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Volume 16, Number 12
November 28, 2010

front page

Some of the recently added stories:

Martinelli administration snared in scandals
WikiLeaks document: Official doubts about PanCanal expansion contractors
La vaina de las licitaciones de la ampliación del canal, en ojos norteamericanos
The improbable Panatropolis project
Text of the US-Panama Tax Information Exchange Agreement (PDF)
Latin America and the Caribbean will grow by six percent in 2010
Coronado grows as a commercial center
Tabo Toral at Arteconsult --- The whole issue 13 culture section is uploaded (follow the links)
The Panama News Acrostic
The Panama Jazz Festival's educational mission
Unusually heavy rains disrupt many lives
Grupos de sociedad civil denuncian corrupción y debilitamiento democrático
Theatre Guild's 60th Annivsary Christmas Show
Cool Internet sites: special Christmas music edition
At the Interoceanic Canal Museum, 100 years of the Smithsonian in Panama
José Ponce's Panama scenes
A vacation in Guatemala
Weird hippie reptiles in the garden?
Harvard Law School report on Panamanian jail and prison conditions (in Spanish, PDF)
Sirias, Books that affected me
University of Haifa comes looking for potential Panama ties
Jackson, Bigotry and language
La Nińa effect expected to last through March
STRI symposium on advanced radio telemetry at Barro Colorado Island
Boehner's Panama Connection (link)
Preview of the next issue's editorials: Political prosecutions, Wikileaks and Bank secrecy
Mining Watch, the Canada-Panama Free Trade Agreement (PDF)
Will San Miguelito's mayor be saved by a party switch?
Lemon-Aid: The auto industry shakes out; and Beware the GM Volt
Wikileaks and Latin America
Letters to the editor

...also, look for daily updates from Panama and elsewhere on our Facebook page

The Panama News has a couple of sections in Spanish, as most of Panama's English-speaking community is bilingual or ought to be trying to learn the national language. For those who are trying to improve their Spanish, this online dictionary and multiple translation machine can be quite helpful.

A small business tribute to Panama, its people and its history.
Photo by José F. Ponce

In the public domain

We are well into the Panamanian holiday season, which by common reckoning stretches from November 3 through Carnival Tuesday. Yes, as part of the Catholic tradition and especially at the moment due to the Opus Dei religious right's influence in the government, it gets extended on each end, with the Day of the Dead on the front side and Ash Wednesday on the end, and with Carnival eliminated or at best tolerated. This reporter would extend it on the front side by starting with the Festival of the Black Christ. This is a rundown of Panama's national holidays for beginners, and some other things, in parentheses, that are part of the holiday season but which I don't think particularly qualify as "national" holidays:
  • October 21: The Festival of the Black Christ in Portobelo, wherein maleantes and others make a pilgrimage to get their lives right with God. Although it centers on the town's Catholic church, it's not particularly favored by the Vatican. Because it's primarily --- but by no means exclusively --- a gathering of black people, it is actively disdained by Panama's white power structure, including the current crop of politicians who sent out the cops to subject it to unprecedented harassment this year. The legend is that the old colonial commercial center of Portobelo was in the grip of a deadly epidemic when this statue of a dark-skinned Christ floated ashore and miraculously banished the plague.

  • (November 1): All Saints Day: a Catholic thing that the current Opus Dei infiltrated government would treat as something of importance in the Panamanian culture, which it is not.

  • (November 2): Day of the Dead: The not-so-fun white Catholic conservative answer to Halloween. It could be a celebration of what has gone on before, but church, state and illustrious families all live in terror of Panamanians coming to grips with this country's true history.

  • November 3: Independence Day: The anniversary of the US-backed and Wall Street engineered Conservative coup by which Panama separated from Colombia. But Panama had been torn apart and bled white by one of the more vicious episodes of Colombia's never-ending internal warfare, the Thousand Day War, so almost all Panamanians were ready to be done with Colombia. When people learned the details of the treaty that a Frenchman made with the Americans on Panama's behalf, they were less thrilled and it set off a multi-generational movement to undo the damage. There are many starkly different versions of what happened, many of which focus on different aspects but aren't actually contradictory. It came down on this day in 1903 so that the moribund French concession to build a canal wouldn't be expired and could be sold at an inflated price to the Americans.

