Is racism behind Panama’s Canal Zone land grabs?

Is racism behind Panama's Canal Zone land grabs?

Afro-Panamanian residents of Arco Iris accuse the government of continuing pre-Civil Rights US racism by attempting to force them out and sell their land to private owners.

(Aliyya Swaby)

Josefa Barrios fondly remembers her childhood during the United States occupation of the Panama Canal Zone.

She spent many happy hours playing near a small stream behind her grandmother’s house in the segregated black neighbourhood of Arco Iris. “It used to be like a playground,” she said.

In 1979, the US began to pull its military from the Canal Zone, and these bases were ‘reverted’ to Panamanian territory.

As one of Colón province’s ‘reverted areas’, Arco Iris is home to many descendants of black labourers on the Panama Canal, who were separated from and paid less than their white counterparts, due to a US-implemented version of Jim Crow segregation.

The neighbourhood’s residents now argue the Panamanian government is continuing US racism by attempting to force them out and sell their land to private owners.

They claim they are being denied land titles to their family homes as well as being forced to fund major, necessary repairs that the government should take care of as the current landlord.

In the past few months, around 200 Arco Iris residents have decided to bring a Supreme Court case against the government, demanding compensation for a backlog of repairs and the rights to their land.

Theirs is just one of many grassroots campaigns around land rights in a country where the steep 8.4 per cent growth rate is drawing hordes of international developers and investors.

At the end of March, scores of residents and local supporters marched down the highway separating the neighbourhood from the Colón Free Trade Zone, demanding justice.

But the government denies the accusations of racism.

“We have been administrating everything concerning the reverted areas independently of what zones or neighborhoods they are,” said Juan Carlos Orillac, executive secretary of the Unidad Administrativa de Bienes Revertidos (UABR), which oversees the transfer of the reverted areas in the Panama and Colón provinces.

Arco Iris comprises three sections, including a newer one created in 1983, which does not form part of the suit.

The two older sections, established respectively in 1919 and 1945, are primarily inhabited by elderly US federal government retirees and widows of pensioners, who fear they may never be able to buy their titles.

Complainants fall into several different categories: some belong to families who have lived on the land for several decades, while others moved in post-reversion; some owe monthly payments for past mortgages, while others have completed the payments and await confirmation of ownership.

A professor at the University of Panama in Colón, Barrios leads the fight on behalf of her late mother, a Canal Zone worker’s widow who never saw the deed to the home, despite repeated attempts to purchase it over almost 30 years.

Some residents believe the government is hoping to add their land to the Colón Free Trade Zone, one of the world’s largest free trade ports. “It’s like they’re thinking, ‘everyone has to die at some point,’” Barrios said.

But government representatives say they will not separate residents from their land. “The law said they had six months to be able to opt to buy their houses or start a new rental agreement, not that it was going to remove people,” Orillac said.


Even so, the Panamanian government is no stranger to accusations of unjust eviction attempts, said Esteban Lam, a historian and journalist living in Arco Iris. As developers flock to the nation’s shores, black and indigenous communities continually protest the seizure of the lands they inhabit.

In late 2012 in the city of Colón, residents led ultimately deadly revolts in response to a law that would allow the government to sell state-owned land in the Free Trade Zone. Soon after, President Ricardo Martinelli decided to scrap the proposal.

In early October 2013, Arco Iris residents shut down a major road to protest a proposed decree that would increase the price of land in Arco Iris from US$20 to US$60 per square metre. One person carried a sign that said: “We are people, not purses.”

In response, Roderick Rivera, the regional administrator of the reverted areas, told the press that the government was not selling property in Arco Iris.

All citizens who have paid have ownership of their homes, and those who have not yet paid are being given notice, he said.

After a meeting with the protesters in early November, the national government promised to strike down the price increase, but Arco Iris residents say they since have heard nothing.

Orillac said the main problem is that Arco Iris residents want their titles for free, while the majority of residents in other communities in the reverted areas have opted to pay the higher prices for their homes.

But Arco Iris protesters argue that the government has changed the destination of payment over the years, each time modifying and extending the requirements. Some have been paying for decades, and do not think they should pay more.

Negligent landlord

During the occupation of the Canal Zone, the US placed black workers on a lower ‘silver’ pay roll. But after local pressure in the 1950s, the US army improved conditions for these silver roll workers, adding recreational areas and expanding housing quarters.

The Panamanian government, in turn, is an even more negligent landlord.

When Yolanda Corinealdi and her husband moved to the Coiner section of Arco Iris in 1988, the one-room cement house was valued at around US$6,000. “When my husband died, I took out a loan for the house. They said I couldn’t buy because it was in my husband’s name,” she said.

Now the house is valued at three times the original amount. Private developers in the Free Trade Zone have invested heavily in the surrounding area.

Corinealdi is paying off a loan for the house while saving up to eventually purchase it.
Last month, she was forced to cash a cheque for its original value in order to pay for urgent repairs. Her roof is falling apart and her bathroom floods whenever it rains.

At the bi-weekly committee meetings, most have similar stories: damaged roofs, flooded homes, and sunken foundations.

Orillac said the government repairs properties only when it is “imminently necessary,” since a large percentage have severely deteriorated over the last few decades. He said he had not been informed about the community’s plans for a lawsuit.

With general elections coming up in early May, the current government likely will not make any major decisions on the situation.

Residents hope beginning court proceedings will bring more attention to their case and nudge the incoming politicians to action. Even so, Barrios worries that the group is not committed enough to withstand the hardships of a legal battle.

No one wants to leave Arco Iris, but the pressure is increasing.

Miguel Critchlow’s family has lived in the same house in Arco Iris since the 1970s.

An industrial engineer at the University of Panama in Colón, Critchlow himself has carried out a series of renovations on his house, including an expansion.
Between those upgrades and necessary repairs, he has put too much work into the house to leave without a fight.

And conditions in the neighbourhood are better than in the nearby city centre of Colón, where some residents lack access to basic services such as potable water and electricity.

Despite the region’s history, Arco Iris residents still belong to Colón. Critchlow said the Panamanian government should treat Arco Iris as part of the country, instead of continuing a history of segregation.

“They made a promise to the US government that they would take care of us. Instead, they just take care of the rent.”