Category: Peace Corps 2009-2010

Wide spread protests July 12 starting midnight

Wide spread protests are anticipated starting after midnight tonight, July 13, 2010.  La Prensa reports a settlement of the strike in Bocas but with only a temporary suspension of implementation of changes to the labor law inhibiting union dues collection.   Other elements are unappeased and plan protests and marches.

All this commotion seems to have sprung up over night although the strikes in Bocas del Toro have been going on for 9 days.

President Martinelli owns a large grocery chain and has no previous government experience.  His pro-business and anti-environmental policies  have angered many segments of the labor unions and almost all the environmentalists.

He issued a statement this evening stating that his doors are open for dialogue- now that he has opened Pandora’s box.

Strikes over 9 in 1 law spread across country, volunteers on alert

Monday July 12, 2010

Attached to a bill dealing with aviation issues recently passed was a so-called 9 in 1 law whose inclusion has angered wide swaths of the Panamanian public leading to strikes and violence.

The law allowed workers in union shops to decide not to pay their dues.  It allowed exceptions to the requirement that projects perform environmental impact studies.

“The Bill presented, ostensibly to aid the aeronautical industry in Panama, includes drastic changes to the labor law regarding strikes; in the penal code, making DNA testing obligatory for any suspect, and also instituting an automatic sentence of 2 to 5 years for the failure to properly declare funds or goods over ten thousand, and releasing the police officers of the automatic suspension when involved or accused of abuse of authority. The final change involves the elimination of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA in Spanish) for any government project that is deemed to be “in the public benefit…In Panama  on Saturday, armed riot police ringed a hotel where union and civil activists leaders were meeting to discuss the law (Bill 30) and a general strike, an official reaction  that has been compared to the Noriega years.  Over 50 activists were arrested according to news reports. Source

Protests by union workers in the province of Bocas del Toro have led to several deaths, including reports of two children who died from exposure to tear gas.   The United States Embassy expects continued clashes this week with demonstrations and other events scheduled.

Other protesting groups included construction workers in the Canal zone working on the new canal and medical workers, on unrelated issues.  Some teachers were striking too.

Peace Corps volunteers have been ordered to prepare for evacuation in the event matters deteriorate to the point where safety can not be guaranteed.  Bocas volunteers not in site are not allowed to return.

Peace Corps and US Embassy officials are closely monitoring the situation, sending updates by email, text and Fm radio for those volunteers without telephone or Internet service.

The business seminar weekend one

Several years ago Peace Corps volunteers in Panama developed a business planning seminar.  Participants come to the seminar all expenses paid over a period of two weekends a month or so apart.  Peg and I attended this years version with two people from our community.

The seminar talks about all the basic aspects of planning a business.  This first weekend dealt primarily with the quantitative aspects, such as what your vision and mission are and goals and objectives.  The next weekend will cover qualitative analysis, for which there is a fabulous spread sheet that projects all the costs and incomes.

The teaching approach in most PC programs is oriented to the adult learner, so there is a lot of facilitation as distinguished from lecturing.  There were lots of dramatizations and a few group activities (dinámicas in Spanish), which were entertaining if nothing else, although the former always had a point connected to the upcoming activities.

We invited Julio and Daniel.  Julio wants to develop the family agricultural business by selling organic fertilizers, fumigants and insect repellents they make for their own use.  Daniel bought the corner gas station that was abandoned 10 years ago when the coop failed, which he said was due to mismanagement.  He converted part of the property into apartments, which teachers are renting and wants to add a fueling station, tire repair facility and perhaps a coffee shop and small grocery store.

Julio has attended a lot of seminars and is currently studying agricultural marketing at the University of Panama extension in Rio Sereno.  He does not seem to need much help to have good basic computer skills and writing skills, although like most of the Spanish speakers I have known he tends to write run-on sentences.  Daniel has lots of good ideas and seems to be well organized.  He made things happen quickly and efficiently at the old gas station right after the purchase.  However, because he did not do a business plan, it was not until after he bought the property did he discover he had not borrowed enough money to pay for installing the fuel tanks.   We call this ‘ready, fire, aim.”

