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  • Alastair Cavendish

Postcard from Panama

There was another shooting yesterday inside my local shopping mall, Multiplaza, on the Via Israel in Panama City. A friend who was shopping there just missed it, as she missed, by about ten minutes, another shooting four days ago at an Italian restaurant across the road from the mall. Multiplaza is the safest, most boring environment you can imagine. There is a Dairy Queen and a Cinnabon and a KFC and a Cineplex and a whole lot of stores selling the type of quirky merchandise you might give to people you don’t particularly like if you had five minutes to think of, purchase, and wrap a present for them.

It is almost impossible to imagine a drug-crazed gunman mowing down the placid, bovine shoppers staring aimlessly into Multiplaza’s ranks of plate-glass windows, yet such shootings regularly occur. The mall security guards do not check for guns, and are not sufficiently burly or well-remunerated to apprehend fleeing gunmen on their way out. What they mainly do is bug people about their masks. It will warm your heart to know that both shooter and shootee were fully masked when the shooting took place, as were all the onlookers. It follows that no one was in any danger and, in particular, the shooter was well protected from identification and subsequent arrest.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the hysteria with which Panama has responded to the coronavirus. Masks are mandatory everywhere outside the home. People wear them in the sea, in the jungle, and when staring at the Pacific silent upon a peak in Darien. Many people wear two, or even three. The most fashionable look, it seems, is a paper mask, covered by a cloth mask, both pressed up against the nose and mouth with a tight-fitting plastic visor: the asphyxiation special. Across the road from my apartment, a chain-gang of upper-middle class Panamanians, their gigantic SUVs clumsily parked outside, run round and round a gymnasium inducing hypoxia in themselves with these threefold menaces.

The government of Panama imposed and only recently lifted a lockdown which included what was called a “sex-segregated mobility policy”. Women were permitted to leave the house for an hour a day to shop for essentials on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Men could do the same on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. No one was allowed to buy alcohol. Anyone smiling was shot on sight. Alright, I admit, I made the last one up. No one could tell if you smiled, since everyone was wearing masks. And no one in a mask has much to smile about. Those things suck up joy like blotting paper.

I should add that there are two mask refuseniks among the hordes of Panama City. The other one is the man who lives in a tent in the park opposite Multiplaza, and who now greets me like a long-lost friend each time I pass that way.. I have not interrogated him on his experience, but my own has been that, apart from a few squiggle-eyed looks, one escapes unmolested. The only person to scream at me in the street was not only wearing several masks but carrying two enormous boxes of the things under his arms. It is quite possible that he yells “Mascarilla!” at everyone he sees.

The irony of escaping occupied Europe for Latin America, only to find it even more thoroughly occupied and preoccupied, has not escaped me. Where in the world shall sanity be found? I have to admit that even Britain is saner than Panama at the moment. This, however, should not be a high bar to clear. When Britain had the controversial premiership of Margaret Thatcher, Panama had the totalitarian dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. Mrs. Thatcher had her faults, but she hardly ever murdered her political opponents, and her involvement in the international drug trade was minimal.

The British government is still better than the Panamanian government, but not much. They are of fundamentally the same type: kleptocracies in which the gold braid and the shining black motorcades, the pomp and circumstance of office, cover a moral void. In neither case does it seem particularly likely that the corrupt politicians will play much of a role in solving the social, economic and institutional collapse they have taken so much time and effort to create.

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