Carolina Cortizo, airline exec

Carolina Cortizo Colón, now managing director of Wingo, the low-fare subsidiary of Copa Airlines. Photo by Wingo.

Can one understand without being rude?

by Eric Jackson

Carolina Esther Cortizo Colón has moved up in her profession. An honor student at Virginia Tech, where she got her bachelor’s degree in industrial and system engineering, and then her master’s in systems engineering management, she worked for several years in management posts at Copa Airlines, being assigned tasks ranging from computer systems management to designing fare structures. As of November 1, she is CEO of Wingo, the Colombia-based low-fare subsidiary of Copa.

Then arise the rude questions, which are boorish but probably relevant in today’s venomous political atmosphere. Let’s try to outline what these may be and why they are beyond the pale of usual polite discourse.

First there are the inevitable and generally sexist aspersions that tend to be cast upon successful women everywhere. Is she really qualified, or was it some connection? On the face of it Carolina Cortizo got the right education and rose through the ranks when her dad was not president. We might argue about quality education as a privilege of the rich, and about feet in the door by being related to somebody. But Copa is not about to put someone who can’t do the job in the position of running Wingo. And actually, referring to Ms. Cortizo as “daughter of the president” again gets into the rudeness of defining a prominent woman in terms of somebody else.

Then there are the questions of familial relationships, religion and the identity of individuals and their spouses. Very taboo in Panama. Yes, to whom you are related means so very much in the Union Club and private discourse. Yes, political conspiracy theorists like to spin things around the affiliations of relations both by sanguinity and affiliation. But pretty much by law and more so by customary manners, these things are nobody’s business. Let it just be said, because others have opened that door, that Carolina Cortizo has members of her extended family on her and her husband’s side with Torrijista and Arnulfista roots. 

Then there are matters of nationality. Is Carolina a Panagringa? She was born and raised Panamanian, but her mother is from Puerto Rico. As a Puerto Rican, first lady Yazmín Colón de Cortizo would perhaps have US citizenship, as Puerto Ricans were given by statute not long before she was born. Did Yazmín renounce the American part of her to become Panamanian? Was she dual to begin with? (There is a large but largely invisible community of people with mixed Puerto Rican and Panamanian roots, in part the heritage of Puerto Ricans stationed here with the US Armed Forces during the time of the bases.) And did the first lady live in US jurisdictions for enough years as a US citizen to pass American citizenship on to her children? US government policy is that questions of who is and is not a citizen, including who has renounced, are confidential data in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. A great many Panamanians who are also citizens of other countries hesitate to reveal that part of their identities. (But Democrats Abroad encourages Panagringas and Panagringos to come out to the voter registrars if not to the general public, for the sake for both of their countries.)

Then there are the families for whom Carolina Cortizo worked and works, and into which she married. Copa and its subsidiaries are controlled by members of the Motta family, a favorite villain of all sorts of conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites. The Mottas and how their business interests intersect with the government and with public discourse here become subjects of more legitimate comment. These things range from donations to the Independent Movement (MOVIN) to investments at Tocumen Airport to the editorial policies of the TVN television network.

Why should any of this even be mentioned in The Panama News?

Because within the PRD and the National Assembly, there have been moves to strip certain dual citizens of their Panamanian passports, identities and rights to live and work here.

Because in much of the social media trolling of Panama’s xenophobe movement a there is the vilification of the Motta family, sometimes in explicitly anti-Semitic forms. The Motta bashing is also a common avenue of attack against the independent caucus in the legislature.

Might there be a very personal reason for the president to be disgusted with some of the discourse coming from Zulay Rodríguez and her followers? Might his own immediate and extended families’ situations inform some of his opinions about this? Could be. It’s too rude to ask, but it’s out there.

Why all of these questions are generally insufferable here has in part to do with the burdens imposed on women by many men almost everywhere, but even more so has to do with Panama’s particular privacy culture. To fully understand Panama, knowledge of privacy manners is indispensable.

Having been so ill-mannered as to mention the unmentionable, let us congratulate the successful Panamanian woman, now an airline CEO. She really does have every right to be considered on her own merits.


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