En julio se conmemoran 115 años de la histórica Batalla del Puente de Calidonia, en que los liberales panameño-colombianos fueron masacrados en la Guerra de los Mil Días.
Quisiera aportar a la reflexión sobre la famosa batalla del Puente de Calidonia, ocurrida el 26 de julio de 1900, en la que fueron aniquiladas las fuerzas liberales a las puertas de la ciudad de Panamá.
Cabe preguntarse: ¿Por qué, después de los contundentes éxitos de las tropas liberales en el interior, el general Emiliano Herrera se lanzó a un ataque suicida, enviando a sus tropas a través del puente desguarnecido frente a los parapetos de ametralladoras de los conservadores, ubicadas en las proximidades de lo que hoy es la Plaza 5 de Mayo?
La respuesta la encuentro en el papel activo que tuvieron los cónsules de las potencias representadas en Panamá: Francia, Inglaterra y muy especialemente el de Estados Unidos. Según se desprende del libro “El Panamá Colombiano”, de Araúz y Pizzurno, estos cónsules exigieron tanto a conservadores como liberales que no fueran afectados por el combate, ni la ciudad, ni el ferrocarril. Por supuesto, la amenaza subyacente era la intervención militar extranjera contra quien pusiera en peligro esos intereses extranjeros, apelando a la manera como EEUU entendía el Tratado Mallarino-Bidlack.
El 21 de julio forzaron al general Albán, conservador, a presentar batalla en Corozal, donde fue derrotado por Herrera. Teniendo que retirarse el primero a la ciudad de Panamá donde montó sus barricadas.
Con la complicidad de la Compañía del Ferrocarril, y de su gerente, el coronel Shaller, que jugaría un papel central en la Separación de 1903, se trasladan tropas conservadores desde Colón para reforzar a Albán. La Compañía y el cónsul norteamericano, lejos de ser neutrales como pretendían, jugaron un papel activo apoyando a los conservadores.
Previo al asalto liberal de la ciudad, el cónsul norteamericano se reunió en Perrys Hill (Perejil) con Emiliano Herrera, reiterándole la exigencia de no afectar la ciudad.
A mi juicio son estas presiones del cónsul norteamericano las que llevan a Herrera a presentar el nefasto esquema de ataque, que en pocas horas aniquiló a las huestes liberales (200 bajas entre muertos y heridos).
Esta me parece es la razón por la que, en 1901-1902, cuando las tropas liberales se recuperaron, gracias al papel de Victoriano Lorenzo, que transformó la guerra política en guerra social, campesino-indígena, llevando a los liberals a controlar todas las provincias del Istmo, menos la capital, tampoco intentaron nunca tomar la ciudad de Panamá.
El problema para la cabal comprensión de este acontecimiento es que la historia oficial panameña deja por fuera el papel jugado por las potencias imperialistas y reduce toda la explicación a una simplista contradicción entre “panameños’ y “colombianos”.
No hay duda de que hubo una lucha por el mando liberal entre Belisario Porrras y Emiliano Herrera, y posteriormente, Benjamín Herrera. Pero en este caso el factor determinante es la intervención norteamericana en toda la Guerra de los Mil Días.
The soccer world is close to unanimous that the American referee’s penalty kick and red card calls — which swung the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal game in which Panama had dominated to Mexico — were completely outrageous.
Penedo and Tejada suspended for two games each, Panama’s soccer federation and Mexico’s coach fined — but the popular opinion here is that it’s one more case of the soccer establishment’s corruption
Mexico 2, Panama 1 on worse than bad calls
by Eric Jackson
A Gold Cup run in which Panama beat nobody in regulation time but in which nobody could beat Panama ended in a July 22 semifinal game against Mexico in the Georgia Dome. But the widespread opinion of the soccer world is that Mexico didn’t beat Panama either, but rather that American referee Mark Geiger gave the game to Mexico.
In the 24th minute Panamanian striker Luis Tejada was sent off with a red card for elbowing Mexican defender Paul Aguilar. Whether or not there was actually any elbow contact is debatable, but its treatment as an intentional foul was called by sportswriter Simon Rice of the British daily The Independent a reaction to “arguably the most ridiculous dive of all time.”
Short-handed, Román Torres headed a corner kick into the net at the 56th minute, putting Panama ahead. The Mexican fans showered the Panamanian team with beer as the scenes on and off the field became increasingly chaotic, with both Mexican and Panamanian fans throwing things onto the field.
Both of Mexico’s goals came on penalty kicks, the first in the 89th minute for Panamanian defender allegedly handling the ball (which does not show up as such on video replays) as he fell after being fouled (which clearly does show.) That gave Mexico the tying goal against a short-handed Panama. After the game Mexican coach Miguel Herrera opined that this “was not a penalty” and that his team didn’t deserve to win but took advantage of referee mistakes.
As the match ended on a Mexican penalty kick in overtime — this time it was a pretty clear penalty, after other clear penalties that just as well could have been called to give Panama a penalty shot were not — there were rowdy confrontations between the teams and Geiger had to be escorted off of the field by CONCACAF bodyguards.
Panama issued its protests about Geiger, and CONCACAF issued its penalties: for Tejada, in addition to the one-game suspension on the red card, another game for not leaving the field promptly. For goalie Jaime Penedo, the heart and soul of Panama’s Gold Cup run, a two-game suspension for physical contact with an assistant referee after the game. A fine for Panama’s FEPAFUT soccer federation. A fine for Mexico’s coach for criticizing Geiger’s performance after the game.
Panama plays the United States for third place on Saturday the 25th at 3 p.m. Panama time in Philadelphia.
FEPAFUT president Pedro Chaluja told reporters that the semifinal game had been fixed. With two former CONCACAF presidents facing US bribery charges and a clear financial incentive for CONCACAF to prefer Mexico and its large television market over Panama’s much smaller audience in the final, a lot of Panamanians believe Chaluja.
Sequel to Martinelli’s and Robinson’s failed bid to take over the National Assembly (2)
Robinson gets no committee chairs
by Eric Jackson
The fallout continues from the failed July 1 bid for control of the National Assembly by PRD and CD party bosses Benicio Robinson and Ricardo Martinelli respectively. Robiinson still commands the loyalty of 20 members of his party’s 26 deputies, but on the Cambio Democratico side 13 of the party’s 25 deputies defied Martinelli’s orders to vote in a bloc with Robinson.
In the wake of it Robinson was able to retain a plurality of the PRD directorate and put off internal party elections until October of 2016, and on the strength of that he demanded party unity under his guidance but was ignored by the rebellious legislators. By Robinson’s math, as head of the National Assembly’s largest party caucus he was entitled to retain his position as the chair of the largest and most important of committees, the Budget Committee. Any substantial government spending has to pass through that committee and control over it gives leverage to demand jobs or government contracts to be passed out to loyal supporters. That sort of patronage to use in a prolonged battle for control of the Democratic Revolutionary Party is the last thing that the six dissident legislators want to give Robinson. Nor do any of the elements of the odd coalition that took over the legislature — the Panameñista Party, 12 CD deputies, the six PRD dissidents, the small MOLIRENA and Partido Popular contingents and the assembly’s lone independent — care to keep any of Robinson’s loyalists in political sinecures with the legislature itself. No replacement for the notorious former PRD legislator Franz Wever as the assembly’s secretary general has yet been announced, but surely that move is in the works.
Robinson used various parliamentary tricks to delay committee chair selections for three weeks but in the end he didn’t have the votes. He wll be replaced as chair of the Budget Committee by Jorge Alberto Rosas, a Panameñista from eastern Chiriqui province. The other committee chairs are:
Credentials: Jorge Ivan Arrocha (Panameñista)
Economy & Finance: Miguel Salas (Panameñista)
Commerce: Quibian Panay (PRD)
Infrastructure: Juan Carlos Arango (Partido Popular)
Education: Juan Moya (Panameñista)
Labor & Health: José Luis Castillo (Panameñista)
Communication & Transportation: Héctor Carrasquilla (CD)
Foreign Relations: Dana Castañeda (CD)
Population, Environment & Development: Luis Barría (Panameñista)
Sequel to Martinelli’s and Robinson’s failed bid to take over the National Assembly (1)
Statute of limitations for corrupt pols raised, time limits on investigations challenged
by Eric Jackson
On July 23 the National Assembly passed Bill 149, an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure that repealed Ricardo Martinelli’s 2013 law that halved the time for the statute of limitations to run for theft of public funds, unjustifiable enrichment while holding public office and diversion of public assets to private uses. As with most crimes — the main exception being murder and offenses deemed crimes against humanity under international law for which there is no statute of limitations — the period in which charges had to be brought for these crimes commonly committed by public officials was (and will again be) twice as long as the maximmum penalty for the offense. The law restoring the old statute of limitations is likely to be signed by President Varela.
