Yesterday, I went to a major meeting of the Foro Afropanameño, a forum started in 2003 and made up of various political organizations working for black communities in Panama. They spent the day preparing a set of social demands to be presented to this year’s presidential candidates in late March, before the May elections.
The most important demand: the creation of an autonomous body in the national government to look after black civil interests and development. The Secretaria Nacional para el Desarrollo de los AfroPanameños or SENADAP would be composed of four or five different levels and would have offices in all regions of the country.
In 2007, during the government of Martin Torrijos, black activists managed to successfully lobby for a similar governmental group, but the current president Ricardo Martinelli has not bothered to check in with Afro-Panamanians or include them in the legislative process. With the upcoming president to be decided in the next few months, the Foro Afropanameño wants to regain its seat at the table.
At the meeting, activists from different regions of Panama discussed a draft of the proposal to be presented to the presidential candidates. I enjoyed hearing the debates on subtle internal terminology, for example, who was included within the term “afropanameño” and whether it was as inclusive as the term “afrodescendiente.”
Education reform was another major topic discussed, since low-income black regions are more likely to have low-quality educational systems. Rasta Nini, from Colon, argued that both English and Spanish were languages of colonizers, and that the Foro should push for the instruction of African dialects in public schools.
I am always fascinated by the internal workings of activist movements, of the power dynamics that form and shift. I was excited to note the presence of a strong feminist/womanist push within the overall black movement. Near the end of the meeting, members of different organizations sat in a panel at the front — seven men and three women. One of the women took the microphone to call attention to the discrepancy: “We need women to be executive, not just nominative,” even if the men don’t want it.
In Spanish, plural male nouns are inclusive of both genders: for example, the word “chicos” can be used to describe either a group of “boys” OR of “girls and boys.” But throughout this meeting, the women insisted on the use of both female and male plurals in addressing the audience (afropanameños y afropanameñas; todos y todas). It’s a subtle difference, but definitely necessary to get people to stop conflating “black issues” with “black male issues.” In my conversations with some older black activists, I’ve noticed an antiquated, non-feminist approach to race politics, which either excludes women or disempowers them.
I was also really interested to note that sexual orientation was not mentioned at all as one of the intersectional identities the Foro was seeking to protect. This is interesting especially since there is now a law in the National Assembly that would for the first time criminalize discrimination against identities including sexual orientation and race. I assume this is a divisive issue and I’m interested in delving into it at some point.