Where worlds become one

US utopia, tax haven, navel of the universe: transfers between pop and politics in Panama

Directly on the shore is a restaurant with a view of a gigantic nerve cord of water, which is navigated by ships weighing tons. On the other shore, skyscrapers sprout into the sky, metallic-smooth structures that stand so close together as if they wanted to warm themselves to one another. What looks like a mixture of Singapore and Istanbul is Panama City in "The Tailor of Panama". This is the kind of image John Boorman presented at the beginning of the 21st century. In the early twentieth century, Panama introduced the world to the capital of a country that had hitherto been a U.S. colony and had thus been subjected to Washington’s projections to a considerable degree.

Where worlds become one

Panama’s bullfighting image can’t really decide between the U.S. and Spain. Photo: Panamanian Tourism Institute

Panama was in the 20. The country had been the ambitious utopian project of a fledgling empire in the nineteenth century, and by the time Boorman’s film hit theaters, the country or. its constitutive element: the Panama Canal, just released into formal independence. Since then, Panama has been busy modifying its own image.

The central arena of the rebirth is tourism, as the minister in charge emphatically stated a few days ago. This strategy is not surprising at first, many post-colonial state foundations have also taken place within the framework of the second largest industry in the world (A Landscape of the Remaining). But here the omens are of a special kind: the precarious relationship with the informal colonial ruler, the late independence and, above all, the recruitment of an internationally known star of the entertainment industry as Minister of Culture and Tourism: Ruben Blades.

Not a magnet of mass tourism

The transfer between pop and politics is a novelty in the intertwining of nation-building and tourism. A necessary novelty should be sent after it. It seems to be the only guarantee of success for a new Panama image, because the conditions for the country’s mission are conceivably bad. So while the Panama Canal is considered a marvel of history, on a par with the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China. However, unlike the national prestige objects of Egypt and China, the Panama Canal has never attracted the tourist masses. It has occupied a place in the collective imagination, but it has remained vague in its appearance. Symptomatically, Boorman’s film was the first in Hollywood history to be shot in Panama.

International writers have been attracted to this structure, including Stefan Zweig, and have thus found their way to the capital of Panama. But they can be paid off on one hand. US workers populated it, the US military was supposed to protect it for decades, but the tourists stayed away. The country, long reduced to a canal, has gone down in history as a geostrategically prominent place. As a hub of the world economy and world politics. As a transshipment point that required vigilant control, policing and military protection. Not an attractive place for tourists, but for entrepreneurs in the transfer business of data, currencies and goods.

While casinos became the unofficial landmarks of Panama in the second half, the capital made a name for itself as a tax haven. As a result, Panama attracted not only gamblers and dubious financiers, but also the attention of the G-7 countries. At the turn of the century, the latter published a blacklist of countries that encourage tax evasion by companies and individuals, as well as the disappearance of the equivalent of several trillion euros from the face of the world economy. Panama found itself among these countries, along with Bahrain and Vantau. Investigators and financial authorities have since targeted the country on suspicion that it supports the activities of organized crime and corrupt politicians.

Where worlds become one

Panama, according to Ruben Blades navel of the universe. Photo: NASA

Image corrections required

Boorman’s little-noticed black-comedy thriller starring Pierce Brosnan inscribed itself in this problematic image by setting Panama City as the center of international machinations. Following the world of John Le Carre, Boorman chose the descriptive level of espionage: the unconscious of the Cold War is unleashed in the living room of a tailor who reactivates invisible networks and political ghosts through his stories. Boorman worked his subject in a sarcastic way, the director of cult films like "Point Blank" (1967) and "Deliverance" (1972) played to some extent with the cliches that still cling to Panama today.

In this way, Boorman inscribed himself in the history of foreign attributions on the part of the United States as its critic: The first Hollywood film to be made in Panama is also the first prominent attempt to turn the tables on the United States. That Panama did not take long to take control of its own national identity should not have surprised anyone. But the fact that Ruben Blades is now supposed to initiate the political turnaround is enough to make you sit up and take notice. The man is not exactly known as a politician, although he founded his own political party in 1994 for the presidential elections in Panama and became the third strongest force with 20% of the votes.