So does this aggravate the potential legal woes for Ricardo Martinelli and his minions, or would it just apply to future crooks in high places? If there is to be any retroactive effect, it will not apply to cases already decided, nor those cases that are now in the processes of investigation or trial. But what about a theft of public assets that happened in 2013 which has yet to be formally investigated? Lawyers will surely argue about that one. In the Anglo-American Common Law system there is a fairly clear line about ex post facto laws: procedural laws can be retroactive, but substantive laws can’t be. The norm in that system is that statutes of limitation are substantive and can’t be changed retroactively to the detriment of the accused. But the Civil Code family of legal systems, of which Panama is a part, does not make this distinction between procedural and substantive. Already Ricardo Martinelli’s lawyers have been skirmishing in the Supreme Court over whether the new accusatory system of criminal procedure or the old inquisitory system will apply in his cases. Those issues have yet to be decided.
Meanwhile another of Martinelli’s impunity for politicians laws is under constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. That 2012 law provides that when legislators — or in Martinelli’s case, members of the Central American Parliament — face trial before the Supreme Court, the investigation must be concluded within two months of the appointment of an investigating magistrate. For anyone else accused of a crime and facing ordinary criminal processes, that period is ordinarily one year. Supreme Court magistrate Oydén Ortega, who has been assigned the prosecutor role in the case of no-bid contracts with kickbaks in the purchase of dehydrated foods for school lunch programs, moved on July 2 for the assigned judge, Jerónimo Mejía, to grant him a 30-day extension of the time to finish his investigation and at the same time interposed a constitutional challenge to the shorter time given for investigating legislators. The case is on hold while the high court decides if the 2012 law is constitutional.
Mechanical failure? Terrorism? Friendly fire? Meteorite? Seventeen years after the tragic incident, investigators have dredged up everything but the truth.
Flight from the truth: the enigmatic TWA 800 disaster investigation
by W. E. Gutman
On page 16, in its Sunday, October 18, 1998 editorial section, The New York Times ran a full page ad urging government agencies in bold banner headlines to “END THE COVER-UP” and asserting that “Two Missiles Brought Down TWA Flight 800.” The ad was sponsored by the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals, a group headed by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer (retired), Rear Admiral Mark Hill (retired), USAF Brigadier General Ben Partin (retired), USN Commander William Donaldson (retired) and three veteran military and civilian aviators, including the flight engineer who had flown on the inbound leg of TWA 800’s flight from Athens the day before the plane went down off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996 as it proceeded toward Paris and killing 230 people on board.
The ad further affirmed that the FBI had interviewed 115 “credible eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen an object believed to be a missile streak upwards toward the airliner and explode.
From the start, FBI investigators suspected it was foul play but refused to release eyewitness statements; and the National Transportation Safety Board refused to let a single eyewitness appear at the highly publicized final hearing on the cause of the tragedy. So why the secrecy? And why did the mainstream media go sheepishly along with this devious suppression of eyewitness testimony?
On the eve of the Atlanta Olympic Games, such revelations would have dampened the spirit of the event and severely impacted commercial interests. Looming presidential elections and a diplomatic deadlock in the Middle East further dictated that early conclusions by federal sleuths be modulated to resemble nebulous speculation. With mounting evidence all but eliminating mechanical failure as the cause of the crash, and no compelling incentive to divulge the facts, investigators may have opted to withhold their findings as long as possible or, if need be, to shelve the awful truth in the “national interest.”
The ill-fated TWA Boeing 747 was the 153rd aircraft to roll out of the production line in 1971. It had since crisscrossed the globe without serious incident. A tire blew up on takeoff in 1987. An oil leak forced an engine shutdown in 1988. Both flights reached their destinations uneventfully.
Its penultimate voyage was also problem-free. It landed in Athens on Wednesday, July 17 at 11:32 and took off for New York at 13:25. Data gleaned from black boxes revealed no anomalous conditions prior to the conflagration that felled it later that evening. Crew chatter, mostly routine post-take-off protocol, betrayed no anxiety, no sense of foreboding. Only a brief snapping sound was heard just before the fatal silence. It was the same odd “ping” picked up by the flight data recorders of two commercial aircraft destroyed in mid-flight — Pan Am 103, blown up when a Toshiba portable radio crammed with pentrite exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people; and a DC-10 operated by France’s now defunct feeder airline, UTA, which disintegrated at 33,000 feet over the African desert a year later, killing 171. The culprit: 300 grams of pentrite hidden in the cargo hold.
According to Tom Thurman, the FBI specialist who had investigated Pan Am 103, TWA 800 in all likelihood was also destroyed by an on-board explosive device — “a few hundred grams of pentrite, C4 or Semtex.” Odorless, easy to handle, these “smart” explosives can be triggered by altimetric or 24-hour timing devices. Thurman suspected that an explosive charge placed on the right side of the forward cargo hold, probably in a suitcase, tore the aircraft at the seam where wings join the fuselage.
While it took a scant four days to determine that UTA’s DC-10 had been felled by a bomb, ten months passed before the luggage in which it was concealed was identified. The telltale evidence was less than an inch in size. It took Thurman two years to determine how the booby-trapped Toshiba radio was placed on board Pan Am 103 — and by whom.
How could an explosive device have been spirited on board TWA 800? Speculations were rife:
A “kamikaze” passenger might have concealed it in carry-on luggage. This hypothesis was quickly dismissed: the explosion did not occur in the passenger cabin.
The bomb made its way into the cargo hold in Athens and the timing device set to trigger the explosion as the plane made its way to Paris, not New York. Farfetched.
It was secreted on board in New York, where security had been characterized as “notoriously lax — if not downright inept.” A Varig Airlines (Brazil) executive likened security at JFK airport to Swiss cheese — “full of holes.”
Baggage handlers could have conspired. French intelligence had apprehended three known Islamic extremists working at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
All airplane sabotage cases were solved — from the 1970 explosion of a Swissair Convair in Zurich, to the Boeing 747 that disintegrated over Lockerbie. Extremist states, in these cases Iran and Libya, were implicated. Preliminary investigations into the TWA 800 disaster did not discount sabotage and pointed to the Middle East where the United States was regarded as Public Enemy Number 1 by Islamic radicals.
The usual suspects
A prime and tempting suspect was Ramzi Youssef. Trained in Afghanistan, Youssef was the mastermind behind the plot to destroy US airliners over the Pacific. The plot was foiled.
Captured in Pakistan in 1995, Ramzi was extradited to the United States. Tried and convicted of engineering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he is now serving two life sentences. No evidence of complicity in the TWA 800 crash was ever found.
The United States had also been threatened by the Jamaa Islamya, the group responsible for the New York World Trade Center bombing. Now serving a life sentence at the Springfield, Missouri federal penitentiary, its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric who conspired to bomb the UN and flood tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, had vowed to get even.
Another hot lead — a new and mysterious terrorist cell — is the Islamic Organization for Change. The group is responsible for attacks in Saudi Arabia, the first in Riyadh in 1995 in which five Americans died; the second in Dhahran, in June 1996 in which 19 were killed and hundreds wounded, all GIs. Israeli intelligence claimed the group was run from Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden had been granted asylum. Bin Laden had many friends in Pakistan’s intelligence community. He also had followers from Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that had a score to settle with the United States after it agreed to extradite their chief, Moussa Abu-Marzooq to Israel where he faced a life sentence.
These groups have one common trait. All are ultra-secret and highly fluid organizations with deep worldwide networks that are difficult if not impossible to infiltrate. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are allies. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya had all professed a common hatred of the United States and Israel. Stoked by rekindled Islamic fervor and a collective anti-Western agenda, Algerian, Sudanese and Afghan terrorists had long been training in Iran.
Another suspect with known ties to America’s arch-enemy — Iran — is Hezbollah, the shadowy and homicidal phalanx responsible for multiple suicide bombings in Israel. Hezbollah never forgave the United States for its support of Israel following the Cana massacre in Lebanon in April 1996 in which more than 100 civilians were killed by Israeli artillery. Four years earlier, striking without warning, Hezbollah operatives had pulverized the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 civilians and injuring 242.
It is widely known that Iran trains and subsidizes global terrorist networks. A high-ranking French diplomat stationed in Central America told this writer on condition of anonymity: “I believe that terrorists downed TWA 800.” He rejected mechanical failure as the cause of the crash. “‘Catastrophic failure,’ like so-called ‘acts of God,’ is impossible to define, let alone challenge. It’s an obliging rationalization that serves the political needs of the moment. It will have to do for the time being.” The diplomat did not discount the possibility that that France, not the United States, was the prime target of this latest act of banditry.
“Up, up and away”
Enticing as they were, speculations about the “usual suspects” remained just that — theories without empirical evidence. Chasing after very tenuous leads would have been time consuming and involved lengthy, subtle and complex diplomacy. Americans needed answers, preferably unambiguous and categorical ones. So investigators reluctantly set their sights on a culprit less jarring than terrorism — “catastrophic mechanical failure.”
