top of page

Casco Viejo (Panama City, Panama)

June 18, 2016

Tides of Development:

   I sit at one of the many swanky outdoor patio bars that have become the norm in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City, Panama. In this place, a stone interior is accented by weathered wood paneling and bicycle culture memorabilia—an eclectic mix of signs, bike parts, and other theme-setting shit mounted to the walls. A handful of customers huddle around the five or so tables that line the walkway leading to the main entrance. A black, metal railing separates the patrons from the everyday foot traffic of the concrete sidewalk. It’s a tranquil atmosphere today and a peaceful place to wait out the brief afternoon rains while downing a few fresh mojitos (2 for $6 according to the promotion written on the sandwich board). A small wooded sign sways in the breeze behind me. The words “Free WiFi” are scrawled in white chalk on its black surface. A simple statement that is packed full of historical sentiment. My gaze turns toward an abandoned building on the other side of the cobble stone street. I am met with a piece of graffiti tactfully plastered on its dilapidated framework. It reads: “No tengo instagram, mi memoria [es] fotografica. No tengo Facebook, mi vida es real (I don’t have Instagram, my memory is photographic. I don’t have Facebook, my life is real).” The two signs face one another on opposite sides of the street—just twenty feet of space separating the two. Their distinct messages, however, speak to the social disparity of urban development in Panama City—and urban development in general.

Follow Me!

   While working in Panama City I have encountered the locally well-known history of Casco Viejo from disparate sources—Uber drivers, hotel owners, tienda workers, and informal city tour guides. They all tell a story with a similar trajectory. Something like this: Pedro Arias Dávila and a group of about 100 travelers settled in what would become the Panama Viejo District of Panama City on August 15th 1519. On January 28th 1671 Captain Henry Morgan (yep, the rum guy) sacked and burned the city to the ground. Two years after the siege, the remaining inhabitants reestablished the city on a nearby peninsula 8 kilometers across the Bay of Panama. Over the next 300 years, the city continued to grow. This point on the peninsula became known as Casco Viejo. Up until 2004--after the great Panama earthquake of 1882, military de facto leaderships from 1968-1989, and the U.S. Operation “Just Cause” to depose then de facto military narco-traficante (narco trafficker) Manuel Noriega in 1989—the historic section of the city fell into disrepair. By the time the U.S. military ended their 41-day invasion of Panama City, Casco Viejo was in ruins. The city’s poor and disenfranchised gradually moved into the empty buildings. Over time, Casco Viejo transformed into an intricate network of squatter communities. 

   Starting in 2004, the Panamanian government sent in riot police to physically “recover” the community; pushing back the people living in the “abandoned (By who? Are they abandoned if people live there?)” buildings. Slowly, they started to restore Casco Viejo with the plan to create a historical district that would benefit Panama’s rich tourist industry. The renovations have been moving forward steadily since; like the sea churning away at the mountainside. Every time I return to Panama I see that the watermark of restoration has moved further and further beyond the center and deeper into the “slums”. New alleyways are deemed safe for foot traffic. Cultural heritage markets buzz from within the restored houses of ex-diplomats. Five star hotels that were once stopping points for famous U.S. Americans—like John Wayne and Teddy Roosevelt—are ready to house wealthy tourists. Casco Viejo is now home to endless rows government buildings (National Institute of Culture, Ministry of Exterior Relations, the Presidential House), Museums, Churches, and embassies. The markets are packed with Guna Yala women selling handcrafted bracelets and leg wraps. Tourists move up and down the streets in droves…a sea of white Panama hats strapped with large lensed cameras waiting for that perfect “Panama picture”. And, the renovations are not just visual. You can hear them too. It’s not only in the hard sounds of the cement trucks and jackhammers, but in the multilingual conversations that you bump into as you pass by various groups of travelers. French, German, English, Dutch. The linguistic changes appear in the bars and restaurants that assume trendy names like Ciao Pescao, El Gato Blanco, and Picasso’s—the staff typically using their multi-lingual skills to greet incoming customers in English.

Source: Panama Viejo Escuela

…And now we’ve come full circle…back to that sign hanging in the swanky patio bar. “Free Wifi”. We finally have some context. That sign—just some wood and chalk—pays homage to the Panamanian government’s push for “progress” in Casco Viejo…and at first glance you cannot ignore their progress. Casco Viejo is amazingly historical. At least six epochs of influence share the same streets: Guna Yala, Spanish, French, the United States, Colombia, and Panama. The newly renovated buildings are undeniably beautiful and the booming tourist industry is an immense source of income for many Panamanians. I do not want to discredit the positive effects of the changes within Casco Viejo. But, we must also come to terms with the painful fact that urban development always has an underbelly…a voice that is underrepresented and glossed over with fresh paint and new layers of concrete.


