Arrival in a Narrow Country

Flew from Miami to Panama City, Panama yesterday.  While sitting in a comfortable leather seat aboard an American Airlines 757 and eating a filet mignon lunch, I looked down at Cuba.  Supposedly they have everything to which we Americans aspire, i.e., universal health care and an excellent public education system.  Yet Cubans are dirt poor and it is we ignorant and infirm residents of the United States who designed and built the 757.  The comparison isn’t quite fair but really you’d think that the Cubans, being so well educated and blessed with a large and fertile country, would have done better for themselves.  Perhaps politics do matter, a sobering thought as Election 2004 sweeps across the U.S.

Graham, a Kiwi flight instructor from, picked me up at the big international airport here (PTY) and, after a brief stop to change into shorts, we went to the small domestic airport and preflighted a Robinson R22 helicopter, removed the doors, and, with the Pacific Ocean at our backs, took off north along the Canal.  A moderate rain, unseasonable this time of year in Panama, pelted my bare skin though the gaping holes in the sides of the machine, now approaching its 100 mph (160 kph) cruising speed.  Soon the rain ended, however, and we were abeam the magnificent Miraflores Locks. After skirting the airspace over a prison and a rainforest resort we dropped down to 500′ over the jungle bordering Lake Gatun, the heart of the Panama Canal.  A few minutes later we were coming up on Colon, the big city and free trade zone at the Caribbean end of the Canal. After a quick glance down at the collapsed rusting rooftops of downtown Colon it is not hard to believe that this is the unemployment, poverty, and crime capital of the nation.

“… children run about in rags and the city’s largely black
population lives in rotting buildings.  … If you walk its streets,
even in th emiddle of the day, expect to get mugged.  It really is
that bad.”

— Lonely Planet guidebook (this is a publisher that thinks
   Columbia is a nice safe country to visit!)

Cruising at 80 mph west from Colon, 50′ above the breakers, we reached the mouth of the Rio Chagres, whose prodigious flow in the rainy season stymied the Canal builders.  This is the river that the pirate Henry Morgan used in 1671 to gain access to the original settlement of Panama City.  On the cliffs above the sea is the ruined Fuerte San Lorenzo, built to protect the Spanish gold trade from guys like Henry Morgan.  Adjacent to the fort is a partially fenced grassy area. Graham decided to put the R22 down there.  We walked around the fort for a bit, looked at the rusty cannon, and then fired up for the return trip to Panama City, landing just at sunset.

Then it was back to the hotel for a shorts-and-T-shirt dinner at a table outdoors, on a patio overlooking Canal-bound ships going underneath the Puente de las Americas.  The helicopter pilots talked about their jobs on the tuna boats here.  The 200′-long tuna boats carry a light helicopter so that the captain can go up and coordinate the action of little speed boats that collect the nets.  When the work is done the pilot has to land on a rolling metal deck, often spread with a net to provide friction.  “Sounds like landing on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier,” I observed.  “Oh, it is much harder than that,” the pilots noted.  “Remember that this is a very small ship and it goes up and down with the waves a lot more.”  Tuna boat helicopter pilots tend to be young and unmarried.

30 thoughts on “Arrival in a Narrow Country

  1. I hate to be the sucker that, like those tuna, takes the bait on the troll but what the hell, it’s an election year.

    I think it’s a little silly to make a judgment on the economic status of Cuba while ignoring the single greatest cause of Cuba’s hardship–the embargo. Maybe in your next entry you can tell us why the US still has an embargo in place against Cuba. I, for the life of me, can’t figure it out.

    But you’re right, it is a sobering thought as Election 2004 sweeps across the U.S. that a country as poor as Cuba has an excellent public education system (I’ll take your word for that) while ours is barely adequate.

  2. Yeah, just to +1 Mark’s comment. As long as the 40 year trade embargo continues, there aren’t many generic political / economic lessons to be drawn from Cuba.

  3. Back in the US, the 757 production line has been shut down, due to competition from the Europeans with their Cuban-style education and health insurance systems. Clearly we need to extend our embargo policy.

  4. Hmmm, methinks that, at least during 30 of those 40 years, the effects of the embargo would have been offset by the help from the USSR and the trade with Europe (which does not have an embargo policy), so using that excuse to justify Castro’s dictatorship isn’t really valid.

