Raúl Leis, on the right. Photo by SERTV
towering giant in Panamanian letters and social research has passed away
Leis dead at 63
Leis has died. He takes his place alongside Rogelio Sinán and
Ricardo Miró as one of the towering giants in the history of
Panamanian letters. Some of his newspaper columns were published in
The Panama News over the years, in English translation.
came unexpectedly at about 10 p.m. on April 30, at the Policlinica JJ
Vallarino in Juan Dias. It was the result of an allergic reaction to
a medication Leis had taken along with eye surgery to remove
cataracts earlier that day.
standard obituaries say that Leis was a sociologist, and that he was.
He taught it at the University of Panama and USMA, and founded the
Colegio Nacional de Sociologos. He was also the founder of the
Panamanian Center for Social Studies and Action (CEASPA), a
multidisciplinary think tank. But he was so much more than "just"
was a playwright, five-time winner of the Miró prize for his works.
Today people marching in the Mayday parade made many a refrence to
"The Martyrs of Chicago," those blamed and executed for an
act of violence at a Haymarket Square protest against police violence
at the original Mayday parade. This case and what it stood for was
brought to life in the Panamanian mind through Raúl's play "Primero
de Mayo." Leis's writings also won awards in Mexico, Spain,
Venezuela, Guatemala and Cuba.
the course of his work on urban sociology, Leis became top expert on
the history of Panama City and its development. He treated history
not as a list of illustrious men and noteworthy dates, but as the
people and the economic, political, cultural, technological and
generational forces that shaped their lives.
brought the Kuna traditions in particular, but indigenous traditions
in general, to the mainstream Panamanian newspaper readers. He was a
steadfast advocate of indigenous sovereignty and for the land, water
and mineral rights of Panama's first nations.
a professor and social activist, Leis was for a general advance in
education and he put a lot of time into promoting literacy in rural
areas and adult education. He was the president of the Latin American
Adult Education Council (CEAAL). Another aspect of this work was his
advocacy of bilingual education for Panama's indigenous peoples, both
to preserve native languages and to reduce the high dropout rate
among indigenous primary and secondary students.
people spoke at the rallies and were sought out for sound bites, but
Raúl Leis was a principal architect of both today's constellation of
"civil society" groups and of the Panamanian
environmentalist movement. In his civic activism Leis, a Catholic,
managed to bridge many divides, including that between the church
hierarchy and liberation theology advocates.
advocated a more democratic constitution for Panama and a heightened
sense of civics to combat corruption, and was the chief organizer of
the church-backed Panama 2020 forums --- which the politicians mostly
praised and then entirely ignored. More recently he was a key
instigator of the Asamblea Ciudadana, which unites 89 civic,
community, professional and labor groups and is highly critical of
many of the things that the Martinelli administration does. Leis's
one foray into partisan politics was in 1994, when he ran for the
legislature on the ticket of Rubén Blades's now defunct Papa Egoro
party. After an extended and much criticized vote count, Leis was
declared to have narrowly lost his race for a seat in a multi-member
circuit. Leis was highly critical of Blades's political skills as a
presidential candidate as a party leader. After that run for office,
Leis maintained his political independence.
wrote newspaper columns for many years in El Panama America, but
after that paper was bought by President Martinelli's supporters this
past December he moved his columns to La Prensa. With his blessing,
The Panama News published many of his columns in English translation.
Leis was also editor of Dialogo Social magazine.
who was born in Colon, was 63. He is survived by his wife, human
rights activist Mariela Arce, and his son, attorney Jair Leis.