Return to Panama Viejo

LeocadiaTorres - CarlProper 7-1-13 - CopyLeocadia was now 83 years old. She had lost weight, and moved to a new neighborhood. But she stood straight and remembered everything. “Ay, que bueno verte, Carlos, después de tantos años!” She showed me the picture on the wall of the small concrete block and plaster house in Arraijan: one five-foot-four black woman standing between six tall and well-dressed “rabi-blancos”, with the then-President of the Republic to her left, a government Minister on her right. She was representing the union of lottery-ticket sellers, on some occasion.

Forty-five years earlier, Leocadia was a sparkplug in the Comité Pro Mejoras de Panamá Viejo. Her neighborhood was organized before I arrived. Panama Viejo was a squatter community on the outskirts of the City, on the way to Tocúmen airport. Many residents had moved in from the countryside in an organized way, putting up their board and tin houses, helping to form a “barriada bruja” seemingly overnight – foundations, cinder block, plaster and second stories to come later. Others had moved out from their apartments in Chorrillo or other crowded city neighborhoods, determined to own their homes, and eventually the land the house stood on as well. Most lived on the inland side of the road to Tocúmen, but others put up their shacks among the ruins of buildings burned by the pirate Henry Morgan centuries before, and defied authorities to move them out.

Their “felt need,” as the Peace Corps then described it, was for paved streets to replace the dirt roads where Obras Públicas would occasionally spread new layers, as long as the $50 bribe was paid to the truck driver; for running water and sewage pipes to carry away the waste – and someday, title to the land.

Because the election year of 1968 was politically turbulent, I learned quickly to distinguish community leaders’ political leanings. Community founder Marcial Barsallo, a Spanish speaker with an African-American look, was hoping to land a “botella” (a paying political job with no heavy lifting) with candidate Samudio. Lalo Gomez, who supported himself and a family including children from earlier relationships in different parts of the country, by taking in sewing and odd jobs from neighbors, was gung-ho for “el Doctor” — Arnulfo Arias, a surgeon and millionaire coffee plantation owner, who had been twice elected and twice deposed over a 28-year period, and was the front-runner again. Carlos Zorita, “Camacho,” a dynamic, literate and foul-mouthed Marxist, was Treasurer of the bus drivers’ union of Panama Viejo, a worker-owned company. He was also a member of the Partido del Pueblo, the communist party; “REALIDAD OBJETIVA” was written in large letters on the massive front bumper of his bus, warning pedestrians to stand clear. Antonio Saldaña, a student activist (now a lawyer and employee of the National Assembly), was anti-gringo in principal, but ambitious. Julio Moreno was an intelligent young worker with a family, and no politics.

Working under the auspices of the Panamanian Dirección General del Desarollo Comunal, our committee, and the organized neighborhood pushed the government and U.S. A.I.D. for action on community demands, but without a lot of hope. Then, after the military government predictably put newly-elected President Arias on the plane to Miami once again, Lalo and Camacho were detained for two weeks, then released. Soon after, it became apparent that the “Revolutionary Government,” headed by General Omar Torrijos (who later negotiated, with President Jimmy Carter, the transfer of the Panama Canal and Zone to Panamanian control) would actually make changes. Step one for our neighborhood was an end to bribes for throwing more dirt on the roads. Step two was better. El General himself came out to meet with the neighborhood — a meeting from which I was rightly excluded as not Panamanian. He was accompanied by a significant contingent of the Guardia Nacional (the combined military and police force). Only Camacho had the courage to stand next to the General, and describe what the people needed. Torrijos listened, and the following week, Ricardo de la Espriella, head of the National Bank, and later a President himself, took a walk through the neighborhood with the Comité Pro Mejoras.

Deals take time, but shortly before the Peace Corps was ushered out of the country (not welcome during the run-up to Canal negotiations), the agreement for streets and sewers was tentatively set. I was never sure the work was actually completed.

That was the good news, when I finally tracked Leocadia down, on my third trip to the neighborhood, taking a free cab ride with her son-in-law from Country Inn in the former Zone, to her home in a different neighborhood, Arraijan. The streets of Panama Viejo HAD been paved, and even named, as I had seen on my first visit, and better yet, sewage lines and running water were installed as well, within about three years of my departure.   Still better, the community never stopped pushing. Two years after I left, General Torrijos returned to the neighborhood for a second visit to begin distribution of land titles to all residents (except those unfortunates living among the historic ruins), at fifty cents a square meter — a steal.

Today, though new and half-empty apartment towers for the well-off loom virtually across the street, (fronts, some say, for more lucrative economic activities), the people of Panama Viejo, squatters no more, also have rights to protect.

Roles and experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers vary, and so do opinions about the Peace Corps. My experience was of unrestricted community organizing, doing what worked, as a staff person for the people’s leaders. The experience became a calling, leading to forty years in the labor movement of my own country. Even today, the memory from a different time and place stays with me, that justice does not always fail, that the rich may be always with us, but with the right leadership, the grass roots can also persist and rise.