A snow job in a country that has never had a blizzard
President Torrijos takes great care to only let those Panamanian reporters whom he controls, or whose news organizations are financially beholden to him, get close to him. And so it was with the press conference at the start of this year's Panama Jazz Festival, featuring the president this time.
Other than the usual political jive and the ordinary monopolistic practices of the ad cartel founded by the first lady's father and its siamese twins in the aligned media, why the careful exclusion of so much of the Panamanian press?
Because at this press conference a president who has just ordered deep cuts in the teaching of music and art in the public schools and is about to get into a big fight with the teachers about it set things up to brag about his support for the arts and he didn't want any local reporters other than lapdogs in the room with the foreign reporters who didn't know how they were being used.
The well-established Torrijos and PRD media handling modus operandi includes putting amazingly distorted and false ideas into the heads of foreigners, and then having cooperative local news media whose reporters and editors know better publish that disinformation as news when clueless foreigners repeat it.
It's something that the president's father, General Omar Torrijos, also used quite effectively, for example to get Jimmy Carter to certify that the disappearances of dozens of dissidents and of Father Héctor Gallego --- a Catholic parish priest who committed the unpardonable sin of founding a rural cooperative that competed with a business owned by one of the general's relatives --- never happened.
More recently, it has been used by the Panama Canal Authority, which at the end of 1999 changeover altered the definition of "accident" that included whenever a ship touches the wall or gate of the locks to only incidents in which an insurance claim will be filed, compared US-era statistics under the old definition with ACP statistics under the new definition as if they were the same, then hailed the contrived result as a demonstration of Mr. Alemán Zubieta's managerial genius. Sadly, they got the likes of US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to repeat the false claim of an amazingly improved safety record, which was then reported as news down here.
Torrijos did get the repetitions he was looking for over the course of the jazz festival, and no doubt "Torrijos, the patron of the arts" will be thrown in the teachers' faces as push comes to shove over severe cutbacks in the public schools' teaching of art, music, physical education and history.
Panama's a small country without a lot of US scholars who specialize in studying us. Really, Panamanians know Americans a lot better than the other way around, as imperfectly as the United States may be understood by many people here. That creates opportunities for Panamanians with vested interests in the creation of certain fictions for US consumption.
The main fault here lies with dishonest Panamanian politicians. However, there's also an important lesson to be learned by and from those who are deceived, who are generally not fools.
A great power that exercises or aspires to world leadership shouldn't be but can hardly avoid being so gullible. "Martín Torrijos, patron of the arts" is just the farcical flip side of the tragic expectation that the people of Iraq would first be shocked and awed and then greet the US Armed Forces as beloved liberators.
The whole process of Washington junketeering --- the quick, carefully managed 'fact finding' visits to hear selected dignitaries --- might be better if more politically unpalatably replaced by longer and less formal visits in which those who would like to know could explore, mingle and get a sense of a country and its people, without all the minders. But that not being the case, foreign politicians and other public figures should simply be a lot slower to make pronouncements about countries that they don't know very well.
Time for change, and see the desperation of those who fear it
The American community in Panama has its full spectrum of opinions, but it has always been the far right that has appointed itself as the judge of who's American and who is not. Again and again, the belligerent rednecks have endeavored to shove everyone else in the community aside and present themselves as the sole spokespeople, and it has sometimes led to great tragedies or historic political defeats.
On both sides of the US partisan divide, voters in the primaries and caucuses are clamoring for change. On both sides, the opponents of change are trying to stir up all manner of fears and doubts.
One of the most obnoxious manifestations of this in the American community here is an extreme right-wing local English-language website's publication of an ignorant screed that contends that Senator John McCain is ineligible to be president of the United States because he's not a "natural born citizen." McCain was born in a military hospital in the old Canal Zone. His mother is and was a US citizen, as was his late father. By law, those born to American citizen parents are "natural born citizens" of the United States.
So let us make no mistake about those who purport to speak for the "expat community," as they like to style it, these days: they advocate all manner of irrational and downright creepy discrimination, and just in case gay bashing or illegal immigrant bashing or intimidating African-Americans from voting don't work this year, they're opposing the birthright of those born to US citizens outside the confines of the USA. Put another way, they oppose the right of the people whom they say they represent to pass their American citizenship on to their children.
Now they may protest that they intend nothing of the sort, that they're just leveling a shotgun blast at the presidential aspirations of John McCain, whom they don't like because he's not as committed to the status quo as they would like. The Americans whose citizenship they impugn are just "collateral damage" in their little intra-party political wars. But they're still taking a stand against the entire American community here, in a vain attempt to resist elemental forces of change back in the States.
That's one more reason why the Republicans are no longer the dominant political force in Panama's American community. People have become tired of all the fanatics and hustlers, and of those who continually launch vitriolic attacks on their fellow Americans' citizenship and rights. Even fellow Republicans --- and not just John McCain and his supporters --- are getting sick of this stuff.
Americans who live down here come in many different descriptions, but as a community we do have some needs and aspirations in common. To be able to deal with any of that we really must get past the old stereotypes, turn away from the attack dogs and charlatans, recognize new and better leaders and write a new page in our community's long history.
Bear in mind...
One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot resist an idea whose time has come.
Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.
The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them.
Lois McMaster Bujold
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