  • November 4: Flag Day: Foreigners had come to the isthmus with a flag for the new nation, a declaration of independence and other paraphernalia for the coup. There are official and alternative versions about the flag, but by all credible accounts on this, the day after the 1903 coup, there was at least this gesture that we'd adopt our own symbols rather than those provided by extraneous hustlers.

  • November 5: The surrender of Colon's Colombian garrison. More than a military confrontation, Panama's 1903 separation from Colombia was an act of bribery. The Colombian commander on the isthmus was bought. Most of the troops were in Colon, so he issued orders for the garrison's officers to come by train and meet him in Panama City. The railroad company was a central player in the plot --- its company doctor, Manuel Amador Guerrero, became the first president of Panama. The garrison officers were taken by train to a pestilential, jungle-covered, God-forsaken spot in the middle of the isthmus, at which point the engine uncoupled from the train and left them stranded there. Meanwhile back in Colon, there was a problem: it was a bank holiday, and something had to be done about the enlisted men. The owner of the Star & Herald newspaper (the ancestor of today's La Estrella), a slippery character who was hedging his bets, opened the company safe and found enough money to go around to the local liquor stores and buy enough booze to get the soldiers paralytically drunk to celebrate the holiday. When the troops woke up from their binge, they found that the US Marines had landed and there were no officers to tell them how to proceed. The local people and US forces generously offered the Colombians an opportunity to get on a ship and sail away, which they did. Colon has celebrated this victory ever since, as well it should.

  • November 10: The Grito de Los Santos: Panama City was the colonial administrative capital, but La Villa de Los Santos in the Azuero Peninsula was and in some respects still is the heartland of the distinctive "typical" Panamanian culture. There are legends about this foxy young farmer's daughter, Rufina Alfaro, infiltrating the police barracks and leading the bloodless 1821 insurrection that led to its capture and destruction. What is known for sure is that at a public meeting the town notables, backed by the parish priest, called for independence from Spain, and in this they were promptly joined by people in other parts of the Central Provinces --- Chitre, Ocu, Parita, Penonome and Nata. Really it was a delayed reaction to great historical developments: the seizure of Spain by Napoleon may have been reversed on the European continent, but the Spanish Empire would never recover. In this neighborhood the decisive moment was a couple of years before, when Simón Bolívar and an intrepid band largely composed of adventurous Venezuelan aristocrats and exiled Irish rebels hacked their way through the jungle, scaled the snow-covered Andes, and took the Spaniards by surprise at Boyoca, forcing Spain to abandon what is now Colombia. Then, on June 21, 1821, Bolívar's army followed up on that victory by smashing Spain's forces in Venezuela at Carabobo. Panama had not yet risen against Spain by then, but the handwriting was on the wall when Los Santos issued its call.

  • November 28: Independence from Spain: It was embarrassing for the leading citizens of Panama City, lagging not only behind most of Latin America, but behind the Santeńos as well. When they got around to declaring independence in 1821, they acted as conservatively and timidly as possible. Panama was a cultural entity and economic region unto itself, a province of the old colonial Viceroyalty of New Granada. However, going it alone wasn't seriously considered by the notables. The Catholic bishop, a Peruvian, wanted Panama to join with Peru. Another faction wanted to hook up with Mexico, as the Central American provinces that were part of the old Captaincy General of Guatemala briefly did. But on this day it was decided to declare independence from Spain and become part of Bolívar's ephemeral Gran Colombia. The Spanish military commander, having previously ordered some Latin American independence activists executed at Fort San Lorenzo, gave up without a fight and escaped to Cuba with his life and such Spanish troops as remained loyal to the crown.

  • November 28: On this day in 1887 several civic leaders in Panama City --- where large portions of the Casco Viejo neighborhood had been devastated by fire on three separate occasions --- got togther to form a fire department, the Cuerpo de Bomberos. (The firefighters' main holiday, however, is May 5, for which Plaza Cinco de Mayo is named. On that date in 1914, bomberos responding to a fire call near the present-day Hospital Santa Fe went about their duty unaware of an illegal clandestine fireworks factory in one of the building that caught fire. Six firefighters were killed and 16 wounded in the explosion. "Cinco de Mayo" here is thus unrelated to the Mexican holiday of the same date, which is about battle against a French-imposed "emperor.")