Asking that his identity be withheld, a veteran American Airlines captain told this writer in Miami that the TWA airliner “would have had to be stressed beyond the designed limits of structural endurance to break up in three pieces without the benefit of some colossal intervening dynamic, namely a detonation of some sort. A structural weakness would have been detected during routine maintenance and promptly repaired.” The pilot declined to speculate on the cause of detonation but suggested that mechanical failure “was psychologically and politically the least disturbing of all possible interpretations — but I don’t buy it.”
What remains is the nagging possibility that a missile, friendly or hostile, as several eyewitnesses reported, felled TWA’s Paris-bound jumbo jet. Fearing nationwide panic, then Secretary of State William Perry predictably dismissed the “theory” as “highly improbable.” Suspicions were never allayed and the “theory” has since taken a life of its own. The deliberate spurning by investigators of witnesses who swore seeing a “flare” or “rocket” light up the night sky seconds after TWA flight 800 exploded, split apart and plunged into the waters of Long Island’s south shore, continues to fuel speculations.
A Continental Airlines pilot interviewed by this writer in Houston in 1999 (I was on my way to Honduras at the time) was convinced that “a stray US Navy Cruise missile blew up the TWA [jet].” Characterizing the FBI, the FAA and the NTSB as “co-conspirators in a monumental cover up,” he alleged that “no serious pilot believes mechanical failure played the slightest role in that disaster.” An SAS pilot interviewed in New York a few weeks later concurred and scoffed at the “vapor-and-spark” hypothesis. “It’s more like smoke and mirrors,” he quipped.
We may never know the truth — not for an absence of evidence but in the name of “national security,” a catch-all alibi used by the United States to tell its biggest lies or shield its most errant deeds from public scrutiny. The inventory of deceit, falsifications and outright evasions from truth foisted by the US government on the American people is broad and tangled:
Unwitting American civilians and low-ranking military personnel used as guinea pigs in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare experiments;
Unsuspecting African Americans denied treatment after being infected with syphilis;
Release by the US Medical Corps of micro-organisms in the New York City subway system to “see how rapidly they would spread”;
The role of CIA-trained death squads in Latin America;
The rate and ferocity with which radiation spread across the globe following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster;
The magnitude of the Three Mile Island meltdown;
The direct effects and long-term consequences of exposure to “Yellow Rain” and “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War;
The extent to which deadly fissionable material spread in the Atlantic in 1986 following the sinking of a Soviet sub 600 miles from Bermuda;
The lies perpetrated to justify the invasion of Iraq, later of Afghanistan;
The etiology of the Gulf War syndrome; and
The recent revelations that Americans have been spied upon for years by their government — to name a few.
Is the case of the ill-fated TWA flight 800 destined to join America’s roster of deceptions? “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” said American journalist Henry Adams (1838-1918). Some facts, like meddlesome witnesses or vexing evidence are not only being ignored but continue to be buried in haste.
W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist, now retired. From 1994 to 2006 he was on assignment in Central America where he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic themes. He lives with his wife in southern California.
On the theatre, uncultured elites and other worlds
Raúl Leis, interviewed by Katie Zien
Editor’s note: Raúl Leis, who died suddenly on April 30 as the result of a reaction to medication that he was given for eye surgery earlier that day, was one of Panama’s most honored playwrights. His formal education, however, was as a sociologist, and his area of expertise crossed many disciplines. Many of his newspaper columns were translated and published in The Panama News
Katie Zien, who did the interview from which this is taken as part of her research for a dissertation in theatre and drama at Northwestern University, has an undergraduate degree from Columbia in English literature and is pursuing a doctoral degree. She has delved deeply into Panamanian history and ethnology in preparing her dissertation.
Read the following as a conversation between two theatre people, both of them superb historians without degrees in history. Most of all, read it as the memories and opinions of one of the towering intellectual giants of Panamanian history.
Getting a start as a writer
The interview, which took place at the offices of the Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action (CEASPA) in Coco del Mar, began with a discussion of some of the plays that Leis had written, followed by a traditional starting question:
KZ: Why did you decide to start writing plays?
RL: I realized in community work that one fundamental way to help communities and pueblos in Panama was the theatre. I didn’t know anything about theatre, but I said, “We’re going to have a group discussion,” and I said, “Well, when we get into groups, come and stage that which you have been discussing.”
It was a success, and Leis began to work more systematically at theatre, learning more about it — largely from South American sources — and began his part in building the collective Volunteer Theatre of Social Change (Tevocaso, by its Spanish acronym), a project of the National Volunteer Service (SNV).
The Tevocaso movement went nationwide, with popular theatre groups based in local cooperatives and unions in every province of Panama, including Kuna Yala and Bocas del Toro. A lot of the works were puppet shows, in which Leis noticed that a lot of people were more open about what they thought when their identities were hidden behind puppets. Leis took on the movement’s national coordination in 1967, and held this position for two years. But on October 11, 1968, there was a military coup led by Omar Torrijos and Boris Martínez, and changes soon followed.
RL: Torrijos absorbed the Servicio Voluntario and made it obligatory. He took away its democratic character, with many different voices and patronatos, and made it an element of the state. This distorted the sentiment of all that we were doing, because now we were government employees.
Finally, what happened was that they fired everyone — this was the first time that I had worked for the government in my entire life — they kicked out everyone out. Where before I had been a volunteer, now I was promoted to the position of coordinator. I had been doing things at the national level, throughout the country, and it was making such an impact that SNV said, “Instead of having you be a volunteer, we’ll make you a public official; you’ll receive a salary (small, but a salary) to promote this around the country. “
So when the government arrived, it absorbed us, yet many of us didn’t want to work for the government. We had some critics of the government among us, and the government replaced them with its allies. So SNV ended. After a year it could no longer exist, because there was no longer the mystique, the people’s drive.
When this ended, one year after the coup d’etat more or less, I was writing poetry because I was a poet then, but I’d never written theatre or stories or anything else. But one day, I sat down and said, “I’m going to write theatre as an author.” Because my head had been full of all of the theatre that I’d done with the people. It provoked me. In saying “writing,” I don’t mean copying what they had done, but rather making it unique — there are characters who stick in your head, and your work feeds off that which you have seen.
I was an autodidact, although I had read Tennessee Williams and other pan-American theatre — Calderón de la Barca — and this showed me how to structure the play text. So I sat down, and in one single draft, I wrote “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises.” I wrote it, about a man who leaves his town to look for — well, it’s all a summary of these experiences. But the story does not end there.
Someone said to me, “Why not send this play to the Ricardo Miró Competition?” This is the most important contest in the country. I was about 21, 22 years old. And I said, “No, I can’t, that’s too important, this is the first play I’ve ever written, and it’s not going to win, etc., and then a cousin said, “I’ll typewrite it for you, and turn in a clean copy,” so we sent it in.
On sending it in, I left for the country to work on a project, a voluntary community service activity with Fe y Alegria, an education-based project. I was very involved with an indigenous zone, and I was there about four months. When I arrived back in the city, the day that I arrived, I was walking around in San Felipe, and I see a poster stuck to a wall that says, “Today: the National theatre Company presents the winner of the Miró contest.” In this time, it was mandatory that the Compañía Nacional de Teatro, or the Escuela Nacional de Teatro perform the winning play. It said, “We present the play “Viaje a la salvación y otros paises, by this author.” And so I said: “I won!”
They had tried to get in touch with me, but I was in the country, and there were no cell phones, and nobody knew me in Panama City because I was in Colon. So they had saved my check from the competition, but the company had to mount the show, because it was the law. I went to the theatre, trembling with emotion, not knowing anybody, and I paid the entrance fee and sat at the back of the auditorium, the last seat in the theatre, quiet, alone, because I didn’t know anyone. And when the play began, I felt the greatest emotion of my life, which is to see a play that you have written mounted. And it was very well staged to me. So I was so excited and happy, almost yelling from excitement, to see that not only had the play won, but it was being staged, and everything, you know? It had won!
When the play finished, a person who was sitting in front of me, in the first row, the best seats, a professor from the University of Panama, I don’t remember who it is, stands up, and everyone is clapping, and, well, he gets up on his feet and looks over and sees me. And he runs backstage, behind the stage, and says to someone, “The author is here!” and everyone comes out, and the director says, “Here’s the author of the play! Come over here!”
And that’s how it happened. I learned theatre from the people, and that’s why it is popular theatre, and that’s why it’s political. It’s not ideological, it’s not academic; I haven’t lived far away or read a lot of Marx or whatever. Ideologically, it has a lot to do with the experience of the masses. Additionally, I come from a humble family: I grew up in Colon — in the ghetto, right — in a mixed family. My father was Spanish, naturalized Panamanian, and my mother was Colombian, mulata, from the province of San Andres. I am the product of a popular home, and what happened was that for people, it didn’t have anything in it that wasn’t familiar to them. There was nothing strange, nothing like “I live well, but I want to investigate how the people live.” No, it was all very close to home.
