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City dogs: a chapter from an upcoming book


Some day a long delayed book, The Streetwalkers of Panama, will be published as a whole. Meanwhile, check out the following chapter, and the Facebook page.

A tinaquero in the strict sense of it: “tina” means tub or can or basin, and a tinaquero is a dog who goes sniffing around garbage cans or dumpsters looking for a meal. The word has also come to describe any common Panamanian mongrel dog, or any homeless dog. In Zonian English the word has been anglicized to “tinaker.”

City dogs

The subject of Panama’s city dogs is inseparably linked to the country’s transformation over the last half of the 20th century from a mostly rural society to a mostly urban one. The process is continuing, not only with the population growth of the Panama City metro area that’s now home to most of the nation’s population but also with the more recent urbanization of what were sleepy little provincial towns and with the growth of bedroom communities mostly to the west of the capital and the canal, a short drive to and from the city center.

Panama City, founded as such by Pedrarias the Cruel on August 15, 1519, is said to be the first European city on the Pacific Ocean. It was laid out in neat blocks according to orders sent by the Spanish crown. Really, the city is a lot older than that. Just how much older, archaeologists are still finding out, but it’s at least 1,000 years old. When Pedrarias’s advance men got there they found an indigenous settlement whose inhabitants lived mainly by fishing but one of whose industries was goldsmithing. The city the Spanish conquistadores founded on that site was destroyed in 1671 when it was attacked by the extreme Protestant bigot and Welsh privateer Sir Henry Morgan — later Lord Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. It was one of the last battles of the Wars of the Reformation but the fighting for the city lasted only a few hours. Historians argue about who set the fire that destroyed a city that at the time was still rebuilding from an earthquake a few years before. Most likely it was the Spaniards conducting the scorched earth strategy that they had followed starting when news came of Morgan’s seizure of Fort San Lorenzo on the Atlantic Side 10 days earlier. Most city residents fled before Morgan and his men got there, taking most of their portable valuables with them.

(Imagine if you were Jewish in that time and place, something that was then illegal in the Spanish Empire. It could get you haled before the court of the Holy Inquisition in Cartagena, which, however, saved most of its efforts and ferocity for the suppression of African religions among the slaves. There certainly were Crypto-Jews — those who outwardly professed to be Catholics but secretly maintained their Jewish religion and heritage — in Panama. However, because Judaism was a crime written records and reliable histories were not kept. The legend is that the Jews of Panama La Vieja had no intention of coming into harm’s way in the course of what in addition to an act of plunder by pirates acting under British royal charter was a holy war between Protestants and Catholics. Thus, it is said, they fled largely by sea, and largely to Las Tablas. The name means “the boards” in Spanish, from the wood scavenged for building materials from the ships by which people fled the doomed Panama City to a new home on the Azuero Peninsula. Legend has it that the seat of Chiriqui Province at the western end of the country, David, was also founded by Crypto-Jews.)

In any case, the “original” Panama City, built largely by black slaves according to plans drawn largely by Italian architects, was abandoned in favor of a more easily defended peninsula several miles to the west. The second center of Panama City is now known as the Casco Viejo, in the capital’s corregimiento of San Felipe. The area has been the seat of church and state ever since. The role has changed over time, from when Panama was a province of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, then when it became a department of an independent and chaotically centrifugal Colombia, and all through its more than a century as an independent republic. Nowadays the Supreme Court and National Assembly meet elsewhere in the capital and the Catholic archdiocese has also moved its offices, but the presidential palace, many government offices and several important Catholic churches are still in the Casco Viejo.

Panama La Vieja? It’s now a national monument and park, but before it became that people gradually moved back in and in some cases made their houses out of bricks and stones from the old ruins. Eventually the urban sprawl reached from the second city center some 10 miles down the coast to the original Spanish city, then farther east and then inland to the northeast. The removal of residents from the monument area was the occasion for payoffs and coercion but the rest of the neighborhood, Panama Viejo, lives on as a low-rise working class district these days. When people have their little yards fenced, it’s actually one of the better places in the capital to be a dog.

The Casco Viejo? In its early years it was a white enclave behind a tall wall and a moat. (The moat is gone, but a small part of the old wall still exists near the neighborhood’s Parque Herrera.) At night after the drawbridge went up the only black people welcome were domestic servants. The area was ravaged by a series of 18th century fires, while beyond the walls in Santa Ana and La Cienaga the city slowly began to grow outward again after its refoundation. Much of the post-fire reconstruction of the Casco Viejo — some of which has been left in ruins to this day — was done with ironwork and architecture akin to and in some cases imported from the French Quarter of New Orleans. Buses are prohibited and the narrow brick streets are not amenable to speeding cars, and meanwhile there has been much gentrification in the 21st century Casco Viejo. All in all, it’s an upscale and pleasant place to be a dog, except that homeless dogs are not tolerated in the neighborhood to the extent that the many feral cats are.

Panama City as a whole? Take it as just within the limits of the municipality proper or as a larger metro area — however you want to define it. In any case the urban area encompasses a varied expanse of industrial areas — predominantly transportation or commercial in a country that manufactures relatively little — mixed in with residential and business districts. The former Canal Zone areas were planned, but otherwise Panama City has historically had little zoning. There are also farms and jungle areas within the capital district and in the metro area beyond. It creates many different ecological and social niches for dogs to occupy.

Go into upscale Panama City neighborhoods like Paitilla early in the morning and you will get a certain glimpse of the class divisions there. You will see maids walking their employers’ dogs, most of these smaller dogs, many of these purebred or allegedly so. The bigger dogs don’t tend to do so well in apartments, even the relatively more spacious ones of Paitilla. There is also a subculture among wealthier Panamanians to whom animals are status symbols — whether showy dogs or a horses — rather than symbiont members of the household or friends who demand and deserve a certain amount of personal care. Rich Panamanians include a notorious pool of suckers for unscrupulous dog breeders selling expensive puppies with falsified pedigree papers or undisclosed genetic defects.

