Friday, June 13, 2008

An Encounter with the Representante

Yesterday afternoon I went up to the pueblo to take pictures of and gather information about the Potrerillos library and, as it turned out, the little museum.  After chatting with Marisin and Jovanna and taking pictures, I shot some footage of Jovanna's blue and yellow macaw who lives out back and of the front of the building itself. There was a man standing there who wound up being incorporated into the picture.

After I finished filming, he introduced himself as the representante for the area. His position corresponds more or less to a member of the US House of Representatives. I had met him once before and reminded him that he had visited our house after our bodega was robbed. He looked a little blank, and I put it down to the fact that perhaps all us gringas look more or less alike. Plus I'm not a voter. Yet.  It did occur to me that since everyone seems to know about the proposed change in immigration laws (the government appears to be notifying various people including my physician) and thinks that they are going to be approved, he might be making sure a potential voter got to know him.  He is a politician after all, and they're all alike.

First he spoke in rather bad English, which I could barely make sense of, so I replied in my good if not fluent Spanish, and we went on from there with no problem.

I had heard from Jovanna and he confirmed that the small building that houses the library, museo and Infoplaza sits on 15 hectares of land that used to belong to Cítrico, a major citrus growing and processing company in Potrerillos Abajo. At that time, Cítrico was owned by an American whom everyone refers to as Señor Louis. He sold it to a Columbian, and to listen to the locals, everything has gone downhill since then. That may be just the Panamanian prejudice against Columbians or it may be true, but anyway, Señor Louis, the American, is always spoken of quite highly. In any event, he donated the land, not to the municipio, which is the governing entity of the pueblo but to the community itself, which I gather is administered by something known as a Junta Comunal. You see that phrase a lot, on bus shelters, for example.  I'm not sure exactly what that means but it seems to be a sort of community committee that handles little projects outside of the official government municipio.

We walked the area and talked (actually, like any politician, he talked and I listened), while he described to me the very ambitious projects that he would like to see happen.  To summarize: he would love to see a recreational area in back of the Infoplaza/library building--there are already some swing sets there--that would include a swimming pool for the kids, a reforestation project, gardens, and a home for the aged.

The last surprised me.  In a family-oriented culture such as this one, it's not something I expect.  I know that the only place you find them in Brasil is in the large cities in the south; in the northeast, it is amazing to what lengths adult children will go to take care of their aged parents.

When I asked him about this, he told me that there were many poor, elderly people who were ill and who were abandoned.

He also talked about the poverty in the area.  Once a month he and an American (I think) woman go in his truck to deliver food to the poorest people in the area.

This is where I want to get involved in helping out the community.  Next time he goes on his rounds, he'll notify me, and I'll go with him.  We can go from there to figure out exactly what Mary and I can do to help.

What interested me a lot is when he began talking about the foreign community here, which, he said, is a great deal smaller than in Boquete.  I muttered something about quality vs quantity which I'm fairly sure he didn't understand.  Just as well.  What he wants to do is to have a meeting with the interested foreigners ( I kept reminding myself that I wouldn't be a 'foreigner' technically anyway for much longer) in order to discuss his projects.

Ah.  We come to the heart of the matter.  The American money machine.

When we first moved to our rental house, our helpful next-door neighbor described what the basis of some of his problems with labor were.  Campesinos, he claimed, really and truly believed that Americans actually made money in their houses--we had printing machines (if they thought that technically) and we could make as much money as we wanted.

With ever-increasing exposure to Americans and other foreigner nationals, I'm sure that particular belief is long gone.  However, it lingers in many other ways.  There is the solidly-held conviction that all Americans are rich and therefore it's quite all right to steal from or cheat them.  I've gone into this cultural attitude extensively so I won't say more.  I did however point out to the representante that the three rural communities of Boquete, Potrerillos and Volcán were home to three very different colonies (using his word, by the way) of foreign nationals.  Without question, Potrerillos is far and away the "poorer" of the three.  On average, there are far more of us Americans, Canadians, and British, for example, who are living on Social Security or its equivalent and who are definitely and absolutely not rich.  There are a few well-off but they are the exception not the rule.  We correspond in income and life style in general to the Panamanian middle class.  Boquete has the rich Americans and Canadians; while there are people of modest means there, they are outnumbered by the well-to-do.  It seems to me that Volcán is somewhere in between.  The attitude in the three foreign communities is also very different but that's something else again.  Overall, we here in Potrerillos appear to be very much closer to our Panamanian hosts.

I wanted to get that across to him because I know what's coming.    He wants the "rich" foreigners to help out with his pet projects.

