July 08, 2007
sin bandas, drogas, y Colombianos
I’ve noticed that taxi drivers are even more talkative here than in New York, and since the public transportation system is, as mentioned before, somewhat lacking, I find myself having many long conversations with them. Usually about the United States. A recent favorite was with a man named Miguel, whose first question was whether or not I was American. He said it usually cost five dollars to get to the UNICEF office (false), but because he really likes the United States, he would only charge me four. If I were Colombian, for example, he would charge me ten dollars.
He, and many other Panamanians, seem to have an intense hatred for all people and things Colombian. I guess that sort of animosity can often be found across borders, but since as an outsider I have no idea of the history, it all seems particularly bigoted to me. A favorite, and somewhat disturbing quote from this particular conversation went something like this.
“Things were better here in Panamá under Noriega.”
“Yes. Now, there are all these problems. There are gangs, and drugs, and lots of Colombians. Before, everything was very safe, nobody was selling drugs. And there weren’t any Colombians.”
For those without background knowledge, and I have very little myself, he was Panama’s self appointed dictator during the 80’s, until the US ousted him through the afore mentioned invasion in ’89. He was responsible for blatantly rigging elections and “disappearing” his political opponents. He was involved in the drug trade. It seems he was an all around bad guy (though I personally think that still didn’t make it our business to invade…though there was supposed ‘provocation’). So hearing that things were better back under his rule makes you pause.
I asked another Panamanian friend if things were better now or then, and he didn’t give me the immediate negative answer I was expecting. “Maybe some things were better then,” he said. I guess political freedoms and rights don’t always seem like the most important things. And dictatorship has always been attractive for the vast scale and efficiency of what can be accomplished when no one has a chance to disagree, (under Mussolini, the trains ran on time).
As we drove through the military bases towards Clayton, Miguel pointed out the window at one of the buildings and said that he would like to work there, with the Canal Authority. When I asked what kind of job he would like to do there, he explained he would drive the small electric vehicles that, attached to cables, keep the boats going straight ahead in the canal. He said he has taken 11 courses, even though you only need six, but that he still can’t get a job. His friend works there, and he is hoping that he will be able to help get him hired. The Canal Authority is supposedly an autonomous agency but, he says, the politicians steal all the money. Actually, he said, it was easier when the gringos were running it. Then, if you did all your courses, you applied and they gave you a job. Now, its all about politics, and connections. You have to know people to get hired.
In one of my classes last semester we talked about booty capitalism, what happens when a democratic system functions solely to the benefit of the politicians. In a society like that, the government only works for those who can pay their way with bribes and connections. I don’t think Panama falls particularly egregiously into that category, but I have the unfortunate opportunity to experience a tiny window of the kind of bureaucracy as I approach the one month anniversary of my stay in Panamá. This is because my tourist visa was due to expire last Friday, and I had to try to get it extended.
The visa used to be good for 90 days, but the law was recently changed to restrict stays to thirty days. In some ways, this gives us Americans a taste of our own medicine. As Miguel asked me one day, “How come Americans can go anywhere they want, but for other people to go to the United States, they have to pay a lot of money for visas and its all very complicated?” In other ways, it seems somewhat self defeating for a country that is actively trying to increase its tourist industry, but I suppose it is enacted less against people with internships and more against the perceived threat of Colombians coming in and messing everything up with their gangs, drugs, and prostitutes. But I digress.
Upon entering the office of Migración y Movimientos, on your right, you find many people sitting in chairs, waiting. On your left are windows with signs above them reading “Cash Registers”. In front there is something like a line, but with no clearly defined endpoint, and no clearly defined destination. All the way into the room are seven numbered windows. After asking about four people, my fellow intern, Jessica, and I discovered that what we first needed was a number. In order to get a number, you have to get the attention of one of the women working in windows six or seven, while they are completely occupied by someone else’s paper work. They can then rip the number out of the standard looking, round, red number dispenser, and give it to you after writing the time on the back. When received our numbers we noticed that though I had 33 and she had 34, we were currently on number 87. This made no sense.
