Archive | October, 2010

Zombie Protest in Panama City

31 Oct

Plans to celebrate Halloween in Panama City with a Zombie Walk through the old centre of town Casco Viejo were met with stern opposition from government. It was rumored in the days leading up to 30 October that the President’s Police would arrest anyone caught dressed as the living dead on the streets of Casco Viejo on the designated date of the event.

Given the history of US imperialism in the Isthmus (the Superpower only returned the Canal Zone to the Panama in 1999), I assumed that this official resistance to the Zombie Walk had its origins in anti-US sentiment. Initally I thought I could understand if Panamanian officials wanted to limit the importation of US traditions into their homeland after decades of oppression.

However it turned out that my lefty gut reaction was wrong. The Panamanian government actually opposed the Zombie walk and other public celebrations of Halloween because these were perceived as akin to demon-worshiping, and went against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

As the Zombie Walk was scheduled to start in Plaza Herrera, only a few blocks away from our Hostel, Alex and I agreed to go along as spectators. An hour before it started we were persuaded to paint our faces a ghostly white and join in the Walk with the other gringos who shared our room.

We were greeted by about fifty Zombies when we arrived in the Plaza at 7pm. Over the next two hours more zombies drifted into the Mojito bar where the participants congregated. By 9pm, when the Walk was scheduled to begin, the crowd had grown to several hundred people, about a quarter of whom were backpackers or North American expats living in Panama City. I am sure that more people would have turned out if they weren’t intimidated by the threat of arrest.

At the Zombie-filled Plaza the air was full of tension. One of the organisers of the event had been stopped by Police from entering Casco Viejo earlier that evening dressed as a Zombie Killer (she had been covered in fake-blood and carrying a plastic shovel), and had no other option but to return home, shower, and change in to normal clothes before she was permitted entry into the old town. Other Panamanians complained of similar experiences. It seemed that the rumors about arrests were correct. The dozen or so cops and Paddy Wagons gathering around the edges of the Plaza also hinted that the Walk wouldn’t progress peacefully.

Eventually a young man loudly condemning Police repression was handcuffed and stuffed into the bag of a Police Car before being driven away as the crowd cheered him on. A lot of people may think that this guy was an idiot because a prohibited Zombie Walk isn’t really worth being arrested over. I disagree. Government efforts to stop the Zombie Walk from going ahead and the counter-efforts of the young organisers and participants to make it happen revealed a much more complex politics about the uses of public space, and the rights of Panamanians to freedom of expression. If citizens of this Country can be gaoled for dressing up in a silly costume and going for a stroll in a group, then I am sure their ability to protest other government policies and programs would be severely restricted.

After the arrest the Police directed the zombies to proceed on the footpaths only, and the majority complied. At this point we decided not to continue in the Zombie Walk / Protest because I recognise that this isn’t my struggle to fight, and I didn’t really want to be arrested in a foreign country. But I respect the Panamanian organisers and participants and hope that next year’s Zombie Walk can be a more peaceful affair.

We had a lot of fun back at Luna’s Castle’s Halloween Party. Photos are posted to my Facebook page.

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Barack Obama’s Guatemalan Grandmother?

24 Oct

Snaped in San Francsico el Grande, Antigua Guatemala

I broke the cardinal rule of museum etiquette when I snapped a sneaky pic of this old photograph nailed to the wall of the museum / shrine housed in the San Francsico el Grande church in Antigua, Guatemala. At first the face of Sister Someone blended in with the clutter of other images of saints displayed in the large room. And then the uncanny likeness jumped out at me! This long-dead nun was the spitting image of US President Barack Obama!!!

You might be surprised to know that in the United States controversy surrounds the birthplace and dubious heritage of the Country’s first black President. Who knows how this new evidence of Obama’s Guatemalan ancestors will shape debates concerning the real reasons why Obama cannot produce an original birth certificate.

Strange Fruit

20 Oct

People are lynched in Guatemala on a regular basis. This month the national newspaper El Periodico reported that at least 40 people have been linched this year.

In September I read about a young man who was caught stealing expensive traditional dress and other household goods of value from his neighbours’ home. Soon afterwards he was stripped to his underpants by a local mob, paraded half naked around town and then hanged. His parents were also publically humiliated.

In the same week another boy aged only 17 was burnt alive after he was accused of hijacking and then murdering a taxi driver.

It isn’t a challenge to find evidence of other cases of vigilante justice in Guatemala. The national tabloid El Diario and other media outlets frequently publish graphic coverage of these violent events, such as photographs of the smoldering corpses of victims. In some shots onlookers can be seen using their own mobile phone cameras to capture a record of the occasion.

The reasons why people in small rural villages across the country choose to take the law into their own hands are not exactly clear. Perhaps it is because they perceive the police to be too corrupt or too poorly resourced to respond to incidents of theft and assault that take place away from urban centres. Or it may be that these largely indigenous communities believe that they have the right to issue punishments for crimes that have affected them.

Some commentators say that the linchings are a consequence of decades of violent civil war in Guatemala which established a culture of violence and retribution in the countryside. If this is true then the lack of censorship in media coverage of linchings does little to make these seem less normal or acceptable in society.