Blades has rather become famous as a Panamanian singer and actor: As a pioneer of salsa in the U.S. and as a performer in films as diverse as "Mo’ Better Blues" (1990), "All the Pretty Horses" (2000), "Killing Moves" (2002), "Empire" (2002) and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2003). Now that he has been appointed Minister of Tourism and Culture by MartIn Torrijos, he can do as a politician what he has not failed to do as an artist, but perhaps has not been able to do sufficiently: Influence the destiny of his country. That his goal is not least to modify the image of Panama, he unmistakably states on the homepage of the Panamanian Tourism Institute. In the very first sentence he complains that his country is misunderstood by the world:

Para muchos, Panama significo en su tiempo "abundancia de peces". Para otros, es solo un Canal. Pero Panama es mucho mas que eso. Es tantas cosas, que se le ha llegado a llamar el "puente del mundo, corazon del Universo, espejo de las Americas.

Blade’s words make clear that Panama’s exceptional geopolitical position is now to be honored in its geo-cultural dimension as well. In other words: The interface of the world economy and world politics is to be animated now. Panama is not (alone) the nerve center of the global power game, but above all the emotional navel of the world. At least, however, the Latin American world. And so the composer of albums such as "Bohemio y poeta" (1979) and "Mundo" (2002) is now trying to make the geo-body of Panama sound like his guitar: Blades elicits soft, colorful sounds from this body, and the posters published by his agency have translated his musical play into pithy images: picturesque bays, romantic colonial architecture, folkloric festivals.

The political panacea

On one of the motives, which the Panamanian Tourism Institute makes available on its homepage, a bullfight is to be seen. The image is reminiscent of both Spain and the USA: it evokes the national sport of Spain and the romanticism of the cattle drive in the USA. Although at first it seems to jump out of line, in reality it is just as culturally unspecific as other motifs. As I said, it reminds of Spain and the USA at the same time and if you look at the other pictures, those could just as well have been taken in any other Latin American country. Where in Latin America are there no picturesque bays, no romantic colonial architecture or no folkloric festivals?? In the end, the common viewer can no more match Blades’ tourist imagery than he can, for example, distinguish between the different indigenous languages of Mexico. The specific gets lost, but that need not be detrimental to Blades’ mission.

In their non-specificity, the visual messages of his ministry are on a wavelength with Hispanic culture in the U.S. This has been spreading rapidly for the past 20 years, precisely because it ignores cultural differences in favor of a label that can be either "Hispanic" or "Latino. (The Fantastic 25). Rubens’ campaigns were able to strike a chord with this rough market, reaping success in a country that occupied Panama for nearly a hundred years but generated a surprisingly reluctant flow of visitors: At the beginning of 1980, there were just over 300 visitors internationally.000 – just about the same as Sri Lanka in the same year, which was very successful by regional standards, but not as easily and quickly accessible to its mainly German and English visitors as Panama was to U.S. visitors. In 2005, Panama recorded 476,269 visitors, a timid increase that lags behind even a rather dubious vacation destination like Myanmar.

Schroder’s election campaign. Doped up with i-mode in a flamenco frenzy

That was allowed to spur Rubens. If only to live up to the expectations placed on him by the history of pop-political transfer. As is well known, it has already produced numerous bizarre bleeds. On the one hand, politicians mutate into pop stars: from the media chancellor Schroder to Hugo Chavez, who switches himself into the hearts of all Venezuelan households with a Sunday show. From Angela "Angie" Merkel suddenly dancing to Queen songs to a certain Swiss ambassador setting high-society standards with an erotic ex-Miss Texas. On the other hand, more and more cultural and entertainment protagonists are finding their way into politics: we have seen in countries like the United States (Reagan) or the Philippines (Estrada) how actors become presidents. In Brazil, an artist has currently advanced to the position of Minister of Culture.

But the pop star in the capacity of tourism minister is something new. Something that takes previous amptions to the extreme. First: Where political power reaches its limits, pop comes into play. In other words, the narrower the political space, the more massive the recourse to the symbols of the consumer and entertainment universe. Second: Where the political image of a state is at stake, tourism comes into play. The more powerless a country is in the geopolitical struggle for prestige, the more it tries to assert its influence in the global attention economy through a brand identity shaped by tourism.

The example of Panama shows that the Hispano- resp. Latino label is very suitable for this purpose. And if you take a closer look at the current SPD election campaign, you will notice that Schroder has also acquired a taste for it. His well-known victory pose looks black on red like a flamenco likeness.

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