Go out to San Miguelito, which started out as a shantytown at the intersection of the Trans-Isthmian Highway and the road to Tocumen Airport back in the 1950s and is now a city of more than 300,000 inhabitants, and you will see dogs in a different set of social relationships. In that predominantly working class area you will see far more dogs running at large than in Paitilla, some of these pathetic abandoned ones, skinny from worms and afflicted with mange or other skin maladies, some of them with collars and homes to come back to — if they manage to avoid the cars and other urban hazards. In San Miguelito many of the individual one or two-story homes will have little fenced yards patrolled by dogs, or dogs that spend part or all of their time tied or chained up outside. Miniature and pure breed dogs are less common in San Miguelito than in the capital’s upscale condos.

Panama’s capital is large if one considers that it is the governmental center of a country whose national population has only recently surpassed four million. Its formal city limits encompass more than 262 square miles of land. These days the shallowest of travel writers who come in for a few days to report for the corporate mainstream newspapers like to emphasize the skyscrapers of the city center, or perhaps the old architecture and noteworthy bars and restaurants of the Casco Viejo where in addition to the presidential palace, most famous churches, the ornate National Theater and the plaza where independence was proclaimed in 1903 are located. The more serious travel writers who spend some time getting to know Panama and its history will tell you a bit more about the city and its history. The more attuned eco-tourism writers may take you to the city’s forested parks, especially Ancon Hill during the annual Panama Audubon Society Christmas bird count that monitors the busiest of the world’s migratory flyways. But most of the capital isn’t particularly a tourist attraction.

The city is still growing, most noticeably in the reports of the international media upward in in the form of skyscrapers. However, if you are a politician who wants to be elected mayor (alcalde) of the capital or for that matter president of the republic, these days you need to pay more attention to its sprawl toward the east and northeast. That’s the direction in which the city’s demographic center is shifting and thus an increasingly important source of votes.

A series of political facts during Panama’s relatively brief history as an independent republic have shaped the direction of that growth.

The creation of the Canal Zone by the dubious Hay – Bunau-Varilla Treaty a few days after independence from Colombia created not only political facts but a crucial physical one. The construction of the Panama Canal within the generally 10-mile-wide strip that was the US-run Canal Zone placed a legal barrier, and with the canal’s completion a water barrier, that restricted the capital city’s growth to the west. The Zone’s political boundaries meant that the city center as it was at the time could not really expand toward either the west or very far due north. It had to go east along the coast and later northeast in the direction of the town of Chepo, with the Bayano region and the Darien beyond that.

In 1925 there was a great rent strike in Panama City, where the minor rentiers of a Creole aristocracy — men with illustrious and largely made-up family histories on the isthmus — had made a lot of money off of the boom in demand for housing during the canal construction era. But that time drew to a close as the canal was finished in 1914. The landlords were not content to live with the ebbs and flows of supply and demand. The tenants — many of the most militant of them foreigners — couldn’t afford to pay the high rents in a contracted post-construction economy. The struggle became quite acute and was at an impasse until the Liberal President Rodolfo Chiari asked for and received US military intervention. The strike was crushed and a lot of foreigners, particular West Indian militants — some influenced by the ideas that Marcus Garvey had developed while working as a journalist in Colon — were deported. Many Spaniards and Italians who held anarchist opinions were also expelled from the isthmus. Not everyone who was involved in the strike was kicked out. Today’s Panamanian left traces some of its most important roots to that struggle, even though for various reasons it has seen fit to forget that history. Panama’s landlords and real estate speculators won a free hand that pretty much extended unchecked until some reforms during the 1968-1989 military dictatorship imposed a few limits.

In the meantime, what were people who couldn’t pay the high rents demanded in the central city to do? The policy under successive governments was to allow, even encourage, people to occupy an unclaimed vacant lot at the city’s outskirts, put up a shanties and start to build more substantial houses to the extent that they could afford them. For roads, schools, storm drains, sewers, parks, police and fire protection and utility services it’s a horrid public policy but it became a national habit. As unclaimed land became a bit more scarce the phenomenon of mass land invasions arose, often with some local politician and even more often with someone selling building materials as the instigator.

Under military rule legislation was passed to prohibit landlords from collecting rent on condemned buildings, but also prohibiting the tenants from getting any squatters’ rights from living in such tenements. Ultimately that housing law was a boon to the arsonists that descendents of or purchasers from the shut-out landlords hired. Burn the place down and the title holder gets the lot back to sell or develop. In the meantime much of the capital’s city center was hollowed out with abandoned buildings or vacant lots while the district grew on its outskirts. Across the isthmus the square mile of the original Colon city has been similarly depopulated, with the displaced largely being moved out to housing projects along the road toward San Miguelito and Panama City.

Two US-inspired highway projects contributed mightily to the shaping of the metro area’s growth. During World War II, at first exclusively for US military use, the Trans-Isthmian Highway (Transístmica in local parlance) was built to connect Colon and Panama City. It gradually became an urban growth corridor for Panama, although the existence of the Canal Zone delayed this process in many areas along the way for several decades.

Then at US urging and in part under the auspices of the Organization of American States the Pan-American Highway was built, with the aim of a road that unites all of the Americas. from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Part of the job was in the former Canal Zone, the early 60s construction of the Bridge of the Americas across the Panama Canal. The last piece of this international public works project has never been completed — sensitive ecological areas, the desire of local indigenous groups to be protected from outsiders colonizing their lands and the natural jungle barrier between Panamanian cattle which don’t have hoof and mouth disease and South American cattle which do have prevented the final piercing of The Darien Gap on the Panamanian and Colombian border. But the part that has been finished stretches east beyond Panama La Vieja and Panama City’s Tocumen Airport.

