Big Talk

The COVID-19 Crisis is an Opportunity to Restart the World From Scratch

His Excellency Mr. Carlos Pere is ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Republic of Panama, a country that has long flourished as a place for shipping gold and treasure, and is home to the Panama Canal, an important maritime traffic route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Today, it is the most economically developed of the seven Central American countries. Toshio Motoya spoke with Pere about topics including Panama’s industries, World Heritage Sites and other sightseeing spots, and future prospects.

The Panama Canal serves an even more important role after its expansion in 2016

(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You look quite young. How old are you?

(P) Thank you for inviting me. I’m 45, but maybe the face cream I apply every night before sleeping makes me look younger (laughs).

(M) I traveled to Panama about 10 years ago and visited the Panama Canal. I’ve also gone to the Suez Canal in Egypt. I think a surprisingly small number of people have seen both. The highlight of the Panama Canal is watching the boats travel up the locks. The canal is composed of several locks that are divided by gates that open and close. The closed locks are filled with water to raise the boats. Gatun Lake is at the highest point. The canal is truly a strategic position in maritime transportation connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and many people probably think of the Panama Canal when they hear the name “Panama.” Are the fees to transit the canal the biggest income source for Panama?

(P) We receive very stable income from operating the canal, and it is certainly a major industry in Panama. However, an appealing feature of Panama is that we also have other sources of income, mainly tertiary industry. The “Colón Free Zone,” a vast tax-free zone, is a major transit trade base linking Central and South American countries with the rest of the world. Many ships from across the globe are registered in Panama under our flag-of-convenience ship system. We also have a substantial global financial center, as well as international trading and real estate companies. Tertiary industry, including that related to the canal, comprises 70% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Panama’s per capita GDP is about 16,000 dollars, which is the highest in the seven Central American countries.

(M) It sounds like Panama has good economic development.

(P) Yes. Let me start by sharing some basic information about Panama. It is located in Central America with Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Panama is slightly smaller in size than Japan’s island of Hokkaido. The population is about 4.18 million and the capital is Panama City. Multiracial people (white, indigenous, and black) account for 70% of the population. With other native ethnic groups, we have a very diverse ethnic makeup. The official language is Spanish, and most of the people are Catholic. Various ethnic groups have lived in Panama since 10,000 BC, and crafts made by them have been discovered, such as bowls and cups. The Spanish conquest began in the 16th century, and Panama was colonized. Panama played an important role since that time as a base for exporting Peru’s vast wealth, including gold and treasure. Momentum towards freedom began growing in the 18th century, and Panama gained independence from Spain in 1821 as part of Gran Colombia through the war of liberation led by Simón Bolívar. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French man who successfully built the Suez Canal, started work on the Panama Canal in the 1880s, but it failed due to technical and funding difficulties. Panama was also drawn into the Colombian Civil War at the start of the 20th century, and it separated and gained independence from Colombia in 1903 with assistance from the United States. The U.S. helped build the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. However, the treaty with the U.S. granted it rights, power, and authority to a zone in the central part of the isthmus. Negotiations on the return of this zone lasted for nearly one century, and the U.S. finally transferred all control back to Panama in 1999.

(M) So there is a complex history with the U.S. regarding the canal. When I visited 10 years ago, I heard the canal was being expanded to allow wider ships to pass through. Is that finished?

(P) Yes, the expansion work was completed on June 26, 2016, exactly four years ago today. This doubled the width of the past canal.

(M) Really? I heard the expansion was necessary because large ships are required to transport shale gas produced on the American East Coast to the Pacific side.

(P) That’s right. In addition to shale gas, the canal is also used for two-way distribution between the American East and West Coasts. This means the U.S. is the main user of the canal. Transportation by ship costs less than by train or truck.

(M) That make sense. At one point Chinese funds were being used in an attempt to build a second Panama Canal, but apparently that project has been shut down. I remember it was an extremely crude plan that included using atomic bombs to excavate mountains.

(P) That was a project in Nicaragua. It used the personal fund of a private-sector billionaire, not the Chinese government. The project had a budget of trillions of Japanese yen, but today the construction is stopped due to funding and environmental issues. The Panama Canal is 80 kilometers long. The planned Nicaraguan canal was to have a length of 260 kilometers, which is a totally different scale. It may have been doomed from the start. Thirty years ago, I took part in a three-day canoe race on the Panama Canal. I was totally exhausted, but I am sure I’d have a heart attack if I attempted it again today.

Five World Heritage Sites where visitors can experience history and nature

(M) What about non-service industries?

