Who Killed Casco Viejo?
Lovers of Casco Viejo (Casco), I have troubling news. I’ve caught the killer of Casco. Sure, this photo looks like an innocent steel survey platform. But, don’t be fooled. On the portable platform they are plotting to kill Casco. Digital devices stationed here will release data detailing a plan that wraps a 1950s-style superhighway around Panama’s historic peninsula of Casco. This will be the death of the Casco — te lo jurro, aweboa! (I swear to you, a-Panamanian-word-that-I-have-no-idea-how-to-translate).
Some background: Casco is a UNESCO World Heritage site. So too are Stonehedge, Machu Picchu and Vatican City. There are approximately 1000 in the world, and Panama has 5. UNESCO is a prestigious international designation of Panamanian history and culture.
UNESCO has warned Panama’s politicians about the Cinta Costera 3. In fact, they’ve officially sent a 54 page report that specifically mentions it (see page 6). UNESCO frequently interacts with double talk countries. They don’t have time for games. If you renege on your commitment, they simply pull you from their internationally renowned list. Casco will be no different.
UNESCO designation is important to Casco. It has spurred the colonial district’s revitalization. Prior to UNESCO’s arrival in 1997, Casco Viejo was Panama’s forgotten neighborhood. The majority of its buildings were deserted. Civil services had been neglected. Gang violence was rampant. As my local friends tell me, “Chuleta! Antes no podias andar en el Casco!” (Pork Chop! Before you couldn’t walk in the Casco). Casco’s soul was on life support.
Today, times have changed. UNESCO’s designation has reinvigorated Casco. Careful historic restoration throughout the neighborhood is on the move. Don’t take my word for it. Walk the calles of Casco. The progress is palpable, Papa.
This momentum has energized Casco. This once sometimes-shaddy neighborhood, is now Panama’s cultural heartbeat. Come for Jazz Fest weekend or attend an Art Block crawl, you’ll be impressed. Better yet, treat yourself to a Cena Cine at Diablo Rosso, or check out Rolando De Sedas’ trademark ladies painted on the walls of Villa Agustina. Casco has culture. Like a local computer programmer friend who rents a desk at The Casco Station told me, “All the coolest things in Panamanian culture are happening in Casco.”
Technically speaking, building a Casco-killing highway is against the law. Both international accords and local Panamanian law. Killing Casco Viejo is economically suicidal for two reasons:
First, it sends the wrong message about strict Casco’s historical guidelines. If the government itself breaks Casco laws, then why should anyone else follow them? Expect to see builders adding extra floors and other non-historical elements to Casco’s buildings. Once the historical integrity is jeopardized, Casco’s authentic allure will be dead.
Without authenticity, the neighborhood will begin a downward spiral that will only accelerate. Its historical value will be gone. It will no longer attract artists, musicians, writers, or passionate community members committed to pumping Casco’s cause. Its culture will be gone. With no historical integrity or community contributors, the tourism money will go away. Casco will revert back to Panama’s forgotten neighborhood. Que lastima! (What a damn shame!)
Secondly, breaking the law is bad for Panama’s international image. Currently, Panama is running ads declaring, “We Are Open For Business”. The goal is to attract more foreign investment to the isthmus.
However, defying laws and public institutions and instilling investor confidence are mutually exclusive. It reinforces the perception held by two of the world’s most respected news organizations – The Economist and New York Times – that Panama is rapidly becoming corrupt to its core. This small country is turning into a kleptocracy.
If Panama wants to be, “Open For Business” it must have strong public institutions. Laws need to be followed. Otherwise, Panama cannot achieve its stated goal: to become the business hub of The Americas.
Let me give you an example. You are a foreign investor who is interested in investing in Panama. You believe Casco is a good investment. It has UNESCO’s international prestige that will attract tourism for years to come. Plus, its historical integrity is protected by both national law and international accords. You confidently open a business/invest capital in a country that enthusiastically courts foreign investment. You’ve picked Panama.
Suddenly, the government breaks its own laws and international commitments. It unilaterally forces an infrastructure project that removes the UNESCO designation. This has a negative impact on your investment. Your confidence is Panama’s legal system is gone. Investors don’t like countries who presidents act like dictators. Just ask Venezuela.
Bottomline: Don’t kill Casco. It has been reborn. The progress has come too far and means too much to Panama’s history, culture, and general economy to be put to death. Por favor, deja El Casco en PAZ! (Leave Casco in peace).