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Volume 15, Number 15
October 1, 2009


Also in this section:
Prosecutor: Toll in DEG poisoning may be 10 times what Torrijos admitted
PANAMAX 2009 naval maneuvers
Pope meets with Martinelli, announces he's coming to Panama
Minister's decision on refugees, racial comments cause stir
Escorcia out as Transito director, Transito may be out in reorganization
Bogus travel expenses add to Bosco's woes
Ngobe protests mount
Venezuela in the news again, but most Panamanians yawn

Mulino's earlier remarks about African migrants drew protests from black leaders and refugee advocates
Martinelli proposes new anti-Chinese discrimination in immigration law
by Eric Jackson

They're not staying here. They're people who are different in every way and have nothing to do here. They are not convenient for us nor do they interest us.
Government & Justice Minister José Raúl Mulino
referring to 56 undocumented African migrants

The traffic in undocumented Orientals is over now.
President Ricardo Martinelli

Panama has overtly racist immigrations laws. Immigration from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and that part of the Caribbean that doesn't speak Spanish is subject to special restrictions. It does happen, but generally only by stealth or by payment of large sums to corrupt public officials. Human rights activists and diplomats have complained about it for years, but there haven't been any changes. Part of that is because it is watered by a reservoir of racism within Panamanian society, and part of it is because illegal immigration has been a lucrative business both for human smugglers and for crooked politicians and bureaucrats.

Former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares probably has the most prominent case --- he can't get a visa to go to or through the United States because of his role in granting irregular visas to dozens of Chinese citizens, who were believed to have intended to pass through here only briefly en route to an illegal crossing into US territory. It has been a long time since any news of any Panamanian prosecution or even investigation of any public official for any sort of corruption in immigration has been published.

There was an immigration reform law passed in the Torrijos administration, but this was about extracting more money from visitors, requiring proof of more income from pensionados, shortening the duration of tourism visas and creating a registry of foreigners living in Panama. There was also a change with respect to those seeking political asylum, as our previous practice of summarily deporting Colombians fleeing the right-wing paramilitaries but unofficially tolerating those fleeing the left-wing guerrillas was at odds with treaties that Panama had signed and was a long-standing irritant with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the Jesuit Refugee Service. The Torrijos immigration reforms were passed without considering the budget implications and the foreigner registration cards and other parts of the legislation have yet to be fully implemented.

People from the Horn of Africa

Starting in about June, authorities in both Panama and Costa Rica began to encounter groups of West Africans who had landed illegally. Law enforcement officials in both countries believe that they were brought ashore by a smuggling operation that aimed to eventually land them in Canada. In Darien province or the waters just off of it, dozens of Somalis and smaller numbers of Eritreans and Ethiopians were taken into custody. A boatload of migrants from the Horn of African found off Jaque was summarily sent back to Colombia.

Virtually all of the Africans taken into custody in Panama and Costa Rica applied for refugee status. Given that they are all from war-ravaged lands with governments that are known for practices that contravene internationally accepted human rights standards, they might well have well founded fears of persecution if they return. However, most of those fleeing from that part of the world do so not so much because they fear being dragged away by soldiers or police due to their political beliefs or affiliations, but because war and political turmoil make it impossible to make a living.

So now Costa Rica and Panama, like the European Union members and many other countries, are faced with the vexing "political refugee" versus "economic migrant" sorting process.

However, not as far as Minister of Government and Justice José Raúl Mulino is concerned. He has decided that they can't stay because they are different than Panamanians. "They're not staying here. They're people who are different in every way and have nothing to do here. They are not convenient for us nor do they interest us," Mulino proclaimed this past August.

José Mendoza of the Jesuit Refugee Service was appalled. He complained in La Prensa that people who had properly filed requests for refugee status were being deported without any decision on their applications, in violation of international law. Concurring in his objection was Magaly Castillo, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, who said that Mulino's words aroused her "indignation" and argued that "these persons deserve humanitarian treatment in accordance with the norms of international law."

The Veraguas Educators Association (AEVE), a teachers' union, also protested Mulino's declaration and the example that it sets for kids. "No human being is illegal," AEVE said on its website. "We all have a right to be somewhere where we can live in peace.... We live in a country that's blessed at least in that the avarice of the rich has not taken as its justification color, race or religion to impose itself by force, but now that's being symbolically done."

