One of the founding principles of President Varela’s Panameñista Party was anti-Chinese racism. Times change. In the USA, the Democratic Party’s founders, way back when, were slave owners. But if neither the Panamanian ruling party nor the US opposition party wave the banner of racism these days, at least vestiges of prejudice against the Chinese remain in both countries.
In the days of the US Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1941 constitution that stripped Panamanians of Chinese ancestry of their citizenship, China was a beaten down and oppressed nation. A number of countries carved out concessions where their writs and not China’s were the law. Various regional warlords made themselves laws unto themselves at the nation’s expense. China, a long time before a major empire, learned all about national humiliation.
Leave it to social psychologists, political scientists, historians and experts in various cultural fields to expound upon the lasting effects of China’s great series of traumas, but one thing that lasts from the days of Mao Zedong was his vow at the ceremony establishing the Peoples Republic of China. “The Chinese people have stood up!” Mao declared on that October day in 1949. “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”
After much grief and turmoil, China is fact as well as on paper a top world power. It is rapidly gaining a dominant economic position in Latin America and the Caribbean, and seeks to establish a lot of their regional business offices and financial institutions here in Panama. Loyalists of rival would-be hegemons and ordinary Panamanians who may not be the least bit prejudiced have understandable concerns. The US Secretary of State came here and put them crudely, with threats and bluster.
When it was leaked to the press — it seems by the former US ambassador here — that the Varela administration intended to cede a property on the Amador Causeway to China to build its embassy, there was a major outcry here. Some of it was disgustingly racist, but a lot of it made the point that as a matter of national pride we should never again allow a foreign flag to fly alongside the Panama Canal, whatever the nation might be.
It turns out that the property offered was next to the iconic BioMuseo, a symbolic worst case scenario. The deal has been exposed in the pages of La Estrella, which changed ownership and management under US pressure. Varela did make a unfortunate offer to China, but under the circumstances La Estrella’s independence in the matter also comes into question. No Panamanian medium is helped by a stamp of US government approval, real or apparent. This is a small country but it’s an independent one. Neither the press nor the government ought be suspected of undue influence of foreign states.
The Chinese government, at the urging of Panama’s long-established Chinese community, did not insist. It would be interesting to see the internal documents of the opaque Beijing government about this question, but it can be surmised that they don’t want to be viewed as a government that humiliates Latin American countries. That would be bad for business, which is China’s main interest in the region.
The whole affair, given the Varela administration’s record, leaves an unpleasant taste. This is an administration that upheld the dispossession of Ngabe land and water rights, that had been forced through with bogus paperwork by a Panamanian law firm on behalf of shadowy Honduran and Panamanian interests financed by European banks. The argument was that Panama can’t do justice for our own people because there are commitments to foreign banks which invested in theft. This is a government that recently stripped the Panamanian flag from a Mediterranean rescue ship because the Italian government insisted. On many lesser occasions the Varela administration has appeared to put knee-jerk submission to foreign interests before Panama’s interests and values.
It appears that China is not taking advantage, and for that Panamanians should be grateful. But not so much that we begin to look to the Chinese rather than the Panamanians as the ones to solve our urgent national problems. Panama went through that routine with the United States and it tended to work badly. It’s time for Panama to stand up, with dignity and without malice, for Panama’s interests and symbols. The world community will understand.
Bear in mind…
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