Features

Rising red tide

"Rising red tide" Continued...

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

Esmeralda Alcántara lives in a bleak, windowless apartment in one of those barrios, a poor neighborhood called Curundú on the outskirts of Panama City where gang violence is a daily threat. She says Panama's poor have more pressing concerns than how much say Americans or Chinese have over the canal. People here think about how to escape their tenement housing slums, fix neighborhood sewage problems, or cope with the recent influx of drug dealers.

Nearly one in 10 Panamanians is unemployed, a factor compounding the dislike of ethnic Chinese, who make up 8 percent of the population and often run small businesses. Panamanians going to the corner store will still say they're off to el chinito-akin to saying "the little Chinaman." In poor areas the Chinese are resented for taking jobs.

President Torrijos himself visited Curundú before the expansion vote, when the barrio was celebrating its anniversary. Alcántara says she saw him there. But asked if she voted in the referendum, she shakes her head and says, "I am tired of talking about the canal." Her life, she says, has changed remarkably little since the United States handed it over. The others out on her block that day agreed; they consider the canal the property of a cabal of carefree patrician families.

But troubled policymakers in Washington are focusing less on social problems and more on how chummy with China is Panama willing to get. Hutchison Whampoa's ports, which account for 15 percent of the world's maritime traffic, lie along six of the eight choke points labeled by the Defense Department as "U.S. lifelines and transit regions."

Hutchison also now owns four of Mexico's most important ports and is lobbying the government to build another at Punta Coronet, located on the Baja Peninsula less than two hours from San Diego. Question of the day: Is the Chinese firm just being enterprising, or is it giving the Chinese government the opportunity to choke American trade and have a staging ground close to a large U.S. city and naval base?

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