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Volume 14, Number 9
May 4 - 17, 2008

front page

Next Issue:  The next issue is under production --- click to see what's up

An iguana destined for the dinner table
photo by Allan Hawkins


Another expression for iguana here in Panama is "pollo de palo" --- literally translated, stick chicken --- as reptiles and amphibians taste a lot like birds and iguanas are mostly arboreal. This iguana, which looks like it's about to shed its skin as all reptiles do, was encountered by Allan Hawkins at the Azuero Fair. Has it been stewed with a little sofrito by the time you see this photo?

Panama is a little country that has regional cultures, cuisines and dialects. The Azuero Peninsula, which is more arid than the rest of the country, is the heartland of the cultura típica, with such expressions as the cumbia, tamborito and decima musical genres; mud and wattle quincha house construction; polleras and montunos and so on. One of its towns, Chitre, is the place to go for tiles if you need them for your Spanish-style roof or the interior of your house. Another of its towns, Las Tablas, is home to the biggest of all the Carnival celebrations. Panama's liquor distilling industry is headquartered in the Azuero, and the peninsula's blunt southern shore, from Pedasi to Tonosi, is home to Panama's most notable surfing beaches.

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The Azuero is shared among three provinces, Herrera, part of Veraguas and Los Santos. The baseball team from the latter, whose home field is in Las Tablas, won this year's national baseball tournament. By the time that competition is held, the best Panamanian practitioners of the sport are playing in various professional leagues abroad, primarily in the United States but also in Mexico and Japan. If you want to see the major leaguers of tomorrow you should catch the national junior tournament in January and February and if you want your alma mater to go to the NCAA College World Series you should encourage the baseball coach to attend or send somebody to scout and recruit that tournament, as many major league organizations do.

The other day I went to the Rodney Carew National Stadium in Panama City to catch a baseball game in which the all-stars from the various military services in the US Southern Command played the all-stars from the teams that didn't make it to the national baseball tournament's finals. It was kind of a lopsided contest and at times the stadium was blanketed in toxic smoke from a fire at the city dump nearby on Cerro Patacon. I discovered first-hand one of the hazards of sports photography --- while I was shooting a photo of a batter swinging, he fouled off the pitch and, having been watching through the tunnel vision of my camera, I wasn't able to catch the ball's trajectory. It hit me squarely in the chest. No injury to me, or to the camera, but it was a reminder of just how horrible a player I was back in Little League.

A few days before that I was in Margarita, where Manzanillo International Terminal, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America rebuilt the old Little League stadium where I used to play. They did a beautiful job.

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On May 2 most of the country got a heavy rain, and although we are not getting rain every day the shift in the winds tells us that dry season is over. I want to get another day of heavy rain before I start putting in my garden, but meanwhile in San Carlos there are two of the sure signs of rainy season's onset:

1. Bugs are emerging from the soil, tree bark and other dry season places and we're getting the first flying insect invasions of the year. There are lots of fireflies and the first of the things that crunch when you roll over in bed. The little black beetles that bite will no doubt be along soon. I have burned my first Chinese punk coils of the year.

2. We're getting an early mango season and I have been harvesting and processing a lot of fruit from my mother's trees. As a matter of fact, at my side as I type these words I have a mango milkshake in my mug. (Chunks of mangoes, crushed ice, milk and sugar, liquefied in the blender.)

Last night I did a panagringo variation on a Cuban recipe. I thawed a couple of frozen turkey legs in the microwave, then stripped the meat away from the bones and tendons and cut it up into bite-sized chunks. Meanwhile in a saucepan I simmered about two cups of diced mango (not including peels or seeds, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept), a small onion (sliced), a couple of cloves of garlic (minced), dashes of powdered ginger and Chinese mustard powder and a few drops of aji chombo sauce. After heating and stirring, when the mango chunks have dissolved into goo and the onions are transparent, the sauce is ready. The chunks of turkey go into a casserole dish and the mango sauce goes on top of it and it all goes in the oven. When the meat is thoroughly cooked, then the night's main dish, turkey in mango sauce, is ready.

Put mango slices away in the freezer now and you'll be able to have mango sauce and milkshakes when the season's over. Dry bits of mango in a food dehydrator and those can be the basis of another set of recipes, if you don't eat them as sweets first.

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One of the delaying factors in getting this issue's front page uploaded was that I spent the evening of May 6 watching election returns from North Carolina and Indiana. It was a fascinating show for a politics junkie and another shift in momentum that surely makes Obama the presumptive Democratic nominee. (I expect them to split the remaining primaries, and even if she does better than I expect he'll end the primary season far ahead.)

