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PANAMA: Residents Evicted as Buildings Are Restored

Alberto Mendoza

PANAMA CITY, Aug 1 2006 (IPS) - The historic centre of Panama City has never looked better, thanks to the restoration of picturesque buildings, improved sidewalks and tighter security. However, thousands of residents have been forced to leave their homes as government and private investors have moved in.

“People who were born here and have lived in the neighbourhood for up to 40 years have had to move out,” said Armando Bouza, a resident of the historic district of the capital. Aged 57, he has spent most of his life here, and intends to die here.

Bouza pays 75 dollars a month to rent an old, two-bedroom apartment, but he is afraid that rents will go up as new landlords, tenants and tourists arrive. Some of his friends, who have already moved out, have told him that they regretted leaving. “They say they have been relocated to places where power and water cuts are frequent, and the wind lifts off their roofs.”

The Office of the Historic Centre (OCA), made up of several ministries and the mayor’s office, has rehoused in other parts of the city people who were occupying houses in the old quarter as squatters, without paying any rent, or living in tumbledown buildings.

These measures are part of a project to revive the historic centre, begun in 2004, which is restoring buildings and providing new infrastructure for this district of the city. The aim: to restore an area of great historic and architectural value, and attract high-income residents and tourists.

The historic San Felipe quarter of Panama City was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1997. Known as the Casco Viejo or Old Quarter, it contains beautiful 19th century buildings in the architectural styles of Spain, France and the Americas.

Founded in 1519, Old Panama (Panamá Viejo) was the first European settlement in the continent to be built on the Pacific Ocean. When it was destroyed by the English pirate Henry Morgan, the city dwellers abandoned the site, which is now in ruins, and built Panama City at a nearby location with walled fortifications, starting in 1673. The 17th century street plan of its historic centre, typical of Spanish urban design, remains virtually untouched to this day.

Reporters from Central America, the Dominican Republic and Cuba taking part in a journalism workshop organised by the news agency IPS (Inter Press Service) in Panama City visited the historic quarter as an example of a place where several development challenges converge at once: poverty and social exclusion, environmental problems and the voraciousness of property speculators.

At the outset a favourite residential area for the élite, the historic centre was gradually taken over by low-income working people. In San Felipe today, the seat of government and several ministries are found side by side with unsafe, insanitary buildings occupied by extremely poor families.

Because of the gentrification of the Casco Viejo, the cost of a square metre of floor space has risen to 1,500 dollars, making the area an exclusive enclave once again. The 940 building units in the historic zone are mostly in private hands, but the government retains 100 of them, of which 40 are for residential purposes. Once they have been restored, local families will continue to live there, paying subsidised rents of around 75 dollars a month.

But others are still waiting to find out where they will end up living. Susana Rodríguez is a single mother of a young baby. She does not work, and her retired father supports the three of them with his 300-dollar monthly pension. Rodríguez pays no rent at all for the rickety house she lives in, but said she would be willing to pay rent if her house were restored by OCA. But so far, nobody has approached her with any information about the project.

The number of residents of the Casco Viejo is uncertain, but Ángel Espino, director of OCA, estimates there are about 8,000 people. He also acknowledged that thousands of people have left the old quarter over the last few years. This thinning of the population, together with a more conspicuous police presence, has contributed to improving security in the area, although it is the social programmes that have been the main factor.

For it is not only the buildings in San Felipe that are being given a new lease of life. John Dean, 27, works on restoration sites and has taken a course in soldering. He is one of 50 young people who have pulled out of street gangs to work and study, thanks to OCA’s social programmes.

“That was no sort of life, but this is: to study, work, and move forward,” John explained. “Now I can walk freely down any street,” he added. Before, gangs known as “Hot Boys”, “Prodigal Son”, “Jackals” and “City of God” marked out territories and lived criminal lifestyles in the old quarter.

“We’re an example for other young people,” said Herber Onodera, 20. He was a “quiet teenager who was always playing football,” until one day “other youngsters started to push me around, to see how strong I was, so I got tough.” So tough that at 15 he was carrying a handgun.

“At that time, there were no opportunities for work or education,” said Onodera. However, he is now studying and working, determined to become an architect.

Some residents have organised in order to bring their influence to bear on the decisions that the government is taking about their district. On Jul. 27, the Association of Residents in Defence of San Felipe Quarter put on a dinner to raise funds and put forward their ideas, which was attended by the mayor of Panama City, Juan Carlos Navarro, and representatives of the central government.

The association is pressing for all the current residents to be able to stay in the old quarter, for a halt to real estate speculation, and for subsidised housing.

Adán Cerrud Sánchez, coordinator of the residents’ association, told IPS that “buildings are being put before people,” but indicated that they had “met with goodwill on the part of the government to try to amend this, so that no more residents will have to leave.”

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