AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Panama is booming. It has the highest economic growth rate in the hemisphere fueled by an expansion of the Panama Canal, a thriving banking industry and capital flight from Venezuela. What's more, the government is building a subway system and it's marketing the country as a tropical paradise for multinational corporations.
But NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that not all is well in the tiny Central American nation.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Panama City right now is a giant construction site. Roads are being torn up, excavators digging out tunnels while cranes above put the finishing touches on new high-rise condominiums, office towers, banks and hotels.
On the south side of the canal just across the Bridge of the Americas, a former U.S. military base is being converted into a residential corporate industrial park called Panama Pacifico. Juan McKay is with London & Regional, the master developer of the project.
JUAN MCKAY: We have already built close to 100,000 square meters worth of warehouses and we're building another 50,000 square meters that should be done by the end of the year.
BEAUBIEN: McKay's company is transforming what used to be the Howard U.S. Air Force base into a sprawling campus with corporate offices, manufacturing and logistics facilities. Dell Computer has already set up a call center on the campus. McKay is standing where the heavy equipment giant Caterpillar is building a new regional hub.
MCKAY: Caterpillar is obviously looking for a strategic position in Latin America that will make them very easy to go anywhere.
BEAUBIEN: McKay and others are touting Panama as the place to do business in Latin America right now. It has five major shipping ports clustered at either end of the canal. The country has a sophisticated banking sector. Also, there isn't the drug violence that's been plaguing Mexico and Central America.
Last year, according to the government statistics agency, economy growth in Panama hit 10 and a half percent, indicating that this country of three and a half million people is expanding faster than China.
But this boom isn't benefiting everyone. Porsches and chrome-tinted Hummers race along the new land-filled coastal boulevard, but roughly a third of Panamanians still live in poverty.
ROBERTO EISENMANN: From my perspective, the major challenge Panama has is the economic and social polarization.
BEAUBIEN: Roberto Eisenmann is the founder of the Panama City daily newspaper La Prensa.
EISENMANN: We still have two countries, a first world country that's going gangbusters, and a half an hour away, a fourth world country with too many poor people.
BEAUBIEN: Panama is also a young democracy that's still struggling to emerge from the Noriega dictatorship of the 1980s. The current president, Ricardo Martinelli, won the 2009 elections by a landslide, but in the wake of a series of corruption scandals, his popularity has plummeted.
Miguel Antonio Bernal, a constitutional law professor at the University of Panama, says Martinelli's authoritarian administration is running roughshod over the rule of law to attract more foreign investment while ignoring the needs of ordinary Panamanians.
MIGUEL ANTONIO BERNAL: At any time, we are going to have a social explosion that will be very dangerous, not only for us, the Panamanian people, but also for the economic interests and investments that are already in the country.
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BEAUBIEN: It's a Thursday night at the opening of a new boutique hotel in the hip, historic Casco Viejo area of Panama City. At the door, a bouncer checks people's names against a guest list on an iPad. Disco lights flash across the four story atrium. Young women laugh at the bar. The rooftop deck looks out on the cobblestone streets below.
Casco Viejo was founded by the Spanish in 1673, after an earlier settlement further up the coast was sacked by pirates and nearly totally destroyed.
Standing on the sea wall of the old city, Patrizia Pinzon, a local real estate agent and an activist with the Casco Viejo Neighborhood Association, says this area now faces threats from development. The Martinelli Administration is proposing to build an elevated freeway in the harbor.
PATRIZIA PINZON: It would be six lines of highway on the water around the historic district that will connect with the other side of Panama City, the area where all the high-rises are right now.
BEAUBIEN: Pinzon says a freeway just offshore and circling Casco Viejo would destroy the historic character of the neighborhood and put its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in jeopardy.
In the 22 years since the U.S. deposed Manuel Noriega, governmental institutions and civic groups have been gaining strength slowly but steadily in Panama. The recent boom, however, and the election of the pro-growth Martinelli, Pinzon says, has changed things.
PINZON: With this administration, it seems like we're just going back and just to get things done the way they want it for the people they want it.
BEAUBIEN: After her anger cools over talking about the proposed highway on the water, Pinzon is more philosophical about Panama's growing pains. Smiling as if describing a favorite niece, she says Panama right now is like a beautiful 15 year old girl. She's pretty, but she doesn't believe she's pretty. She dyes her dark hair blonde to try to get the whole world to like her, but despite herself, her beauty and all her potential are still there.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.