In 1979, pursuant to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the Canal Zone as a formal governmental entity — or US colony if you will — ended its existence. The American military bases lingered on for another 20 years and the canal jobs and properties of the former Canal Zone only gradually passed into Panamanian hands. The usual Panamanian term for the process is reversion (reversión), a word that many of the American civilians who had made the Canal Zone their home — the Zonians — have found annoying because as they see it the assets that passed into Panamanian hands by and large were built under US auspices, the land itself was part of Colombia until the US-assisted coup that separated Panama as an independent country in November of 1903 and thus none of that “reverted” to anyone who had ever possessed it. The old Canal Zone was incorporated into the Republic of Panama, mostly to the municipal districts Panama (the capital city), Arraijan (the Pacific Side west of the canal) and Colon on the Atlantic Side.

The municipality of Panama is a strictly defined legal entity with set limits that expand with annexations and landfills. Then there is the metro area — but what IS the metro area?

Decades ago Panama City and San Miguelito expanded and ran into one another, so that although they are two distinct legal entities, the two municipalities appear to be one. From the air, the haphazard layout of the “original” San Miguelito, which has few entrances for the driver, would serve as a clue that it was a squatter development. But parts of Panama City have that origin as well. That side of the former Canal Zone south of the Chagres River and east of the canal has been divided between the two cities, what was the segregated West Indian neighborhood of Paraiso going to San Miguelito and most of the rest going to Panama City. Some of the former US military bases didn’t come under effective municipal jurisdiction until 1999. The Canal Zone, both civilian and military areas, was less densely populated and was more thoughtfully planned, and while some of those urban plans have been overtaken by subsequent developments those areas formerly colonized by the United States still have a markedly different character. Having bumped into Panama City when spreading south and east, San Miguelito has spread and continues to spread to the north, while Panama City continues to spread to the east and northeast.

One of the consequences of urban sprawl coupled with a promiscuous strain of Panamanian culture that persists in the nominally Catholic-majority country is immortalized in a 1960s calypso tune. There are certain businesses for which local politicians get hassled if there are any neighbors close enough to feel affected, and these tend to be set up beyond city limits to avoid that. Smelly establishments like slaughterhouses and loud ones like sawmills are in that category. So are the pushbuttons, walled motels elaborately designed to protect the privacy of trysting couples, sometimes youngsters who live in crowded family situations, often married people carrying on extramarital affairs. At one point a neighborhood along the Transistmica, Veranillo, lay south of San Miguelito’s residential neighborhoods and north of Panama City’s, and because of this location it was a logical place to put a noisy truck depot or a pushbutton. A number of pushbuttons were established in Veranillo and some of them still thrive, despite the neighborhood having long since been overtaken by the sprawls of both municipal districts. Thus the Panamanian English (of the West Indian flavor) song and dance craze, “Veranillo Push Push.” You can find it on YouTube.

The way that Panama City and San Miguelito have grown, they are clearly one continuous metro area. Some pollsters have historically defined the “metro area” as the combined provinces of Colon and Panama — but since that concept was adopted Panama province west of the canal has been made the separate province of Panama Oeste. Meanwhile some indigenous areas in the eastern part of Panama province have been made into the comarcas (somewhat autonomous commonwealths for Panama’s first nations, in some ways comparable to the US Indian reservations) of Madungandi and Wargandi. It might make sense to include the Panama Oeste municipalities of Arraijan — an abbreviated hispanicization of the direction “on the right-hand side” — and La Chorrera in the Panama City metro area, as these places largely serve that bedroom community function. Following the main highways or the canal from Panama City into the traditional Colon city center on the Caribbean Sea, it also makes a certain amount of sense to call that another part of the metro area. It makes less sense to use the term for those parts of Colon province that stretch along the sea in either direction from the city that was founded under the name of Aspinwall as the Panama Railroad terminus in the middle of the 19th century. We can argue about who qualifies and where the lines and distinctions of social geography ought to be drawn, but in the built-up parts of most of these areas the dogs will be fairly considered city dogs.

There are more yet if you consider dogs in the urbanizing — or suburbanizing — areas of the country’s Interior to be “city dogs.” The beach communities of Panama Oeste and Cocle provinces, along with the nearby mountain resort area of El Valle, have undergone tremendous growth spurts. Coronado in particular has mushroomed from a beach and golf course community that played to rich Panamanian retirees and Canadian expats into the commercial center for a wider area. Provincial seats that were once combinations of minor administrative centers and shopping districts for farming regions — Penonome, Las Tablas, Santiago and David — and the provincial seat of Herrera province, Chitre, which is a ceramics manufacturing center as well as the administrative center for a place that grows a lot of sugar cane and distills a lot of that product into liquor, have all grown into cities in their own rights as much of the population has moved out of farming and fishing into other economic pursuits. There are dogs in all of these places and the increased population densities and changed human economies have transformed canine lives as well. In the urbanizing and suburbanizing areas of the Interior, however, a city dog’s life is in somewhat closer to a country’s dog’s and by many measures is less extreme than life in the noisy, congested and disorderly metro area.

In Panama chaos marks the usual interfaces between machines and living things, including dogs. Unfortunately a lot of people have brought inappropriate country habits into the cities and one of these is letting their dogs run at large. The carnage on the roads is perhaps the most visible sign. Dogs are at risk running on city streets anywhere but the many aggressive Panamanian drivers are something else. Many of the drivers seem to show little regard for human lives — their own or anyone else’s — let alone for the lives of animals.

For people or anything else, safe road design is an underdeveloped set of arts and sciences in Panama. Most Panamanians ride the bus, walk, take taxis or more recently in parts of the metro area, ride the Metro trains. On the other hand, just as in the old days when riding a horse lent a certain social status — the rough equivalent of “gentleman” in Spanish is “caballero,” literally horseman — those who own cars often consider that this gives them a superior social status and property rights not only over their vehicles but over public spaces.

This writer once had the experience of appearing before a corregidora (roughly a justice of the peace, in this usage of the female persuasion) over an argument with some neighbors. These pestilential young xenophobes, beyond playing an anti-gringo card that the corregidora failed to slap down as her counterparts in most of the rest of the world would have done, actually asserted that it was their right to play with their car alarm by remotely setting it off under said author’s bedroom window at four in the morning because the car and its Viper alarm were their private property.

