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Latin America

Coco Solo: the paradox of living in poverty on the banks of the Panama Canal

The former U.S. military base is now a slum of dilapidated houses and overgrown weeds.
25 Jun 2016 – 02:02 PM EDT
The once neat rows of homes on the former U.S. military base is a slum of overgrown weeds today Crédito: Pablo Cozzaglio/Univision Noticias

Millions of dollars flow through the area around Coco Solo, the former U.S. military base on Panama's Atlantic coast where Arizona Senator John McCain was born.

A small slum squeezed between the immense port complex that processes cargo arriving through the Panama Canal, it has seen better days.

Today, a handful of families live in poverty inside flimsy huts on one street of 16 buildings. They are unaware of the fast economic growth of a country that is still the fifth most unequal economy in Latin America.

To the north is the huge port facility Colon Container Terminal. To the south, the largest container port in the region, Manzanillo. To the west, Randolph Avenue, where dozens of huge metal boxes are stacked on top of one another.

And along the only surviving street in the neighborhood, 16 buildings where no one seems to live.

Amidst broken windows and roofs, weeds and stagnant water, it’s only the booming sound of a blaring radio and a few light bulbs that anyone lives in Coco Sola.

”We don't live here, we survive here,” says Georgina Providence, a 52-year-old woman who has lived here for 19 years.

“We're surrounded by millions of dollars, because there are three ports here, but we live in misery. No matter how you I arrange the things, this is misery!” she repeats.

Sitting atop a bed in a room with a closed door, in order to keep out the neighbor's music, she says the canal is not important to her and her neighbors, who do not get any of the $1 billion in revenues that Panamanian tax authorities receive.

“Ask the children what the canal is. They don't know and they don't care,” she said.

However, the canal and the goods passing through it are sometimes the only bargaining chip in Coco Solo.

“Once we closed down the street for 27 hours. How many millions did Evergreen lose? Some workers had to use boats to keep transporting goods,” she said.

Taiwan's shipping and transport giant, Evergreen Group, owns Colon Container Terminal. Since 1997, its huge blue cranes and green containers have surrounded the nearly 100 families who still live in the ruins of the military base.

When McCain, the former U.S. presidential candidate, was born in 1936 Coco Solo was a well maintained naval air station that also later housed Panama canal employees. Coco Solo stands in sharp contrast to other former U.S. military bases on the Pacific side of the canal which have been redeveloped into highly sought-after residential communities.

The United States abandoned Coco Solo when, under the 1977 treaties signed by presidents Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos, the canal’s administration was handed over to the Panamanian government at the end of 1999.

The shipping company overhauled the complex eight years ago to accommodate the post-Panamax megaships that are set to pass through the canal after its expansion project is completed June 26.

And it needs more space. It also owns the land where the ramshackle base is located, a strategic place at the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal.

"I want to get my grandchildren out of here. I don't want them to grow up here," says Ludis Cevallos, the resident who's lived longest in this slum, where there's up to nine children per adult.
She arrived in 1986 and recalls watching the 1989 U.S. invasion to overthrow dictator Manuel Noriega from her window.

"The gringos kept watch over us. There were tanks in the front and tanks in the back. The only thing they told us was: 'No one can leave,'" she recalls while showing the bites from the mosquitoes that infest her balcony.

Her house has no bathroom or kitchen. She points out that the residents themselves damaged the pipes to extract the copper and iron to make a few bucks.

"People think no one lives in Coco Solo. But it's just that we are very lonely, as its name suggests. [Coco Solo means Lonely Coconut in Spanish.] I tell the people from the housing ministry: 'At least pay us a visit to see the dogs living in Coco Solo.' Because that is how they treat us, like dogs."

Mostly unemployed, they live virtually cloistered in the slum, about two miles from the nearest road.

They claim that nobody will hire them. But Cevallos and Providence concede that some of them have missed employment opportunities at neighboring ports.

"The 'Pelaos' [young people] behave badly. They steal. Some of them can't go back there because they were fired," says Cevallos, pointing towards the rear of his building and the Colon Container Terminal.

Others, like Luis Alberto Roger, 32, were simply laid off. "Dun Dun," as the neighbors call him, had been working in the port of Manzanillo until recently. Now he does odd jobs to feed his four children, ages two through eight.

While making breakfast for them - tea and bread - he shows how he has patched up the walls with sticks and wood planks, hoping they hold up. He tries to play down his living conditions. He claims he used to live in a worse neighborhood, in the nearby city of Colon.

"It was a dangerous street. Every day, someone was killed. It was far worse than here," he says.

He admits, however, that he would like to get his kids far away from Coco Solo. They have to defecate in bags they throw into the underbrush and share an outdoor shower with all the other neighbors in the building.

They may all be able to leave soon.

It's rumored that by late June a government plan funded by Evergreen will move all the neighbors into a new housing development a half-hour drive from Coco Solo. The new neighborhood will be called Buena Vista (Nice View).

Roger hopes that after moving out of Coco Solo his children will no longer belong to the 25 percent of Panamanians living in poverty, and they too will be able to take advantage of the country's economic growth.

Cevallos hopes the same for her four grandchildren.

"Coco Solo will cease to exist. Everyone will leave," says the 63-year-old woman nostalgically.

Now the slum's days are numbered.

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