In this issue I give space to US presidential politics: Obama weighs in on energy policy and McCain on health care in the English opinion section, while Hillary Clinton talks about immigration reform and George W. Bush talks about NAFTA in the Spanish-language opinion sections.

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Quite frankly, I have hated the mudslinging and guilt by association campaign that the Clintons have been waging and I'm glad to see that it hasn't succeeded in changing the basic momentum of the campaign. No doubt what the Clintons began, the Republicans will continue in the fall.

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his beliefs don't particularly offend me, although I do find some of them fairly bizarre and I can readily understand Barack Obama's irritation when Wright says or insinuates that Obama agrees in his heart but won't say so. That's insulting because it demeans the presidential candidate as unduly influenced by others or hypocritical or both, so I understand Obama's harsh words about his former pastor.

But we should also be aware that much of the attack on Obama for his association with Wright is based upon a totally distorted lifting out of context of a few seconds of the pastor's remarks. The Clinton people and the Republicans sought to bring the campaign into the gutter with that tactic, but meanwhile on PBS Bill Moyers did a show that put the remarks in their proper context, and you can watch that show online by clicking here.

Some of the conspiracy theories that Wright and, polls indicate, a large portion of the African American community believe are, on the other hand, pretty far out there. But then, it's not as it Wright is deranged or ignorant or insincere. There are reasons why he and a lot of other people believe as they do in certain unreasonable propositions.

Are we, for example, to blame the US government for the spread of AIDS among black people? Are we to even go farther than that and believe that the disease itself was the product of a US military germ warfare experiment? Wright has embraced the former idea, and a surprisingly large number of people also believe the latter one.

The best evidence is that HIV originated as a disease among a species of monkeys in Africa and was somehow transmitted to humans there --- maybe by someone eating monkey meat that wasn't fully cooked or maybe by someone being bitten by an infected animal. The exact circumstances of the cross-species jump we will probably never know. It seems to have been around among people for many years before it was identified. The ability of this virus to mutate was surely a factor in it becoming so contagious, and then a few unhappy circumstances shaped the ways in which the epidemic grew. DNA and other evidence suggests, for example, that a single person was the vector by which the disease was introduced into the North American gay community, where it thrived on promiscuity. It is also known that in the early days of the US epidemic the disease spread rapidly among drug addicts who shared needles, a disproportionate percentage of whom were black. It has gone well beyond that now and is neither a "gay disease" nor a "junkie disease," and in many parts of the world was never either one of those things.

But is there a history of the US government experimenting on black people with infectious diseases? Yes there is. The most notorious example was the "Tuskeegee Study" of how, over many decades of unethical medical supervision, untreated syphilis affected black men.

And is there a history of the US government experimenting with, developing or using "ethnic weapons" that would affect one race or nationality differently than another? That goes way back to before the days of the American republic with the legendary passing out of blankets infected with smallpox among Indians, includes US experiments during World War II on Panama's San Jose Island to see if Puerto Rican soldiers reacted differently to mustard gas than other American troops, and gets into more modern research in search of stink bombs that are more annoying to Third World cultures without modern plumbing.

No doubt, US military labs are involved in biological weapons research. If nothing else, this is done to protect against an attacker that might not have the same scruples about germ warfare that the American government presumably does. Recall that in the days after Al Qaeda attacked the United States there was a big scare about anthrax letters, which caused at least five deaths. The crime remains unsolved but it is believed by both US law enforcement agencies and scientists, on the basis of DNA tests, that the pathogens used in those attacks were obtained from a US military lab.

And if AIDS was spread through black communities starting with the junkies, what has been the role of the US government with respect to drug trafficking? Yes, there are the DEA and the War on Drugs and there are hundreds of thousands of people locked up in the United States for drug offenses. But then there was also heroin smuggling by the CIA's Air America during the Vietnam era. The Reagan administration's Contra War against Nicaragua also involved US alliances with cocaine smugglers. Also notice that since the Taliban was replaced by a government that the United States backs, Afghanistan's opium production has gone way up.

The initial US public policy reaction to the AIDS epidemic was flawed in many respects, and it would be easy to twist this into a charge that the government spread HIV in black (and other) communities. But did it cause the AIDS epidemic as a deliberate, malicious act? There is no credible evidence out there to support this proposition, even though a lot of people, especially a lot of African Americans, believe this to be the case.

