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Ruben Blades Sows The Seeds Of A New Panama

Ruben Blades Sows The Seeds Of A New Panama image Ruben Blades Sows The Seeds Of A New Panama image
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Editor' s Note: Eric Jackson, an Associate Editor of AGENDA, filed this report from Panama City on April 25. Jackson was born in Colon, and lived in Panama for 13 years. He has been in Panama since midFebruary and has been closely monitoring the Panamanian presidential elections. Panamanian politics are taking on a salsa flavor. Salsa pioneer and actor Rubén Blades, who is also a lawyer and human rights activist, is poised to pull off Panama's greatest election upset. In a crowded race for Panama's presi dency to be decided by voters on May 8, a recent Harrís opinión poli shows Blades with 24.8% of the vote, running adose second placeto Ernesto Pérez Balladares, with 28.4%. And in an April 25 Harrís poli, conducted immediately after the third presidential debate, Blades was declarad the winner by 40% of the viewers (Balladares was second with 29%). Whether Blades wins or loses, the feuding parties of the old U.S.-created Democratie Opposition Alliance slate (ADO)- which carne to power after George Bush's 1989 invasión - will certainly lose the May 8 elections. With them will go hopes to prolong the tenure of U.S. military bases. And whether he wins or loses, Blades will always be a Panamanian cultural hero. A pólice officer's son, his talent got him into the Instituto Nacional, Panama's elite high school, then the University of Panama. When the army closed the university in 1 969, he wentto New York. When it re-opened in 1 970, Blades retumed to work his way through law school as a musician. Blades practiced law for two years with the National Bank of Panama but in 1974 music drew him back to New York. A collaboration with Willie Colon transformed what had been Afro-Cuban dance music into modem salsa, the social expression of barrios everywhere. In 1982, Blades formed Los Seis del Solar (The Tenement Six), and in 1 984 released Buscando América, (Searching for America) which sold over 400,000 albums wordwide. It was banned in Panama by General Noriega. No wonder You have been kidnapped, America; you have been gagged, and it is up to us to free you. l'm calling for you, America. Our future awaits. Before it dies, help me to search. A grammy award-winning musician, Blades eventually branched into acting. Critics liked him as the sheriff in "The Milagro Beanfield War" (1 987). He won an ACE award playing an insane death row inmate in "Dead Man Out" (1 990), and "The Josephine Baker Story" (1991) got him an Emmy nomination. In 1 985 Blades took time off from entertaining to obtain a post-graduate degree in international law from Harvard. In 1 987 he helped to organizo a global concert tour for Amnesty International. And as Panama's situation worsened, Blades quietly aided Noriega's victims, sending money and support to prisoners and prisoners' families. He supported neither the U.S.-backed civilista movement nor the ADO and fiercely criticized the U.S. invasión. Retuming to Panama in 1992, Blades launched Papa Egoró (Mother Earth in the indigenous Embera language), which first won support from youth and professionals. Papa Egoró is a green party, and may be the first of its kind to win power in Latin America. The party puts top priority on feeding people. Part of their platform calis for taking an inventory of national resources, Consulting the various social sectors and c reating a sustainable development plan. They pledge to renegotiatetheforeigndebt.Theywanttodevolve centralized powers to provincial and municipal govemments. They denounce patronage politics. They support indigenous land claims. Urban conditions gave Papa Egoró fertile soil in which to grow. I witnessed this on my mid-February return to Colon, the city where I was bom. While checking out campaign muráis, I got mugged on Avenida Central. Because my ID was taken, I had to report the crime. The cops, driving a beat-up old Lada without a radio, took me through the squalid side streets of Barrio Norte in a fruitless search for the thieves. One can judge squalor by the thousands of condemned housing units in Colon 's square mile. One can look at the city's 60% jobless rate. Watching men fight vultures for a feeding place at a dumpster, as I did, is another indicator. But the smell of Barrio Norte - a blend of rotting garbage, raw sewage, car fumes and buming crack- comes to mind when I think of squalor. It'snotjust miserable in the slums. Panama City's Paitilla Medical Center, where the rich go for treatment, has a river of raw sewage running past it. The water, phones, and electricity keep going out Businessmen are often kidnapped. Thus the many office seekers all claim to be agents of change. On the February Sfiling deadline, Blades found himself in a sevenway race for the presidency. The Democratie Revolutionary Party (PRD) nominated former banker and finance minister Ernesto Pérez Bal ladares. Th s is the party that Gen. Torrijos created and Gen. Noriega carne to domínate. It was rebuilt by its civilian members after the invasión. Because the PRD is well-organized and received neariy one-third of the vote even in Noriega's worst days, Balladares became the instant frontrunner in a divided field. Panama's other well-established political party, the Arnulfistas, take their name from Amulfo Arias, who as Panama's president once stripped Panamanians of Asian orWest Indian ancestry of their citizenship. President Endara is an Arnulfista, but by law is limit ed to one term in office. His party chose Arias' widow, Mireya Moscoso de Gruber, as its c and date. The Arnulfistas' former