María M. Mur
The main free trade zone in the Americas, located in the Panamanian Caribbean, recovers at two speeds from the serious crisis that it suffered five years ago: while the pharmaceutical and technological industries are in full swing, textiles and perfumeries barely get off the ground.
Leaning on an electric pole, Edgar Acevedo waits to see if any of the few customers who wander through the so-called "Street of textiles", years ago a hotbed of people and in which today are the posters of "Local for rent", needs a transport of merchandise.
"I used to fill seven containers a month, now it takes up to two months to complete one", acknowledged to Acan-Efe the Panamanian transporter, who has been shipping cargo, especially to Venezuela, for more than two decades.
The Colón Free Zone (CFZ), which is the second largest tax free zone in the world after Hong Kong (China) and represents 8.5% of Panamanian gross domestic product (GDP), went through a severe crisis between 2013 and 2016, when their income fell more than 12%.
Among the main causes of the decline are the revaluation of the dollar, the economic situation of Venezuela -one of its main customers- and the tariffs that Colombia has applied since 2012 to the re-exports of some textiles and footwear.
Venezuela remains mired in an unprecedented economic meltdown and the tariff dispute with Colombia has no sign of being solved in the short term, but the figures of the commercial emporium have gone back.
The free trade zone, where more than 3,000 companies are engaged in re-export and employ about 18,000 people, registered a commercial movement last year of 20,931 million dollars, representing an increase of 6.5% over 2017.
For Nessim Hafeitz, owner of a fabric store, the numbers "sound nice", but do not represent all merchants. "I just liquidated two million dollars in obsolete merchandise", he lamented in statements to Acan-Efe.
The accounts also do not fit Francis Sánchez, who has begun selling retail handbags from China that previously offered wholesale and now barely placed.
The Asian giant, with whom Panama established diplomatic relations in 2017, is the main supplier of the commercial enclave.
"Lately only save us the tourists who come on Fridays on the cruise ships", said Eliana Gómez, manager of a shoe store, who was severely punished for the restrictions that Colombia imposes on these products with the excuse of combating illicit trade.
Behind the rebound of the free zone, which is located a few meters from the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, are large pharmaceutical companies like the German Bayer or technological giants such as the Chinese Huawei, which has one of its six distribution centers in Panama.
The Chinese multinational Hikvision, considered the world's largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment, also announced this month that it will soon move its distribution center for Latin America from Miami (USA) to Colón.