In 1502, a year after Rodrigo de Bastidas discovered the area, Christopher Columbus arrived at a fishing village in Central America. The people called this village by a name that means ‘abundance of flowers’, ‘abundance of butterflies’, and ‘abundance of fish’. This name is Panama.
Excellency, your country established relations with South Africa more than 20 years ago and opened its first sub-Saharan mission here in 2000. How would you define this relationship currently and what do you foresee as its future?
Our relationship with South Africa is moving forward. We are trying to accelerate cooperation with the country and the exchanging of ideas. We are establishing trade partnerships that we have not had before. We have large South Africa corporations looking into Panama as a base to have their operations, to develop relations, and grow into the Latin American region, specifically in the Central American region, where Panama has an air hub and the Panama Canal. South African corporations based there would be able to trade with a different side of America, and also with the northern side of South America, which is a huge area and has huge potential. This area includes Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. We can also cover the Caribbean Islands where about 280 million people have not yet been reached by the intensive, commercial impetus that could be brought from South Africans into the region.
On the diplomatic side, we get all the support from the government. We regularly meet with members of DIRCO (the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation). Six months ago, the Deputy Minister of Transport travelled to Panama with 18 different members from different corporations, among them MTU Rolls Royce, Transnet, the National Port Authority, and Royal Marine, which is a large company out of Cape Town that oversees ships and petroleum carriers.
I think we are doing well. We have had great help from our previous ambassadors, and we are hoping that this grows faster and bigger. Panama calls itself “The centre of the world and the heart of the universe”. Is this related to the presence of the Panama Canal or is there something else behind the phrase?
This phrase was first said in 1824 by one of our major figures in politics, a liberator of the region, Simon Bolivar. Bolivar mentioned this in a meeting that he had in Panama.
Panama has been a crossroad for centuries, not only from the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 but before that.
As a country, we worked with the idea of the Panama Canal for many years. The French came into Panama in the 1880s to try to build the canal. For many reasons, they failed. The Americans then came and built it from 1903 to 1914, and we had the first ship go through in August 1914. The maritime route opened new possibilities for everybody, not only for Panama. We have been working on increasing that waterway ever since – increasing its flow, increasing its commerce.
We have the largest free zone in the region. We collect goods from all over the world and store them in Panama. We then ship them out to other countries, mainly South America, we do very well there. We are now trying to invite and educate not only South Africans but the whole African continent. We are trying to show them that if they come with their products via a maritime line to Panama, and become part of the flow, the current that goes through there in the shipping business, their products will be sold to other latitudes of the world in an easier way.
If you were to look at a Maritime map, you would see that the shipping routes from Panama go to Europe, to the northern side of the US, and to Brazil. As you move further from these routes, the traffic is less and less. That is why we are working with the South African government, and also with the Namibian government, to establish better port relations, and to improve this traffic to Panama.
You mention Namibia. What other geopolitical interests, apart from South Africa, does Panama have on this continent?
We are a very small country, we have 3.8 million people. We have 55 embassies around the world. Among those, we have three embassies in Africa – one is in Egypt, the other in Morocco, and then of course, here in South Africa. We have plans to open an embassy in Accra, Ghana, which is already in the works. We have also planned to expand our diplomatic affairs to Nigeria and Kenya, and are also looking at Zambia and Mauritius. We have not established any of these, apart from Ghana. These are in the works, they take time and we have to find the budget to finance these ventures.
From our embassy here in South Africa, we also have relations with Namibia and Botswana. The idea is to bring Panama to all of southern Africa, to the northern parts of Africa, to the centre of Africa, to the coasts, and to then start increasing the commercial trade. We spent close to $6 billion expanding the Panama Canal, inaugurated two years ago. Now, we have to look for more business, more commerce, more ships, and more containers. The objective of the expansion was to increase the cargo that goes through Panama, and that is what we are doing today by extending our hands, and meeting leaders of the whole African continent. All our missions in Africa are working together to do this – we are part of the African Union. We are also very involved in the Pan-African Conference, as well as the SADC conference.
In the year 2013, we signed a waiver agreement that allows South Africans to travel to Panama for 90 days without a visa. The Panamanian administration at the time also placed South Africa among their friend countries, which allows South Africans to adopt permanent residence in Panama with minimum requirements. Have those elements increased the numbers of visitors from South Africa – not only in tourism but also with business interest?
We have definitely benefitted from that agreement. The number of South African tourists coming through to Panama every year has increased from about 800 South Africans in 2012, to 1600 now.
The immigration benefits for friendly countries, in this case, South Africa, have given the opportunity for businesspeople, or even retirees, to come to our country and establish themselves there. This is growing, not only from South Africa but from all over the world.
Panama is a great place. We are part of the happiest people in the world, according to many surveys. We have an air hub, which allows you access to over 80 destinations, from 35 different countries, daily. These advantages allow foreigners to think about Panama, to think about becoming permanent residents in Panama, and to think about investing in Panama.
In 2010, South Africa had the honour of being the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup. Similarly, after years of intense training and successful participation in the CONCACAF qualifier, Panama finally made it to its first World Cup. As a soccer fan, what would you say is the reason behind this success?
I actually get goosebumps – for the first time we made it to a World Cup. This comes about with great work, training, and effort. Our fans have also been there giving hope and support to our team. As a Panamanian, I told my kids that I need to go to Russia.
We placed a lot of effort in the team, and we had a number of strategies – we changed coaches, we changed players. We went to train at different sea levels. It took long, but we made it, and for the first time in our lifetime our country goes to the World Cup. We are very proud, and we hope for the best! We have some difficult adversaries, our first game is against England.
This is proof of what consistency and persistence can do for a person, for a team, and for a whole country.
And finally, how would you encourage South African tourists wishing to travel to Central America to visit Panama?
Panama, although very small, has the biggest heart.
It is very safe. We are always ranked in the top two or three Latin America American countries when it comes to income per capita. We compete with Uruguay, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. We are competitors, but we are friendly and we do our best.
We welcome all South Africans to our country. We know they will feel safe, welcome, and that they are going to experience the best experience outside South Africa in Panama.