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Volume 18, Number 4
June 20, 2012

Panama Spanish Schools in Bocas del Toro and in Boquete, by the beach and in the mountains

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Some of the recently added stories:
~ An online election year for Americans, including in Panama The next issue's lifestyle section is now uploaded
~ Canadian logging company gives something back to Panama
~ Democrats Abroad "no speeches" gathering at the Balboa Yacht Club, June 30
~ Nomura's advice about Panamanian government bonds (PDF)
~ Seminar on the business of photography with noted photographer Kike Calvo
~ A younger generation learns to grow their own food
~ Tocumen Airport annoyance
~ Gearhead special: importing cars and parts into Panama
~ Metro construction
~ Remembering Ray Bradbury
~ Panamanian cuisine: arroz con piña
~ People are stealing a fence that was ordered to be removed
~ Martinelli calls for more mega-projects
~ Calls for EU, US laws to make companies reveal their owners
~ Mexico's long and bloody electoral road
~ Gandásegui, European banks destroy Panamanian forests The next opinion section is uploaded
~ Sirias, Carlos Fuentes: Forever a North Star
~ Dinner theater in Coronado The next culture section is uploaded
~ The Gospel Truth: fatal misunderstanding of the Bible
~ Cool Internet sites: Panamanian music online
~ Sparky the Wonder Dog
~ Books: Medea Benjamin's "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control"
~ Manglares panameños peligran La nueva sección de noticias en español ya es lista
~ Mangroves: coastal defensive barrier, wildlife habitat and nature's scrub brush The new nature section is uploaded
~ Venus passes between the Sun and us
~ Martinelli advisor linked to US-blacklisted Iranian front companies The next issue's news section is now uploaded
~ Theatre Guild to present Godspell
~ New report exposes Spanish public funding for polluting industry "greenwash"
~ Unemployment down and shrinking in our region
~ Waiting for the Third Industrial Revolution
~ International Trade Union Confederation annual report on labor rights violations, Panama section
~ Martinelli attacks the other businesses of media people he doesn't control
~ Asamblea Ciudadana, Manifesto to the country
~ Harrington, ¡Que manera de gobernar! La nueva sección de opiniones en español ya es lista
~ Decree on permanent resident visas for citizens of some countries, including the USA and Canada (PDF, in Spanish)
~ Gene-spliced mosquitoes: varieties of deceit misinform a debate
~ The true cost of an iPhone

Identity politics, Panama-style

May 30 is Black Ethnicity Day in Panama, a relatively recent thing that is viewed in various different ways by Afro-Panamanians. Decreed during the Moscoso administration and coinciding with an 1820 anti-slavery declaration by King Fernando VII of Spain, one might from one perspective see it as for both the Panameñistas and the Spanish Crown a belated and ineffective gesture to repair some of the damage from a racist legacy. After all, despite Fernando's decree Spain shortly thereafter did lose South America, including Panama. After all, despite Mireya's decree the Panameñistas went from being the ruling party to less than 20 percent also-rans in the following election.

But if you look at the portraits of Panama's presidents, the models who appear in ads on Panamanian television and the photos that are used to promote tourism to Panama, you might get the impression that there are no black people in this country, even though whites are vastly outnumbered by blacks and there are more cholos than both of these groups combined. A lot of Afro-Panamanian organizations and individuals worked for the creation of el Día Nacional de la Etnia Negra just to get simple recognition that part of the Panamanian nation is black. We still don't have any markers at our colonial-era ruins that Fort San Lorenzo, Fort San Geronimo in Portobelo, Panama Viejo and so on were built by black slaves. The official histories given by Panama Canal tour guides still don't mention that five out of every six people who actually built the Panama Canal were black men from the West Indies.

In a group portrait of the current president's Cabinet Council, you would find a bunch of white faces and one black person, Education Minister Lucy Molinar. So, are black Panamanians eternally grateful that they have a "sister" in such a key position as this? Very few look at it this way. There are several reasons:
  • Molinar, who is a member of the right-wing Catholic order Opus Dei, seems to have the destruction of public education to clear the field for private and religious schools as part of her marching orders. Panamanian education is an internationally notorious disaster and assigning blame for this rather than improving matters is this administration's policy.