Even my family said, why are you becoming a volunteer? You’re poor! The poor helping the poor — you need to figure out how to better yourself! And find work so that you can do well, be better off, and help us! And you’re getting into this work with the people for free!
I’ve written at three in the morning, I’ve written in the middle of a workshop — so for me, it’s so beautiful to see, for example, in European or US films, people who are paid full-time to write. This is marvelous! Imagine, all the time, all day, to just think and write. I’ve always written while running from one thing to another, on napkins — whenever the idea strikes me. I never had the privilege to just write “full-time.”
KZ: I see various influences in your work — Brecht is there, for example….
RL: Oh yes. Of course. To continue — afterward — well, I had stopped studying, or rather, I had quit school when I joined the Servicio Voluntario Nacional. I was firm about the fact that I was not going to study at a university, that I would be an auto-didact (and dedicate myself full-time to voluntary service) — and I was going to study and do what I wanted to — a rare thing in Panama!
But after I left the SVN, thanks to the Catholic Church, and Monsignor McGrath, who was there then. They helped me. I had always wanted to have a career as a sociologist, but in Panama this didn’t exist at the national university, but they did have it at USMA — so a priest friend gave me a grant to maintain myself, so that I didn’t have to pay tuition in the USMA, the Catholic university. So I entered the first degree program in sociology offered at USMA, and I was the first graduated. And in this period, because of the grant for study, I had access to books, and I started reading Brecht.
KZ: Brecht wasn’t actually that successful in terms of his appeal, even though his theory is interesting.
RL: The shows of Brecht weren’t that compelling, it’s true. But I was also nourishing myself with the work of Latin American theatre, like Buenaventura and Boal…. still, Brecht served me well, and I still have a lot of Brechtian influence in terms of the distancing effect, the use of songs, of humor, and moral interaction with the people. And simplified scenery: for example, to symbolize the jungle, I might put a plant — you don’t have to put the whole jungle onstage, or draw the plant.
Working with directors
The discussion moved into theories of popular and political theatre, and the differences between writing plays and staging them.
RL: Fortunately, almost all of the plays have been staged, and most have been published because of prizes and periodicals. They have been produced — some many times, some few. Some have been filmed, others in audio-visuals.
The only thing that I want to say to you:
One, the role of the author with the director when the author is alive — not like Shakespeare, because he wasn’t alive, but when the author can go to the rehearsals: my relationship with directors has always been that of a dialogue, very tolerant. There are authors who won’t let you change one point — fight and say “You must respect what I say.” I respect the staging very much. Normally, when I am called upon to meet with groups, not only with the director but with the actors, I always try to explain to them what the sense of the work is, the character of the work. It doesn’t matter what modifications the staging makes as long as it strengthens the point of view of the play. Okay, if the play is deals with learning about justice for women, and the director’s adaptation takes this out and puts something else in, although it might also be very positive, I would still not accept it because I believe that the play should replicate the intention of the author. But if — actually, this has happened — I was thinking about the character as an older, mature woman, and the director says “No, better a younger woman,” it doesn’t change the sense of the play. I sometimes think, “Yeah, you’re right.”
The second thing is: the quality of the staging. The ideal is the best mise-en-scene with the fewest resources, since theatre groups don’t have much, and there is very little support for theatre. One is always looking for good acting, because if the acting is bad, then the character won’t emerge correctly.
KZ: Did you seek out directors?
RL: Never. I have never organized a production. It’s always that the director gets together a group, like what’s happening now in Mexico, and says, “Oye, we’re going to mount this play.” Oh, thanks! So what do we do? Although I’m not in Mexico, we can communicate through technology like skype, have a virtual exchange, and I can see the rehearsal online. And I’m hoping to get to Mexico in the days before the opening for the last rehearsal.
KZ: Is there a director with whom you’ve worked consistently?
RL: Yes, that’s a good question. There are about three people who have been constant. We have mounted many shows, and there is a lot of affinity. First is — not in this order — Danny Calden. Do you know him? He’s an actor of Afro-Antillean origin. He’s fascinating. When they did Viaje a la salvación he was the one who played the part of Librado Mancilla. That’s where I met him. Then he took other works of mine and mounted them. Including Salvación — he turned it into a monologue, and he took the monologue to six or seven countries in Latin America. For Peru, for Colombia, he just made this monologue, a synthesis of the play. And he did it very well. He has also had a lot of international performances. He’s been invited to perform in the Caribbean, in the United States, and he gives classes in popular theatre, as he specializes in this. He is very important here. And he’s like forgotten here.
The conversation shifts to Panamanian theatre today, as an emerging or growing force.
RL: the thing is that the theatre that’s emerging in Panama doesn’t recognize people like Danny Calden, marginalizes people who make non-commercial theatre, who are not elites, who don’t have access to the venues. So when they talk about theatre, they never mention those people. They talk about what’s happening in La Quadra, about Bruce Quinn, but from this marginal side, nothing. And Danny is from that part.
A second person, who is also, curiously enough, Afro-Antillean, is named Anselmo Cooper. Anselmo Cooper is from Colon, and in Colon there’s a unique experience, something that has been maintained for 20 years, called Teatro de la Ciudad. In Colon! El guetto, no?
In the back of the Iglesia San José, on Calle 10 in Colon, there’s a place that the church has lent. Anselmo, with great effort, has made a little theatre there, with chairs, a stage, and everything, for about 100 people, and called it the Teatro de la Ciudad. Apart from this, they’ve offered popular theatre in the barrios. When I say “them,” it’s Anselmo Cooper and Dagoberto Chung. This pair is like the comic duo — the fat one and the skinny one — they’re always together. One is black, and the other Chinese. They’ve worked together for their entire lives. They’re going to stage El Puente for the third time. They also did La Cantina de Pancha Manchá. In their second production of El Puente, the people who acted were prisoners, people from jails. I got permission, and they acted it, and the police were there, making sure that the prisoners didn’t escape.
Danny Calden, Anselmo Cooper, and the third is Norman Douglas. Norman has mounted two plays, and there are two that I made for Norman. It’s one thing to write a play, and the director stages it, but quite another for the director to ask for a play. This was No hay derecho, señor, which speaks of the looting after the invasion. Because the Colegio de Abogados de Panamá wanted to have a fundraiser, but they wanted something with a social message, and didn’t want to sell a film. So they asked for a play. Since it was for lawyers, we put on No hay derecho. It’s — the expression: “No hay derecho!” — as in, “You have no right!” Or, regarding the career, “The law doesn’t exist.” And as such, it’s a provocation for the lawyers. This is one of the few times that a play was commissioned, that they gave me a check to write a play. Que bueno! Normally this doesn’t happen.
I also did an adaptation of the novel María Picana by Jorge Isaacs, also Colombian, for the high schools. The National theatre Company mounted it for students and that was another experience with Douglas.
So those are three people in Panama. And in Colombia, there’s one named José Ignacio Correa, who also mounted Viaje a la salvación there, and who then mounted another play of mine, and he’s the one director from outside the country who has mounted the most plays. But I lost contact with him and can’t find him.
KZ: Maestra Vida — Bruce Quinn made another version….
RL: Yes, he did another version. Completely different. For Bruce Quinn, it was AIDS. For me, it was the invasion. In my version, no one dies of AIDS. They die from bullets, bombs, etc.
KZ: Did Rubén Blades act in your version?
RL: No. Blades didn’t act in either one. There was also a young man whose name I can’t recall who sang the part in my version that Luis Arteaga did in Bruce Quinn’s, who still sings. If you interview Norman and ask him about Maestra Vida, he might have filmed footage of it, because I think that we filmed it in that period, but I don’t have it. He does, he has the photographs. I believe that it was the first play to speak about the invasion after the invasion. It broke the silence.
The 1989 invasion
KZ: It would be interesting to compare it to Lagartija’s play about the invasion. Because in my opinion, theirs was very colored by the history of Argentina, really, and the dictatorship. It had a very Argentine sense.
RL: Exactly. Do you know that I wrote in a newspaper column about the play? I loved the acting, I loved the production, but the content of the invasion was diluted. When I saw it, I didn’t see the invasion. I saw another story — a very good one — but not the invasion. It was very psychoanalytic and less political.
I was going to work with them before. When Charo and Arístides came, I had a working group with them, because they said to me, “Tell us about the invasion!” so I told them all about the interesting history. Then they asked me to write a blurb for the program. But I hadn’t seen the play when I did that. So I said to them, “Well, I haven’t seen the play, but if it’s about the invasion, then I’ll do it.” But if I had seen the play before I’d written the blurb, I’d have written something different. Because I feel like the part about the invasion was diluted. It was second priority for them.
KZ: It was also impressive for me to see a panel discussion about the invasion and to hear what you said about the difference between 1964 and 1989 is interesting to me. At one point, there was something very clear and unified, but in the other there was divided opinion….
RL: It was a political crisis in the country. And it still hasn’t been resolved.