  • December 8: Mothers Day: This holiday, arguably Panama's most important one, is on the Catholic Day of the Immaculate Conception. It is not related to a famous American football play by Franco Harris. It is distinct from the US Mothers Day, which was first officially recognized in 1914. Some Panamanians wanted to join in the American practice every May, but thanks to the Catholic Church the December 8 date was chosen, unofficially in the 1920s and officially in 1930.

  • December 20: Anniversary of the 1989 US invasion. Although the Panagringo Catholic Archbishop of Panama at the time called it a "liberation," few who lived in El Chorrillo at the time see it that way. This date is usually not officially recognized, and when it is, it's considered a day of mourning for the hundreds of people who died.

  • (December 25): Christmas: The religious holiday goes back to way before there was a Republic of Panama. The commercial holiday is an unfortunate copy of US culture, even down to the depictions of the snow that we don't have and an inappropriately attired fat guy with white hair and a beard who is sometimes confused with the editor of The Panama News.

  • December 31 - January 1: New Year's: There is little that is uniquely Panamanian about the drunken revelry of New Year's Eve, EXCEPT for concoctions like saril with seco and for the practice in some parts of the Interior of muńecos, which are effigies representing personalities or situations of the year that's ending that are burned on alcohol-fueled midnight bonfires. Then on New Year's Day, sometime in the afternoon, there is a traditional Panamanian meal, generally featuring sancocho and tamales. These touches make our version of New Year's special enough to consider it a "national" celebration.

  • January 9: The Day of the Martyrs: This solemn day marks the events of January 1964, in which at least 21 Panamanians and four Americans died in what was essentially an argument over whether or not the old Canal Zone was part of Panama. It is. People died to make it that way. Any foreigner with colonial notions ought to realize that Panama has been there and done that.

  • The five nights and four days preceding Ash Wednesday: Carnival: It is essentially the same pre-Lent revelry that is known in New Orleans as Mardi Gras and which is celebrated in Rio and many other places. Despite the obnoxious efforts of this country's politicians, Carnival remains a "national" celebration due to the specifically Panamanian cultural content of our version.

This, then, has been a thumbnail sketch of who and what Panama is. It is, of course, far more complicated than that.

Most of all, Panama is its people, the majority of whom the oligarchs who pretend to be the "real Panamanians" in one way or another exclude. It's a mix of races and cultural influences, with regional dialects of Spanish, indigenous languages, commonly spoken foreign languages, local cuisines and cultural features and few commonly accepted definitions of what it is to be Panamanian beyond "not part of Colombia" and "not part of Costa Rica."

Panama, its national symbols and its national holidays belong to all Panamanians, without regard to family ties, ethnicity, race, social class, partisan affiliation, religion, philosophy or whom a person knows. They are in the public domain and are not to be privatized or expropriated.

*     *     *

Rubén Blades has just won another Grammy award, this time the Latin Grammy for the year's best album by a singer/songwriter, for Cantares del Subdesarrollo (Songs of Underdevelopment). Its lyrics are his most hard-hitting musical commentary since he did Buscando America in 1984, and although he released it in 2009 and won his award for it this year, it was actually recorded in 2003. But the entertainer and activist put it in the can while he was a public servant. Would it have detracted from his performance as tourism minister, or prevented him from getting that job in the first place? It's hard to say, but Blades made a decision to, with a very few exceptions that did not interfere with his duties as tourism minister, set aside music and acting for five years.

Compare Blades with his successor, both as a musician and as a government official with a duty of loyalty to the Panamanian people. Blades served honorably in an obnoxious administration. He's one of the people legitimately able to go on his way with his head held high after the Torrijos administration. I don't think that his successor will be able to do the same at the end of the Martinelli years.

*     *     *

I have from time to time over the years gotten into major arguments about the subject of international adoptions, which Panamanian law generally discourages. I support those laws, mainly because I believe that a society that treats some of the children of the poor as an export commodity is a society that has cheapened the value of human life, that is throwing away its valuable human resources and that is inevitably making life worse for the kids left behind.

This is not to say that I oppose adoptions, or adoptions by foreigners living in Panama. The general legal principle here is that an adopted child should grow up knowing about Panama, knowing that she or he is Panamanian and knowing something about this country's language and culture. I have known a number of Americans living here who have taken in Panamanian kids who needed homes, either on a legally formal or an informal basis, complied with the aims of the national policy, and enriched their own and the kids' lives.

