A gala sit-down dinner-dance (we are talking tuxedos and long ball gowns here), a colorful display of traditional Panamanian folk dance by a 14-member professional troupe and a live performance by a team of renowned Panamanian musicians set the stage on Saturday, Nov. 19, for a memorable evening national day reception hosted by Panamanian Ambassador to Mexico Manuel Ricardo Pérez González.
Indeed, Pérez González spared no expense to commemorate (albeit belatedly) the 113th anniversary of his nation’s Nov. 3 independence, with more than 700 guests and live dance music that played on into the wee hours of the night.
So why so much fanfare from a nation with a purchasing parity of less than $62 billion?
The simple answer is trade.
Despite a geographic distance of nearly 2,400 kilometers — with six Central American countries in between that are not renowned for their high-speed superhighways and exceptional transportation infrastructure — combined Mexican-Panamanian binational trade amounted to more than $1.1 billion in 2015.
And, thanks to a bilateral free-trade accord signed in 2014 and given new impetus earlier this month by a state visit to Mexico by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez, that figure is likely to soar even higher in the coming months.
During his three-day visit, Varela met with President Enrique Peña Nieto to ink several bilateral agreements regarding agricultural collaboration, migratory themes, consular relations and consumer protection regulations.
But his main objective in coming to Mexico was to attend a national business summit in Puebla, where he led a delegation of more than 30 Panamanian entrepreneurs looking to shore up two-way commercial and economic ties.
Varela, who came to power two and a half years ago on an anti-corruption and economic equality campaign, is anxious to boost his country’s trade and investment figures to ensure buoyant growth in a nation where a quarter of the population still lives in poverty.
He’s also angling to have Panama included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a still-not-finalized, 12-nation trade agreement that, if implemented, would account for about 40 percent of all world trade, potentially making it the world’s largest economic bloc.
(The free-trade agreement with Mexico was a preamble to Panama’s courtship of the TPP.)
And since Mexico was a founding member of the TPP, Ambassador Pérez González had all the more reason to lay it on heavy for his Mexican and international guests last weekend.
(Of course, the TPP may never come to pass, especially since U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump has already said that he will nullify all aspects of that accord his first day in office.)
“We are determined to broaden our strong friendship with Mexico — which dates back more than a century — and work more closely with our Mexican partners,” the Panamanian envoy said in his welcome speech.
“Mexico and Panama share a common vision, and we are both highly consolidated democracies. We both will prosper from closer ties of cooperation and economic interchange.”
Pérez González also said that the two countries have similar goals in confronting global challenges such as climate change and organized crime.
The ambassador pointed out that Mexico is Panama’s third-largest trade partner in Latin America and the Caribbean, and its sixth-largest worldwide.
Mexico is also the eighth-largest user of the Panama Canal, which accounts for 8 percent of Panama’s GDP.
With a $5 billion expansion of that canal inaugurated last June, which was intended to double its cargo capacity, Panama is openly pursuing new shipping business, and Mexico is a prime target.
Pérez González said that Mexico could benefit from using Panama as a regional hub for logistics and distribution.
Currently, 49 Mexican companies have capital holdings in Panama, with an accumulated investment of $2.7 billion, while Panama’s holdings here total $1 billion, making the Central American nation Mexico’s second-largest Latin American investment partner.
Pérez González said that with the launching of new direct flights between the two countries earlier this year, the relationship has nowhere to go but up.
Everyone who attended the lavish Panamanian national day dinner at the Club Naval last week was awed by Pérez González’ magnanimity and largesse.
But the very astute Ambassador Pérez González wasn’t just putting on the dog for his friends and colleagues; he was investing in a relationship that he hopes will soon pay off big time for his government.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]