Jackson: Refugees, border crises and Panama

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Colombians leaving Venezuela. Photo by Jorge Williams.

Panama also has human smugglers, economic migrants and war refugees arriving — and some of them dying in the attempt — and we share some of the problems that Venezuela has with Colombia and vice versa

Strip away the prejudice and emotion
and there’s still something there

by Eric Jackson

Are you moved by screechy ultra-right propaganda coming from the north? Breitbart’s headline goes “More Than 700 African Illegals Allowed To Travel Through Panama En Route To US This Year.” It’s for US domestic consumption, but Latin Americans should be concerned.

Yes, we do have human smugglers and they do take people without visas from African and Asian countries on circuitous routes that run through Panama with the ultimate aim of getting into the United States. A lot of them come from war-torn Somalia. Some come from oppressive Eritrea. We get people from Bangladesh and Nepal. The route these days comes by sea to South America, by land across the Darien Gap along the Colombian-Panamanian border, then off to other places along the way. We have not seen horrifying photos in part because the area has been turned into a war zone in which reporters who are not embedded in government forces are treated as enemies, but people die along this route, lost in the jungle or drowned in quick-rising rivers and streams.

When they fall into the hands of authorities here, whether or not they are fleeing from war zones, they don’t want to apply for asylum as refugees here and the Panamanian government seems to accept that as something of a blessing. They are treated as people in transit without proper papers who must leave Panama. The costs of deportation proceedings involving countries with which we in many cases have no diplomatic ties, flying these people from here back to places from whence they came (and with which we have no direct air connections) and incarcerating these people in the meantime are avoided. Panama is spending as little as possible on soothing the bogeyman fears on which Donald Trump is riding toward the Republican nomination and the US ultra-right is unhappy about that.

Since they are headed toward the USA and they are not wanted there, it seems likely that someone from the American Embassy here would be asking about them and it’s reasonable to expect that the Varela administration shares what information it has. But an international coast guard effort to keep the smugglers from getting people within walking distance of Panama? The resources that might reasonably be directed toward that purpose are instead used by Washington, Panama and most of our neighbors for the totally failed US “War on Drugs.”

The war in Syria has turned international migration into sensational headlines, but it is a global set of problems of which Panama has its share. It’s more than one problem but there are those who want to lump the bona fide war refugees — who have certain rights and protections under international law — under a general heading of migrants, whom they consider undesirable per se. There is a whole US vocabulary of hate phrases about “illegal aliens,” “anchor babies” and so on. These buzz words move the emotions of few Panamanians but it seems to be part of the Republican agenda to force their fears and phobias upon us.

Closer to home, two fellow Bolivarian republics are having problems with one another along their common border. Venezuela has closed part of its border with Colombia and kicked hundreds of Colombians out of the country. More hundreds of Colombians who were not ordered out have left due to fear, disgust or other reasons. The war of words between the presidents of the two countries has become quite strident at times. To hear the Venezuelan side of it, the issues are smuggling and subversion. The Colombian president, who well represents the attitudes of most of the people whom he serves when it comes to this matter, says that Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela and not Colombia. They each have a good point, and Panama ought to understand.

Venezuela is into a legislative election season and looming over everything is something that the government can’t control and if the opposition came to power they couldn’t either. The country’s economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas exports and the prices of these commodities have fallen through the floor. They may never again approach what they were. It’s not President Maduro’s fault but it happened on his shift.

Both major factions of a divided right-wing opposition are — again — in explicit and implicit ways calling for foreign intervention so that they can come to power. There is nothing new about that. Part of the opposition is and has long been interested in sabotaging the national economy to drive the Chavistas out of power. A dozen years ago the tactic was to shut down the oil industry with a strike, lockouts and even tanker mutinies. Encouraging capital flight, and the exodus of multinational companies, has also been part of the economic destabilization strategy.