   That period between Noriega’s deposition in 1990 and the start of the government’s restoration plan in 2004 is one that many Panamanians discuss bluntly. “En ese tiempo (At that time),” they recall, “Las calles de Casco Viejo fueron llenas de los pobres, narcos, y ladrones. Fue un parte de la ciudad muy peligrosa. Nadie fue allí a menos que quiso problemas. (The streets of Casco Viejo were filled with poor people [squatters], drug dealers, and thieves. It was a very dangerous part of the city. Nobody would go there unless they wanted trouble).” The variety of people that I speak with casually throw around this one simple, but socially loaded phrase: “Fue peligrosa. (It was dangerous).” But, exactly what does it mean for an area of a city to be “peligrosa”? A lot of poor people. A lot of black people. A lot of drugs. A lot of crime/violence. These are all major social markers, making Casco Viejo an area of intense otherness.  “Fue peligrosa” suggests that middle class/wealthy, non-black, Panamanians did not feel comfortable nor safe as they were brought face to face with the underbelly of their economic system. But, the reality is complicated. During the construction of the Panama Canal, the U.S. contractors brought in droves of foreign workers from the Antilles. These workers (primarily “black”) were paid according to the Gold and Silver roll system. This system utilized two currencies—a gold roll for the “white” citizens of the Canal Zone and a less valuable silver roll for the “black” workers. The gold and silver roll program remained in use within Panama until the 1960s; when it was finally abolished. The socioeconomic repercussions, however, still reverberate through the city as many Antilles-Panamanians and Afro-Panamanians battle to overcome the effects of the regulated impoverishment of much of the 20th century. This is most visible in the squatter communities of Casco Viejo…the remnants of a history that is less present in daily conversations. 

   I hold that fresh mojito in my hand as I stare across the street at the graffiti on the building. “No tengo instagram, mi memoria [es] fotografica. No tengo Facebook, mi vida es real (I don’t have Instagram, my memory is photographic. I don’t have Facebook, my life is real). The condensation from my glass pools around the personalized napkins and rolls off the table onto my lap; snapping me back to reality. I’m not sure how long I stared at that spray paint, but it’s message burnt itself into my anthropologist brain. The words hidden within the graffiti speak to a counter-history that is quickly being snuffed out in Casco Viejo. The roots of its battle go back to 2004—and well beyond. It’s the other side of the story…the story that I don’t hear too often (maybe because I am not spending time in the right places). It’s the story of the people that have been slowly pushed to the margins of Panama’s new history of wealth and development. These words written on that building are a reminder that development and progress does not come without sacrifices. Much like wealth, technology is not readily accessible to all. There are many here that sit in the shadows and watch from their balconies as foreign travelers flock to their city to enjoy its “history” as reconstructed by the current leadership. I stumble through the streets that afternoon and I feel as if I see a new anti-development message every time I brace myself against the stone walls of another building. Walking the streets of Casco Viejo one comes face to face with these realities as they take a wrong turn or walk too far down an undeveloped side street. 

A good friend once told me “I don’t need money to have a rich life.” This statement echoes in my head as I wander the streets of Casco Viejo. “I don’t need Instagram…I don’t need Facebook”. These messages are not simply bemoaning millennials that seem to be permanently attached to social media. These messages scrawled throughout the city reach for something much deeper. It’s a different history. One that you will hear if you dare to walk beyond the watermark of renovation and into the underdeveloped sections of Casco Viejo. You will learn that these graffiti are statements about “progress”.  That they lash out against the idea that to appear “wealthy” and “modern” our worlds must be filled with trendy restaurants, bars, and hotels. Here in Casco Viejo there is a population that is labeled “peligroso” because they do not have access to many of the prerequisites of modernity. It’s a population that is often referred to “los pobres (the poor people”). The graffiti that marks that city is a protest reminding us that wealth can be found in many forms. It’s a counter-argument that we can find richness in a world beyond the progress that international development companies promote. But, these words reach out to me with a ghostly feel…as if the person who has written them has already been buried within the rubble of the gutted edifices. Soon enough these words of protest—as well as the physical bodies that watch from the balconies—will be washed away under the flood of fresh paint and “Free WiFi” signs. So, as you read this. I ask you to think about cases like Casco Viejo as you thumb through travel guides and stare at restored buildings. I ask you to question the histories that are handed to you and to contemplate the other histories that have been silenced in order to create a development friendly image. When we think of “history”, we must also ask ourselves: Who is writing these histories and for whom are they writing them?

bottom of page