In a move to boost their popularity with a certain segment of the population, the nation’s discredited and disliked legislators once approved a law declaring that drivers have a right to a free parking space. The immediate context was developers of one part of the former Paitilla Airport failing to provide enough parking for the people who do business at their premises, and the developers of a shopping mall across the street deciding to charge for parking on their lots by visitors to the neighbors’ buildings. In the end the executive and judicial branches of government didn’t go along with that sweeping declaration and policy, but limits were imposed on what parking fees could be charged.

To walk down a Panama City sidewalk and have some driver come up behind, leaning on his — invariably his rather than her — horn in a demand to get off of the sidewalk so that he can drive on it is part of the urban experience in the capital. More frequently it’s a matter of having to walk on the edge of the street, braving the possibilities of maniacal drivers, because somebody has decided that it’s his or her right to park on the sidewalk.

Bottom line? Most of the nation’s traffic fatalities are pedestrians, and the dogs who are killed greatly outnumber the human victims but are nowhere officially counted.

Then there is the noise, annoying to people, worse than that for animals.

Is “urban” music a category of city noise? It can be and the genre that most often gets tagged as such is in the hip hop vein, translated into Panamanian (and Puerto Rican, “Nuyorican” and so on) as regueton. One might perhaps describe it as a Spanish-language cousin of Jamaican dance hall music, or less charitably call it hispanicized gangsta rap. It has in a few years evolved from angry and vulgar shouting over an electronic drum beat to an important national art form, with some very good artists who are anything but gangsters. Go out to such rural settings as the indigenous commonwealth of Guna Yala, and you find hip hop, sometimes in the indigenous language. You can also get blasted out by more traditionally recognized folksy music like cumbia or tamborito for that matter, or rock and roll or salsa or the very popular on the isthmus bachata, which has Dominican roots. But whatever the genre, in the city or elsewhere, such few noise laws as Panama has are seldom enforced, the concept of appropriate technology — like proper use of a volume dial — is little known, and unlike in a village where everyone knows everyone and it violates customs, manners and common sense to overly annoy those upon whom one may need to depend by blasting them out with loud music, as the population gets denser in any given part of Panama so do many people about the concept of noise. Dogs hear better than we do and if hip hop at top volume annoys some of them almost as much as a thunderstorm, setting off firecrackers, bottle rockets or other fuegos artificiales physically hurts their ears. The phenomenon of angry city neighbors bugging their corregidores, representantes and alcaldes about loud music at all hours of the day and night is a relatively new and growing phenomenon in Panama, and agitation by dog lovers to curb the fireworks for dogs’ sake lags well behind that.

It’s a different cultural mix, much more international in Panama City’s upscale neighborhoods and resort communities. Panama has ethnic communities to which a dog is an honored member of the family, others to which it might be the current incarnation of a deceased relative, and yet others to which dog meat is a delicacy to put on the dinner table. The combination of a mostly Catholic population and a pope who takes his name from the patron saint of dogs must surely be a break for a lot of Panamanian dogs. Those kindly folks who feed and give care vary widely in the resources and knowledge to go about these tasks. The place has its particularities but with respect to the treatment of dogs it’s like many others.

The extra special horror of being a homeless dog in Panama is known by concerned civic groups, which via publicity, example, the social and mass communications media and the schools are trying to counter it. The message is that real men are kind to animals, its corollary that boys who throw rocks at homeless dogs are wimps.

As with people, many individuals are kind to the homeless, most walk on by and then there are the bullies who go out of their way to be cruel. So it is with public officials as well as ordinary citizens. Compare Panama with the United States and law enforcement people can be quite rough, sometimes unreasonably so, but the Americans win hands down at extremism in that department. Get busted by the dog catcher in the USA and it’s generally a death sentence. The old “humane society” catch and “put to sleep” if not quickly adopted operation is now questioned in the USA and is a concept that horrifies most Panamanians. While over the years Panama’s police have been known to move into areas with large populations of stray dogs on missions to round up and kill those without people to take them in, recently they have worked with spay groups to neuter the homeless dogs and to try to find homes for them.

To be a street dog in urban Panama usually doesn’t mean immediate starvation. There will be a garbage bag or some discarded chicken bones to be scavenged, and somebody is likely to take pity and donate a morsel of food. But Panama is tropical and just like with people, it has an extra-large menu of maladies under the heading of pestilence. The homeless dog in Panama will have guts full of worms and other parasites and skin infested with ticks, fleas and mites, all of which are likely to have a bountiful array of pernicious microbes to pass on. Homeless dogs don’t take care of themselves as well as feral cats do. They need more care than their feline neighbors on the streets, and a bone or the remains of lunch is hardly enough.