The Chavista government has responded with severe currency controls and other measures that it might say have avoided mass starvation, but on balance they have made the situation worse. We can see the results here in Panama. The hundreds of millions of dollars that Venezuela owes to Copa Airlines hurts our economy. So do the billions in long-delayed payments — not to speak of lost sales — in Venezuelan dealings with Colon Free Zone businesses. The troubled Venezuelan economy does not affect the whole world as it affects us, but Colombian companies, and those of other countries in the region, have also been left holding the bag in dealings with the Venes.

Almost all of the Venezuelans who have moved here and who vote in Venezuela’a legislative elections will support the opposition. Few of them, however, made their moves as part of a political strategy to oust the leftist government. We can argue about how much choice the Chavistas have had, but a big part of Venezuela’s malady has been the government’s cure and a lot of people have responded to that medicine by leaving.

Controls often have a tendency to create black markets. Make it illegal to export money and smugglers will offer their services to get around the law. Create severe enough shortages of goods that people want — whether they are intended or not — and again smugglers will find a niche in which to operate. Haven’t we learned at least that much from the “War on Drugs?” And then Venezuela’s currency exchange controls have created a thriving black market in dollars, which in turn has driven a boom in money laundering via real estate here in Panama. Hustlers grown rich from the black market currency exchange in Caracas buy condos offices which remain empty here, but they report large rental incomes in Panama to justify wealth actually accumulated in Venezuela.

So Maduro closed down border crossings where smuggling had been particularly rampant and expelled hundreds of Colombians for contraband activities. This has created extra problems on both sides of the border, and not just for those expelled. For example, there are parts of Colombia whose stores had customarily been supplied from across the now closed Venezuelan border crossings. Then there are Colombians who study at Venezuelan universities. It’s a mess.

And who are the contrabanders whom Maduro has thrown out? Some come from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary death squads, now formally demobilized but in many cases atomized but still operational as criminal gangs. This was a criminal element to begin with, which is why they were hired for paramilitary thuggery. Now some of them, in tandem with elements of Colombia’s political far right and media oligarchs, are aligned with that part of the Venezuelan ultra-right that intends to come to power by whatever means it can.

And don’t we know something about that paramilitary and ex-paramilitary Colombian social element here in Panama? People in every country with a border on Colombia do. As in heavily armed and militarily organized gangsters like the Urabistas. As in purchasers of political influence like the cartels who worked through David Murcia Guzmán. As in gunrunners turned real estate scam artists. As in a vast set of money laundering operations that has bought up enough of the Panamanian economy that we face a threat of our business culture being paramilitarized. Is Maduro exaggerating this sort of threat to his country? Perhaps. But he is not making it up.

President Varela is trying to mediate this dispute and he has faced a lot of criticism about the way he’s doing it from rabiblancos who have a sense of solidarity with Venezuela’s traditional oligarchs. Panama has refused to formally take sides and helped to block the OAS from intervening in the matter.

In the first instance Varela has maintained the neutrality that a credible mediator must have. In the second instance he has kept Canadian and US electoral politics from aggravating the dispute, as an OAS intervention would surely do. Does the conservative Mr. Harper, who is trailing the democratic socialist Mr. Mulcair, want to bash Venezuela to prove to Canadian voters that they would be foolish to vote for the left opposition on October 19? Do American demagogues want to appeal to the base instincts of voters who couldn’t find either country on a map by calling for drastic measures on behalf of Colombia against Venezuela? Keeping the OAS out of it reduces the opportunities for North American mischief in a South American affair.

Whether or not Varela ends up being able to play a useful role in resolving our neighbors’ dispute, and whether or not the wave of African and Asian migrants coming through here ebbs, Panama really does need an intelligent discussion about migration. The crude xenophobic vitriol coming from the likes of PRD legislator Zulay Rodríguez is not such a discussion. Neither would any conversation based on imported hatreds qualify. But climate change is real and increasing, such that dried-up farming regions and flooded-out islands and coasts are likely to drive migrations and provoke wars here and there all over the world. The conflicts that have always been with us and always will be are just gravy. Panama needs to be prepared for all of that, both as a nation and as a member of the international community.


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