On March 21st, the Foro Afropanameno hosted a conference with Panama’s May 2014 presidential candidates. Each candidate (or his/her respective representative) denounced structural anti-black discrimination and promised to improve the economic and social development of Panamanian blacks. Of the three candidates slated to win the election, only Juan Carlos Navarro showed up to make a speech. (Jose Domingo and Juan Carlos Varela sent their VPs/reps.) Navarro charmed the crowd from the get-go by speaking in English, an important sticking point especially for English-speaking Afro-Antilleans, many of who value the language as part of their culture.
Navarro and several candidates who followed him used the pronoun “we,” when talking about the struggles blacks have faced in Panama. Several in the crowd seemed to appreciate it as a nod to the fact that most Panamanians have some African heritage. But it brings up important issues of identity politics and privilege — is it OK for people of color who pass for white to bring up their heritage only when it benefits them, especially those in positions of power? Who determines authenticity when it comes to race/how does that differ by race (e.g. that answer would be drastically different for blacks than for Native Americans)? After he left the podium, one of the women leading the event said: “Seems like he has a chombo somewhere underneath.”
Some black Panamanians have doubts about the conference’s power to effect real change. Politicians say what they want at the time they need to say it. But the event was highly televised and reported on, so I think at least it raised the profile of the black community’s demands across the nation.