(P) Different varieties of coffee are being cultivated, including a type known as “Geisha.” The scale is still small, but there is future growth potential. Ethiopian coffee has been brought to Panama, then we also started growing our own coffee beans from around 1870 to 1880. Geisha was originally cultivated in Gesha, a village in Ethiopia, but Panamanian growers renamed their coffee “Geisha,” which has a nice ring to it. Coffee is mainly grown in the misty area with an elevation from 1,500 to 1,700 meters, where there are major temperature differences and low air temperatures. This environment is the source of the coffee’s high quality, and a great deal of specialty coffee is grown in recent years. I know that APA Hotel sells “APA President’s Coffee,” and it would be great if we could promote Panama’s coffee together.

(M) I hope we have an opportunity to do so! On my last trip to Panama, I just went to the Panama Canal and then returned right away to Costa Rica. I would like to spend some time sightseeing on my next trip. When is the best season to visit?

(P) I think summer is the best time. There are currently no direct flights from Japan to Panama, although we are negotiating with airlines as I speak. A direct flight from Narita Airport to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City would take 15 hours. Copa Airlines, Panama’s flagship airline, is based at Tocumen, which has flights to 82 major cities around the world.

(M) What sightseeing spots do you recommend?

(P) Panama has two Cultural Heritage Sites and three Natural Heritage Sites. The Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and the Historic District of Panama are located in Panama City, the capital. This district is symbolized by the stone cathedral built in the 17th century. The other ruins include a monastery, hospital, and town council building. You can get glimpses of the old town that reached its height of prosperity in the 17th century, then declined after pirates set fire to the city. The other Cultural Heritage Site, Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo, is roughly 100 kilometers north of Panama City (which is on the Pacific side). The fortifications were built from the late 16th to early 17th century to protect Portobelo, a port where silver was shipped from. Visitors can see these ruins, including two at the port entrance, two inside the port, and one in the town. As for Natural Heritage Sites, I recommend Coiba National Park on Coiba Island on the Pacific Side. There, you can enjoy encounters with coral reefs, whales, and other living creatures. La Amistad International Park, which is jointly managed with Costa Rica, has the highest elevation in Central America and the oldest untouched tropical forests. Darién National Park on the Colombian border is home to 300 types of birds including harpy eagles and toucans.

(M) Those all sound like fascinating spots. What is Panamanian cuisine like?

(P) Our staple food is rice cooked in water and oil, and there are lots of rice dishes. One very popular item is chicken rice, made by cooking chicken, vegetables, olives, capers, and rice together. Other traditional foods include empanadas (meat and cheese pies), patacones (fried sliced plantains), and ropa vieja (shredded braised beef).

(M) That sounds delicious.

The world should learn from Japan’s orderliness

(P) It looks like only about three Latin American airlines will survive this COVID-19 crisis that is limiting human travel. Economies are shrinking as well. I’m wearing an Olympic pin on my suit in hopes that the Tokyo Olympics will go on as scheduled in July 2021.

(M) The Olympics probably couldn’t be postponed a second time, so I think they will either be held next year or cancelled. Japan finally won its Olympic bid, and I definitely hope the games will go on. This will likely depend on the status of the global pandemic this time next year. The virus is spreading in North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, and other regions. Even if the situation is under control in Japan next year, the Olympics would be impossible if countries with continual outbreaks cannot send their athletes to the games. I’d say the chance is fifty-fifty.

(P) I agree. I think Japan could be ready, but I’m not sure the world will be. There are roughly 32,000 cases in Panama, and this number keeps growing.

(M) There are about 18,000 cases in Japan. Panama’s population is roughly one thirtieth of Japan’s, so that seems like quite a large number.

(P) I think there are many things Panama can learn from Japan about reducing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to sanitation practices, this includes the educational system and the Japanese people’s willingness to obey laws. I also want to point out the importance of orderliness. Japanese people are staying home, teleworking, and social distancing according to the government’s instructions, without being forced to. I think we should definitely learn from this.

(M) As you say, the Japanese people are highly aware of hygiene. Many people wash their hands after returning home and pay attention to things like disinfection. Wearing masks has become a normal practice to guard against influenza and seasonal allergies from winter to spring. Many citizens aimed to cut their contact with others by 80% during the state of emergency. Still, are these the only reasons there are so few cases in Japan? If you look at the data, the number of deaths per one million people are in the single digits in China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. There are hundreds of deaths per million people in the U.S. and European countries like the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Spain. If the numbers in Europe and the U.S. were five or 10 times higher than East Asia, perhaps some type of measurement error might be involved. But there must be some clear reason for these figures that are 100 times higher. I don’t think cleanliness and orderliness are the only explanations. Also, there must be common reasons in China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. The simplest common factor is that these four countries are members of the “yellow race.” This is just a theory, but I wonder if the virus was designed by someone as a biological weapon to cause many infections and deaths among other races. There is the suspicion that this research was taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). I think it’s possible the WIV had no intention of releasing the virus, but that a researcher might have accidently taken it outside, where it spread.