On Sunday, one of the volunteers had to leave so I was assigned his client, who already had a business plan for her coop.  She needed to make some changes, some of which Tom had already done.  It was not until the end did I learn that they are planning to transition to organic agriculture and needed a plan for that.

daniel and peg seminarsmall

Most of these seminars take place at a government facility run by ANAM, the environmental agency.  It is called CEDESAM and is very near a luxury resort called Decameron.  At night we often walk the mile or so to the casino which is across the street from Decameron.  You can play the games or have a light meal and a beverage at the bar.  There are few people playing the games, at least the times we have been there.

CEDESAM is near Decameron but it is quite far from it in terms of luxury and in the level of maintenance.  While there is  indoor plumbing, the toilets run constantly so you often find the one you are about to use has not been flushed.  I spend what seems like hours removing the tank covers to push the flap down so the tank can fill.  The toilets have been this way at least since last October.  There are missing panes in the jalousie windows so the a.c. has to work harder to keep the one dorm room with a.c. cool, so if you are near it you are extra cold but farther away you are a warm.  As you can see maintenance is not a Panamanian talent.

Dorm living is one of my least favorite things to do.  This time there was an overweight Panamanian who snored all night.  Daniel loves to wake up at 530 am and turn on the radio using his cell phone so you can imagine the sound quality does not make being awoken early any more pleasant.  It being Panamanian music does not help me one bit. By breakfast time I was in no mood for scrambled eggs, which I do not like.  But at least this time other PC volunteers returning at 3 am speaking in loud voices was not a problem for me, although it was for Peg both nights. We have another weekend of this coming up, and I have a week long seminar where I will be sharing a house with maybe 10 other volunteers.  Hmmm, I wonder why Peggy does not want to go.

All this distracted from what was a well thought out and delivered seminar from some of the neatest people I will ever meet, but they are so creative and dedicated the distraction is comparatively minor.

Training in a Gnobe village in Bocas del Toro

After spending the night at Lost and Found, we took the bus to another volunteer’s site in Bocas del Toro early the next morning.  K. lives in a Ngobe village of perhaps 500 people.  She arranged some training for the members of the water and health committees.  She lives in a comparatively large house on a slippery slope.  There is running water and she even has a flush toilet, one of few in the community, but her only electricity is what a single solar cell can produce and store in a car battery.  Many come to her house to get their cell phones and small batteries charged.

Another volunteer came later that day, her name is also K.  We prepared for the next day while children watched from the other side of the fence that enclosed the lower level porch.  One of them came right up to the fence and sneezed directly in my face as I was resting in the hammock.

K noted that when you live with Gnobes you often feel like you are living in a fish bowl.  She also has to lock her doors securely as people will take what they want.  They come from a comunal tradition where everything is shared.  But K. does not want to and can not just ‘share’ everything she owns.

Since it was early to bed after rice and beans it was early to rise but at least it was not rice and beans, though I have forgotten what.  Around 8 we walked or slid down the hill to the nearby school where we were having the training.  We were to start at 9 but true to form the people did not arrive until close to 10.

The training we gave them was in Project Management and Leadership, PML.  This is a basic training course in values,  setting goals, managing money and time the first morning, which is the part Peg and I did.   This was my second effort at this presentation and I think it was a bit better.

Department of Health and World Bank contribute to Santa Clara’s water system

On May 28th 2010, the water committee hosted a meeting for a representative of the Ministry of Health and private Spanish company.  The company is contracted by the Panamanian government to assist in water development projects.  The funds come in part from the government and in part from the World Bank.  The funds are used for initial installations as well as improvements.  Santa Clara has been chosen as an improvement project.

The original installation was done in the 1970’s.  Recently the community replaced 3″ pipes leading from the current water tank down into the community with new 4″ pipes that is also thicker.  Some of the older pipes were never buried and damage from cows, machetes, falling branches and the like were causing outages.  The new pipes were buried, with the labor or funds provided by the community.

This project replaces the current 3″ pipe from the source to the tank with 4″ pipe.  The pipe is also thicker (Schedule 40).

The community has to transport materials from the drop off point, where the road ends, to the work site.

