As children during the United States occupation of the Panama Canal Zone, Josefa Barrios and her siblings used to play in the small graveyard bordering her grandmother’s house. The stream that separated the gravestones from her segregated black neighborhood was clean and fast, well maintained by the U.S. for resident workers on the Panama Canal.
But since the U.S. passed the Canal Zone over to Panama in 1979, the neighborhood of Arco Iris — “rainbow” in English, because of its brightly colored squat houses — has fallen into disrepair. The stream Barrios played around is now filled with trash and debris. And residents claim the Panamanian government refuses to sell them the deeds to their land, instead intending to force them out and sell their land to private owners.
Now, Barrios is leading a group of citizens taking on proposed governmental decree 96, which would increase the price of the land to $60 per square meter, essentially preventing residents from ever being able to purchase their homes.
A Canal Zone employee for decades, Barrios’ father died in 1984, leaving his house and other assets to his wife. But due to controversial governmental practices, his wife was never able to buy the deed to the house.
When her mother got sick several years ago, Josefa, a retired professor at the University of Panama, moved to Arco Iris to live with her. She filed papers with the government on her mother’s behalf, but they were never approved. Instead, she regularly pays rent to keep a house she has already paid for many times over.
The government is a negligent landlord. When Barrios’ roof fell in last year, she asked the local government for help fixing it, and they told her to do it herself.
Most houses in Arco Iris are falling apart. Years ago, Griselda Scott paid the government $11,000 for the bright orange house she has lived in since she was nine years old. But she has yet to receive the title verifying her ownership.
She isn’t paying rent, but she pays regularly for basic upkeep, like having her lawn cut. Still the vegetation separating the neighborhood from the highway is above eye level. Behind Scott’s house, construction workers are renovating the road that leads to the Colon Free Zone, one of the most lucrative free ports in the world. Scott can see the Four Points Hotel across the street from her back window.
“The problem is that we don’t know what the government will do with the land,” Barrios says.
On October 28, she went on television and accused the government of racialized classism. While the government wants to raise the price for low- and middle-income black residents to $60 per square meter, it has also sold wealthy white and Arab businessmen the same land for $4 per square meter.
Immediately after her television appearance, Barrios and several other committee members were granted a meeting with the national government. Nothing was decided.
Five Arco Iris communities are uniting to fight the takeover of their land, and ten communities are affected by the price hike proposed by Decree 96.
It is unclear whether or not Arco Iris residents will be successful in getting the decree repealed, but the story is a good example of the major human rights violations being perpetrated against Colon’s black residents.