My Father Was Right

I didn't believe him when he told me that, in Panama, the poor were being manipulated by the national bourgeoisie. What did he know, a diplomat who'd lived over half his life in South America? I was a radical student at a private college in the United States. "National bourgeoisie" was my term, not his. He called them the "Five Families".

He said his biggest worry was that the Marine Guards would open fire when they saw the flag getting destroyed.

Castillero was a small hunchbacked professor who was a fierce nationalist. Boyd, who owed his surname to an Irish grandfather, had already been Foreign Minister though still in his thirties. Our Ambassador, a career officer named Julian Harrington, had looked on Boyd as a sort of protegĂ© when the latter was minister. Now, though, with the flag-raising business, Harrington had ended the relationship. (Aquilino Boyd served in later years as Panama’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, where a number of American officials, including me, enjoyed decent relations with him. Harrington had begun his career 37 years earlier as a clerk at Malaga and was now gouty and aging.)

The November Fourth celebrations were to include a morning parade in the old quarter of Panama City, which the President of the Republic, together with foreign ambassadors, would review from the balcony of his palace. Neither Arias nor Newell, nor the combined powers of our intelligence agencies, could forecast just what Boyd and Castillero would do on the fourth, or whether serious trouble would result. The day before, I told my boss I would walk down to see the parade. He was planning a day in the Zone, and did not demur. As I walked toward the palace I had the impression that I was the only gringo in the crowd of darker skinned people. I found a place on the sidewalk near the cathedral and was watching Guardia Nacional units with a good band march by, when a well-dressed woman came up to me and said in Spanish that I seemed to be a North American. She told me quickly, quietly, that this was no place for me; I should leave before there was trouble. I decided to take her advice, and began walking back toward the Tivoli Guest House. (Some time later I met the lady again, and we became friends; she was Panama’s first woman judge.)

As I neared Fourth of July Avenue, with the modern building of Panama’s National Assembly on my right, I saw in front of me several groups of mainly dark-skinned, barefoot boys from the nearby slums, a type known pejoratively as cocos pelados or ‘peeled coconuts’ to well-to-do Panamanians. The cocos pelados were throwing rocks at a line of Canal Zone police in gas masks who were facing them along the avenue. Behind the boys, closer to me, a group of six or eight lighter skinned, better dressed men was egging them on: ‘Hurrah, boys, give it to the Yankee imperialists!’ My first look at elemental Panama politics. The trouble was, I was on the wrong side of the line. Eventually there came a lull and I made my way across the street. A few minutes later I found a taxi to take me to the Embassy. It was closed for the holiday, and the only people inside were a Marine guard and our Deputy Chief of Mission, John Shillock. The DCM had decided trouble was likely, and so had come down to the Embassy rather than accompany Ambassador Harrington to the President’s palace.

I had just finished telling Mr. Shillock what I had seen in town when, looking out the window, we saw Aquilino Boyd walking along the sidewalk below. As usual there was a Guardia Nacional car with two agents parked nearby—and now we saw the car drive off. John Shillock, a veteran of 30 years in Latin America, said ‘I think I know what’s going to happen now’, and he phoned down to the Marine that we could expect some visitors outside and that he should in any event keep the door locked and barred and stay at his post.

Several minutes later a group of 50 or 60 cocos pelados came walking up Avenida Balboa. They walked across the Embassy lawn to our flagpole, pulled down our flag, and tore it up, with appropriate shouts about Yankee imperialism. I had expected to see Aquilino Boyd egg them on, but he kept a distance, perhaps discomfited by seeing the deputy to his onetime friend the Ambassador staring down at him. Eventually the barefoot patriots departed, and so did Boyd. As I was helping John Shillock write a reporting cable to the department, Paul Runnestrand in the Canal Zone phoned with more news. A couple of hours earlier, Boyd and Castillero had led an automobile caravan into the Zone, stopping every so often to plant small Panamanian flags by the roadside and running into trouble at every stop with the Zone police, who pulled up the flags. I was not attracted by either side of this affair. Planting little flags in the Canal Zone seemed childish; pulling down and tearing up our flag I thought atrocious. But neither did I see much virtue in the Canal Company’s insistence that only the American flag could fly in the Zone—an insistence based on a provision in the Treaty of 1903 that the United States should enjoy all the rights in the Canal Zone that we would possess if we were sovereign there. The Panamanians of course said that this meant we were not sovereign there.

This argument had gone for over four decades, but now it grew sharper. There was no more stone throwing after 4 November, but it appeared that every Panamanian without exception backed Boyd’s and Castillero’s doings and agreed that Panama’s flag must fly—along with ours, most agreed—in the Zone. Only a dreamer could imagine that a time would come when only Panama’s flag would fly there—when indeed there would be no more Canal Zone.The next several months were a time of stiff relations between the two republics, but my wife and I, who had rented a hillside apartment with a view over the sea, found it easy to make friends in Panama. I wanted to get to know a broad range of Panamanians, but the friendliest were those from the upper classes, whose nationalism was coupled with a strong desire that we would see them as our country’s best Panamanian friends and allies. These people, known by the lower classes as rabiblancos or white-tails, sent their children to study in colleges in Texas and Louisiana; their wives went shopping in Miami; the men had their annual checkups at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans. Nor were they averse to marrying off a child to an American. If chaos ever came to the Isthmus, one could hope to get the family to the north through this ‘Yanqui’ connection. I met a lot of such people, but I rejected from the start the idea that these well-to-do Arosemenas and Arias were the only Panamanians we should deal with—the only Panamanians whose interests mattered.


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