    But of course, if I said so out loud I’d probably be labelled as a imperialist-fascist-republican-bushist dupe-agent, so nevermind.

  5. In spite of the U.S. embargo, and the great distance to USSR and Europe (which effectively increases the cost of Cuban goods dramatically), Cuban standard of living and public safety is higher on average than in other countries of the region. They have been lucky that there was no direct U.S. military influence as in Guatemala, Nikaragua, Colombia, Haiti, Panama…

    In the same post, Philip talks about “the [Colon, Panama] city’s largely black population lives in rotting buildings”. In Cuba, turists can go accross the country and sleep anywhere under the open sky.

    Coming from Serbia, and talking to Russian friends, I know that the bulk of the population of the ex-Socialist countries yearns for old days when Coca Cola and Levi’s were very expensive, but jobs, healthcare, and schools were stable.

    Alas, human beings always yearn for the things they do not have. And rightfully, given the choice of freedom in poverty or luxurious captivity, they inevitably choose freedom.

  6. I think it’s unfair to compare Cuba with the US. Compare Cuba with Haiti or the Dominican Republic, then see which country went so terribly wrong. And even the Carribean islands with lots of tourism are desperately poor, like most of the resource-poor islands in the Pacific.

    Or, make it a little more interesting and compare Puerto Rico with Cuba. I can’t say I know a huge amount about Puerto Rico, but I’m sure it stands up fairly well in comparison. But not so well that you can dismiss Cuba’s choices.

  7. Comparing Cuba to Puerto Rico (and yes, I have a pretty good idea, I was born, raised and finished my college education in PR) would be a waste of time, they are similar in culture and the racial mix is pretty much the same, but Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the end of the Spanish American War in 1898. Right now PR is a commonwealth of the US, sort of less than a real state but more state than the District of Columbia itself. Also, Puerto Rican naturals are US Citizens since the Jones Act of 1917. If you wake up one day and decide Puerto Rico is not for you, you purchase a plane ticket and fly to wherever in the US you want to, since your flight is no different than flying from Georgia to Texas.

    The whole region is one big can of worms. Castro is going to die eventually, and who knows what is going to happen. Haiti is about to hit another coup cycle. The Dominican Republic got hit with a general strike today. The governor of Puerto Rico is systematically allienating most of the legislative branch of the island.

    Me thinks this is Phil trolling to see if people are paying attention to the blog.

  8. Philip,

    This is off-topic, but I couldn’t find where else to put it…and I hope you’re reading your latest comments.

    Please, when you blog the NY Times, instead of giving us the absolute URL, give us the BLOGSPACE URL, generated here so that the link doesn’t vanish into the archives and cost money after seven days. BLOGSPACE URL’s are for bloggers, and reach into the archives forever.

    Thank you,


  9. I’m aware of the U.S. embargo against Cuba but it doesn’t seem to stop them trading with their neighbors, with Canada, with Asia, or with the European Union (whose budget travelers apparently clog Cuba’s beaches and keep their prostitutes busy). So there is nothing that would prevent Cuba from being as developed as, for example, Taiwan (another island nation whose relations with its larger neighbor aren’t so good).

  10. The comparison with Taiwan is a bit misleading. While Taiwan may have poor political relations with mainland China, China has not placed an embargo on Taiwan. Far from it in fact. China, I believe is Taiwan’s second largest export market. In the first seven months of last year Taiwan’s trade with China was about $25 Billion. If I’m not mistaken, that’s larger than Cuba’s GDP. Comparing Taiwan and Cuba is interesting historically though because they seem to occupy opposite sides of America’s battle with communism.

    I doubt anyone will argue that Cuba’s government would have prospered under communism had it not been for the US. But it is difficult to draw any convincing conclusions about the effect of Cuba’s political system on it’s economic situation because the embargo (and our various assassination and invasion plots) makes it much more complicated.

  11. They have an excellent educational system and universal healthcare, and we have the 757. It sounded a little strange, until I remembered the only reason I’ve even been on a 757 is to get to my overpriced school, which I’ll be paying off for years to come, along with my health care. I’d gladly give up the 757 for good educational and healthcare systems (and I live right next door to the Boeing plant!).

    I think it’s a comforting thought that even a tiny country, with an embargo from the world’s most powerful economy right next door, can still have good education and health care. Ok, they may have a lousy economy (and a dictator), but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

  12. Where did these defenders of Castro come from? Read Before Night Falls.
    Arenas says (p288):
    “None of this surprised me: I already knew that the capitalist system was also sordid & money-hungry. In one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had declared that “the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.”

