Economic crisis brings history changing implications. Each country handles insecurity, political tensions, and corruption distinctly. Survival is of mutual interest. When it comes to survivalist crisis management, Panama is a unique example not only to Latin America, but the world.
As the “Bridge of the World”, Panama was built on the pillars of foreign interests. Simon Bolivar liberated the isthmus from the Spanish Empire as part of Gran Colombia. The French and Americans utilized the isthmus for its geopolitical strategic position to build and control the Canal. Multinational corporations favor it for offshore banking in what has been recently scandalized via the Panama Papers.
And yet the Panamanian culture of resilience endures through a recent surge of insecurity, corruption, region-wide ideological shifts, and a debate on firearms.
While western media concentrates on the US firearms debate, Panama offers an also telling case study. This week, President Juan Carlos Varela announced that there will be a nationwide revision of firearms regulation decree involving permission of possession. He declared that those permissions obtained legally and illegally will be revised, emphasizing the position that guns “cause violence”. Meanwhile, others who believe in the right for civilian protection and sport counter-argue that “guns don’t kill, people do”.
Therefore, striving to better comprehend its various perspectives is becoming increasingly insightful into this conflict’s big picture root causes.
Crisis-Era Immigration Boom
As South America rocks with instability, numerous Colombians and Venezuelans, for example, are turning to Panama for refuge. They include Uber drivers to street vendors, some previous professionals and university students in their patria. Others are stylish expatriates living in Via Argentina’s tree-lined luxury skyscrapers – stylish Rabiblancos in their past life in Caracas. These are just some of the Panama-residing non-Gringo expats mass media portrays.
On the streets, immigrants of lesser luck are increasingly being associated with criminalities.
“A lot of news claims that overthrowing the Chavista government will solve things in Venezuela,” reflects Porfirio* (*name changed for privacy protection purposes). Porfirio is a former architect graduate from San Cristobal, Venezuela – a town made internationally famous for its violent protests. Now, he is a Panama City Uber-driving foreigner sending money back to a young wife and daughter.
“I don’t know much about politics or economy,” he adds, “All I know is what’s on the street. And crime is becoming a cultural issue.”
Porfirio recalled a neighbors’ son returning from school with a homework project- “What I want to be when I grow up”. The boy answered a “maleante” – an armed robber.
Such complexities fodder debate on whether to welcome or reject this immigration influx. While some critics argue that refugees bring the violence of which they fled, others add that Panama’s crisis is already a native breeding ground for instability. The national political tension influenced by the anti-Pink Tide sweeping from South America to Panama also encourages questions on what leadership style is “best”.
The Supreme Court of Panama has decided to open a case against ex-President and business mogul Ricardo Martinelli for alleged security offenses, violations of privacy, embezzlement and abuse of power. The case is processed parallel to another allegation for irregularities during his administration. This includes re-direction of public funds from providing free lunches for poor schools to government ally’s private bank accounts.
“I’m a victim of political persecution and not to be the last,” Martinelli has claimed via Twitter. Like many ex-Latin American leaders, Twitter has become a key mechanism for immediately addressing affairs and consequential dramas.
“Martinelli spied on everyone,” counter-argues Panamanian lawyer Miguel Antonio Bernal. A professor at the Faculty of Law at the State University of Panama, Bernal is one of the complainants in the case’s indictment.
Martinelli’s alleged wiretapping of opposition has fueled intrigue across the Latin American corruption scene. In 2009, the Martinelli administration began purchasing specialized Israeli espionage equipment. Gustavo Perez – Executive Secretary of the Security Council and Police Director under President Martinelli – confessed that his boss indeed built a clandestine “mafioso” espionage system that violated the privacy of businessmen, politicians, journalists, trade unionists and indigenous leaders nationwide.
Currently, Martinelli lives in the luxury Miami apartment used in Al Pacino’s film Scarface, taking refuge while political and judicial fires burn back home.
During the last 25 years, 15 of all 39 Central American presidents have been investigated for corruption. Half have become subject to impeachment, coup d’état or time in custody. Whether Panama’s self-exiled Martinelli will join this club of ex-leaders is a part of history still playing out.
While local opposition – specifically the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) founded by Omar Torrijos – supports such action against Martinelli in light of professional and personal feuds, others look to the incumbent government of President Juan Carlos Varela.
“El Tortugon” – a nickname summarizing Varela’s oversight of recent national development deceleration – has made some voters anticipate allegedly corrupt but comparatively more progressive Martinelli’s return to the country and – to more extreme scenarios – to the presidency.
While Martinelli and Varela’s political relationship has been on a bungee cord of alliance and opposition, in their positions of control, both have stood counter to the right to bear arms in Panama.
Indeed, with the Varela administration taking an increasingly extreme position against arms, and warning that all not to intervene -“not even lawyers” – , others push back against re-newed oppression.
Fifty Shades of Guns
“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” asserts Yassir Aboobecker Purcait Saborio, ex-Deputy of the PRD. Besides being targeted by the Martinelli administration’s wiretapping of opposition and one of the few to stand up against the powerful and sometimes mafia-associated Martinelli, Purcait is President of the private Balboa Gun Club and offers an alternative position in the gun debate.
In a recent onsite interview, Purcait and associates shared the club’s amenities as well as personal collections of firearms. Preparing for a tournament, well maintained pieces, from meticulously reinstated historical guns to more current semi-automatic models, Purcait reminds this editor that the arms are purchased purely for sport. In order to legally possess arms in the country, meticulous rules must be followed, including psychological and drug tests, as well as background checks.
But the Club members’ conscientiousness for their assortment isn’t without cause.
In addition to Varela’s recent extreme moves, there is a nationwide ban on weapons importation.
Prohibition vs. Propagation
Earlier this year, the Minister of Public Security, Alexis Bethancourt, extended the import ban on weapons to the isthmus, as was established in mid-2011.
Opposition figures from lawmakers, media leaders and other industries have increased their defense for arms in non-violent contexts. La Prensa Editor Juean Marcel Chery has recently dubbed the incumbent administration’s iron fist declarations as “inconsistent” and “lacking transparency”.
While President Varela cites the ban as reducing homicide rates, those opposed, such as ex-Deputy Purcait, dispute that ban or no ban, violence transcends even prospects of prohibition.
“My 12-year-old daughter once asked me, ‘Daddy, what would happen if all the world’s weapons were gone?” Purcait observes while demonstrating the sport, “I replied that then we would not have forks to eat or pens to write. If a criminal wants to kill, (s)he will kill. With or without guns.”
“It is better to make the effort to change people, educate them and show them values regarding that weapons no longer need to be only dangerous,” the Club President added.
Purcait also observed that on a larger scale, “There is a significant shift in Latin American politics,” referencing the region-wide transition from electing pro-populist representatives to more pro-business governments, “and that grows opposition on many levels. Including with firearms.”
Enthusiasts – such as Purcait – continue to practice in the tradition of the club – a former Operation Condor-era US military training center turned Panamanian sovereignty symbol established in 1937.
Driving from Panama City to the Balboa Gun Club, one must cross the Bridge of the Americas, an emphatic reminder that this isthmus country literally links continents and oceans.
This bridge represents the Panama’s historical dichotomy and political modernity – as Univsion would say, “iguales y distintas”.
As the pivotal nation continues to evolve with its multinational influences and agendas, domestically history is still be written, from firearms bans to past presidents returning to be promoted or prosecuted.
Still, as always, life on the Panamanian streets is of constant movement and from the perspectives of many looking for a better life or attempting to maintain honored traditions, there are always alternatives and values worth fighting for.