By far the most criticism of Mulino's statements comes from Panama's West Indian community, the descendants of those who built the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal. Anti-racist activist Alberto Barrow asked:

Would the Minister of Government and Justice have said the same if those to be repatriated were Central Europeans? Of course, to have done so would have been equally questionable. will the representatives of the National Council of the Black Race guard their silence, as they have before? Will I be suffering from some sort of complex if I point out Minister José Raúl Mulino as a racist?

On behalf of the recently founded Dr. George Priestley Afro Panama Observatory, Barrow took a sounding of community opinion, and, particularly from West Indian Panama Canal retirees, the tone of the responses was more scathing than his. There were calls for Mulino's removal.

Neither Mulino himself nor the Martinelli administration have made any response to the criticism.

Martinelli announces anti-Chinese policies on a Chinese holiday

Panama's Chinese community is more than 150 years old, having first established itself in the 1850s with laborers for the construction of the Panama Railroad. Among the mainly West Indian laborers who created the banana plantations of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro provinces, there were some Chinese workers and in short order Chinese-owned small businesses became the backbone of the retail economy in those provinces. When the Americans established the old Canal Zone, they brought in Chinese gardeners as the enclave's tiny capitalist class to supply the canal workers with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Chinese immigration, legal and illegal, continued. Most communities in the Interior were served by Chinese-owned businesses, which were generally the only institutions that afforded any sort of credit to the farmers and ranchers there.

In the 1920s a group called Accion Comunal, which copied a certain American sartorial fashion --- the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan --- lobbied for the expulsion of all persons of Asian, Middle Eastern or Afro-Caribbean descent from Panama. This group, whose leaders included the Arias Madrid brothers, Harmodio and Arnulfo, briefly took over the government in a January 1932 coup, won the elections that followed, and dominated the government until an October 1941 coup that was engineered by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The brother who was overthrown, Arnulfo, gave the name and personality to the movement --- Arnulfismo --- whose legacy is embodied in today's Panameñista Party, an important component of President Martinelli's ruling coalition. Harmodio, who preceded his brother as president, was the founder of El Panama America. (So now do that paper's editorials in favor of racial segregation and stereotypical cartoons about Asians appear in a context for you?) Just before his ouster on the eve of the US entry into World War II, the pro-Axis Arnulfo Arias promulgated a constitution that stripped all Panamanians of Chinese descent (and a number of other ethnic groups) of their citizenship and property rights.

In the 1920s Panama enacted versions of its current racist immigration hierarchy into law, and these restrictions survived the overthrow of Arnulfo Arias and abrogation of his 1941 constitution.

But meanwhile, China was at war with itself and, from the mid-30s to the mid-40s, with Japan. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood before an enthusiastic crowd in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China. "We, the 475 million people of China, have now stood up," Mao declared. "The future of our nation is infinitely bright."

Until Mao's death in 1976, the Chinese people's future was with very few exceptions in China alone. Emigration was prohibited and for a generation there wasn't much growth in Panama's Chinese community, other than its natural increase through births that outnumbered deaths.

Those controls came off after Mao's demise and there ensued a wave of Chinese immigration, both legal and illegal, into Panama. From China's post-Mao opening until Panamanian dictatorship's 1989 demise, the sale of immigrant visas, passports, and even diplomatic credentials to Chinese citizens seeking to illegally enter the United States was a highly profitable business for the military caste and its civilian accomplices. After democracy returned crooked civilians took up where the old regime left off.

One town in China's Guandong province, Fa Yen, provided most of the new immigrants. Whereas prior generations of Chinese newcomers spoke Cantonese (Yue) as their native tongue, the people from Fa Yen speak the Hakka dialect in their homes and, like all other Chinese, learn Mandarin in school. The influx from Fa Yen had a major impact on the local Chinese community and its institutions.

Panama compiles no statistics about race, ethnicity, native language or national origin in its census, so estimates of the size of Panama's Chinese community vary widely. At the lower end, the figures start at about 130,000, a bit more than four percent of the country's population.