  13. Blog Guy: As in most countries, Internet access for the traveler in Panama is far easier than in the US. There are lots of Internet cafes and the prices are much less than in an American Kinkos or airport Internet kiosk.

    Steven: How did we end up with so many pro-Castro comments in this blog? Owners and/or dictators of Third World countries have enjoyed much support among left-leaning citizens of rich countries at least ever since Russian Revolution. Stalin was a big hero among the American Left for many decades. I guess he isn’t so popular anymore. There are still plenty of folks in Cambridge who have much nicer things to say about Saddam Hussein than George W. Chairman Mao is one of my personal favorites (I think it was he who, when asked why he had to kill so many political opponents, said “A revolution is not a dinner party”). And of course Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize.

  14. Fear not, the United States is becoming “Latin Americanized” at a quick pace and another four years of W. Bush will further us along that path. So Philip, while you and others of affluent blessings enjoy your bounty, a good lot of your fellow brothers and sisters across America face a fate less rosy.

  15. I +1 Mark’s comments as well – America is fortunate that Cubans have too good of a sense of humor to fly their cleverly designed 757s into buildings. When is the US government going to invest $87 billion promoting “freedom” in their own damn backyard? I guess sugar, coffee and tourism don’t command the same commitment to the eradication of tyranny as oil does.

  16. Hi Philip–

    We met at P. Menzel’s. Just a note to say that I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. The lesson I drew from this post, though, is that to judge by your two examples (Colon and Havan) neither capitalism (Colon) nor socialism (Havana) has a strong relation to economic success. One thing both countries lack in common is an even remotely plausible government that provides a sufficient level of personal freedom and security coupled with a stable legal system.

    I’m in Japan now for a few months, and it is striking how the Japanese cheerfully accept restrictions on personal freedom that we would regard as intolerable, and fiercely resist intrusions on liberty that are so ubiquitous and systemic in the US that we hardly notice them. As a small example of the latter, consider neighborhood zoning. You basically have an extremely hard time in most of the US setting up small stores, and you can get sued for things like not having the correct kind of brick in your facade or for putting out flowerpots on the sidewalk (people can trip over them, supposedly). In Japan, you can do pretty much whatever you want whereever you want as long as you don’t pollute, shine bright lights into people’s living rooms, or make really, really loud noises. This is a small example of the thousand ways their life is broadened by not fearing litigation, and (broader and shakier generalization) by people not generally resorting to local and state government to control their neighbors. The same is true of economic regulation (I know, zoning is effectively that, but you see my point): the Japanese economy is both
    much more regulation bound and wildly free than the US economy.

    I’m not saying their system is ideal — far from it. But the lesson I draw is that the exact mix of liberty, security and economic regulation is much less important than generally getting it right, and making its presence reliable.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog, which I’ve been enjoying,

  17. Crikey, Philip, objecting to the U.S. embargo does not imply support for Castro. One can argue the opposite–the embargo props up Castro, by allowing him to blame Cuba’s economic woes on the U.S. Either the embargo has an effect or it doesn’t. If it does, then Castro’s excuses have merit, no matter how much anyone may despise him. On the other hand, if you argue that the embargo doesn’t have any effect on the Cuban economy, what’s the point? Why not just get rid of it, and let Castro sink or swim on his own merits, without having the U.S. to kick around anymore? Is it because people are afraid that Cuba will do better than expected? I can’t really fathom it.

  18. Note that this comment is not relevant to this post.

    It is relevant to your recent comment to me that I’m violating copyright, and confusing google. I apologize Phil.

    My Blog/html skills are rather limited, so I have not figured out how to html a site into the blog entry. Also, I have found that sites and pages vanish from the web, so while I do occassionally copy short bits and rarely longer ones, I do always try to ID where they came from within the post. But I want to capture the idea not a dead link… I guess this is a blog tech problem (maybe some way to get cached links like Google…?)

    Looking at your blog, and the volume of comments you receive, I can understand your concerns. Looking at my blog, I think I’ve received less than 5 comments ever, and you gave me two of them! I’ve mostly been writing for myself, with little thought or evidence that others are reading me.