Christian Democrat allies ran Eduardo Vallarino, ex-ambassador to the United States. Brewery owner Samuel Lewis Galindo also joined the fray. But most of the big money backed former banker and national comptroller, Rubén Caries, a septuagenarian in a bow tie who broke wrth Endara this past January to found the "Change '94a slate. Bow tie muráis covered Panama in midt 1 t ■ 1 I 1 . ..IlItJI.J.. L I I February. The airwaves crackled with promises about how Caries would fix Utilities, build houses and créate jobs. Caries was vague about how he'd pay for it- something about increased private investment and a new bases treaty to get money f rom the gringos. But the U.S. military is for the most part leaving, due to U.S. budget constraints. This year, half of the troops will leave and several bases will close. The Pentagon wants to keep Howard Air Force Base after 1 999 but treaties grant free rent to bases during the next fiveyear Panamanian presidency. Voters perceived that Caries couldn't deliver what he promised. In recent presidential popularity polls, Caries is running a close third behind Blades. Though Blades led most polls in 1 993, he was unseen and dropping in the polls at the beginning of this year. All that a journalist could get from his campaign office was a leaflet saying that Blades' low-key campaign wasn't the silence of death, but the sound of a man listening. By mid-March, when he start ed to campaign more aggresi vely, Blades was fourth in the polls with barely 1 0%, while Balladares had nearty 40%. Then the TV debates began. Only Balladares and Blades sounded coherent It showed in the polls. The Christian Democrat (Vallarino) and the beer magnate (Galindo) nose-dived into irrelevance. Trying to regain lost momentum, Caries ran attack ads reminding voters of Balladares' ties to Noriega. Caries' critics hit back with ads about corruption under the "EndaraCarles" regime. Blades' ads argued that while this war of insults could continue for anotherfive years, voters shouldn't have to decide between bad and worse. As Blades gained, all sides attacked him. Endara called him "the young candidate," "naive" and "inexperienced." The pro-PRD LafstreWapanned Blades for marryinga U.S. citizen. Both the PRD and ADO parties called Papa Egoró "communist." The years that Blades spent out of Panama were held against him. Oíd civilistas argued that Blades isn't "democratie" because he wasn't part of the ADO. Blades mostly didn't respond, but bolstered his independent position by answering the latter attack. He decried the choice between "nationalism without democracy" (the PRD) and "democracy without nationalism" (the ADO). By mid-April, the poorest barrios in Panama were battlegrounds between the PRD and Papa Egoró. Meanwhile, when Caries tried to speak from a balcony in a poor Panama City district, the structure collapsed. So did his campaign. Endara panicked. The day after a poll showed Blades passing Caries, Endara announced that he'd be making a controversial address to the nation - about what he didn't say. Rumor had it that the elect ions would be canceled. There was a run on grocery stores, as people preparad for the worst At the appointed hour, the streets were deserted as people huddled around TV sets. Endara showed videotaped excerpts from Noriega-era cabinet meetings, with added scènes of the ex-dictator's boys beating heads. While the tape showed some of Balladares' associates discussing shady deals, there were no direct hits against the PRD candidate. Pérez Balladares responded in an angry press conference, which probably hurt him more than the president's video show. But many also considerad Endara's actions undignified. Blades had no comment, which seemed discreet and presidential in com(CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE) Retuming to Panama in 1992, Blades launched Papa Egoró (Mother Earth in the indigenous Embera language). Papa Egoró ís a green party, and may be the first of its kind to win power in Latin America. The party puts top priority on feeding people. PANAMA (FROM PAGE 3) parison. The Blades campaign blossomed on April 23, when about 25,000 people gathered in Panama City's Urraca Park for Papa Egoró's Earth Day celebration. Supporters gave away tree seedlings. For kids, there was a painting area. Several new Papa Egoró t-shirt designs appeared, many for candidates now favored to win seats in the national legislature. A crowd that was mixed by race, income and age witnessed a pageant underthe roasting sun. As I arrived, a band played ranchero songs. Next, an Afro-Panamanian poet recited her work. Then carne two Kunaacts - traditional dance rs, and Kuna D ule ' s Andean-style tunes with Spanish and Kuna lyrics. Los Amigos Folklóricos danced to cumbia music. Grupo Coraza did modem dances to Af ro-American gospel. Luis Artiaga sang ballads. There was a calypso act, and more poetry. ' ' L ' ' 1 - I i I ' 1 ' ' ■ ■■!■■ The candidates led the crowd in an oath to save the planet while the band set up. Then Bladeslaunched nto Buscando America. People danced on balconies facing the park. The crowd swayed to Caminando. Blades went acoustic, singing "Patria" to a conga drumbeat: Motherland is so many beautiful things It's in the walls of our banio, and in its brown hope It's what those who leave take in their souls. It's in our martyrs' voices when they defend our flag. Don 't ever memorize a dictatorship's lesson of mprisonment, 'cause those who enslave a country can't define what Motherland is. The day ended with Pablo Pueblo, an anthem aboutfaded campaign posters and broken promises. The crowd sang along, determined that it wouldn't happen again. i. k . i . . . . . . i i i. i i i


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