A monument that would have us forget

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Dr. Arnulfo Arias, three-time president of Panama who was thrice overthrown by military coups, and once or twice denied the presidency by electoral fraud. The symbolism of him being larger, calmer and above everyone else is, sadly, more than just a sculptor’s impression.

Lest we forget — as the monument would have us do

photos and captions by Eric Jackson
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Located in Balboa on the site where the feared DENI secret police had headquarters that were destroyed in the 1989 invasion, the Arnulfo Arias monument was erected during the administration of his widow, Mireya Moscoso. That courtship began when Arias was 53 and Moscoso was 15, and when she was elected president in 1999 there were people who thought that they would be getting the talented if controversial Dr. Arias, or someone like him. The nation was disappointed.
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Racism glossed over. Arias traced his political roots to the 1920s Accion Comunal movement, whose members used to dress up in KKK robes and advocated the expulsion of all Panamanians of Afro-Antillean, Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry. On his way to the presidency he served as public health director and in that role advocated the mass sterilization of these populations. Later he was an ambassador to Mussolini’s Italy, struck up a friendship with Adolf Hitler, and soon after becoming president promulgated the 1941 constitution that stripped all Panamanians of non-Hispanic West Indian, Asian, Arabic and Sephardic Jewish ancestry of their citizenship, no matter if they, their parents and their grandparents were born here. The plaque calls it a defense of the Spanish language and the promotion of “our culture and traditions.” In October of 1941, with US aid to the British coming from West Coast ports through the canal and German U-boats waiting just outside the Colon breakwall, Franklin D. Roosevelt instigated a coup that deposed Arias because at that point the United States was not ready to tolerate one of Hitler’s friends running Panama.
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The demagogue is so charming, so witty, so funny when he’s crude. And after memories of hard truths fade come the heroic monuments. So it is in Panama, so it is with sites that extol the virtues of the Confederate rebellion against the United States. Do you wonder why African-Americans tend to be annoyed by those? And does it strike you as a sad infringement of freedom of expression that many countries that suffered under Nazi tyranny make it a crime to deny that the Holocaust ever happened? The battle over history is a battle over the present and future, here and everywhere.


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