The representative of the Department of Health Irving Yadriz said that the land access dispute must not prevent this work from continuing.  He brought a contract for the two landowners to sign, which allowed permanent access to the project workers at least without having to ask permission.

Currently these landowners receive water from the main line before the tank.  This is not allowable since they receive untreated water.  They said they would reexamine the area to locate a new tank so that all users get treated water.   They had made a math error in the budget so they will still come in way under the initial projection.

Meeting the Ambassador

In late May we met the volunteers in our province, Chiriqui for our quarterly meeting.  Joining us were Brian Riley, our country director and Barbara Stephenson, the U.S. Ambassador to Panama.

The Ambassador is very sharp.  Before joining the State Department in the 1970’s she obtained her PhD in Literature.   She is on top of all the issues and made some interesting comments about Panama.

Panama was her first posting abroad, in the 1970’s.  At that time, Panama had the best education system in all of Latin America.  Now, some 40 years later, is at or near the bottom of the heap.   Employers would like to come to Panama but they can not find enough employees who have high levels of skills.  Dell Computer, already in Panama, has over 100 positions for English speakers it has not been able to fill for more than a year.  Everyone is ‘taught’ English here from kindergarten on.   From experience Peg and I know they learn practically nothing.

On the positive side, the Panamanians have done a fabulous job of running the Canal, notwithstanding predictions to the contrary.

After our meeting, the volunteers went to Lost and Found, a rustic backpacker sort of inn on the opposite of Volcano Baru from Santa Clara.  It is nestled amongst the trees and is run in an old hippy kind of way, where you are on the honor system for food and beverage.  There are dorms and private rooms, and we enjoyed the dark and quiet night.

It was our last time to see some of the volunteers who completed their two year stint.   I’d become fond of M and K, and in fact I like all of them, but I had gotten to know them after spending almost a week in K’s village on the sea where we released sea turtle and dug clams which the beach restaurant later turned into stuffed patacones, made from platanos.

Activities in the first quarter

may 19, 2010

We have to file quarterly reports with the Peace Corp office.  This information is shared with Panamanian agencies and with PC in Washington.  Here’s the major portion of my submission.

1) Developed website for ADATA, the network of enironmental groups of the Chiriqui Highlands with a counterpart.  www.adataeng.megabyet.net

2) Helped a governmental agency (the local office of MIDA) remove viruses from their machine using a bootable anti-virus program.  Installed a linux system, Mint alongside their windows operating system.  They can choose which to use a start-up.  If they want to clear a usb device of viruses they can boot into Mint.  They do not have internet access and they use USB storage devices frequently, which transmits infections they get from internet cafes.  I left them a copy of the anti-virus program and offered to train them in its use as well as the Linux program.

3)  I wrote a wiki article about Santa Clara. I will translate it into Spanish and publish it after review.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Clara,_Chiriqui,_Panama#Santa_Clara.2C_a_small_town_in_the_province_of_Chiriqui.2C_district_of_Renacimento

4) Translated for doctors, dentists and and an optomologist at
two events over three days.

5) Presented a portion of Project Management and Leadership at two seminars organized by volunteers.

6) Planned and partially implemented a project involving the importation of up to 200 refurbished computers into Panama.  Currently seeking Panamanian partner.

Land dispute and water rights issue

May 8, 2010

Lito’s confrontation

One of the problems facing Panamanians is the lack of land deeds. Most plots have conveyed within families but these days more are being conveyed outside the familiy. Therefore precise plots are necessary and are often lacking. The lack of registration also applies to easements, and this factored into a confrontation just the other day.

Our village, like many, obtain drinking water from sources originating at a higher elevation to take advantage of gravity to produce water pressure. There are very few holding tanks filled with electric pumps, an excellent choice in a country where electricity supplies are too often interrupted. When visitors from the Biological Corridor, part of ANAM, the enviromental agency, came to visit the other day they wanted to see the water font. To get there they need ingress through the land of the Aguilar family.

The visitors were refused entrance. There was a document signed in the 1970’s allowing the water committee to use the land but apparently there was never an easement granted. Thus the owners have to be forced to allow any access to the property until an easment is granted. This could take some time, and if there are any broken pipes or other problems, Santa Clara’s water supply is at risk.

