-minute instruction talk (while the bus and its driver waited for us) before warmly shaking my hand. His parents would have been among the wave of West Indian workers that the US (like the French canal builders before them) ensured came into Panama to build the canal, because they were cheap and English speaking. Needless to say, many died:

“From Colon the Panama Railroad ran regular funeral trains out to Monkey Hill each morning.”  “Over to Panama,” S.W. Plume would recall in his memorable testimony, “it was the same way- bury, bury, bury, running two, three, and four trains a day with dead Jamaica niggers all the time…It did not matter any difference whether they were black or white, to see the way they died there.  They died like animals.”*

The rain eases and I try to get back towards my hostel before it gets completely dark. Earlier the workmen had been furiously resurfacing the road with equipment that made the whole hostel shake with a deafening sub-sonic rumble that had made sleeping impossible. Just some of the improvements being made to the Casco Viejo – replacing the crumbling, sunken and fault-line criss-crossed cobbled streets with black sticky tarmac. Already luxury cars cruise the narrow broken alleyways – going where, I am not sure. In time – although it will take decades – the historical prettiness of the area’s architecture will be reasserted by the sheer force of modern will: empty colonial building-fronts are held up with steel braces, awaiting new plaster, new paint and filling with new expensive apartments and hotels. At that time the poor inhabitants of the area will be forced out into even poorer areas, their lives ruined, and the gentrification and tourist appeal will be complete. Even the shallow conformist party-gringos will be priced out.

As the dark sealed-itself in entirely, I realised for the first time that the street ended at the Pacific ocean, with two sea-walls seperating the street from a beach-of-sorts, and the Bay of Panama lapping away at it, the lights of modern, rich, corporate Panama in the distance, and those of a freighter ship in the bay. The walls are old, and they were made to keep out the British. Casco Viejo means “Old Fortress”. Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sacked the old Panama City in 1671 and destroyed it. Rather than punishing him the English Crown knighted him and made him governer of Jamaica.

And what happened to Portobelo, by the way? First Henry Morgan and his men spent fourteen days stripping it of nearly all of its wealth while raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants. Then half a century later it was attacked and largely destroyed by the British navy in 1739. After that the Spanish abadoned it and started sailing around the tip of South America to get to its west coast. The British were so proud of their victory that it’s why Portobello Road in London is called Portobello Road.

The Spanish, the Portuguese, the British, the Americans. All of these have had a huge impact on Latin America. But guess what? The actions of those people – some of them my countrymen – hundreds of years ago, have had and continue to have more of an influence on the lives of many of my Latin American friends than the decisions made by my friends themselves. That’s not democracy. That’s not progress. And despite what it says on the street sign, that’s not independence. And that’s what I’ve learned in nearly two years on these vast, beautiful, scarred, hot, wet, dry, cold, low, high, tragic, ecstatic, impoverished, rich wonderful continents.