(P) I see.

(M) “Weapons of mass destruction” include nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons only destroy people and things within an area that has a radius of dozens of kilometers, due to the direct explosion and exposure to radioactivity. Chemical weapons as well are only effective in the area where they are used. However, viruses and other biological weapons are transmitted by people, so they can spread throughout the whole world. Right now it seems the COVID-19 death rate is a few percent. Mankind might go extinct if there was an outbreak of a virus with a fatality rate 10 or 100 times higher than the novel coronavirus. Of course, I think anyone purposefully developing a virus of this type would also create a vaccine at the same time to protect themselves. Maybe the novel coronavirus isn’t a biological weapon, but it’s scary to think that people are developing viruses as weapons around the world.

(P) I believe people and nations across the world must criticize this biological weapon development to the maximum degree. The most important things in every country are peace, health, and measures against poverty, and we must devote great attention to resolving these issues.

(M) That’s right.

(P) One positive effect of the global pandemic is that stay-at-home orders have given people more free time. They no longer have to commute because of teleworking, and are able to spend more time with the people who are important to them. I hope we can regard this as an opportunity to take another look at ourselves and restart the world from zero.

(M) Yes, now is the timing to do so. I agree.

Childhood education impacts a person’s future life

(M) The Japan Self-Defense Forces are not an army according to Article 9 of the constitution. Costa Rica, Panama’s neighbor, is famous for not having an army, but its police forces are actually armed organizations. Does Panama have an army?

(P) We used to have the Defense Forces, but they were dismantled when the U.S. military invaded in 1989, and reorganized as the Panamanian Public Forces (centered on the police forces). Military Leader Manuel Noriega gained national authority in 1985. After it was discovered that he was taking part in crimes like money laundering and drug trafficking, the U.S. supported Guillermo Endara (a member of the anti-Noriega faction) to win the presidency. However, Noriega invalidated the election, and the U.S. invaded for that reason. The Public Forces are armed to preserve order, but they are not an army. Today people in Panama are discussing whether we should have a more solid military organization for national security. The intention behind this is to demonstrate a strong stance in light of the frequent human trafficking and drug trade in Colombia.

(M) The Panama Canal serves an important role to many countries around the world, so I think many nations might provide military support to Panama.

(P) If some kind of security issue occurred at the Panama Canal, it seems certain that the American military would protect us first. However, external security and domestic order are being well maintained under the current President Nito Cortizo. Today the Panamanian government is aiming to eradicate poverty and provide a higher level of living to citizens. We are working hard to be a country that other counties can invest in, and tourists can visit, with peace of mind.

(M) So Panama has a presidential government. Is it the same as the American system?

(P) Yes, it strongly resembles the American system. Presidents are directly elected by citizens to serve terms of five years, and presidents are prohibited from serving continual terms. Cortizo was elected in 2019 with about 33% of the votes. We also have the National Assembly, a unicameral legislature. It deliberates bills that are then approved by the president. There are three major political parties in Panama, as well as some small parties, that compete for seats in the assembly.

(M) I’ve learned a lot about Panama today.

(P) I hope you will come visit! If you let me know your schedule, I will go there at the same time to show you around and make sure you enjoy a great trip. You will definitely fall in love with Panama if you travel there.

(M) I would like to visit, and I’m also interested in Panama’s hotel industry. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(P) When I was a college student, my first job was working at the front desk of a hotel at the age of 17. I did night shifts from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. My father was a diplomat stationed in the U.S., and I was educated at American schools. Childhood education greatly influences what a person does in their life afterwards. I hope young people will think about this carefully before choosing a school. And if I could bring one thing from Japan to Panama, I would choose its sense of orderliness.

(M) This orderliness has become considerately lax lately…

(P) It’s still different from Panama. It would be great if Panamanians could learn from Japan’s orderly society, even a little bit.

(M) Thank you for joining me today.

(P) Thank you for having me.

Date of dialogue: June 26, 2020


Carlos Pere

Born in 1974. Graduated in 1995 from the Latin American University of Science and Technology (Panama City) with a major in industrial engineering. Completed the ADEN Business School Leadership Program (Panama City) in 2018. His past positions include owner of 507 Tactical Shop and Athens Pizza and Coffee United, as well as commercial advertising director of Cable & Wireless Panama. Has served in his current post since October 2019.