I have extensive experience in Brasil with what happens to foreign aid of any kind, whether from governments or from private sources.  The overwhelming majority of it is wasted, thanks to cultural assumptions or from ignorance of the realities of Brasilian life and politics.  To give an example of what will be my main concern here, an Irish missionary priest made several trips to the US to get the funds necessary to complete a second day care center in the poorer sections  of São Paulo so that mothers could leave their children in a safe place while they went to work.  This is a massive problem in Brasil, because unattended kids get out--and all too often get lost on the streets to become a staggering social problem.  The priest had a commitment from the São Paulo city government to pay salaries and expenses for the day care center once it was erected.

I went to São Paulo on my first trip and saw for myself the day care center.  It was gorgeous.  Then I visited the first one he had been instrumental in building in another area--and ran into the realities.  

It was clearly not as well kept up as the one that had just been built.  The major problem was that the São Paulo city government had decreed in increase in salaries for day care workers and other such service personnel--and then didn't have the money to pay the salaries.  So they stopped paying.  They also ran out of money for whatever reason to pay for food and upkeep.  The workers all signed petitions saying that they would be happy to have the lower salaries and pleaded for the money for at least food for the children.  Nothing came of it.  When I visited, the staff had not been paid in several months (this was standard for Brasil at that time and may still be in the northeast).  The way they were getting food for the children was to go to the open-air markets after closing time and begging for the left-over vegetables that the vendors had been unable to sell.  Sometimes they were reduced to picking up the garbage that had fallen under the tables in the stalls.

I have more stories like this.  I have examples of aid wasted from both the US, the European Union, and major non-profit outstanding charitable organizations.  I learned the most from the last-named ones, because the people there told me the lessons that they learned and how they did things differently now. 

The point I want to make is that you have to look long-term at the consequences of what aid you're prepared to give.  It's a wonderful idea to build a home for the elderly--but where is the money going to come from for staff and upkeep?  It can't come from the foreign community.  

Years ago, I heard that the foreign community--mainly Americans--in Boquete had raised money to do something for the local schools.  The story as I heard it said that the local teachers did not want to accept the money/aid because then, they said, the government would cut the money it gave to the school, reasoning that the foreigners were going to support the school.  I have no idea whether or not the story is true, but based on my experience in Brasil, I tended to believe it.  Panamá has a centralized, corrupt government, and believe me, there are problems like that here.  Money just sort of disappears here.  I've already posted about the disappearance of money from the Public Health program.  This is in addition to the fact that Panamá is a poor country that doesn't have sufficient resources to begin with, and that most of those resources go to Panama City anyway.

I had a lot of contact with different Catholic (and some Protestant) missionary groups in Brasil.  One such group was composed of lay American Maryknoll missionaries, hard working people who did their utmost to help the poor especially in health education.  I remember one night where there was a lively discussion about Mother Theresa's organization, and the missionaries were really indignant with her efforts.  They claimed that all she did was treat the symptoms but did not address the root causes, which were political in nature.  Most missionaries sooner or later start sympathizing with reform political movements in South America because of problems with corrupt governments and endemic poverty.

I have come to agree with Mother Theresa herself who said that while all the reformers were arguing and fighting for reform, people were dying.

She and Dorothy Day are two of my greatest heroes (along with Abraham Lincoln).  I agree that political solutions are necessary.  But in the meantime, I have watched children dying of hunger, cattle already dead of starvation, and the homeless building pathetic shelters in garbage dumps and along the beaches of the Amazon River where the rising waters will destroy them.  I've also seen, as we do in the news today, aid misdirected and misused.

So yes, I want to help and yes, I'll go to the meeting, but with both eyes open and some hard questions in mind.  In the meantime, if the representante is serious, I'll go with him in his truck to help distribute food and do what I can to ease the suffering--if only in very small ways--right now.

I used to have a small plaque hung on our bathroom wall with a quote from Mother Theresa: "We can do no great things.  We can only do small things with great love."

3 comments:

Linda & Clyde said...

Dear Joyce,
You've started my day out on a wonderful note, I read your blog entries on a daily basis, after we feed our critter herd, to Linda and today's a bonanza! You are doing a wonderful thing describing and letting people get to know how wonderful the people and the country of Panama is. Hope you, Mary and your herd of critters have a great day!

Clyde

Joyce said...

Hi, Clyde,

First, all is well with mary, the herd and myself.

Second, do I have some treats here pretty soon! Mary and I just got back from a program at the Potrerillos school, celebrating the completion of 3 new classrooms. It was terrific! there were different presentations by the kids--and I have almost all of them on video. There was a hysterical couple of songs by one of the fathers. A famous Panamanian poet who is a chiricano was there, there were all kinds of songs and presentations. I'm going to start putting them up on the blog tomorrow, if i can get the film uploaded today and edit it down a bit.

Say "hi" to Linda for me.

Joyce

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