KZ: The United States was transferring the canal to the Panamanians but simultaneously had this relationship with Noriega. How did that work?
RL: They created a monster, right, in a certain form. Or if they didn’t create it, they fed it at least. The monster was already there, but it’s important to describe what happened with a lot of clarity.
Noriega is in the Prison de la Santée in Paris. And if they had had information about what he did, he wouldn’t have been given the Legion of Honor. He’s decorated by the government of France, because he lent a service to France. And do you know what service he gave to France? France never really said, but he had a lot of contact with various groups, because he was taking money for himself, not only the cocaine flights, but groups from above, from the right, from the left, from everywhere. It appears that he had contact with a group of Arabs. And in Paris there was a group that attempted to bomb the Metro many years ago. And apparently, he intervened, or his friends did, and succeeded so that there was no bombing, or the police captured the attempted bombers — I don’t remember which. France considered this a merit, because he saved the lives of many people, and they decorated him with the Legion of Honor. Now he’s a prisoner there. How can one understand that?
The discussion moves to a scene in Viaje a la salvación about when Librado Mancilla goes to the Canal Zone and meets Bob Klan, who asks “Why are you here?” to which Mancilla responds, “To buy arms.” Bob Klan says, “Oh, good! We’ll sell you arms.”
KZ: The United States always gives arms to the people who later use them against the United States….
RL: Sí, sí! [laughing] Saddam Hussein! Al-Qaeda, everyone! It happened here too!
This corresponds very much to the national security practice of the United States for a long time, which was not about supporting democracy but rather about supporting those who were anti-communist or against its enemies, or those who it thought were its enemies. “The enemy of my enemy.” Converting the enemy of your enemies into an ally.
The politics of the Miró Prize
The discussion turned to Miró Prize, and how it often went to works with anti-US themes.
RL: Well, this makes sense for several reasons. First, the world of culture tends to be more progressive. Because there’s always an anti-establishment attitude among the people who make art and literature. Even though Panama is very right-leaning, there are always very large exceptions among cultural workers, because they’re educated, and they read, and they’re more informed. In Panama, the cultural sphere is more closely linked to the political progressives — not the left, but to a vision that is more progressive. So there has never been a dogma or filter for the Miró Prize] — it all depends on the jurors.
People think that I’ve always won the contest, but I’ve actually lost many of the contests. Especially with young authors — it’s a lottery and has much to do with luck. For example, if you have a very good play in the style of Brecht, and two of the jurors don’t like Brecht, because they’re romantic, then you’ve lost the possibility of winning.
Panama’s uncultured ruling classes
KZ: When I think about the elites of Panama, I think of the rabiblancos.
RL: Ah, no. Sorry, but I need to say something. The rabiblancos and the elite of Panama are not a cultural elite. In terms of culture, it’s an ignorant elite. They know about business, for that this country is excellent, but if you look at the political class, look at Martinelli, and even Balbina, who comes from the people, and compare them with candidates from Chile or Ecuador or Mexico — for example, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico, or Felipe Calderón — you’ll see that the latter have a cultural apparatus, and can engage culturally up to a certain point. Here, it’s a commercial elite, and with exceptions, they don’t have much interest in that subject. And when they do have an anniversary, they make a spectacle. For example, they support the National Ballet because it has cachet. Or to support the National theatre, the same. But to support the leftist literary underground or dissidents, this has no meaning for them. To compare this to Colombia: it’s another tendency. There you have businessmen with a basic cultural background and a certain respect for the author.
I have a good Colombian friend named David Sánchez Juliao, a writer, who invited me to Bogota, to theatres and everything. And every show that we went to we got in for free, and it wasn’t because we were guests, but the person at the box office would say, “Maestro, maestro” and would say, “Pase, pase, maestro,” and he’s not Garcia Marquez or anything. But here, Rogelio Sinán could arrive, and not to many people would recognize him — there’s no admiration for that sort of thing. In contrast, if an empresario with a lot of money comes in, Martinelli or someone, they open the door because he has money. But the writers here are those who don’t have money.
KZ: is there still a place for political theatre in Panama?
RL: Yes. I think that now, what’s happening with theatre’s resurgence, there could be a window for political theatre. Soon there could be that kind of space again. Because during the time that I made my plays, there was more accessibility, and that’s why I was able to produce them. But it was this way — why? Because the theme of the canal was a national cause. So when I was going to prepare a play, noteworthy people would say, “let’s do it, because although it won’t generate a profit, it will be a way for the youth to educate themselves, because this is the cause of the country.” When the canal was given over to Panama, they lost the banner. So there was nothing to unite all of the Panamanians anymore. It should be something like poverty, but no, we have not been able to form a political banner to unite the Panamanians. And the country in a certain way de-ideologized, declined. And for the new generations — the audiences — I’m sure that they are not compelled to political theatre in the way that they were before.
This includes art work that’s not theatre. Rogelio Sinán, who is our greatest author, his best work is called La Isla Mágica. There has not been a reissue of La Isla Mágica. It’s very hard to get ahold of a copy. And he was the best author that we had. Why? Because they didn’t recommend it in the schools, because the professors were worried about the sexual content, they thought it was immoral, etc.
The discussion turned to theatre for students the work that Miguel Moreno has done with the Teatro Estudiantil Panameño in the high schools.
RL: There was a festival of national authors two years ago, and they mounted three or four of my plays in two years running, and the group that staged the play won the prize. This was interesting. Why? Because it was an initiative at the high school level that didn’t use commercial theatre, didn’t put on Aladdin for the kids, but rather sought out works by national authors that were political plays. But in this moment in theatre, you see what’s happening. There’s no support for national authors, and if there is support for national authors, it’s work that is not political.
Colon, the Canal Zone and English
KZ: Living in Colon, did you have any interaction with the old Zone? Because Colon was surrounded by the Zone. There was a theatre scene in the Zone, there was a lot of US theatre, so did you have experience with that theatre?]
RL: No, nothing. Why? Because the Zone was another world. For us, it was another world. Despite the fact that we were surrounded — Colon was an enclave, surrounded by the Zone, with only the Colon Corridor by which one could connect with the city — contact with the Zone was of two types. First, an incursion: it was a site for us to go because we had nowhere else to go. It was going to Mount Hope, to the cemetery, to look for mangoes. It was going to Gatun Lake to bathe, like going into a foreign territory, where there was no poverty, where everyone lived well, where there wasn’t prostitution, where there wasn’t anything — a paradise where we went to explore. And there were bad points too — because sometimes they would arrest us for stealing a mango, the police asking us what we were doing there — it was an unknown territory. So there was no contact with the cultural and social life of the Zonians or the military bases.
KZ: I notice that there were some elites who had contact with the Zonians, like Bruce Quinn.
RL: Right, but as you say, they were elites. I’m talking about a poor family from Colon. The middle-class and upper-middle class people of Colon, yes, they even dated in the Canal Zone. Many Zonians married Panamanians because there was social contact, right? They visited the fiestas, they were friends, but this was only the middle- and upper-middle class.
For the popular classes it was very difficult, and although we were never prohibited from entering their theatres — you could go to the Theatre Guild and pay the ticket price and enter — for us it was the same feeling as if you took a campesino from the Panamanian Interior and brought him to the Teatro Nacional. You take them, and the people stay in the doorway, they don’t want to go in. You say, “Come on, pay the ticket and get in!” and they say, “No, this isn’t something for me. I’m out of place here. I feel like my clothes look the ugliest of all.” It’s another world. There’s something psychological that does not let them enter and have contact with the cultural parts of the world.
I, like many people, get lost in the Canal Zone. Every time I go to the Reverted Areas, which passes the locks, or Clayton, or things like that, I’m lost, I can’t find my way. Psychologically, I still haven’t incorporated it. Another problem that was generated by this relationship for my generation is the resistance to learning English. I have taken many courses in English and have spent hours studying English, and it’s still very difficult for me to speak English. It’s depressing to be in the United States or Europe, where nobody speaks Spanish, and suddenly the English appears from my subconscious! I start speaking, and I’m like “Oh, wow!”
KZ: I see English mixed into the Spanish in Panama, especially on the part of Afro-Antilleans.
RL: Yes, for the afroantillanos it’s different. English is part of their culture.
KZ: The politics of English/Spanish are very interesting here. And when did you arrive on the Pacific side?
RL: In Panama City? Well, now it’s very easy to segue from the story that I was telling you before. After I had the experience that I explained to you when we began…when the government absorbed the Servicio Voluntario, in that moment I had to come to Panama City to supervise the theatre activities. I had to be in Panama to do that, because central headquarters was here. So I moved to Panama, and then they kicked me out of Servicio Voluntario, so I worked in an NGO, they gave me a grant for the USMA, and I wanted to return to Colon because I loved Colon, but I had to study and work in Panama. So I’ve been here for 21 or 22 years. But I’ve never lost contact with Colon. Because my family is still there, I travel there when I can, and I work for an NGO that is involved in work in Colon, not only with Colon but the Costa Arriba and the Costa Abajo. I still maintain my ties to Colon. And I believe that Colon is very present in my plays, in a very direct way. That’s why we say, “one never passes through Colon with impunity.