  • At the moment there is a protest ongoing about the prohibition of corn rows, dreadlocks and braided kinky hair generally in the public school. Girls with straight hair can braid it without any problems from school officials, but the girl who comes to school with corn rows gets sent home.

  • Panama had slavery, both of Africans and of indigenous people, but the rules in the Spanish Empire were different. Unlike in most US states where they had slavery, it was never illegal to teach a black child to read. Marriages between people of different races were never the subject of social taboos or anti-miscegenation laws. A slave was seen as a human being of different economic class, rather than an item of livestock like a dog or a horse. While Panamanian racism was (and is) very real, it has never been so rigid as to give rise to the sorts of black nationalism that exist in the United States. There is no solid "black vote" here as there is in the States, either for a particular party or for black candidates in general.

  • The Martinelistas are now so divorced from the mainstream of Panamanian public opinion that in response to a newspaper story in La Estrella in which law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal opined that the ongoing corruption scandals have created a governmental crisis, the president's backers filled the comments section with racist slurs based upon Bernal's marriage to a "chombita," the brilliant and foxy Afro-Panamanian journalist Mayella Lloyd.

The Martinelistas will get more black people to vote for them by passing out bags of groceries than by having Lucy Molinar in the cabinet, or by putting up "Soul Brother" signs above the doors of government offices on May 30, if that's what they decide to do. At this point it appears that, in roughly the same proportions as Panamanians in general, black people will vote en masse against the Martinelistas at their next opportunity.

When you think about it, there aren't too many better proofs than that of the respectable place that Panamanians of African descent have in this society. The dominant elites will use any handy insult to denigrate other citizens so that they appear bigger and better by comparison. But we all know that and only the most foolish among us are impressed by their game --- the racists are the foolish minority, not the Afro-Panamanian community. This country was largely built by black people and The Panama News salutes this vital part of who Panamanians are.

*     *     *

Ah, but there is a certain strain of Panamanian culture that claims that the central provinces are the source of that which is "real Panamanian." As an exclusionary argument it does not quite match the reality of this international crossroads, because our culture is much more than cumbia. However cumbia, like culantro, is a very important part of it:

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The literary world has lost one of its giants, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes. The son of a diplomat, he was born here in Panama.

The English-only, Hollywood culture-only crowd might still know him by the movie (Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda) of the English translation of his novel based on the life of journalist Ambrose Bierce, The Old Gringo. Fuentes's appreciation of Bierce, a turn-of-the-century San Franciscan who disappeared while covering the Mexican Revolution, was in turn an indication of his profound knowledge and astute observations of the people and society of the United States.

A greater influence on this reporter was Fuentes in the realm of nonfiction, as a political and social analyst in interviews and in his newspaper columns, the latter most recently in La Reforma.

*     *     *

The Unimer polling firm did a survey for La Prensa, with a question that one could argue was not posed in the most forthright or the most elegant way, because at bottom line it's an extremely rude if necessary question. They way they put it was that they quoted President Martinelli about testimony, documents and allegations coming from Italian prosecutors maintaining the he took bribes from Italian businesses through Silvio Berlusconi's jailed former bag man, Valter Lavitola. The president dismissed it all as a soap opera ("telenovela"), and people were asked if they believe him when he says that.

The skew factors? They didn't go into the indigenous comarcas or Darien province. It was a telephone poll. But the president is especially hated in the indigenous areas, and also other remote communities where people are being dispossessed, or fear that they will be, by this administration. Phone polls tend to exclude the poorest Panamanians. So in general the biases in the pollsters' methodology work in Martinelli's favor --- but look at the result. Nearly three-quarters of Panamanians --- and probably substantially more than that fraction --- don't believe the president when he denies taking bribes.

