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Panama and Switzerland

When we grew up, most of us learned that Switzerland literally held a special place in Europe. Small and highly mountainous, it was too much trouble for outsiders to invade. By maintaining neutrality in European wars, Switzerland managed to miss much of the damaging effects. Its central location and its focus on financial markets made it more useful to its neighbors if left intact. With a population made up of Germans, French and Italians, the Swiss learned to deal with multiple languages and ethnic groups who didn't always get along outside Switzerland. This combination of factors made Switzerland a safe place to live and a good place to do business.

Consider Panama. It's small. With only 3 million people, it's is less densely populated than any other mainland nation in North, Central, or South America with one exception, Belize, a tiny impoverished nation of Central America. Compare Panama's 38 people per square mile (15 per square kilometre) with that of the 48 US states (100 per sq mi or 39 per sq km). Toss in Alaska with its small population and huge empty areas and the US stats are still more than double Panama's (82 per sq mi or 32 per sq km).

Map of PanamaAs far as the Western Hemisphere is concerned, Panama is about as "central" as you can get. As the map to the right clearly indicates (click on it to see a bigger version), Panama is literally the "bridge" between the two halves of the hemisphere.

For more than a century, Panama's history has been closely intertwined with the Panama Canal. Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed through the Canal over the years and more than a few have come back to live. Panamanians are very used to dealing with people from other nations and are happy to do so. Panama has a "mixed blood" (mestizo) population where the "blood" can come from any of several dozen other nationalities. This makes for a cosmopolitan society where foreign residents can fit in relatively easily.

Panama has long been a major financial center. In the past, it was a major center for "laundering" drug cartel money. That and a number of other contentious issues led to a crisis in its relations with the US and the removal of the dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. That is now behind both Panama and the US. Noriega has been in jail in the US for fifteen years and Panamanians don't want him back unless he's standing trial for murder. Today, Panama is praised for the great strides it has made in cleaning up its financial house and the banking business is thriving. In addition, Panama is the largest Free Trade Zone in the Americas and the second-largest in the world, following only Hong Kong.

Like Switzerland, Panama has mountains too. They're a major factor in the nation's topography, but they're far smaller than Switzerland's! They don't play the protective role they played for the Swiss. Instead, Panama has very nice replacements: the jungle, Costa Rica and the US.

Despite bordering on Colombia to the south, Panama is protected from that other nation's problems by a thick jungle that the Panamanians have seen fit to retain. The 16,000 mile (26,000 kilometre) Pan-American Highway goes from Alaska to Chile. In the entire distance, there is only one break in the construction and that's between Panama and Colombia. That end of Panama is home to part of its indigenous Native American population and also to a great variety of rare species of flora and fauna. As a result, Panama has refused to construct this part of the Pan-American Highway as protection for the indigenous people and their environment. It's a poorly-kept secret that Panama also finds this a marvelous excuse for keeping themselves separated from Colombia and its problems without directly insulting their neighbors.

The other end of Panama is its border with Costa Rica. Like Panama, Costa Rica is peaceful, free, democratic, has no military, and is relatively prosperous. There is absolutely no thought of there ever being a war between Panama and Costa Rica. Quite the contrary, the two nations are friendly economic competitors, but with the emphasis on "friendly". However, as a result, Panama is insulated from the poverty and the violence associated with other Central American nations where age-old disputes continue and drug gangs are common.

With the jungle on one side and Costa Rica on the other, Panama is well-insulated. And no one is likely to invade Panama, it isn't worth the trouble, but if they do, they'll have to deal with the United States. As part of the treaty turning the Canal over to Panama from US control, the US guaranteed the Canal's security (and thus Panama's) from any attack. This is one reason why Panama gets along quite happily without a military.

No, Panama is not Switzerland, but the comparison is valid. However, there is one major difference that I can attest to from personal experience. Panama is a heck of a lot cheaper than Switzerland!

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