This means that, well, one is born in a certain city, and it doesn’t mark you, it just doesn’t have an effect on you. Other times you might be born in a city that marks you, for good or for ill. Colon is one such city. What I lived in Colon, not only the situation of poverty, marginality, the ghetto, but also the good: a happy, easy-going, festive city, where macondo things happen — that is to say, unheard-of or unusual things — and for me, it’s always present in so many aspects of my life. The weight of Colon — especially the city — has been fundamental for me.
The Day of the Martyrs and the 1966 uprising
KZ: And were you in Colon during 1964?
RL: Oh yes. Oh, you are asking the most excellent questions, exactly about subjects that I want to talk about! Okay, so here is something very interesting, and I thank you for asking me about it. I lived through 1964, and I lived through 1966. Do you know what happened in 1966?
RL: Well, I’ll explain. 1964 was the sovereignty event. In 1964, I was a student at Colegio Abel Bravo, a public high school, and I was studying for a test on religion, because the tests were in January, not December, like now. And in the moment that I was studying for the test, I heard on the radio what was happening in Panama, and I see that Colon has ignited.
The people of Colon heard what happened in Panama, and everyone went to the Zone. At that moment my mother said to me, “Wait, but you have a test tomorrow, and you need to study! I don’t like religion much either, but….” and I said to her, “No! who cares about religion, I’m going out with the people!”
And I went out went out with the people and got involved. I was there for all of the protests, I was injured in my eye from a tear gas bomb that was thrown into my face. I couldn’t see, and that’s why I still wear glasses to correct the problem.
But what was the overall lesson? An army, in this case the US army, attacked us. And the police of Panama, the army of Panama, they didn’t do anything. They did nothing. They locked themselves up in their barracks, and they did not defend the population. The army is attacking the people, the country, and they don’t do anything.
1966, two years later, and I was in my last year of high school. One of the leaders, a student leader, who had been injured in the events of 1964, was sent to have surgery for his head wound in Russia, because his brother was a member of the communist party — not him, but his brother. And through his contacts, he got ahold of someone who could remove a bullet from his brother’s head or something like that, because in Panama you couldn’t have this operation because it was too delicate. So this boy, whose name is Juan Navas, returns, and the day after he returns, he disappears, a boy of 16 years. And he appears the next day on the Corredor, the highway that connected Colon with Panama, dead, with a beating to the head.
What does the police force do? They blame his brother, they say that it’s something communist, that there was infighting, and another person who they jail is Rolando Sterling. So they blame them.
What do we students do? We stage a demonstration each day, requesting peacefully that the situation be clarified because we know for certain that the communists did not do this, that it wasn’t his brother, because in such a small city everyone knows everyone else, and there was no reason for the brother to do this. So the police attack us, the Guardia Nacional, with the same and worse force and hatred that the US army had shown. And there are martyrs. Among them, the valedictorian of the high school, of Abel Bravo, Carlos Matthews.
So I lived through the Panamanian army, who attacked us, but the US army did nothing. Why? Because the US army didn’t have to do anything. But when the people saw that we were attacked by the Guardia Nacional — and ferociously — the US army only attacked on the border — Avenida A — but didn’t go further than the border. But the Panamanian army attacked inside Colon. It was horrible — a huge repression. And the people rose up, not just the students but the whole town — they raised a riot in which the people burned the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, the public offices, the statues of founding fathers.
It was a revolution. The city had never seen anything like this — the city, the countryside, everything. And when the police started to retaliate even harder than before, even worse than the invasion, many people said, “Why aren’t the gringos doing anything? They’re killing us! because after all, they are democratic, right? And the police are killing people who have worked in the Zone!”
But the US army did nothing. It shouldn’t have done anything, but it also did nothing to help. What did I learn? To be anti-militarist and anti-fighting, two things that I was taught for my entire life. I was wounded by the US army and the Panamanian army, so I would never fight on the side of either. And therefore it gave me tremendous satisfaction, it really made me smile more than anything else, to see the military bases of the US disappear from the Canal Zone and the Panamanian army disappear. In 1999 the gringo bases left, and after the invasion, not only did the gringos annihilate the Panamanian military, but also, Panama decided constitutionally that it would not have a standing army. These two forces that attacked, I saw them leave or disappear. I know that not everyone in the world has that privilege.
KZ: Yes, and not everyone has that privilege because many people requested the invasion.
RL: Yes, as I said the other day. Not many people, the majority — the majority of the people were in favor of the invasion.
KZ: And it’s horrible because what resulted was a disaster.
RL: A tremendous trauma. But what I want to say to you is that this taught me better than a book could, living through those events. I was very young — 15 or 16 years old for the first one, then 18 for the second. In the second, I was a student political leader, at Colegio Abel Bravo, which was a very political high school, like the Instituto Nacional. In the first, I was just a young kid. So I was much more persecuted in 1966 than in 1964. They were hunting down the leaders. I had to flee from Colon at night to the Canal Zone, to Cristobal, sleep with a friend under a tree, catch the train, and go to Panama. And because the train was under the US jurisdiction, the Panamanian police couldn’t arrest me on it. I arrived in Panama and contacted a Panamanian friend who lived in Balboa, slept there for a few days, and when everything had calmed down, and we knew that they had stopped looking for us, we returned to Colon. So, thanks to the train, we were able to escape from the police persecution. That which was repression which we hadn’t asked for, right?
And you should note this about what happened to Juan Navas — eventually it was learned that the secret police had killed him.
Cold War politics
KZ: Do you think that the United States had ordered this?
RL: Evidently not. Remember that with the Cold War, with Cuba and all that, where all the information was coming from, there was a close and direct network of information and consultation between the security forces of the United States and Panama. But the people who did the act, in the end it appears that they didn’t want to kill him. They wanted to torture him, but they didn’t take into account the fact that he had had surgery recently, so they hit him in the place where he’d had the operation. But ultimately they didn’t want to kill him because that didn’t make sense. They wanted to get information out of him, but then they realized that he was dead and said, “Uyy, what do we do?” What a horrible mess.
KZ: Wow. Because it also resonates with 1959, and the relations with the Cubans.
RL: Right, the Cuban revolution, the landing at Nombre de Dios.
KZ: There were exchanges between communists in Cuba and Panama.
RL: Of course, always, because the Soviet-line communist party. There were different communist groups, there were the Maoists and the pro-Soviet groups arguing with each other — this was logical. And many people got grants to study in the Soviet Union, and went to the congresses, and there were resources from Moscow for building unions and groups along the Soviet line.
The end of the Canal Zone
KZ: When the lands in the Canal Zone began to be reverted to Panama, what was your experience with the actual land? Did you enjoy walking through them, experiencing new territories, etc.?
RL: Oh, it was brutal.
KZ: The symbols are very strong — and part of my thesis is about the experience of the spaces.
RL: Excellent theme. Look, I lived through the reversion here in Panama, not Colon, because I’d had many years living here and was only going to Colon sporadically, so I experienced it more intensely. But the first thing that I want to say: the big moment when we were in front of the Administration Building, it was the 31st of December at noon, and there was then-President Mireya Moscoso up there, and the police were around so that the people didn’t come up the stairs, and we said, “let’s go up there!” and the police had to open up for us. And we flooded the hill of the Administration Building. This was like Moses and Mount Sinai, and we were looking at the invited guests, because there were many there — ambassadors and dignitaries — and they were looking at us with fear because we were a ton of people waving flags and coming toward them. They were thinking that we were going to do something to them. But what the people wanted to do was to stop there, to walk around and step on the land. It was a gesture of happiness. Nobody was hurt, completely to the contrary. With songs, with hymns, and so on.
Then came the process of appropriation of spaces that, as I’ve told you, psychologically is still not entirely clear to us. But little by little, when one realizes that Panama City swelled by a third, I’m going to explain it this way: the North Americans who lived in the Reverted Areas, be they civilian or military, what one begins to realize over time is that the way that they lived — their lifestyles, and their practice of living with nature — was very positive. You just need to accept that — they were very clean and ecological in their houses.
But on the contrary in their work. What do I mean by that? The areas contaminated with explosives, and San Jose Island.
They respected the environment very much, and they generated a different style of architecture, which had positive results. We learned many intercultural things, which are positive. But at the same time, many things were inverted. For example, the act of exploiting the land militarily but not in terms of civilian uses. Over all, with the firing ranges. This was always a source of ambivalence with the Zonians.
