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Photo © 2006 Dixon Hamby --- dixon@idixon.com --- see

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This, too, is Panama's culture

The woman above was one of the participants in the 1000 Pollera Parade, an annual event that showcases not only the famous pollera dresses but many other Panamanian traditions as well. It does attract tourists, but doesn't take place in the dry season, when we get most of our visitors. This is an occasion when isthmians, in all of our subcultures, step out and say "this is who we are!"

A study of Panamanian blood types and factors associated with the different races found in a sample of people born in seven different provinces that added together, they were around 38 percent of African descent, 35 percent of indigenous American ancestry and 26 percent of European heritage. Part of this country's Catholic culture, which never discouraged interracial marriages, is that most Panamanians are of mixed race. One of the consequences of Panama's geography is that we are an international crossroads and this is expressed in myriad cultural forms. Thus the notion that some phenomenon might be "a black thing that you wouldn't understand" is itself a thing that most Panamanians wouldn't understand. Not to say that we don't have our race relations problems, but compared to the USA Panama is very relaxed and tolerant. So there's nothing unusual about a woman with blue eyes wearing a fashion with Afro-Panamanian roots --- after all, that's what a pollera is.

I spent a good part of the past two weeks doing a "gringo thing" that a lot of Panamanians don't understand --- putting up food. Ah, but we Panagringos have been established on the isthmus for more than 150 years now, and homemade jam is every bit a part of Panamanian culture as Chinese plums.

I also spent quite a few hours reading some more of the studies said to support the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan to expand the Panama Canal. This time I looked at salt water intrusion into Gatun Lake through the proposed water-saving locks. In all their debate presentations, TV call-in shows and propaganda, the ACP has claimed that the new locks won't affect water quality at all, but their own studies find that they "will generally lead to a higher salt concentration level of Gatun Lake" and there is not adequate mathematical model to figure out how bad the problem will be. It's the lead story in the business section because it would have serious economic implications --- to mitigate the problem the ACP would have to flush fresh water through the locks between ships, which would have implications for both water supply and for the time it takes to get ships through the canal. But if the problem is not mitigated the drinking water supply for most of Panama's population could become too brackish for human consumption, and to install and run desalinization equipment at the Miraflores and Mount Hope water treatment plants would be ruinously expensive. It's one of the issues that voters will have to consider in the referendum that has yet to be scheduled, but will likely take place sometime in November.

I caught a forum on environmental aspects canal expansion at the University of Panama, and the academics from various had different outlooks but all tended to agree that there are too many unknowns for complacency. But would you be reassured that the CEO of a Chinese state-owned company is urging Panamanians to support the proposal? The debate carries on in the English and Spanish opinion sections, and will be with us at least until the vote.

But how long will the National Assembly debate the plan, and when? There are less than two weeks left in the regular legislative session and as these words were written the plan hadn't even passed the Cabinet Council, and thus had not been submitted to the legislature. That means either that it will be jammed through the process with as little debate as possible or that there will be a special session called to take up the matter in July or August.

I think that a full assembly debate during reasonable hours would begin to clarify the issues at stake in most Panamanians' minds and they won't turn out to be clear-cut in either direction. (It might, however, turn people's minds against those who say that the issues are simpler than they actually are.) A process by which the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan passes through the assembly with little or no debate would, on the other hand, likely be a huge boost for the "no" campaign. People are sick of those kinds of games.

And the politicians are giving us yet more sick stuff. One is a proposal speeding through the legislature that would prohibit prosecutors from investigating criminal activity by legislators, and would require a two-thirds rather than simple majority of the Supreme Court to lift a legislator's immunity from prosecution. (Wouldn't the likes of Duke Cunningham have loved to have such a system in place in the USA?) Another proposal, put forward by President Torrijos's Penal Code Revision Commission, would increase the penalties for criminal defamation, and provide prison terms for journalists who write true stories about corruption by individuals or institutions if some judge decides that the process of verifying the unchallenged truth was somehow inadequate. In the letters section I am being threatened by a species of hustler whose activities I reported in the last issue, but judging from the actions our president, cabinet members and legislators actually like the use of Panama as a center for international frauds and are working hard to prevent anybody from reporting about it. I am neither impressed nor intimidated.

Meanwhile, at the moment most Panamanians are thinking more about soccer than politics. Our team didn't make it to the World Cup, but you see all these Brazilian and Argentine flags around the city --- people are rooting for the Latin Americans.

One thing that seems to be off of the radar screen here, with a few honorable exceptions, is the subject of this issue's editorial. A Spanish government report about the kidnapping of the Colastras from the Darien earlier this year says that it was the FARC guerrillas, who demanded a ransom. Now precisely what to do about such outrageous committed by Colombian invaders of Panamanian territory is a very hard question, but one that we ignore at the nation's peril.

There is a fair amount of excitement about an upcoming visit here by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, on the occasion of the 180th anniversary of Simón Bolívar's Congreso Anfictionico, in which he came to Panama in an unsuccessful effort to unify Latin America. Chávez is something of a folk hero to many Latin Americans, including a fair number of Panamanians. People should not take the enthusiastic welcome he'll get here as a sign that the average Panamanian hates Americans. There are some tensions, some caused by unpopular things that the Bush administration does, some by the economic dislocations caused by foreign expats driving up real estate prices in several areas of the country. Generally, however, Panamanian-American relations are friendly at all levels.

(And speaking of distinguished foreign visitors, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, was recently in town for a regional health ministers' meeting. His remarks to the gathering, about the risks of a pandemic of the flu or some other disease, are published in Spanish here.)

There will be three weeks between this issue and the next one, as June hath five Fridays this year and The Panama News publication schedule is twice per month rather than every two weeks. I plan to make some jam, watch some soccer, catch Chávez's act in the Casco Viejo's Plaza Bolívar, watch politicians' contortions and maybe even go for a swim now and then.

I also want to work on some of the link buttons on this website and some of you folks might be able to help me. A reader asked me for a recipe, so I went to the Panamanian cuisine button on the dining page, and found that several of the links no longer work. I know that I have not updated the religious services listing found via the button in the community section for a long time. In this issue I added the coolest and least mercenary of the Casco Viejo websites to the bottom of the travel page and a new Panamanian publication to the Spanish-language pages. But you could help me a lot by checking out the buttons, telling me which ones have links that no longer work, suggesting new buttons to add, updating or adding to  information and that sort of thing.

Finally, let me remind you of a couple of things that are coming up that may be of interest to North American residents of Panama.

On July 1 the growing Canadian community here is gathering to observe Canada Day.

Then, on the Fourth of July at the Balboa Yacht Club there will be a party starting at 3:00 in the afternoon, and fireworks starting at 7 p.m. I remember how the old Canal Zone used to put on major celebrations for Fourth of July, and then how in a later era the celebrations were very muted things restricted to the military bases out of fear of offending some nationalist feelings. Really, a fireworks party in which gringos gather at a public place in the Republic of Panama to celebrate who we are is a step forward for the American community, and the extent to which ordinary Panamanians are inclined to come join in the fun will be a sign of the health of Panamanian-American relations on the grass roots level.

It's OK to be an American in Panama. In fact, life here has many advantages over the USA. Enjoy.

Eric Jackson

the editor

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