My curiosity piqued by a quietly dismissive remark by a Peruvian gentleman regarding Panama’s current behind the scenes politics (“the country is owned – and run – by three very old and very rich families”), I started off on a quest to uncover the background to this remark – and fell down the rabbit hole.
Sidetracked first by a novel, then by a collection of reminiscences, and finally landing at what I hope will be the real story, I’ve collected three books, and have just finished reading the novel (an exciting way to learn a bit of history in a roundabout way).
Here they are, the first three in what is probably my burgeoning book collection (there are an incredible number and variety of books on Panama – one could spend a great deal of one’s time reading nothing but books about Panama. I shall have to control myself, or this could become an obsession).
First the novel, which I’ve read, and enjoyed, in spite of the sometimes not-so-well-written passages (I was able to forgive the author because the book was such fun to read).
An Amacon.com review (taking the lazy way out, by picking one that was, in my opinion, the most accurate depiction of the book and its merits):
A Zonian’s Review of PANAMA, July 13, 2007 Byelectriclady281
“I LOVED this book! I also love the country of my birth, Panama, as well as the country I was born a citizen of, the US, which I learned to love respect, and admire from afar as a schoolgirl in the Canal Zone, where US patriotism abounded, but which I never noted on visits to the US. or since coming to live in the US, until 9/11.
I was born in the Canal Zone in 1942 and lived there till 1964. I have family in Panama also, so I was there during a couple revolutions (as opposed to the Canal Zone). I loved growing up in what I still think of as Paradise and am familiar with the ongoing history of Panama, it’s involvement with the US, and the Zone history. Although PANAMA is a novel, as far as I’m concerned, what the author has written is so very true to the spirit of what actually occurred that it could well pass for historical fact, which some of it is.
Of particular interest to me was the description of Pres. George H. W. Bush’s involvement in the Panama drug trade as director of the CIA. When Daddy Bush was president he denied any knowlege of a drug trade problem in Panama. I always thought that was a stupid position to take because, to me, it revealed that as director of the plentiful CIA presence in Panama, he was either inept or lying. He probably was also unaware that CARE packages were being sold on the streets of Panama, another bit of common knowlege there.
I was front-row center on the border (a street) between Panama and the Canal Zone during the riots in January, l964, and at the Balboa High School flagpole demonstration. What the author wrote was very similar to what I personally saw, heard of from friends and family in Panama, and read in the newspaper.
I thought the book was well-written; there were some publisher’s errors in print, but nothing that detracted from my being absorbed by the story. I liked the way the author explained, by way of a love story in the days of the Conquistadores, how the blood lines in Panama were mixed. It was, to me, entirely possible that those lovers could have been ancestors of Andrea, the female protagonist, although the author did not make that claim. Hank, the main character, is the embodiment of the many Zonians who would love to return to Panama to live, including his blood ties to Panama.”
(A review from Amazon.com, my most favored):
“Oh Panama — How Unforgettable Thou Art!”
By Gustavo A. Mellander, Ph.D., D.H.L. on October 25, 2015
“This welcomed book collects some of the academically sound historical essays written by Panama-born and raised Luis R. Celerier, Although not a trained historian his curiosity, his honesty and his determination to dredge up the truth has produced a lively and living history. To collect further data for his writings and insure their integrity, he sought the advice of others to complete and thereby enhanced his vignettes.
Many who lived in the Isthmus of Panama in the 20th century.will love this large, very beautiful book. There are hundreds of vintage pictures many in striking color.
This collection captures the excitement and drama of everyday life for those who lived and worked in the Canal Zone as well as those from the Republic of Panama. Those realities are revealed in vivid detail.
The collection, footnoted and with additional suggested readings, portrays many of the realities Panama experienced — be they Balboa’s trekking across the Isthmus in 1519 to claim the vast Pacific, which he named the South Sea, for the Spanish King and Queen, or how Colombia’s turbulent conflicts affected the Isthmus and the contributions of the North American and other pioneers who built and maintained the canal for decades. The Second World War and its real life dramatic memories are highlighted in various episodes. It’s hard to believe that such a small swath of land hosted so many varied significant events.
Historians will be pleased to have these reliable vignettes collected in a single publication. Those who lived in Panama , “Old Panama Hands,” former Zonians, those who visited , those who have studied Panama will be astonished by the variety and richness of these essays. Many will find themselves chuckling and perhaps even shedding a tear or two as memories, long buried, spring forth.
The collection, historically sound and balanced, is further enhanced by the memories of Celerier’s personal reminisces. They
provide a warm social history fabric frequently ignored by historians. But then again this is a labor of love, an attempt to capture a few of the amazing chapters of life on the unforgettable Isthmus of Panama. Celerier succeeded famously and we are in his debt.”
And finally, among the three books, here’s the one in which I hope to find my answers:
” In one of the few existing studies of a non-indigenous peasant community in Panama, Rudolf sets her work in the context of national and global political and economic history. Her 25 years of research in a single community enable her to trace how people have responded to and shaped the major events that have characterized Latin American society during this time: population explosion, rural-urban migration, colonization of new regions, debt crisis, U.S. economic and political involvement, liberation theology and “reformed Catholicism,” trends in development, the rise of large-scale industrial agriculture, and structural adjustment policies.” (Extract from the main review on Amazon.com)
An Amazon.com reader review – again my most favored – coincidently by the same gentleman as the previous book above. (Note the second to last paragraph which I’ve marked in bold, with its reference to Panama’s ruling families – considerably more however, than the three mentioned by my Peruvian acquaintance).
By Gustavo A. Mellander, Ph.D., D.H.L. on December 27, 2008
“Panama declared its independence from Spain in the 1820s and quickly allied itself with Gran Colombia. Big mistake. Colombia treated her not as a co-equal state but as an unimportant province. It was a place for the Bogata upper class to make money. Of course health conditions in Panama were horrible so they stayed in beautiful and healthy Bogota. Overseers took care of their investmentz. Absentee ownership, with all its negatives, led to further abuse of Panamanians. Not at all differnet from how Spain treated Panama during the colonial era. A colony to be expoited.
In the 80 plus years that Panama was a province of Colombia, there were 83 uprisings on the Ithmus. Many were put down by the USA under a treaty with Colombia. Then came along Theodore Roosevelt and he allowed the November 1903 uprising to succeed. He wanted a canal buiilt and he was a very impatient person. The rest is history.
This book is accurate in that the urban and the rural poor in Panama have a very difficult existence. They always have. No government has really had their best interests at heart. Since separating from Colombia in 1903, Panama, with few exceptions, has been ruled by 50 families. They are the masters of the country. The best education, the best jobs, and government patronage goes to them. They are the ones who have kept the poor, poor and downtrodden.
Hopefully it will change some day. This book provides useful insights into the reality of the poor in Panama, but a viable solution has yet to surface. Must the poor wait another hundred years?”
I am really looking forward to reading this last book. Though it was published in 1999, I do expect to learn much that is still relevant to Panama now, in 2016. When I’ve read my way through it, I shall share a few points of interest worth sharing. – Wendy Kamdin