Something about the reversion killed the hatred. When we were in Colon, and we faced the question of sovereignty, the contrast was very clear with the colonial presence of the United States. But for others living in Colon, the US area was paradise, because it was a place where work paid more than in Panama, where there was no violence or danger in the street, because it was well cared-for, where there was no poverty, where there were places like the commissaries where it was possible to find products of the highest quality, from the first world, at very low prices, whether through contraband or whatever. And we always felt this ambivalence. I remember fighting the anti-imperialist fight in high school and then drinking US beer like Miller, because it was a delicious beer that was contraband from the commissaries and sold on the streets. The ice cream and sweets of the Zone — people would try to get these for their birthdays.
So there was this situation. But something very interesting: never in this process, never, never did the people who were fighting against the Zone consider someone from there personally. Never. So it wasn’t personal hatred or hatred of the people. It was hatred for the system. No one would have raped or lynched someone for these reasons.
The delinquency is another thing, of course. Delinquency is delinquency — crime for the purpose of theft is another thing. But always, despite the fact of having very profound differences, if there was an English-speaking US or Puerto Rican soldier, he’d be walking around and nothing political would happen. Even on the ninth of January, when there was an attack at the consulate and people went to the consulate to protest, I remember that the people who were at the consulate in Colon had to pass through the city to get to the Canal Zone, in cars with their families, and even though people were fighting with the army, nobody touched the civilians. No one threw a rock or lit the civilians’ cars on fire.
KZ: I’m trying to understand the ways that people understood imperialism] — there are many things working together to influence people’s positions on imperialism.
RL: Wes, this is true. We can talk about a relationship of many different senses, not only one sense. There were many senses, and in some people different senses predominated. In this situation, it was the political, because we were the product of a situation. But then there are people from the upper classes, or people who celebrate Thanksgiving.
The West Indians and the colonial blacks
KZ: The Afro-Antilleans have a very different perspective.
RL: They gained a status that was very good for them in comparison to their situation in their countries of origin. You’re right there that the perception that you might have seen, but in the case of the blacks, you have both the West Indians and the colonial blacks, right? Because there is a reason that the gringos hired the afroantillanos and not the afrocoloniales. There are various reasons. But for me there are two.
First, the work part: the West Indians who came from English colonies had training and preparation — there were cane plantations and such, and there were apprenticeships as carpenters, lathe operators and mechanics, By contrast, the colonial blacks were from the coasts, where there was no industry. It was agricultural. The gringos didn’t want to hire peasants in the Zone. They wanted urban types who could hammer a nail, turn a screw.
The second reason is cultural. The Afro-Antilleans could speak English, right? Because they had been through English oppression and so they were more “yes, man.” They were more easygoing, as you can see — they say, “yessir, sí, señor.” They also have the same church as the gringos, Protestant or similar.
The Afro-Colonial always continues to be a cimarron, a rebel. Always. So it’s easier to work with the afroantillano than the afrocolonial. The afroantillano goes to the meeting, listens more calmly, has more information, is more up-to-date with what’s going on. The colonial black is still a rebel. This is why the negro colonial has the congo. It’s a rebellious figure — the congo sometimes speaks another language, so that you don’t know what he’s saying. And the colonial is more undisciplined. When the gringo foreman says, “hey you, son of a bitch!” the colonial might hit him. Or he would yell out, or he’d leave. The antillano would say “sí señor.” He might not agree, but he would submit, because he’s from a more domesticated culture. Because he knew that if the foreigners kicked him off the Zone, he’d have to return to his island. And the Panamanian, well, they’d kick him off and he’d return to Panama.
This is why, when they selected Lucy Molinar to be the minister of education, I said at first (and now I might take it back) but I said initially, “Wow. This government has done a lot of things that I’m against, but here they’ve done something great by accepting a woman, black, and of afrocolonial origin, who is not from Martinelli’s party, who doesn’t need the money because her husband keeps her pretty well — he’s French — and who has been placed in a role that gives her a certain degree of autonomy, over and against those who are rabiblancos, who do business with the president, who are of his party. That’s why I was initially pleased by the appointment. Also, she did some interesting things at the beginning, so I thought, “well, for her cultural background, she is still at heart an afrocolonial. She is still a cimarron.} Because you can never take away from a cimarron the essence of being cimarron.
The conversation got into the Afro-Antillean newspapers, and the publisher and community leader of the 40s, 50s and 60s, George Westerman and his journey through Panamanian history.
RL: Yes, he’s very interesting. It’s that there was an elite within their group, which was lighter-skinned. Also, this theme of the Left, it was present in almost all of the groups who arrived — in the anarchist Spanish, in the Italians, among whom were also anarchists. There were groups who came from Europe and other situations. But I’m talking in general.
KZ: There was a moment in which Paul Robeson came to Panama in 1947, and Westerman rejected him, because he was more moderate than Robeson.
RL: so Westerman was more of the center.
KZ: Westerman moved to the center. Or to the right, rather.
RL: To the right, huh — after the war?
KZ: Yes, in the war period.
RL: During the war, or afterward?
KZ: During, because there was a conflict between the labor unions in Panama.
RL: Panama, during this time, and the tenants’ strike of 1925, included leftists of all stripes, from social democrats to the radical left. And for this reason they never dealt with the Canal Zone unions. It was a different era.
KZ: But the zone permitted the formation of a union….
RL: …but not one affiliated with Panamanian unions. Affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
The conversation got into the history of segregation in the Canal Zone and social stratification by class in Panama, as that affected the black population in particular.
RL: The Afro-Antilleans had to adopt a certain type of camouflage because they needed to survive, they were in a foreign country, the need to survive was greater. On the contrary, the coloniales would say “Go to hell!” and return to the coast to survive on coconuts and fish.
Moreover, Leis argued, similar processes affected other groups.
RL: The same thing happened to the Kuna Indians, when they started to work in the Canal Zone — in all of the restaurants — they created this sector of Kunas who spoke English and Spanish.
KZ: Formerly I thought that the whole country was interested in the affairs of the canal, but now I know that’s not true. Some purposefully didn’t care about the canal because they were rejected by it.
RL: Unconscious vengeance, by not concerning themselves with the canal because the canal was not concerned with them — they weren’t hired.
When Torrijos said: “The canal should have the most collective use possible” — that was the message of Torrijos — what happened? There are two interpretations of this statement.
One is to say, the school that was in the Canal Zone, now I can go to that school. The housing will be shared among us. We’ll have direct access to the golf course, so I can go and play golf. This is the direct participation and use of the CZ grounds by the people.
But for the sectors of the bourgeoisie, the sectors of government, etc, the most collective use was interpreted thusly: I will sell the land to the person who will pay me the most, I will permit hotels where the people can’t enter because they don’t have the money, and with the money that I earn from the land, I will invest in education and public health, because this is the most collective use of the land.
There are two different visions. In the second, the sense that people have is: but no, I won’t see the benefits of that! These benefits of health and education are not reaching me. I want to see myself in a house there (in the CZ). That’s a whole different issue. And for this reason I think that the administration of Martín Torrijos began with the policy of PRODEC.
What is the premise of PRODEC? In your town, the aqueduct that was built was done with funds from the canal. Not “this aqueduct was built by the government.” Yes, it was. But the sign says “This aqueduct was built with funds of the canal” — and that’s the best collective use of the canal.
The interview ends by a return to the theatre, with Leis extending an invitation to see the rehearsals for a play of his that, it turned out, would premiere on May 12, 2010 at the ACP’s Auditorio Ascanio Arosemena. It’s Curado de espantos, a Panamanian expression that means that when something no longer scares you, that you’re “cured of your fear” (or cured by fear).
RL: Now the ghost does not scare you anymore. This play was commissioned by an NGO — Instituto Panameño de Estudios Laborales (IPEL), under the auspices of the Ministry of Labor. They have a contest for workers with painting, art, poetry — a very interesting program. So they asked for a play about child labor. So I wrote a play, a didactic play. It is a warning about child labor — it’s a ghost story about three professionals in Panama, who are guides to Panama’s historic, touristy areas. They don’t realize that the child labor is happening in all of those places. The people make this child labor invisible — psychologically they don’t see it.
That’s a hook for the play, but the play makes the problem visible. The conclusion is a Boalian forum theatre with information for the audience. It’s acted by workers from various unions who collaborate with the IPEL.
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Antiwar activist John Lindsay-Poland tracks down US military activity in Panama via ads and budget reports
Drones, bases and the Tropical Test Center
by Eric Jackson
Recently the government of Panama said it is going to reopen the territory of Panama to Yankee bases.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
I strongly deny that Panama is going to set up military bases of any kind in partnership with the United States or any nation in the region.
Panamanian Minister of Security José Raúl Mulino
Last September, the Venezuelan government complained that US spy drones had been spotted flying over its territory. Earlier, Hugo Chávez had claimed in strident terms that a series of agreements to allow a US military presence at bases in Colombia and Panama were acts aimed at his country.