And actually, Martinelli himself doesn't fully deny it. He was given a two-day holiday with an entourage that included businessman Gabriel Btesh, Minister of Public Works Federico José Suarez, Metro subway project chief Roberto Roy and other men, accompanied by unidentified (so far) women, at a Sardinia resort where the rooms are $2,600 per night. Lavitola set up the trip and Italian businesses that had contracts with or were seeking contracts with the Panamanian government paid the tab. Martinelli has made his denials about receiving cash payments, but has not denied this expensive gift.

This is most of what you need to know about Panama's ongoing political crisis. Martinelli and the people around him take bribes, they have been caught doing so, and although they control the courts and prosecutors here, they can't control what happens in Italy.

*     *     *

I don't do the "if it bleeds it leads" sort of sensational journalism, but murder is in the news of late.

After some hemming and hawing, the government has admitted that the murder rate, having gone down a bit last year, is now edging back up. The big spikes that we occasionally see are when organized crime syndicates battle for control of drug smuggling routes through Panama. Take the gangland stuff out of the picture and you see a gradual upward trend because frightened people are arming their households and their guns are not blowing away burglars or hit men but are being used in domestic disputes and often drunken arguments with the neighbors.

The case of the five Chinese-Panamanians who were kidnapped, with their families shaken down for ransoms, but who after payment, instead of being set free were, murdered and buried under a house in La Chorrera, gets ever worse. Two Dominican suspects have been arrested, one of whom has reportedly confessed, another of whom claims innocence at least as to the homicides. At least one of the suspects says that there were police involved in the kidnapping ring, which circumstantial evidence that the families of the victims have been pointing to for a long time also indicates. The National Police vehemently deny it, and, according to attorneys for one of the accused Dominicans, prosecutors will not allow their client to name officers he says were involved. One should always suspect the word of a criminal pointing at someone else, but there should also be an expectation that good cops would want to make very sure that they eliminate vicious criminals from the force. At a glance it seems that appearances mean more to this government than realities, except that this now looks very bad.

To me, the murder of an American is tragic but not inherently more newsworthy than that of anybody else. To the dumbed-down US corporate mainstream media, however, a likable and good looking white American woman disappearing in an exotic paradise under circumstances that indicate foul play brings TV reporters parachuting in. I talked with a reporter/producer for one of the US networks the other day, and he at least asked an interesting question: Why is it that in Panama, unlike other places in Latin America that have had influxes of American expatriates, we have these Americans committing crimes against other Americans. I think it's largely about how Panama is being advertised and who is promoting it. We have been made attractive to a North American criminal element. The scant government presence and local corruption in some of the parts of Panama that are farthest from the capital also contribute to the lawlessness in such places.

In any case, there is a family with a member who has been missing along with her dog since this past November. Never will I stick a microphone in one of their faces and ask them how they feel, but Yvonne Baldelli's family are asking for help from anyone who might know anything about her whereabouts and what may have happened to her. If you have any useful information to provide, contact the family through the Facebook page that they have set up or by calling the INTERPOL office here at (507) 512- 2267 or (507) 512-2415.

*     *     *

How does Panama --- and Latin America in general --- get portrayed in the USA? Often inaccurately, usually superficially. One of Dan Rather's producers asked about some photos I took, but didn't end up using them, in connection with a report he did about Panama. In this trailer, I see one major historical error:  Manuel Antonio Noriega never threatened to cut off  US use of the Panama Canal. He may have been, and might still be, an unpleasant guy in many ways, but that he did not do.

Then there is the larger question of the "War on Drugs" and how it is reported. I suppose that one loses access by reporting the truth of the matter: as a suppression of drug traffic measure, Plan Colombia was a miserable failure; after several decades and countless billions of dollars spent, the "War on Drugs" is a miserable failure. But maybe Dan Rather got into it in this report, but just didn't put that in the trailer:

*     *     *

Another passing to be belatedly mentioned will have me changing the links in the news section. A noteworthy colleague from Latin America's English-language media passed away last February, and it seems that his website will go with him. Roy Carson was British by birth and Venezuelan in his soul, and ran VHeadline, which stubbornly reported the truth about Venezuela despite strong pressures from many sides to report convenient fiction. The opposition --- much of it, anyway --- wanted, and wants, right-wing propaganda and pure vilification of Hugo Chávez. The Chavistas --- many of them, anyway --- wanted, and want, unquestioning support for everything that the Bolivarian government does. Roy called them like he saw them, and saw them pretty well.

