Legislative open season on tourists?
by Eric Jackson
With the new year came word in the rabiblanco media about a new proposal to change Panama’s immigration laws. First attributed to PRD legislator Elias Castillo González, this, it was explained, would eliminate the “permanent tourist” game of people who live here on tourist visas, leaving the country every six month for a little while and then returning on a new tourist visa. Castillo said that tourist visas would be for 30 days, with a possible one-time-only 60-day extension. He also said that to be a tourist one would have to register with a hotel and if, due to a routine police inspection of the hotel registry or a complaint from the hotel management, a tourist was not checked in at the specified hotel, that tourist would become a wanted fugitive from immigration authorities. The problem, Castillo said, is foreigners coming here as tourists and working without work permits.
Given the number of foreigners who live here as “permanent tourists” — lots of Colombians, Venezuelans, Americans, Canadians and Europeans who don’t stay at hotels because they or their families own homes here — it’s an extraordinary proposal. But just how extraordinary, we don’t quite know. See, despite it having been summarized for reporters, and despite speeches in the legislature billed as the proposal’s “presentation,” we have not been able to read the actual proposal — or if the National Assembly’s website is accurate, multiple proposals.
The presentations? If you understand Spanish and can stand it, you can watch the half-hour video of Zulay Rodríguez’s speech that’s called that. In it she played to the militantly ignorant, throwing out scary but unidentified numbers, making insinuations about statistics she can’t cite, mobilizing public anger against foreigners in general. She cited the more than 1.5 million tourists who visited here last year as cause for alarm. There are “thousands, and thousands and thousands of foreigners in Panama…” for whom Zulay blamed an alleged $800 million in capital flight. (People living and working here on tourist visas EXPORTING capital, rather than spending and investing it here?) “Robberies, murders, homicides, drug trafficking…” — these she blamed on foreigners, and blamed the government for not generating the statistics for her to back up this claim. And on Facebook, nearly 40,000 people viewed it, more than 1,400 people shared it and she generated hundreds of comments, mostly ranging from uncritical cheering to hardcore hatred.
On Facebook Rodríguez gave the following introduction to the video of her speech:
The presentation of the proposal that not only eliminates the Crisol de Razas [program of the Martinelli administration], but also imposes migratory controls, visas, taxes to stay here and complements Bill 62 that was presented two years ago and that is in the Government Committee, which is to avoid the uncontrolled immigration that exists. The current situation has caused poverty, increased crime and unfair competition against nationals. And to that Deputy Jose Luis “Popi” Varela responds with threats, vexations, and foul language, calling me ‘trash’ just for denouncing the corruption of the current administration.
Trash talk? Most likely. You decide by whom.
But xenophobia is in the air. Not only foreigners, but those of ethnic groups considered foreign even if they happen to have been born here, are more frequently insulted here in Panama. The notion that foreigners — even the permanent tourists — actually contribute toward the Panamanian economy is not only not considered in the debate, it’s treated by Zulay’s followers as a big insult to Panama to suggest such a thing.