biker dog
Panama has a short supply of outlaw bikers, especially since an alleged hit man for the Montreal chapter of the Hell’s Angels was arrested in Coronado and extradited to Canada. Our closest equivalents are the truly badass Linces — police patrols specially designed to respond to violent crimes and chase down dangerous offenders, two to a small motorcycle that can ply city streets or go off road in pursuit, wearing lots of armor and armed with automatic weapons — and the Transito cops. It’s not the same, so this dog is ready to make up some of the difference.
nap in Penonome
Taking a mid-day nap between a hedge and a house in downtown Penonome. Legend has it that this city, the seat of Cocle province, was named after the Spaniards’ execution of an indigenous leader named Nomé. As in “Aquí penó Nomé” — “Here he punished Nomé.”  It was the object of ferocious fighting in 1899-1902 Thousand Day War, when toward the end of a civil war that depopulated much of the countryside and leaves many a rural land title clouded to this day it was taken by forces led by the Liberal guerrilla general, the martyred Victoriano Lorenzo.
sleeping on a car
This Casco Viejo dog has found his warm bed for the night. Photo by José F. Ponce.
dog water
When you’re skinny and living on city streets, one of the positive aspects of rainy season is puddles from which to drink.
three dog nap
Provide food and water and they will repay with love and protection. Photo by José F. Ponce.
¿perro bravo?
How much protection from criminals does a dog afford, and what advantage is there to warning of such a defense in English at a home in Panama City’s banking district? Maleantes — the Panamanian Spanish word for hoodlums — will kill a dog before or during a home invasion robbery. The protection that a dog gives is mostly as a warning system. So does that give the resident an extra few seconds to go for a gun? First of all, the American gun sellers’ tale of the armed citizen killing or driving off the intruding stranger who intends violence is quite rare even in the heavily armed USA, and Panama has different gun laws that restrict the importation and private ownership of firearms. Second, to certain of Panama’s violent gangs, guns are what they are looking to steal, to the extent that they will attack police officers or security guards to take their weapons, and these types will sometimes invade a gringo’s home based on the stereotype that all Americans are armed. Third, when it comes to robberies of any sort in Panama it’s rarely realistic to talk in the singular — maleantes almost always come in multiples when armed robbery is their game. Dogs, guns, electronic surveillance systems, cans of long range wasp and hornet spray and so on might have their uses in a home defense plan but of greater value are a few common sense preventive measures. Do not flaunt wealth and thus attract unwanted notice — if conspicuous consumption is the whole reason for your existence then Panama really isn’t for you. Stay away from the rackets and from racketeers if you want to avoid the sicarios — hit men — who are part of that scene. Learn at least enough Spanish to report a crime to police and better yet to join your neighborhood watch group.
sun relief
Respite from the dry season sun.
mama and puppy
A shady spot to nurse a puppy in Anton.
supermarket spot
This dog’s regular spot is not only sheltered, it’s in front of a supermarket from whence people will every now and then emerge with a gift of something to eat.
guardian of the beauty shop
Standing guard behind a beauty shop door in the Panama City neighborhood of Bethania.
cell phone dog?
Will that call ever come? Or is this choice of a spot in front of a cell phone company’s office based on other criteria?
battered and cut
This dog, sitting under the pay phones in front of a supermarket in Panama City’s corregimiento of Juan Diaz, is recovering from some recent injuries. Was it a fight with another dog? He didn’t say. When one lets a male dog that has not been neutered run on city streets, cars are far from the only hazard. Fights with other dogs is high on that list of dangers.
shelter from rain but not mange
Bus stop dogs. These places provide shelter from the elements, but as you may notice with the dog on the right, not much protection against the mites that cause mange.
party sign dog
For those who want to know where the party will be in Anton, signs like these perform a certain function. They are also useful for dogs, for unrelated reasons.
nap in the weeds and trash
Many dogs will instinctively walk a small circle before lying down, a behavior thought to be a vestige of the ancestral practice of making a nest in the tall grass. This puppy nests in the vegetation and trash by the side of a city street.
Prometheus as a beagle?
This city dog is not homeless, and waits on a leash while a human companion goes about some business in an establishment in the Panama City neighborhood of El Cangrejo. Photo by José F. Ponce.
Part of Rio Abajo's white minority
She, too, appears to be fed and cared for, and waits outside a dining establishment in the capital’s most identifiably West Indian neighborhood, Rio Abajo.
Anton moocher
Whether or not this guy has a home and human companion, he’s mooching outside the door of a restaurant in Anton.
Chicken bones, roundworms on the side...
The joys and subtleties of fast food refuse. For a dog it’s tasty and a good way to get worms.
Metro dog
Hanging out near an entrance to the La Loteria Metro station. The Metro commuter trains are a new and expanding phenomenon, are very popular because they are fast and cheap and although there are more cars on the road every day they do seem to reduce some of Panama City’s and San Miguelito’s traffic congestion. However, they don’t let dogs ride on them. One aspect of underdevelopment that flies over the heads of Panamanians who think of development in terms of how many advanced high-tech gadgets are in circulation is that the question of whether guide dogs for the blind should be allowed onto the trains has yet to be broached. The use of guide dogs is hardly known in Panama because the ruling elites have set up a social paradigm that considers people with disabilities to be default losers in a ruthless competition rigged for those already rich and powerful and their kids to win, with a corollary presumption that blind people’s station in life is as beggars who would not have the resources to care for a dog.
Walking the streets by night. Photo by José F. Ponce.
Parque Herrera friends
Taking a break in the Casco Viejo’s Parque Herrera.
Loud music bothers many dogs and fireworks bother almost all dogs. There is, however, this hardy little subculture of hip hop dogs.
cops for dogs
What are these officers of Panama’s Ecological Police unit doing at a rally for stronger animal cruelty laws? It’s because a part of their job that they would rather not have is dealing with animals who are abandoned in the national parks that they patrol, some of which are rainforest fragments within Panama City limits. There are dogs that need to be rescued from those places if they are not to die in short order, and then there are the predations on park wildlife by the more adaptable dogs who learn to survive in the wild areas into which they have been cast. A police band also played at this event — the park police are not the only National Police unit that has to deal with the problems associated with abused or abandoned dogs.


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Overseas Vote

A photo and six paintings by George Scribner

foto por Scribner
At that canal expansion’s inauguration ceremony.

Expanding the canal: a photo and
six paintings by George Scribner

On June 26.


The Castle in May 2014.


Even trucks get thirsty.


The Smile.






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Overseas Vote

Editorials: A new constitution; and US voting rights

An unaccountable and opaque state-within-a-state? That, too, is one of the many arguments that are commonly made for a new constitution. Archive photo by Eric Jackson.

A new constitution for Panama

There was a lot going on in Panama City on July 27, and one of those things was a gathering of people from 35 community groups to picket the mayor’s office in the Edificio Hatillo. Many were the complaints, all under the general umbrella of “urban chaos.” Rezonings sprung on neighborhoods by surprise, developers flouting existing rules, inspectors and other public officials looking the other way, Supreme Court decisions being ignored — all adding to noise, congestion, pollution, destruction of green areas, deadly hazards (in addition to the maleantes) just to walk the city’s streets and so on. So often in the public officials say that, in the face of flagrant lawbreaking, their hands are tied by the rule of law.