Some interesting and close to real-life spy novels could be written about intrigues between Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China that play themselves out in Panama. The two countries' respective main shipping companies, Evergreen and COSCO, get fair numbers of people with military or politician backgrounds assigned here. Panama formally recognizes Taiwan, but China is vastly more important to our economy. The rivalry runs through Panama's Chinese community, its Chinese-language media and its various organizations. The norm with most of the local Chinese organizations is to recognize that China is one civilization, whose mainland is ruled by one government and the island of Formosa by another, and thus to straddle these differences. Panama's Chinese tend to celebrate both the main holiday on the mainland, the October 1 observance of the Peoples Republic's foundation, and Taiwan's main patriotic holiday, the October 10 anniversary of Sun Yat-sen's proclamation of the Republic of China in 1911.

October 1 this year was the 60th anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China. Many in the Chinese community had decided to take the day off to celebrate.

But meanwhile, with the return to power of a coalition including the Panameñistas on July 1, there came a wave of complaints that functionaries of the new administration were harassing Chinese-owned businesses.

An ad-hoc group calling itself "Digamos NO a la injusticia con los chinos" --- We say No to injustice against the Chinese --- put up a Facebook page and complained of arbitrary fines and closures of businesses, the freezing of bank accounts, and shakedowns of small Chinese-owned businesses. A few militants were calling for a business strike to protest. Given the Confucian value of deference to authority, these sorts of things had been almost unheard of in Panama's Chinese community.

On September 29 TVN --- a television network reported to be partly owned by President Martinelli, although due to Panama's corporate secrecy laws that can't be confirmed --- aired a report that the Chinese community would be going on strike on October 1. Commerce and Industry Minister Roberto Henríquez --- whose own Jewish community had many members who shut the businesses they owned on the previous day to observe Yom Kippur --- said that he didn't know of any reason for a strike but he'd be ready to mediate any differences.

Later that day two of Panama's largest and most respected Chinese organizations, the Chinese Association of Panama and the Chinese-Panamanian Chamber of Commerce, held a joint meeting to discuss the strike rumor spread by TVN. The meeting largely consisted of a litany of grievances from Chinese all across Panama, but ended with a resolution disavowing any strike call or any knowledge of anyone in the community making one, acknowledging that many Chinese would take October 1 off and advising them to post signs that the closure was "for the holiday," and urging those members of the community who had been the targets of discriminatory treatment by government officials to register their complaints with the two organizations so that they could be brought up in meetings with the government.

Come October 1, a lot of Chinese-owned businesses were closed, and Ricardo Martinelli took the opportunity of the swearing-in of a new Seguro Social director to make an announcement.

"The traffic in undocumented Orientals is over now," the president declared. "He who wants to come to this country comes by legal means."

La Prensa reported that Martinelli also said that there would be changes in immigration laws, one of which will be that "Oriental citizens" must make a large deposit in the Banco Nacional to enter the country.

The Chinese community was annoyed. A delegation from the Chinese Association of Panama went on Telemetro News and said that, while it is all well and good that people immigrate legally, in the case of Chinese the papers are usually delayed, and that in all of 2008 only 80 naturalizations were approved in all of Panama. They also complained that many of their businesses serve high crime areas and don't get very much police protection.

Juan Tam, a retired Panama Canal employee and the local Chinese community's historian, put it in perspective:

We do have problems as usual, but it has been exacerbated by jealous officials who have been flocking upon Chinese businesses by the hundreds.... [Martinelli]... has been talking of bad immigration policies which were created by others, and now he has added some. Imagine you if want to become a citizen, and alas it is impossible and difficult to complete the record, because of the lack of officials' willingness to complete it.

He has been telling us over and over that Panama is to become the next Hong Kong or the Dubai of the Americas. The question is how will it be, if they are scaring everyone out?

Tam urged that abiding by the law --- including the immigration laws --- is the only recourse that the Chinese community has. However, he added that government officials must also obey the law and apply a single standard to everybody.

Martinelli said that before submitting an immigration law reform to the National Assembly, he would meet with Chinese organizations. He did not mention Afro-Panamanian groups or refugee advocates.

Also in this section:
Prosecutor: Toll in DEG poisoning may be 10 times what Torrijos admitted
PANAMAX 2009 naval maneuvers
Pope meets with Martinelli, announces he's coming to Panama
Minister's decision on refugees, racial comments cause stir
Escorcia out as Transito director, Transito may be out in reorganization
Bogus travel expenses add to Bosco's woes
Ngobe protests mount
Venezuela in the news again, but most Panamanians yawn

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© 2009 by Eric Jackson
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