Roy's finest hour was during the April 2002 coup, when most of the pro-Chávez media were closed by those now perversely praised as champions of democracy, the worldwide corporate mainstream was publishing the coup plotters' distortions as if they were the truth, and via VHeadline Roy gave the English-speaking world unvarnished news about what was actually happening on the ground in Venezuela. There was a lot of egg on a lot of well-paid journalists' faces, but neither they nor their employers have ever admitted how badly they got scooped by Roy Carson.

Roy had some kidney problems and put VHeadline on hold while he went back to England for medical treatment. A massive heart attack ended his plans to go back to Venezuela and carry on. A few months have passed and it seems that nobody is picking up and continuing the website, which is a loss for principled English-language journalism in this region.

*     *     *

Rainy season has belatedly come to Panama's Dry Arc, which roughly corresponds to the western shore of the Gulf of Panama, from Punta Chame to the Azuero Peninsula. My food dehydrator is busy drying mango, papaya and cashew fruit slices.

Meanwhile, however, it's disaster time for Panama's rice producers and not because of the weather. Imports from abroad and apparent collusion among Panamanian buyers are giving many farmers the option of selling at a loss or letting the stuff rot. At a recent Chiriqui rice auction there were no buyers.

This may be a great place for a retiree to have a garden and thus reduce food bills as compared to somewhere else, but what's happening to farmers and fishers in this country is making the rural areas hotbeds of unrest. Soon enough it will be sending a mass migration into the cities, which will aggravate all of our urban problems. It might be compared in many ways to what happened in the United States in the first four decades of the 20th century, when the agricultural way of life collapsed for most of the people who lived it. That does nothing to ease the pain or the social disruptions.

*     *     *

Urban problems? Let us end this session with a Rubén Blades song about one of them:


Eric Jackson
editor & publisher


PS: a few more things:
  • I spend more than full time on The Panama News, and José Ponce spends a lot of his time working for it --- and would spend more if we could get him some new cameras and regular cellular Internet access to report from the remote boonies. And then there is this much larger crew of people who send articles they write or photos they take; do corrections, editing or translating; provide computer services and so on. This is a community news medium rather than a media corporation or a translation of corporate mainstream stuff , and your participation strengthens us.

  • Send me an email to get on The Panama News email list to receive new articles more or less as they are posted, notices about various things to do around Panama City, advisories in emergency situations --- like when there are major road blockages ongoing or expected --- and the music selections of the Wappin Radio Show, which was once on the air on a small radio station and now lives on The Panama News Facebook page.

  • Most new articles are also uploaded to The Panama News Facebook page. Every day clippings from the Spanish-language Panama dailies, interesting news from the USA and elsewhere, probably the most systematic postings of cultural events in Panama, readers' and the editor's comments about all of that are found there. Quite simply, the Facebook page is a vast extension of The Panama News.

  • Fundraising? That's no fun. But The Panama News does need your financial support to survive and thrive. A lot of the stuff we ought to cover we don't cover simply because we don't have the money for transportation, or to be able to quickly email photos and stories from remote parts of Panama by way of cellular communications. We have photographic and computer equipment that's in constant need of replacement. And those few of us who put a lot of time into this project do need to cover living expenses. Donate generously. Send your contributions by PayPal. Of course, without a bank account in North America we are limited there, too, but fortunately we have an alliance with Henry and Nora Smith's Paradise Services that allows The Panama News to piggyback on their PayPal account.

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The Panama News Editors
Editor & Publisher - Eric Jackson
Contributing Editor - Silvio Sirias
Contributing Editor - José F. Ponce
Copy Editor - Sue Hindman (1944-2010)

© 2012 by Eric Jackson
All Rights Reserved - Todos Derechos Reservados
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