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How Panama went from chaos to being a bridge across the Americas

(CNN) — Mention Panama and most people will probably think about its eponymous canal. Maybe they’ll be reminded of 1980s dictator Manuel Noriega. Perhaps the more recent scandal of the Panama Papers leak of financial documents.

Or even wide-brimmed Panama straw hats (even though they originate from Ecuador).

But the southernmost Central American country’s true identity is largely centered on its location. And, according to those who live there, on the chaos and exploitation that defined its past.

Being “used” is key to Panama’s history, says filmmaker Abner Benaim, whose documentaries have explored the complex DNA of the country’s capital, Panama City.

“Panama is a country that’s been used by everyone,” Benaim tells CNN. “It does have its own identity, but that identity is made of chaos.

“It’s made up of people from all over the world who came here for different reasons. This is all to do with our location on the map. We’re that span that’s very easy to point out.”

The Isthmus of Panama is a bridge that connects North and South America as well as the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

As a result, Panama, which covers an area of roughly 75,000 square kilometers, is right in the middle.

It’s become the hub of the Americas in terms of connectivity, with principal airport Tocumen International offering nonstop flights to 81 different cities.

A former colony of Spain, Panama became a part of the Republic of Columbia in 1821.

It separated from Colombia in 1903, but was infamously invaded by the United States in 1989 in an attempt to overthrow Noriega.

Today, Panamanian culture is a blend of indigenous (native Panamanians make up around 12.3% of the overall population,) European and African cultures, with the United States also proving a significant influence.

“What makes Panama interesting, to me at least, is that mix. The mix of history, coming from the north and the south,” adds Benaim. “If you ask people here about Latin American culture, they’ll probably know more about US culture.”

Modern wonder

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is used by more than 15,000 vessels each year.

RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Image

The Panama Canal, labeled one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, has played a huge role in Panama’s evolution.

Before it existed, ships were forced to navigate around Cape Horn, a hazardous journey near the tip of South America.

Although France began the building process back in the late 1800s, the canal was eventually completed in 1914 by the United States, which had been granted control of the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone in exchange for $10 million, as well as annual payments.

The project wasn’t without its costs, both human and financial.

More than $375 million, equivalent to about $8.6 billion today, was spent by the United States to finish it. The bigger price was the five thousand lives lost as a result of diseases or accidents during the US construction period.

With the canal subsequently owned and operated by America for 70 years, it wasn’t until December 1999 that Panama gained complete control of this vital waterway that split the country in half.

Today, more than 15,000 vessels travel through the 82-kilometer canal each year.

It makes a contribution of up to 40% of Panama’s economy, registering a total of $2.238 million in toll revenues during fiscal year 2017 alone.

New identity

Benaim believes that Panama experienced a rebirth when it was granted free control of the canal.

“Historically Panama is just over a hundred years old, but it’s really only been independent since the Americans left,” he says.

Abner Benaim

Abner Benaim: “Panama is a very young country.”

CNN

“That’s the first time that Panama stood on its own. It’s a very young country in that sense. Growing up is hard. Being left alone and being independent is very hard.”

However, Panama has been carving out an identity of its own in the nearly two decades since then.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Panama City, which is home to around half of the country’s residents and the only capital city in the world that holds a rainforest within its city limits.

While its old town has been lovingly restored, a gleaming skyline of tower blocks and skyscrapers has emerged victoriously.

The latter has become a defining point of Panama City.

Panamanian real estate developer Octavio Vallarino played a significant role in modernizing the city and has five buildings under construction.

“Even though I’m a Panamanian, it impresses me to see the skyline,” says Vallarino. “I think it’s a reflection of prosperity, a reflection of confidence.”

The capital city is also home to Central America’s first urban rail system — the Panama Metro — which launched in 2014.

Happy place

Vallarino is extremely proud of the progress Panama has made, but holds a somewhat controversial viewpoint on the reasons behind this.

“The invasion by the US gave Panama a good housekeeping seal that makes us one of the safest places in the world,” he says. “If the Americans had not been here, Panama would not be what it is today.

“It’s why we have a lot of foreigners that come to live here and do business. Some of them become residents, some become citizens of Panama.

Roberto Durán

Roberto Durán: Panama is “more beautiful” than ever.

CNN

“Somehow there’s a magic here that means people don’t want to leave.”

Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, who’s a four-weight world champion as well as a national treasure, has also felt the shift.

“In the last 15 years, Panama has grown a lot,” he tells CNN.

“There’s been a lot of investment in hotels, in buildings — they have made Panama more beautiful than it was before.”

These developments are doing wonders for the spirits of Panamanians — if the Happy Place index is anything to go by.

The annual list, which measures how well nations are doing at achieving “long, happy, sustainable lives,” ranked Panama as the sixth-happiest place in the world in 2017.

It also came in sixth place on International Living magazine’s 2018 list of the top 10 places to retire abroad.

So what’s next for this “young” country?

“The picture is being drawn at the moment,” declares Benaim. “History with a capital ‘H’ hasn’t really been written here yet. Now people are understanding that we have to take responsibility. We have do things on our own — and make it good.”

CNN’s Holly Brown contributed to this story


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