Apr 16, 2016

Long overdue update

                                                                  Photo from Panama Canal Website

Wow...it's been nearly 2 months since my last post.  A lot has been going on in the world.  I've been so busy following the news that I haven't had the time to sit down and actually write about any of it.  

The USA presidential primaries have been akin to a reality show this year.  The Republicans have taken a no-holds-barred approach to political competition and no subject has been too personal to discuss during televised debates.  The rest of the world continues to enjoy lots of laughs and endless amazement at just how arrogant, prejudiced, and base we "Americans" are. The Democratic primaries are proceeding with a little more dignity, but there seems to be a lot of disillusionment with voter suppression issues and campaign rigging. Here in Panama the expat community seems just as divided as the folks back home. 

In Boquete there's definite evidence of the doomsday Christian immigratory wave. It can be perceived in the news pieces that are circulated on the local forums or via casual conversations overheard in public places.  Or, sometimes it shows up even in direct conversation intended for a different heading.  I recently learned many Boquete newbies believe that the general election in November will result in rioting and civil disorder sufficient for President Obama to declare martial law. The expectation is that subsequent to doing so, he will remain in office for an additional term "as he has desired all along" and that the US will become a dictatorship.  (I find this incredulous, but would certainly take an Obama dictatorship over a Trump presidency if those were the only options.)

I've received some orientation to digital currency, as well as a variety of conspiracy theories. 

The Cuban refugee situation is intensifying.  Costa Rica mobilized 8,000 Cuban refugees from their borders to the USA in the past year, at significant governmental cost.  The country claims it is unable to maintain this burden and has announced border closure.  Costa Rica, on April 15th,  identified enforcement measures it plans to apply regarding some 3000 Cuban migrants and 500 African / Asian migrants currently in Paso Canoas wanting to traverse their country. They will detain them in immigration centers and arrange for deportation.  The same morning, Costa Rica transferred about 200 people originating from Africa and Asia  back onto Panamanian soil after having been allowed to cross through Panama's border onto the Costa Rican side. Demonstrations along the Pan American highway resulted, and a strong police presence is being maintained in front of the immigration building there.  One Cuban man who was interviewed by the local TV channel stated, "Panama says it is helping us, and we are grateful for having a roof over our heads, but the accommodations are inhuman.  We are just as repressed here as we were in Cuba." Considering they have arrived en masse short on funds to maintain themselves and are being provided with food, water, and shelter, I take exception to the comment.  But then, I'm not living under the same conditions. A high level CARITAS worker in Panama interviewed by the local news station reported that Cubans who have reached Panama through Colombia are all reporting rough treatment from Colombian police and other officials who rob them of their cash.  They allegedly set out with money to care for themselves, but end up in Panama with nothing after their travels through Colombia.  Paso Canoas is a small town that can be completely traversed on foot in 20 minutes. It has few hotels. Pictures on the TV showed people living in tents under some type of large concrete structure with a tin roof.  The CARITAS worker also mentioned Puerto Obaldía, another small town where other Cubans have entered Panama.  She said the town consists of 600 people, but 800 Cubans have now arrived there.  There is one doctor to attend to the entire village, and the additional migrants as well as the nearby comarca, have overwhelmed the delivery of health care there.

Cubans have been migrating to the US and other countries via Ecuador for a number of years.  According to reports, Costa Rica has been passing 20,000 people a year through it's borders en route to "el norte". The current crisis began back in November of 2015 when Costa Rican police broke up an illegal coyote ring that moved these people.  Costa Rica arrested and incarcerated 12 individuals, which threw a huge wrench in the [illegal] system.  Then in December, Nicaragua closed it’s borders to the immigrants, and Costa Rica was stuck having to mobilize 8000 Cubans headed for the US.  Costa Rica struggled valiantly with the problem and resolved it, but the immigrants keep coming.  Seems the ball has finally landed in Panama’s court and the outcome should be interesting.  Panama’s vice-president, Isabel St. Malo,  has emphasized Panama is concerned with humanitarian issues and is implementing measures to provide these people with attention while trying to work out international agreements. 

The Orchid Feria, the Jazz Festival, and Boquete's 105th anniversary have come and gone since my last post.  The Orchid Festival was the same as usual. The Jazz Festival was very expensive with shorter musical performances. In comparison to the Panama City Jazz Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of attendees, at an average cost of $10 per ticket and integrates the local community, Boquete's Jazz Festival cost $70 a ticket, took place in Valle Escondido, and may have included a handful of wealthy token Panamanians. The event I attended was full of non-local, non-resident groupies. There was a pervasive commerciality to the ambiance, and some gringo organizer kept bragging to me about the custom-made silver jewelry he was wearing. What a contrast to the rest of life down here. 

The Boquete Anniversary celebrations lasted a few days and included a cabalgata, typical and modern music in central park, school gatherings, a contest to elect a festivities queen, and civic and traditional performances.  I only marginally participated this year, but enjoyed the atmosphere and horse parade.  

The Panama Papers scandal has changed things here in not so good a way. Panamanians are feeling any combination of embarrassed, ashamed, indignant, persecuted, defiant and/or perplexed. They are an exceedingly patriotic people who take any criticism of their country personally and are very anxious that the scandal not be a label for the country.  A lot of things are going on internally, and the international press is also saturated with information about the matter, so I have little motivation to write more at this time.  Perhaps in a later post.  Suffice it to say that Panama is feeling the international pressure to comply with the automatic data interchange system established by the OCDE.  Though highly resistant, someone recently sent me an article out  of France indicating Panama has relented.  I haven't seen the same announcement locally, however.  

Lastly, the Canal Expansion is close to being opened.  The canal is currently in a testing and final touch phase, but the end is very near!