Panama has no government bureaucracy anything like the foster parent programs of most US states. Maybe that's a good thing. When parents are unavailable or unable to take care of children, Panama looks first to extended families --- including godparents, who have legal responsibilities here --- and then to religious congregations, family friends and neighbors. Usually it's just the children with serious handicaps, who are traumatized by abuse or neglect, or who have chronic diseases like HIV infections, who are left for the orphanages.

That leaves up to 160 kids at a time in the care of the sisters at the Hogar San Jose de Malambo orphanage. This 120-year-old institution not only doesn't get much government support, it is recently the victim of an internationally scandalous conversion of a large bequest by a rabiblanco family, its notorious lawyers and an outrageous Supreme Court. The orphanage needs your help this holiday season. A support group, Besitos de Mariposa, is taking a collection.

Yes, they will take cash donations, but what they are really looking for is folks who will buy a few items that they need for them when they go shopping. They are looking for:
  • Diapers (all sizes), baby wipes and diaper rash ointment

  • Baby shampoo, baby soap, baby oil and Vaseline

  • Infant formula (Enfamil, Nido, Nutrilon, Klim, Nan, and Pedisure)

  • New towels and washcloths

  • Toilet paper and paper towels

  • Rice, macaroni, vegetable oil, salt, sugar and dry cereal

Volunteers will be taking collections of these items at the El Rey stores in Albrook and on Calle 50 on Friday, December 3 (4-7 p.m.) and Saturday December 4 (1-5 p.m.).

If you can't make it to those stores at those times, these businesses have volunteered to be collection points for people with items to donate to the orphanage:
  • B-Happy (Calle Israel, San Francisco)

  • Super Gourmet (Calle A Casco Viejo)

  • Chic Papier (Calle 51 Bella Vista - Next to Pizza Piola)

  • Panama Sol Realty (Coronado Mall)

  • Promises (Calle 74 San Francisco. Edif. Golf Plaza, Planta Baja, phone 270-7457)

  • DGriss Art Gallery (Edifico Torres del America, Punta Pacifica)

  • Auto Shine (Via Porras)

Monetary contributions may be made by deposits in the general fund for the San Jose de Malambo Orphanage, Banco General account number 03-06-01-000724-2.

*     *     *

Gonzalo Menéndez, a/k/a Germán Forero

Another former high-ranking government official, one who has from time to time contributed articles to The Panama News, has distinguished himself recently.

Gonzalo Menéndez served as director of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) under the Moscoso administration, and is another person who rightfully walked away from an awful government with his integrity and reputation intact. He was one of three ANAM directors in a row who told his boss that he wouldn't approve her proposed road through the Volcan Baru National Park. In the years since he has spent a lot of time abroad going to grad school, and has done some environmental consulting work. He is one of the first, maybe the first, noteworthy Panamanian to warn that our government wasn't sufficiently taking the possibilities of climate change into account in its various plans. He is in a somewhat governmental post again, as the environmental director for the Pacific part of the Panama Canal expansion project.

Another side to Menéndez is his writing, which when it's fictional tends to be under the pen name Germán Forero. He just won the Rafael De León-Jones Prize for short story writing, for a 15-story collection entitled El síndrome y otros cuentos. Look for a spiffy new edition of this book to appear early next year.

*     *     *

Latin America is generally not on the minds of people in the United States. It rarely is, and when it is it's often portrayed and seen in crude caricatures of villains and the occasional hero. There are two stories in particular from this region to which people in the States ought to be paying a bit more attention, but the notice seems to be going to just part of one of them.

The first is the border dispute --- if it can be called that --- between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The presidents of both of those countries are behaving badly to appear more nationalistic in their respective domestic political situations. The argument is about a tiny, swampy patch of ground that almost certainly belongs to Costa Rica, a river that by an old agreement belongs to Nicaragua, and a combination of natural phenomena and human activity that may have changed or may yet change the positions of one or both of these. It's a garden variety riparian claim, a perfect case to bore the World Court judges to death, but Daniel and Laura would lose opportunities for posturing if they took that sensible route.

But do you know how in hockey two players might get sent to the penalty box for fighting, but the third person who intervenes in the altercation gets thrown out of the game? So it ought to be in this overblown argument. Panama's Ricardo Martinelli and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez have seen fit to involve themselves on the sides of Costa Rica and Nicaragua respectively and it's unbecoming in each case.