Yes, there is a problem of people with the wrong motives in the wrong places. Yes, there are aspects of Panamanian culture that lead to government dysfunction. Yes, there is inertia in a country that has known little more than oligarchy, dictatorship and demagoguery in its relatively brief history as an independent republic.

People know that we can do better than this. It’s some of the better educated who will say that things have always been this way and must remain so, but generally they know better and just say that to protect their own vested interest or out of sheer laziness about learning or doing anything new. The poorly educated know that something must change, although they might or might not be persuaded by some huckster to vote for the wrong solutions. It’s going to be up to the better educated and less committed to the status quo to lead Panama in the right direction. Part of that direction is a new constitution.

We need elections for a constituent assembly. The argument about an originating versus a parallel assembly is mostly a procedural distraction. The present constitution calls for a parallel assembly but once elected such a body would have broad powers. For the discredited elected officials or courts to interfere with its work would cause an immense crisis, and if the members of that body drafts a new constitution that calls for early new elections and the replacement of the entire Supreme Court there would only be the voters to effectively stop them.

Panama City’s Mayor Blandón has just jumped on the bandwagon for a constituent assembly, on which the Cambio Democratico party and its mafia don Ricardo Martinelli are riding, along with far more reputable folks like the Colegio de Abogados.

It’s important to grab our chance for a new constitution, and while the arguments ought to be mainly about the substance of what needs to be in a new constitution, there are important procedural matters. The procedural question to which we should be paying the most attention at the moment is how a constituent assembly is elected. The citizens should not accept an arrangement that leaves our fragmented and widely despised political parties in charge of the process, rules that allow candidates to buy votes by passing out cash or other valuables, or a television campaign privately financed by the rich. We need a worthy new way of making political decisions en route to a worthy new constitution, and we need a public demand for this.


Congressional hearings and voting rights in the USA

Now comes the hue and cry about the Russians hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and leaking their contents so as to affect the US election. It might be a viable GOP campaign issue but for Donald Trump being such an outspoken admirer of Vladimir Putin and old business associate of the Russian mob. And will the Democratic hierarchy, which ought to be absolutely mortified both by the contents of those emails and by the ineffective computer software and expertise that Debbie Wasserman Schultz bought from family and friends, try to twist this into a neocon “the Russians are coming” meme? That would be a foolish move on Hillary Clinton’s part.

But all that said, foreign interference in US elections is something that ought to concern all Americans, whether it’s someone manipulating public discourse by hacks and leaks or foreign corporations and oligarchs using backdoor routes to fund US attack ads. In the scheme of things, this election year and all other presidential elections this century have been affected by far worse abuses than foreign interference. The theft of the 2000 presidential election by a sordid court decision with at least two justices who should have been recused because of family conflicts of interest set the tone. There is the legalized bribery and purchase of elections since the Citizens United court decision. A plethora of vote suppression schemes, “strip and flip” tactics by which voter registration lists are tampered with to eliminate certain groups of people in the former case and electronic voting systems that leave no paper trail are hacked to alter the results in the latter, the revival of racial discrimination in voting and a new wave of discrimination by age or relationship to a university add up to the stuff of which a new Voting Rights Act ought to be fashioned. But to do something about such abuses, there must be congressional hearings to expose and debate the problems.

However, there is a problem with congressional hearings, just as there is a problem with Congress. It turns out that Republican Representative Trey Gowdy tried to influence this year’s elections by running endless Benghazi hearings at which he deliberately presented falsified “evidence.” There are not enough votes among his colleagues for even the mildest reprimand. So far this century, neither the Senate nor the House have conducted any meaningful hearing on the general problem of compromised elections. The political caste just accepts that stuff as ordinary.

The riveting drama of televised hearings has at times served the nation, although if the truth is to be fully told the two most famous of these revolved around a despicable figure who kept carefully out of the limelight. The Army McCarthy hearings had their genesis in J. Edgar Hoover’s entourage going after the US Army for drafting Roy Cohn’s boyfriend. The end result was about World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower slapping down that assault on the Army that he had served, alcoholic fanaticism in his own Republican Party and Hoover’s assertion of power over elected governments. The Watergate scandal was very real, about real abuses that manipulated American democracy, but it was also an FBI coup, wherein high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt leaked damning information that was the product of Hoover’s spying on the Nixon White House. With more complete information than we had back then, the “good old days” don’t look so good.

However, American democracy is under multiple systematic attacks and there does need to be a legislative response. The conditions for such a response can only be met by the expulsion of compromised senators and representatives, most of them Republicans, in what remains of the primary season and in the November elections. The defeat of all politicians who have played the game, or even most of them, will probably not be necessary — just enough to intimidate the others. Then there ought to be hearings to demonstrate why Americans need new voting rights legislation.


Bear in mind…

The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.
Harriet Beecher Stowe


Any doctrine that will not bear investigation is not a fit tenant for the mind of an honest man.
Robert Ingersoll


As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
Josh Billings



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What Democrats are saying


What Democrats are saying

Hillary is tough. Hillary is courageous. She will fight to make our families safer. In the White House, she will stand up to the gun lobby.
Former Representative Gabby Gifords


I’m from a small town in South Texas and if you know your history, Texas used to be part of Mexico. Now, I’m ninth generation American. My family never crossed a border, the border crossed us.
actress Eva Longoria


Truth be told, the richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy.
former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg


The youth has been on the right side of history on every issue.
actress Rosario Dawson


Bernie really had a movement out there, and it wasn’t right to treat him that way.
Senator Harry Reid



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The Panama News blog links, July 28, 2016


