PANAMA CITY – With skyscrapers going up across the city and ambitious plans to build a $1.5 billion metro system, Panama City seems feverish in its zeal for modernity.
But in the quaint historic district of Casco Antiguo, residents are raising concerns that the government – in its devotion to all things shiny and new – is devaluing the richness of its patrimony and the importance of cultural preservation.
Those concerns were ratified in March when a visiting delegation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned Panamanian authorities they have until July to implement an emergency plan to protect and restore Panama Viejo and Casco Antiguo, or risk losing their international status as World Heritage Sites.
The governmental Office for Casco Antiguo (OCA), formed in 2000 with a 10 year mandate to oversee the restoration and rehabilitation of the historic district, is in charge of developing and implementing the emergency plan.
Yet OCA has no funding and is in a perpetual state of flux as each new administration brings in its own staff, assuring little to no continuity.
“When the government changes every five years, everything changes with it and we always start from zero,” said Casco resident Patrizia Pinzón, founder and president of the Association of Friends and Neighbors of Casco Antiguo (AVACA), a civil society group that was founded in the 1990s to promote and protect the historic district. Pinzón’s group has worked closely with OCA in the past, but says maintaining a coordinated working relationship with the government is difficult when each new administration “comes in with a broom and sweeps everyone out.”
As a result of administrative changes and the lack of funding, much-needed public-works projects such as sidewalk and road repairs, water pipe and drainage improvements, garbage management and overall city planning are falling by the wayside, Pinzón said.
“UNESCO says we need to have a government entity that gives continuity to the process of restoring and rehabilitating our patrimony; there needs to be a structure that will survive the changes of government here,” she said. “Someone needs to grab the bull by the horns.”
To make matters even more complicated, OCA, under the new government of President Ricardo Martinelli, has found itself in complete financial disarray from the previous administration. Office director Darío Moises Cadavid says OCA is currently undergoing an internal audit after outside funding was cut by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) due to “seven years of not complying with administrative obligations.”
“The UNDP told us we have to put our house in order. So we’re trying to clean the mess from the last administration,” Cadavid said during a recent meeting with Casco residents.
In addition to the bookkeeping, scavenging for funding and introducing themselves to local residents and business owners, Cadavid and the new OCA staff must also develop and implement an emergency plan within the next eight weeks. And after that, they have to quickly devise a way to keep their office doors open beyond December 2010, when OCA is set to be phased out.
Needless to say, Casco Antiguo’s outlook for maintaining world heritage status is not entirely optimistic.
Panama Viejo was founded in 1519 by conquistador Pedrarías Dávila. It is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
After the city was sacked and burned in 1671 by notorious pirate Captain Henry Morgan, a “second city” was built in 1673. That city is now known as Casco Antiguo, an historic ocean-front district that incorporates some 900 buildings of historic and architectural value.
Though Casco Antiguo was declared a PanamanianHistoricalMonument in 1976, residents claim it has been a constant struggle to convince the government and outside investors about the importance of protecting the colonial architectural.
In the 1950s, many historic buildings were demolished and replaced by new structures. And as recently as the mid-1990s, there was a strong push by investors to knock down the rest of the old buildings and build modern skyscrapers.
That’s when a group of well-heeled Panamanian residents of Casco Antiguo banded together to form the neighborhood group AVACA. With no support from the government, AVACA contacted UNESCO and got the ball rolling to have Casco declared a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Now they’re fighting to keep that status. In the past decade, Casco Antiguo has developed into a growing tourist attraction, generating its own economy. Though many of the older homes and buildings are in an advanced state of decay, the influx of tourism has helped the neighborhood show new signs of life. New restaurants, bars, sidewalk cafes, hotels and art galleries have opened, lending Casco a lively nightlife scene. It’s also helped breathe some life into the local real estate market.
The government’s top tourism authority seems to recognize the importance of Casco Antiguo and Panama Viejo to the country’s budding tourism sector. Panamanian Tourism Minister Salomon Shamah recently referred to Casco Antiguo and Panama Viejo as the country’s “colonial jewels” – a piece of cultural heritage that contrasts the glistening skyscrapers on the other side of the capital city.
But some wonder if the government’s commitment to preserving its patrimony goes beyond lip service.
“When I, as a business owner, see the government projecting 6 percent growth this year, and simultaneously see OCA desperate for money, it just doesn’t make any sense,” said Casco resident Matt Landau, founder of ThePanamaReport.com, a travel and investment portal. “At least, you realize where the (government’s) priorities lay.”
OCA’s Cadavid admits his office needs to change its legal structure to survive beyond 2010 and become a properly functioning government agency with a budget.
The problem now, according to AVACA president Pinzón, is that the OCA office “has responsibility but no authority.”
Pinzón said the Martinelli administration should take advantage of Panama’s unprecedented economic boom to inject funding into OCA and restructure it so that it can function effectively. And, she added, that needs to be done right away before the historic district loses its world heritage status.
While losing UNESCO status wouldn’t be the end of the world for Casco Antiguo or Panamanian tourism, the Panama Report’s Landau says it wouldn’t help either.
“Lots of tourists come here solely because it’s listed on UNESCO’s website, and because it’s touted in guidebooks as the historic gem of Panama City,” Landau said. “Losing the status would be a blow to the rapidly increasing tourism here and probably a testament to Panama’s general counter-appreciation for culture and history.”
However, he added, the embarrassment of getting knocked off the UNESCO list could be just the motivation the Panamanian government needs to finally get in gear and start protecting and restoring its patrimony.
“That shock to the system may be what is needed, since nothing else has really seemed to work,” Landau said.