Then add Venezuela and Iran making noises about helping to build a Nicaraguan canal, which for geographic and demographic reasons (a longer, higher route, not enough skilled Nicaraguans to run the thing, a limited number of routes for which such a canal might be competitive --- things like that) is not going to be built. But for people who think that a war between the United States and Iran (or one with Venezuela) is a good idea, this nonstarter idea is as good an excuse as any for hysteria.

Meanwhile, as those minimally informed but passionate about what they think they know neighbors to the north were getting upset about Ortega's, Chávez's and Ahmadinejad's dastardly plot, a far more consequential process was unfolding in Guyana.

The new South American Union (UNASUR) held a summit in Georgetown. Its members declared that military coups are unacceptable and that in the event that such a thing happens on the continent, borders with the country in question will be closed and unspecified other measures will be taken. How serious Brazil in particular is about this matters, because given the history of the region and Brazil's growing power it's in effect a warning to the United States much akin to the warning that the United States gave to European powers by way of the Monroe Doctrine --- that is, if Brazil cares to back it up.

*     *     *

Now let's take a little break for some Panamanian rock, with Priscila Moreno:

*     *     *

Panama's police have new blue uniforms, and are on a major charm offensive. The brutality in Changuinola and the president's open encouragement of police brutality are not the best things for community relations. Neither is the faulty information in their Pele Policia database --- provided by other agencies of government --- which has led to many arrests that should not have happened. Then there are the martial displays in the holiday parades, which are not universally popular. All of these things probably reflect more accurately the attitudes of politicians than of the individual members of the police forces.

I went to the beautifully restored theater at the old Fort Clayton, now the City of Knowledge's Ateneo, to catch a special showing of Luis Romero's new film El Ultimo Soldado. There were a lot of cops in the audience, in uniform, having been bussed in. This version of the film was chopped down to 52 minutes so as to fit into a format that was shown on public TV in 14 Latin American countries. (Romero tells me that early next year he will be working on a longer "director's cut" to be shown in regular movie theaters.)

It's a matter of some importance that police officers understand the history of their country. If we want police who are of the people and for the people rather than members of an extraneous and hostile caste, we need to have a force that connects with and understands all aspects of our national identity. This entertaining film, which of course is neither the equivalent of a university semester in Panamanian history nor intended to be such, is still an important document to be in the public consciousness, one that belongs in many history classes. Cops who know this history are better cops.

The essential tale is that Panama was colonized for most of a century and that this has many ramifications, not all of them simple, that affect who we are as a nation. The film and the panel discussion that followed touched on both positive and negative aspects. Some of the important Panagringo realities were well put in the movie by musician Alex Reyes and theater director Bruce Quinn. Many other things were expounded upon by other folks who were interviewed, and by way of well done montages of old historical footage, still photos and topical newspaper editorial cartoons.

Me? I was polite, and took it all in without rude questions or statements. First of all, it's a worthy documentary that I think that anyone who understands Spanish and is interested in Panama should see, so I wouldn't want to be rude to the director or anyone else involved with it.

But this was the City of Knowledge, held forth by some who were interviewed in the film and by some of the folks onstage in the Ateneo as a shining example of decolonization, and there was a not so nice question that came to the top of my mind:

This City of Knowledge --- where are the public schools?

That, my friends, would be the start of a discussion about neo-colonialism that I am sure that a lot of people who hold a lot of power in this country would not want to have.

*      *      *

El Ultimo Soldado paid attention to the West Indian part of the Canal Zone's history, and in the panel there was a descendant of one of the many Europeans who were also part of the discriminated-against Silver Roll. On that note, let us get into rock steady mode for a Jamaican oldie:


Eric Jackson
editor & publisher

PS: People who are on The Panama News email list are notified as new articles are uploaded onto this website, as the production cycle bears an ever more tenuous relationship to the stated dates of any particular issue. People on this list started getting links to articles in this issue more than a week before this front page was uploaded. Send me an email asking to subscribe if you want to get on the email list.

Most new articles are also uploaded to my Facebook page, on which I post news items about Panama and the world that are derived from other sources on a more or less daily basis. Also on that Facebook page I upload the Wappin Radio Show several times per week. Facebook keep changing their policies and functions around, but at the moment I hope that I have the page set up so that one may have access to its "wall" without registering as my Facebook "friend."

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