On this point I believe Jeremiah Wright to be wrong, and Barack Obama rejects the reverend's belief about that as well. But given what I have cited above and many other examples that could feed suspicions, I can't say that Wright's mistaken belief on that point is a lunatic's fantasy.

In any case, for the Clintons to base an attack on Barack Obama for his association with Jeremiah Wright is a prime example of the unprincipled crudeness in American politics that Obama has been criticizing on the campaign trail all these months. After all, when Bill Clinton was facing impeachment charges for some obnoxious personal behavior and lies that he told to deny it, who came to the president's defense? Why, as you can see from this White House photo, none other than --- Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Clintons hypocritically bashed Obama about Reverend Wright because they well knew that their opponent's character is such that he wouldn't stoop down into the gutter and throw that association back at them.

'Nuff said about this pastor. If the GOP wants to make an issue of it in the fall, the Democrats can start talking about the holy men in and around the McCain camp.

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Here in Panama the Democrats are resurgent from a low point a few years ago and the US antiwar movement may not be marching in the streets of this country but it has strong support and was surely an important factor in Obama carrying Panama in the Democrats Abroad primary.

But we also have a part of the American community here that enthusiastically backs the Iraq War. They'll be gathering at the Navy League meeting on May 20 to hear a report from the former deputy director of the Strategic Counterintelligence Directoate (SCID) on the progress that's allegedly being made in that conflict. The SCID is an organization that combines the various military and civilian government agencies and "civilian contractor" mercenaries to, as a recruiting firm puts it on its website, conduct "investigations and operations to identify and neutralize or influence the activities of Foreign Intelligence and Security Service (FISS), terrorist, insurgent, and other entities adversely affecting the mission."

Meanwhile, do we hear the drums of war off in the distance in this region? The US Navy has reconstituted its Fourth Fleet after many decades, with one of the reasons given being the rise of governments in Latin America and the Caribbean that are not friendly to US policies.

Meanwhile in landlocked Bolivia, there is a secessionist movement in the country's eastern region --- where most of the white people who lost power to the indigenous majority with the election victory of Evo Morales live, and under which most of the country's oil and gas lies. It may come to blows, just as when an oil-producing part of Nigeria tried to become independent Biafra and as when the southern states tried to secede from the United States. Here in Panama some of the folks whom you would suspect are beginning to mobilize support for Bolivian unity.

And then there is the steady stream of newspaper stories and outright propaganda that suggests that Panama really needs to drop its traditional "hands off" approach to Colombia's civil conflicts and support the Bogota government and its irregular death squad auxiliaries against FARC. Might FARC be playing right into the hands of such people as well? And if FARC is a foreign terrorist group operating in Panama, are they the only one? One needs to be cautious --- as some of the folks whom you would expect not to be are not --- but our lead story this time is about a couple of possible terrorist angles to what at first was reported as a garden variety kidnapping.

In cases like these one needs to be careful, to note the biases and the background details that might be relevant, and to be patient with people and institutions that are wary of saying something that could get somebody killed. I try.

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It looks like Panama's electric rates, already high, are about to go up again. It's a big deal for everybody, even those who don't directly see it because their household electricity is subsidized.

High energy costs are one of the major factors driving a worldwide spike in food prices, which is starting to cause food riots in some of the poorest countries like Haiti, is destabilizing governments of various political hues and which is the subject of labor agitation in many places. For this issue I attended the Mayday parades, noted who was there and who wasn't and in what numbers, read the different unions' literature and talked to some of the different labor leaders. There is simmering discontent among working people in Panama and one of the main reasons why this is so is the increased cost of living.

I also stopped by the courthouse in Balboa where the number two man in SUNTRACS, Saúl Méndez, had s preliminary hearing on some conspiracy allegations. (The judge threw out the charges but the prosecutors say they'll appeal.)

This edition's featured Cool Internet sites are also labor-oriented, with looks at the origin of Mayday, Panama's two most successful labor unions and some interesting websites from the US labor movement.

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I have been in food production mode of late, and really do need to visit some more restaurants in order to write some more dining out articles. Maybe on my own, or as contributions from some of you readers, I should publish some more recipes in the coming issues as well.

But this time I received a kitchen feature with the recipe not included.


Eric Jackson
the editor

* Although this front page is several days behind deadline and there are still parts of this issue yet undone, other parts of this publication appeared before the stated publication date. All of these sorts of problems will be taken care of in a new format to come, but meanwhile, and after the new platform is installed and running as well, people who are on The Panama News email list can get notified as new things are uploaded onto this website. Send me an email asking to subscribe if you want to get on the email list.

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