The Panama News blog links

BBC, Ship hits wall of Panama Canal renewing design concerns

Reuters, Ship hits wall of expanded Panama Canal in 3rd incident in a month

Bloomberg, US shale gas heads to East Asia for the first time

The National Interest, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative

US Soccer, Panama to host CONCACAF under-17 championship

NORCECA, Nicas lead U-23 Central American volleyball meet in Panama

ANP, Presupuesto de Panamá para 2017 será de $21.670 millones

La Estrella, Caen principales indicadores del sector de la construcción

GTR, Trade dispute with Colombia threaten’s Panama’s Pacific Alliance hopes

ANP, Panamá insiste en el fallo de la OMC

Splash24/7, Court reinstates ban on Odebrecht bids for Petrobras contracts

Ugarteche & Luna, TPP: from multilateralism to neoregionalism

Sundaram, US government report exposes exaggerated TPP growth claims

Video, Argentina’s economic shakeup

Reporters Without Borders, When oligarchs go media shopping

Phys.org, Butterflies use differences in leaf shape to distinguish plants

The New York Times: Meet Luca, the ancestor of all living things

Smithsonian Insider, New scorpionfish discovered in the Caribbean

Mongabay, Rio Olympic organizers fail to meet all environmental goals

WHO, Mobile labs deliver quicker yellow fever test results

CNS, Cayman Islands judge upholds release of GE mosquitoes

Lesser & Kitron, The social geography of Zika

TVN: Natalia Kanem, panameña con más alto rango en la ONU

The Daily Dot, Panama is fighting to save teen lives through sex ed

The Daily Beast, Death on the Serpent River (part 1)

CBS, Wisconsin teen found dead on beach in Panama

Newsroom Panama, Panama gets air ambulance to settle Finmeccanica dispute

BBC, Panama launches investigation into 1989 US invasion

E&N, Colombia alista deportación de cubanos varados en frontera con Panamá

CNS, Cayman Islands shut down company of fugitive who was in Panama

Video, El manejo irresponsable en Panamá

The Intercept, Surveillance Court reined in FBI on use of data from phone calls

Greenwald & Dau, Folha’s journalistic fraud: a smoking gun emerges

CNN, Tiny wall built around Trump’s Hollywood Star

MSNBC, Sanders team responds to leaked DNC emails

Wagner & Austin, The death of World Heritage Sites

Mota & Mariani, Institutionalized sexism in Brazil

Lévy, Trump the traitor

Faljo, ¿Y si gana Trump?

Sierra, El otro (gran) peligro de Trump

Cuba en Miami, Carta de un exiliado cubano sobre Trump

Blades, La Convención Republicana y el discurso del candidato Trump


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What Republicans are saying


What Republicans are saying


paranoia is conservative


Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.

Fox television show host Bill O’Reilly
about the slaves who built the White House


Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.
NRA board member Charles Cotton
blaming The Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney
and the AME Church’s beliefs about guns in their sanctuaries
for the murders of Pinckney and eight others by a racist


You know, you’re not allowed to use hairspray anymore because if affects the ozone. You know that, right?… You know hairspray’s not like it used to be, it used to be real good.
Donald Trump



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A monument that would have us forget

Fufo 1|
Dr. Arnulfo Arias, three-time president of Panama who was thrice overthrown by military coups, and once or twice denied the presidency by electoral fraud. The symbolism of him being larger, calmer and above everyone else is, sadly, more than just a sculptor’s impression.

Lest we forget — as the monument would have us do

photos and captions by Eric Jackson
Fufo 2
Located in Balboa on the site where the feared DENI secret police had headquarters that were destroyed in the 1989 invasion, the Arnulfo Arias monument was erected during the administration of his widow, Mireya Moscoso. That courtship began when Arias was 53 and Moscoso was 15, and when she was elected president in 1999 there were people who thought that they would be getting the talented if controversial Dr. Arias, or someone like him. The nation was disappointed.
Fufo 3
Racism glossed over. Arias traced his political roots to the 1920s Accion Comunal movement, whose members used to dress up in KKK robes and advocated the expulsion of all Panamanians of Afro-Antillean, Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry. On his way to the presidency he served as public health director and in that role advocated the mass sterilization of these populations. Later he was an ambassador to Mussolini’s Italy, struck up a friendship with Adolf Hitler, and soon after becoming president promulgated the 1941 constitution that stripped all Panamanians of non-Hispanic West Indian, Asian, Arabic and Sephardic Jewish ancestry of their citizenship, no matter if they, their parents and their grandparents were born here. The plaque calls it a defense of the Spanish language and the promotion of “our culture and traditions.” In October of 1941, with US aid to the British coming from West Coast ports through the canal and German U-boats waiting just outside the Colon breakwall, Franklin D. Roosevelt instigated a coup that deposed Arias because at that point the United States was not ready to tolerate one of Hitler’s friends running Panama.
Fufo 4
The demagogue is so charming, so witty, so funny when he’s crude. And after memories of hard truths fade come the heroic monuments. So it is in Panama, so it is with sites that extol the virtues of the Confederate rebellion against the United States. Do you wonder why African-Americans tend to be annoyed by those? And does it strike you as a sad infringement of freedom of expression that many countries that suffered under Nazi tyranny make it a crime to deny that the Holocaust ever happened? The battle over history is a battle over the present and future, here and everywhere.


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MOVADUP, Terroristas

Cuenta vieja, otra vez.

Terroristas declarados, terroristas disfrazados

por el Movimiento de Adecentamiento de la Universidad de Panamá (MOVADUP)

En cualquiera de sus modalidades, el terrorismo implica la muerte o avasallamiento de inocentes que nada tienen que ver con los motivos de los conflictos que dan origen a este crimen. Pero el análisis no se limita a la clasificación de los “actos terroristas” según una visión convencional que distingue, por ejemplo, el asesinato, el atentado, el secuestro o el asalto. También se refiere a enfoques retorcidos que aparentemente se repelen con respecto a los que son a su vez construidos por los rivales, pero que confluyen en brutal complicidad.