After randomly cutting in front of what seemed like it might be a line, the UNICEF driver asked a woman about what we should do. She said that if we were working for UNICEF, we must not be tourists, and couldn’t have tourist visas anyway. We insisted to him that this wasn’t true, so we went to talk to someone upstairs, who said that yes, we actually are tourists. Upon returning, the same woman told us that what we needed to do was wait in line number one (which I happened to already be standing in) and that the man there could help us. When we got to the front, he asked if I was “registered.” I had no idea what this meant, but evidently I had not been, because he didn’t find anything he was looking for while flipping through my passport. He informed us that to get registered, we need to wait until our number was called, and then go to window three or four. Then we would be able to come back to window one.
By this point, they were up to number 4. Registration seemed to consist of a rubber stamp on one of the pages in your passport. After waiting 45 minutes, they were up to number 5. While we sat there I noticed a man rush in, and start talking to a woman in a suit who had been explaining the necessary procedures for getting a working visa to a foreign businesswoman sitting in front of me. Between the two of them, they started searching through their pockets to find any of the special papers with numbers written on them. Upon seeing this flagrant example of cheating the system (the foreign businesswoman was definitely paying them to do all of this for her) I got so frustrated that we left. We decided to return on Monday bright and early.
The office doesn’t open till eight, but even though we got there at 7:30, it still took us four hours and another whole trip before we became the proud owners of an easily forgeable, laminated piece of paper giving me a 60 day extension not valid for employment.
This past week, I went out to dinner with a Panamanian and an Italian friend. Somehow in the course of the meal, the topic of plastic surgery came up, perhaps prompted by a rerun of Dr. 90210 that was on T.V. earlier. This, of course, led to a discussion of Colombian prostitutes. There was an exposé on T.V. earlier this week on tourists and prostitution, and evidently a lot of the prostitutes were saying that they loved it when an American was interested in their services, because they always pay almost three times as much. The Panamanian woman was describing the women in the exposé, how they were stick skinny with large, obviously fake breasts, and exaggeratedly enlarged lips. It reminded her, she said, of this Colombian novella that was broadcast in Panamá last year, called something to the order of “Not Worth Living Without Breasts,” about a poor, flat-chested Colombian girl who wanted breast implants more than anything in the world. She prostituted herself to get them, and even though the surgery went wrong three times, she didn’t care about her health, just about when she could get the implants for good.
The part about this conversation that flabbergasted me (aside from the fact that this novella had actually existed, which I guess isn’t that surprising considering the content of telenovellas in general), was the way that the two friends generalized from this example to all of Colombian culture. The Italian friend said that the girls can’t help it if that is what is valued, of course they are all going to want surgery if that is the way the society is.
In their defense, there does seem to be a consensus that the vast majority of Colombian women in this country do actually come as prostitutes because there is more money to be had here than in Bogata or Cartagena. But what these two very intelligent women didn’t seem to want to see was that they are only looking at the girls who come here out of desperation or desire to make money, and that all of the people of Colombia are not likely to prostitutes or the equivalent. They fell into the trap of saying, “I have a friend who is Colombian, she’s one of my best friends and she is muy buena gente (very good people) but the people there, they are just concerned with these superficial things." It always surprises me that people are so much more willing to generalize a negative than a positive. If the only Colombian woman that you know personally is a great person, why not assume that all Colombians are great people. Instead, because everyone says there are a lot of Colombians who are prostitutes, you assume that your friend is the exception, not the rule.
I guess the American version would be something along the lines of “I’m not racist, one of my best friends is black.”
Posted by Leona Rosenblum at July 8, 2007 07:50 PM
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Hi Leona! What a fascinating experience you seem to be having. I found out about your blog from a friend here at Town School. We are both working at the summer camp. Karin Hoenig, who knows you, is doing the music activities and I, of course, am the camp nurse.
I am about to read the other 2 pieces but wanted to say hi and let you know that I am dong so.
I am glad you switched from Columbia to Colombia farther down in this letter!
Well, keep safe and hope you come back with a wealth of knowledge and new friends as I am sure you will.
Your friend from BPC,
Posted by: Marie Kalson at July 25, 2007 01:59 PM