A presidential election as a hope for the indigenous tribes of Panama


Photos Anthony Azael

Gaëlle Sévenier, freelance reporter
Gaelle Sevenier

23 Avril 2004

On May 6th, Panama elected their new President, Martin Torrijo. Son of General and former President Ricardo Omar Torrijo (1968 - 1981), he represents the PRD, Revolutionary Democratic Party. He is being supported by a majority of the indigenous tribes of Panama, which are a significant 9% of the population.

The Kunas remember General Torrijo : " The military government here in the seventies was different from military governments we have seen in other Latin American countries " tells Mani Stanley, a young Kuna member of the organization called " Movement of the Kuna Youth ". "They were very paternalists with the Indians of Panama, they gave us access to many facilities." It is thanks to the General Torrijo that the Indian villages now have access to schools and medical centres.

Sogui Diaz, a 26 years old Kuna female living in Panama City, is campaigning for the PRD : " the Revolutionary Democratic Party is an open structure that encourages young people to have an active participation. Very few parties allow indigenous to participate and give suggestions to help their community. Omar Torrijo was the first President to help the Indigenous, giving every village of more than 150 inhabitants access to a school and a medical centre. His son will continue to help us. "

The Kunas of Panama live in a semi-autonomous territory, in three Comarcas which are indigenous reserves holding their own laws and protecting their territories. The organizational structure of the Kuna society is based on a democracy that allows people to participate in making decisions which affect the community. Every community has it's own House of the Congress called Onmakket, where the representatives meet regularly. Every community, a total of 49 in Panama, elects it's Sahila among the elders, as well as four other representatives. All the Sahilas meet to elect three Caciques to represent the entire Kuna tribe in the National Congress.

Briceida Iglesias, leader of a traditional dance group, has a unique interpretation of the democratic Kuna union : " Our ancestors taught us to unit ourselves and to get organized in a democracy, long before European democratic ideas came here. Everyone gives his or her opinion. The leader must be calm and open to others. Nan Dummad (Mother Hearth) shows us many examples in the nature. The stars are united with the sky or the moon. One person can not handle everything on his shoulders. If the "palo" holding the roof of the Congress isn't strong enough, everything can fall apart. The leader must be sustained by the others."

Since 1984, the Kunas have two legislators in power. According to Mani Stanley, those legislative representatives divide the Kuna society: "The legislators receive a salary of $10,000 a month, just like any other legislator. Beside that, the representatives of the Congress, the Caciques, only receive an indemnity of $300 a month to move around the country. The gap is too wide, the Caciques do not receive any help from the government to make a difference for the Kuna. The legislators, like all the other politicians, only sell promises trying to influence the Indians' vote." It is common to see political parties offering machetes, motors, or scholarships in order to buy votes, as it is common in most other countries of Latin America.

Sogui hopes that the PRD will give more power to the General Congress. "Right now it is the legislators who are giving the scholarships to students. However, instead of giving them according to the pupils' merit, they give them to those who belong to political parties, or they try to influence their votes. The General Congress should be the one giving the scholarships as well as the help to the villages for those who need it the most. Without the financial help of the government, the Kuna people will never be able to improve and avoid struggle out of poverty."


For more information on how to visit Kuna tribes, contact Michel Puech, www.panamaexoticsadventures.com

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