    But in googling on keywords from my blog, I found I must have wider readership, since my posts have been copied into other people’s blogs…

    Again, I apologize for confusion – my hope is that people who find bits on my blog would click through to the sources to find even more interesting conversation and comments from people like you and your students.


    I hope you have a great time during your travels.

  19. Cuba has always been able to get whatever it wanted by shopping in Europe or elsewhere. The problem is that it got soft as the USSR overpaid it for its sugar and undercharged it for oil. When the USSR collapsed and reality set in, Cuba found that it could still buy whatever it wanted in Europe or elsewhere, but that didn’t have the money. Since it doesn’t allow private enterprise, it is still stuck in the primary sector (sugar cane, anyone?) and all those highly educated and intelligent people are either rotting away on a sunny island in the Caribbean, or making their way to the decadent West where their initiative and skills are justly rewarded.
    Don’t blame Cuba’s predicament on the embargo. Blame it on a system that stifles human ingenuity and initiative.

  20. Cuba has always been able to get whatever it wanted by shopping in Europe or elsewhere. The problem is that it got soft as the USSR overpaid it for its sugar and undercharged it for oil. When the USSR collapsed and reality set in, Cuba found that it could still buy whatever it wanted in Europe or elsewhere, but that didn’t have the money. Since it doesn’t allow private enterprise, it is still stuck in the primary sector (sugar cane, anyone?) and all those highly educated and intelligent people are either rotting away on a sunny island in the Caribbean, or making their way to the decadent West where their initiative and skills are justly rewarded.
    Don’t blame Cuba’s predicament on the embargo. Blame it on a system that stifles human ingenuity and initiative.

  21. Third world communist countries have not advanced as far as first world capitalist countries. What a fresh observation. Perhaps you could get this published at Slate or something.

  22. || Where did these defenders of Castro come from?

    Nobody is here defending Castro. Just saying that after all the censorship and stifling of private enterprise, Cubans are better off than most (all) of their neighbors who are “helped” by the U.S. I am making a statement about the disasterous policy the U.S. leads in Central America, not about good policy of Castro.

    Another point: the moment the Berlin Wall fell down, workers in Western Europe and the United States started loosing benefits, getting paycuts, having their jobs outsourced. The workers’ rights were stripped off as employers hired anti-unionization lawyers, and average Joe’s standard of living has been sinking ever since. The socialist “other side” of the Berlin Wall kept this capitalist side in check due to the fear that socialism might spread.

    Arenas fled from Cuba to the U.S. to be free to “scream” (see comment above). With the departure of socialist countries, polititians stopped listening to the screams.

  23. It’s also true that the civil rights movement made its greatest progress at the height of the cold war, starting in the 1950’s. I wonder to what extent that would have happened without the threat of communism, and the need to convince the non-white people of the world to take our side?

  24. Jim Campbell,
    I got to see a video of the Canadians landing helos on covettes in what I thought was a very high sea state. Almost launched my lunch just watching. It looked impossible to me. I don’t understand state of mind of the helo pilots – a death wish? IIRC the video was from the early 1990’s as we also watched some Navy videos of action over Bagdad and some very interesting carrier operations.

  25. So many oft repeated yet complete and utter lies about Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

    Cuba has got universal healthcare, thats right. So does Panama and I’m sure many other places in Latin America. The only difference in Cuba you universally have the right to die, because there is no medicine or the doctors are out looking after their survival jobs, selling lobster in the market, prostituting themselves or being guides for tourists. Wake up. Cuba may have been a “paradise” in the 60’s. Now it is an absolute evil hell hole. Ask any cubans.

    People mention Panama, Dominican Republic etc as being worse off. The only place in Latin America that is worse off than Cuba is Haiti. We have poverty here in Panama, yet it is not universal such as in Cuba or Haiti. This is true just about everywhere in Latin America. Even the poorest people in the ghetto of Chorillo in Panama, eat well every day. No one goes without health care. People can vote.

    The lefties in Europe and the US have repeated these lies so much that they have forgotten to open their eyes. The democracy in Panama and most parts of Latin America is DIRECTLY a result of the “Evil” US foreign policy of the last few decades.

    The only country in Central America that is falling rapidly economically is Costa Rica, where the social democratic government is forcing people into poverty.

  26. can any one advise me on getting a job flying on a tuna boat im a nz pilot looking for a job have a comercial licence cheers

Comments are closed.