The Colombian Supreme Court struck down the agreement that would have allowed US military operations out of bases in Colombia, but the US military and US “civilian contractors” — the favored euphemism for mercenaries these days — have been busily setting up “aeronaval bases” here, according to the Martinelli administration only for the use of Panamanian forces, mainly to fight drug trafficking.But John Lindsay-Poland, program director for the US-based pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation and most probably the top non-governmental expert on US military activity in Panama, has been digging into US government budget reports and the advertisements of US mercenary corporations to get closer to the truth of the matter. Part of the problem with mercenaries, however, is that by the terms of their contracts with the US government and the “private company” status that is used as a shield against the Freedom of Information Act and scrutiny by the US Congress, the things that mercenaries do are well hidden from the American people and the citizens of the countries in which US mercenary corporations operate. Moreover, in these days of globalization jobs that used to be performed by US soldiers, including combat, are now often outsourced to companies that are not even based in the United States. What Lindsay-Poland is doing, then, is piercing the corporate veil of privatized warfare, at least to the extent that he can.
Hugo Chávez has a reputation for making erratic and exaggerated statements, but so does Ricardo Martinelli, who boasted in the Italian press that he’s the “anti-Chávez” and has done much to distinguish himself as something of a right-wing mirror image of the impulsive Venezuelan leader. So who’s telling the truth about those bases in Panama, and are Venezuelan tales of drones over their territory necessarily a case of paranoiac ideation in high places?
And what about the suggestions, coming mainly out of Colombia and making their rounds in the Latin American left, that the string of setbacks suffered by the FARC guerrillas are not and could not have been as the government in Bogota describes them? Among the suggestions are that US surveillance or attack drones have played major unacknowledged roles in some of the high-profile assaults on FARC.
The jungle camp where FARC military leader Jorge “Mono Jojoy” Briceño was killed. Was it merely a precision operation by Colombian paratroopers, or was one or more US drones involved? Photo by the Colombian Army
The drone question becomes relevant because among the many US Department of Defense contracts that were peformed, are underway or are to be carried out in Panama that are listed on the Excel spreadsheet obtained by Lindsay-Poland, highlighted in red on lines 359 and 585, are US Navy contracts with Stark Aerospace Inc., including for “mission support” and “persistent support.”
Who is Stark Aerospace? They are a US subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, and the makers of UAVs — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones — including the Hunter, a short-range (about 144 nautical miles) surveillance and attack vehicle that the United States has used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Among the parent company’s other military drones is the Eitan, which has a range of more than 4,600 miles. Whether or not the reports or rumors are accurate, then, it does seem that the United States has drones based in Panama that are capable of hitting FARC camps in Colombia, and may well have UAVs capable of patrolling the skies over Venezuela from here. The drones that the US Navy and Stark Aerospace have deployed or will deploy to Panama — the contracts about which we know were only recently signed, in September of 2010 — might also be used to patrol Panamanian territorial waters for law enforcement purposes.
We can be reasonably sure, from US Southern Command practices over the years, from the probable technological limitations of Panama’s police forces, from traditional US reticence about sharing advanced military technologies and from the Obama administration’s known suspicions that the Martinelli inner circle is infiltrated by the drug cartels, that no Panamanian hands will be at the controls of any drones that the United States deploys in Panama. The question is whether the Panamanian government will have any say whatsoever about, or even any knowledge of, the purposes to which the drones are used.
The Tropical Test Center, again
If the United States military is going to play the role of imperial cop, it needs to know how its boots, rifles, boxes of ammunition, herbicides and other products will stand up to the jungle elements. For decades in the old Canal Zone the US Army ran the old Tropical Test Center for this purpose. Mostly it was non-controversial, but they probably did test Agent Orange here during the Vietnam era and later they tested depleted uranium shells and had to fire a few rounds, inevitably leaving behind a bit of toxic metal dust.
The Tropic Test Center was supposed to go along with the rest of the US military presence at the end of 1999, pursuant to the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties. But it seems that this never happened, that the facility moved from its previous locations in Panama to other places on the isthmus and was devolved from the US Army to mercenary contractors. Lindsay-Poland has traced the continued operation of the Tropic Test Center back to at least 2006, via the Houston-based Kvaerner Process Services back then and currently under the aegis of Las Vegas-based Trax International. Trax has historically done defense work at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
Trax, whose CEO Craig Wilson is a major Republican contributor, describes its work and capabilities in Panama as follows:
Our experienced test personnel conduct tests in the humid tropic environment of Panama. Available test areas are within lush vegetation in the central portion of the Isthmus, and along the northern coast of Panama. All test sites are within close range of Panama City.
Existing capabilities include: * A standard 700-m range
* A 3-km rugged jungle course
* Areas for prolonged tropic exposure tests in the open and under jungle canopy
* Engineering, information technology and logistics support services on site
* Coastal sites for various levels of salt spray exposure
Humanitarian missions, plus…
The US Armed Forces from time to time send medical and construction missions down to Panama and several of the other countries in the region. They rapidly set up temporary bases of operation with all of the facilities needed to support members of the work teams, then head out to provide medical, dental and veterinary services to people in remote areas who usually don’t get these, and to build or improve schools, health care facilities, bridges and other civilian infrastructures. It’s a good way to make friends for the United States.
On the construction end of it, it’s an opportunity for military engineering units to get some practice that, due to business and labor pressures, is not allowed in the United States. On the health care end, it’s an opportunity for guard and reserve doctors and nurses to see tropical diseases that they won’t encounter in the USA.
And what else does a US Army Corps of Engineers publication that Lindsay-Poland uncovered say to describe its humanitarian missions? Something bound to annoy nationalists in the countries where it goes:
Every Soldier a Sensor
USACE DA Civilians/Soldiers can collect information and/or provide intelligence
Provide entry point into country
A return to the firing ranges controversy?
One of the sore points about how the Panama Canal Treaty was implemented was about the several firing ranges that the United States had used over the years here. Some were outside of the old Canal Zone and thus not covered by the treaty, but some were not only in the old Canal Zone, but adjacent to communities whose residents sometimes came onto the ranges to hunt, gather jungle fruits or look for metal object to sell to recyclers. Unexploded ordnance on those ranges was and is dangerous, and over the years more than two dozen people have been killed by old munitions encountered on those places. Yes, there are signs warning people to keep out, but to a boy who has little concept of death, or to a man who lacks a job but has a family to feed, the temptations to ignore the signs and run the risks can be great. The treaty provided that the United States would remove all hazards insofar as practicable, and Washington took the position that because it did not want to spend the money to clean the firing ranges it was not practicable to do so.
Panama ignored the issue the last few years before the final US military withdrawal, but then the Pérez Balladares and Moscoso administrations, which had no real interest in cleaning the ranges, attempted without success to shake down the US government for cash payments in lieu of range cleanings. Panama has cleaned part of the Empire and Balboa ranges as part of the Centennial Bridge construction and Panama Canal expansion projects, but for the most part the old ranges remain uncleaned.
Now it turns out that among the more than 700 US Department of Defense contracts carried out in Panama since the bases closed at the end of 1999, we find a September 29, 2010 contract with Austin, Texas-based J&J Maintenance, to “upgrade ranges.” Which ranges? We only have the spread sheet that refers to the contract, rather than the contract itself, so we really don’t know. Lindsay-Poland points out that “this could be linked to the bases and collaboration with SENAN [Panama’s National Aeronaval Service], or to the Tropical Test Center, or both. It’s a concern.”
Those aeronaval bases
Certainly the assurances that the Martinelli administration gave with respect to a foreign military presence in Panama were false. But are these bases strictly for interdicting drug traffic, or for something else as well? On the contracting spreadsheet that Lindsay-Poland obtained, the base projects bore the code “CNT,” for “Counter-Narco-Terrorism.” In standard US military usage, that means the fight against FARC but not against garden variety criminal gangs or Colombia’s drug-funded right-wing paramilitary groups. Sociologist and political analyst Marco Gandásegui pointed out that:
Late last year the Defense Department signed a contract for a total of $4 million to build military barracks and a dock with military capabilities in “Puerto” Piña [on Piñas Bay in the Darien]. The place where the investment in the military barracks will be made (or is already being made) coincides with the area in which the Panamanian government denounced the existence of a FARC camp.
The spread sheet on the contract also provides a few more details on a situation that contributes to the Martinelli administration’s poor standing with the country’s indigenous communities, as it refers to bases in El Porvenir and Puerto Obaldia, which are in Kuna Yala. Puerto Obaldia is a predominantly Afro-Panamanian (and Afro-Colombian) enclave in the quasi autonomous Kuna commonwealth, but El Porvenir is in the heart of Kuna country, where the local authorities have made it abundantly clear that police or military bases are not welcome.
For his part, Lindsay-Poland has found some interesting things, but wants to learn more:
CNT refers to Counter-NarcoTerrorism. There are other projects that are funded by CNTPO, which is the Counter Narcotics Technology Program Office of the Pentagon.
These could imply either US or Panamanian use. That’s why I think pushing for disclosure of access agreements with the United States is key, as these would shape the terms of US use.