Nito pays attention to the comarca

What’s in a picture? Just about every old man likes to be swooned over by a cute little girl. That the president is wearing an Ngabe shirt may be the more meaningful message — if you want to help people in the poorest of Panama’s regions, buy the things they produce. Photo by the Presidencia.

Nito goes where attention is needed

by Eric Jackson

Look at the map, look at the breakdown of vote totals, look at the margin of his victory, and the notorious for its political swings Ngabe-Bugle Comarca is what and who made Nito Cortizo the president of Panama. It’s desperately poor and for the most part remote in terms of transportation and communications access — this is not where any political party’s donor base is found. It’s certainly a place with mineral and water resources that many outsider have coveted over many centuries. Grabs at indigenous resources under the Martinelli and Varela administrations go a long way toward explaining this past May’s swing to the PRD.

But life goes on, or for some, it doesn’t. The outside world often pays little attention, and of the few, some look through missionary or prospector eyes that understand little. Meanwhile, however, in the comarca, more so in Ngabere than in Buglere, and in Spanish so that it becomes more possible for outsiders to pay attention, their own story is beginning to be reported through their own media.

Take an August 20 report in Prensa Ngäbe, for example, about the National Ngabe Youth Council of Panama (CONAJUNPA) issuing a communique and plea to the new health minister, Rosario Turner. The young activists say that in recent months there have been at least 10 infant deaths from whooping cough in the Ño Kribo region (that part of the comarca that used to be part of Bocas del Toro province). Women dying in childbirth, people wasting away with tuberculosis — things that are rare elsewhere in Panama happen with increased frequency in the comarca.

So the president, knowing who made him president and why, has made a weekend visit to the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca, with gifts, promises and some of the locals hope open ears and mind. His main focus in his August 24 stop in Llano Tugri (Buabdi in Ngabe) was education.

It was little but essential things, like math and science textbooks and kitchen utensils for the schools and their cafeterias. It was big things in the lives of a few individuals, like full-ride university scholarships for 20 people, three of them to study in the United States, one to a young woman who will first study English in Ireland and then attend aviation school. In a potential educational game changer, it was a promise to build a university in the comarca. (Let’s see whether it would meet the long standing demand for an autonomous indigenous university, or comply with the also long-standing counter-proposal of another regional extension of the University of Panama’s political patronage system.)

The health care issues? Apparently heard, but only vaguely addressed with promises of more people and resources to be sent into remote areas. Cortizo has some problems to sort out in his own party about the organization and funding of health care services and the acceptance of foreign medical assistance before he can address the health issues in a serious and systemic way.

A president who, absent belligerent crowds blocking the roads or threatening to do so and AFTER an election rather than before, shows up in the comarca? Not unheard-of but unusual.


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