Upon our arrival to our residence in la Zona de Campo Alegre in Panama City, we took to foot in search of a meal. After asking locals for recommendations, we were directed to Soho Mall just around the corner. Walking six blocks and past numerous financial institutions and credit and security traders with their distinct reflective “banking” architecture (we serendipitously ended up staying in the banking district), we found Soho Mall, which stood out prominently with its modernist and minimalist design. Chanel and Louis Vuitton were billboarded across its exterior, for which we immediately knew was attracting a specific clientele. Entering the space, the mall felt extremely staged, with every high end store you could think of in the horizon. Prada, Valentino, Carolina Herrera, the list goes on, performing for the “world class” visitor.
Interestingly, the product was present but the clientele was absent. As we walked across the 4-story mall, we counted only about 20 visitors in the entire space. Even noted by a Panamian resident that Soho Mall's “Prada está más vacío que el de Marfa” (Johann Wolfschoon). Some storefronts were vacant with signs on their exterior. We asked a store security guard if the mall had just recently opened, but to our surprise it had been open for two years. With further questioning and research we eventually found out why.
In May 2016, Soho Mall’s owner and developer Abdul Waked had been included by the Bureau of Foreign Assets (OFAC) of The United States Department of the Treasury on the Clinton List with 66 other companies, under suspicion of money laundering*. With placement on this list, any U.S. company or person is prohibited from engaging in transactions with them. As a result, numerous store tenants either evacuated their spaces or their European offices, like Valentino and Prada, have withheld new collections of merchandize until further notice. The $400 million development project, presented in May 2015 as "the most exclusive shopping center in Latin America," would have included the region's first Ritz Carlton and a casino to open in December 2017, building a world class playground and leisure park in the middle of the banking district.
Panama-US relations is historically complex, with decades of US imperial presence. Panama, with its dollar economy, has effectively surrendered monetary policy to the US Federal Reserve. It is the only nation to have a monetary treaty with the US, the reason for its economic stability over the years**. Therefore, the US has full permission to meddle in any transactions they see could potentially threat their economy.
Our interests in commercial spaces, specifically malls, brings us to question their continued investment and construction, especially with a rise in e-commerce and automation. We witness mixed-used luxury mega-projects popping up all over America's financial centers as well, including the United States with examples like Hudson Yards in New York City and Miami Worldcenter. Soho Mall, an abandoned luxury mall, is a special case and quite the phenomena; it is the physical manifestation of sheltered global financial wealth and continued narcotrafficking in the region. What does the future lie for Soho Mall? According to mall employees: mixed feelings, with a level of optimism, since their jobs are on the line. But according to the Chanel employee right before we exited, “No se va cerrar.” What are the futures of these projects, and particularly these urban spaces, whose unregulated conditions invite tainted capital to park secretly and without punishment? Even after the exit of US' military presence, their role as Big Brother has not subsided. An interventionist economic system and the role of the US Reserve will eternally have sovereignty and control over the nation of Panama.
Embassy of the United States. (2016). Retrieved from https://panama.usembassy.gov/pr051216.html
*Pritsiolas, J. (2015, September 25). Soho Mall puede convertirse en la ruina de Panamá La Nueva. Critica Panama. Retrieved from http://www.critica.com.pa/nacional/soho-mall-puede-convertirse-en-la-ruina-de-panama-la-nueva-448868
**Warf, Barney. (2002). Tailored for Panama: Offshore Banking at the Crossroads of the Americas. In Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 84, No. 1. (pp. 33-47). Wiley: Hoboken.