En el mundo occidental, se entiende mucho de las bajas acciones que perpetran los llamados “grupos terroristas”. A ellos corresponde la clasificación convencional de los crímenes que realizan. Suelen reivindicarlos con sus nombres, sustentarlos en posiciones calculadamente fanatizadas de tipo ideológico o religioso y perpetrarlos a través de personas dispuestas a inmolarse. Es un terrorismo de la impotencia y la desesperación que es propagandeado como justicia y martirio por quienes lo llevan a efecto. Valores retorcidos, humanidad perdida…

En cambio, para la opinión pública de las naciones donde suelen estar afincados estos grupos, quienes practican el terrorismo son las potencias occidentales. Estas no solo perpetran las actuaciones de la clasificación clásica, sino que, al contar con ingentes recursos militares, económicos y políticos, van desde el chantaje y asedio económico contra países y pueblos que no comulgan con ellas a la amenaza de guerra y a acciones militares directas. Estas últimas son las más detestables, pues las bombas que lanzan desde barcos o aviones no distinguen entre quien sea “terrorista” y quien no lo sea. A los perjuicios así ocasionados los llaman “daños colaterales” y son maestros del eufemismo para dar nombres digeribles a las mismas acciones perversas: la tortura es “interrogatorio”; los asesinados, “bajas”; al chantaje económico le llaman “sanciones” y al secuestro, “captura”.

Terrorismo hay tanto de grupos irregulares como de gobiernos e incluso, si se practica continuamente por varios de estos en una misma jurisdicción nacional, sin que sus leyes y pueblos logren impedirlo, “de Estado”. Este es el caso de Israel, Francia, Gran Bretaña, Rusia y Estados Unidos y en ello no se diferencian esencialmente de Boko Haram, Al Qaeda o el ISIS. Esta coincidencia no es casual. A ambos enfoques retorcidos les conviene la zozobra internacional en donde la competencia geo-estratégica y económica de las potencias y sus Estados espoliques promueve a los grupos terroristas como instrumentos de su ambición financiados generosamente por ellos, o en elementos cuyos deleznables atentados sirven para infundir el miedo en los países occidentales que justifique acciones como derrocamientos e invasiones por petróleo (Libia, Irak), burdas venganzas con mal disimulada intención imperialista, (bombardeos franceses en Siria) o para tomar a países en conflicto como escaparates de sus armas sofisticadas (como han hecho EU y Rusia).

Se trata de una simbiosis brutal e inhumana. Ante el público proclaman hipócritamente repelerse, pero se necesitan mutuamente. Coinciden en un hecho importante: la manipulación de las mentes deseducadas, propensas a fanatizarse o a convencerse de que son enemigos los que en realidad resultan ser los mejores aliados. Duro es el trabajo para ello, pero la rebelión contra esta inhumanidad debe provenir de los pueblos del mundo entero. Estos no deben dejarse envolver, asustar ni manipular más ni por el fanatismo ni por la propaganda. El sentido crítico de una educación para la libertad debe ser el más formidable instrumento contra quienes manipulan las conciencias de los pueblos. ¡No al terrorismo! ¡Ya no más fanáticos estultos ni Estados rapaces! ¡Recordemos a las víctimas y luchemos por la paz!

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June 26, opening day for the new PanCanal locks

June 26, opening day for the new locks. A month later, the Panama Canal Authority said that this is “normal.” For a larger version of this photo click here.
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Melitón Arrocha proposes Internet censorship

A would-be new press gag law, but actually in concept a very old proposal to shield corruption.

Online censorship proposed — again

by Eric Jackson
                         We must do something about the Internet.

It’s back. This time, the rabiblancos, politicians and crooks want the “right to be forgotten.” As in Proposed Law 11, which would be a new press gag law. Any natural or juridical person, public officials and political parties not excepted, could complain. There would be no right to a day in court, only a summary finding based on a complaint to the National Public Services Authority (ASEP). No need to claim that the item sought to be erased is false — “imprecise” or “not updated” would suffice, and no proofs would be required. The authority could summarily fine a small website $10,000, that is, shut it down in most cases.

Does The Panama News publish an analysis or opinion piece that states that the Panameñista Party’s founder was a friend of Adolf Hitler’s who stripped Panamanians of Asian, non-Hispanic West Indian and Middle Eastern ancestry of their citizenship? It’s absolutely true but the president’s political party could say that because such an utterance did not contain the party line denying all of that, a website that publishes such a thing could be forced out of business. Does The Panama News publish an article that notes that the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was founded by a dictatorship that killed or disappeared dozens of its opponents? That’s also true, but the party could shut down this website over it. Does the La Prensa investigative team uncover a bribery and kickback scheme? An anonymously owned company that was absolutely involved in such a thing could move to get the story summarily erased from the Internet.

The law proposes extraterritorial effect, which would be enforced by blocking access from Panama to certain search engines, databases or websites. Like, for example, that bastion of online history and bane of fraud artists, The Wayback Machine Internet Archive .

Introduced nearly four years to the day after Ricardo Martinelli went before an international audience and pleaded for global legislation to erase the criminal record that he was then compiling from the Internet, Panameñista legislator Melitón Arrocha is up to the same thing. The legislators might pass it, but probably won’t. The president might sign it, but his wife is a journalist by trade and he probably won’t. If it is passed and signed, it might be upheld by Panamanian courts — in the past those sorts of questions have sometimes been decided on the basis of bribery, partisan passions or political influence rather than on law — but by treaty any decision would be subject to an appeal to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which would be unlikely to uphold such a law.

One never knows what the politicians and courts might do here, though, and press organizations are not taking any chances. A joint communique by two corporate press organizations, the Forum de Periodistas and the Consejo Nacional de Periodismo, hits three main points. First, they note the proposal’s vague provision that allow a wide range of censorship without any judicial recourse. Next, point out the law’s purported extraterritorial reach which, among other things, would purport to erase certain infamous facts about Panama from the global record. Finally, they cite the internationally recognized right of a people to their history, their collective memory.


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