Apparently the conflict turned ugly. Lito is very civic minded and energetic and perhaps is not always diplomatic. He seemed very upset when he told all this to Peg.

The mayor supported the landowner, for reasons I could not understand. But ANAM apparently has lawyers who work on these sorts of problems.

Presenting a training course near Penonome Panaman

May 4, 2010

One of the main tasks of CED (Community Economic Development, the part of Peace Corps Panama of which we are a part) is to provide training programs. The main offering is called PML, Program Management and Leadership. Volunteers sometimes offer this training in their communities. Peg and I responded to a request for training from a volunteer named Angela. She lives in a community near Penonome, about 7 1/2 hours from our community. I think she is perfectly capable of doing the training on her own but it is easier when you have help. In addition can present us as the ‘experts from afar.’

angleas place

We left on Sunday May 2 from our community with another volunteer whose boyfriend has a car. They gave us a ride to David, then we took the bus to Penonome and another to Angela’s community, the latter a small van about 20 years old with many non-essential parts missing, such as a muffler and door handles.

Angela’s is a community of about 700 people. It’s at an approximate altitude of 1200 meters, about the same as our community, and so it is much cooler than Penonome at sea level or thereabouts. Farming is the primary occupation. Angela works with the school teaching computer use, and has several English classes outside of school. She also works with a cooperative whose members are the focus of the training program.

Angela had already made some beautiful charts. She, Kate and Karen are famous among the volunteers for their ability to whip out some very nice presentations. Mostly we use newsprint but their’s are worthy of better material, perhaps some kind of board.

We went through her charts in preparation for the next day. I was doing my section for the first time, and to complicate matters further I missed a training where the whole course was presented, so I had to rely upon what I learned during pres-service training, now some six months in the past. Angela’s charts helped me prepare better. Peg had already done most of her presentation in our own community so she did not need to prepare as much.

The next morning we walked to the lower part of town where we were to meet. We got there early and no one was there. The president of the coop arrived around 9 with chairs, tables and a tripod for holding charts. We did not get started until around 10, chatting with the farmers as they arrived, neatly dressed wearing the typical straw hats of rural Panama, their smiles revealing worn and missing teeth, women in inexpensive but neat, very clean clothes and big, welcoming smiles. One elderly woman walked on the blacktop without shoes, her feet as strong looking as I have seen. I was soon very charmed by these simple appearing and friendly people. Not long after we began I realized the humble appearances and limited education masked significant levels of intelligence and experience. That would be the most striking thing of the day for me, other than how well Angela managed the event.
gary teaching at angelas
My bit took the first three, er, two hours since we did not start until 10. I talked about what they valued most, got some replies, then gave them a list and asked them to pick the top four. Amistad, friendship, got the most votes, but learning was right up there. I wondered whether they were saying that because they were attending a workshop and wanted to be complimentary of us. Latin Americans go out of their way to be kind and welcoming, sometimes stretching or even ignoring the truth to do so. But the topic came up in a different context later and the elderly woman without shoes talked about how she wanted to improve her life and the best way was to learn, so maybe I was being a bit too cynical.

campesinos at angelas

The part of the training we delivered is on the personal level versus the organizational or community level, so we did not talk much about their cooperative, which is an effort to bring down food costs by allowing members to take advantage of bulk prices. They are seeking funding for a larger building. As things stand, it is too tiny to do any good.

Peg and Angela were very helpful keeping me in order, as sometimes I lost the logical flow of the topics one from the next. Angela was very well prepared not only with the charts but also the handouts, not to mention all the meals.

At the end I decided to see if we could get them to arrive on time the next day. I told them if they were going to come at 10 then we would too. Peg noted that respect was an important value to them, and was it respectful of the people who came on time to arrive so late?

The next day we started at 9:20. I doubt they will continue to arrive on time for other events, but we will find out. More volunteers are coming next week to finish the training.

Some other observations:

The members live in the same area of the lower part of town. A school teacher is annoying Angela, being rather seductive. Angela’s house is very attractive. Unlike many here, it has a ceiling, so the metal roof does not show from inside and it stays cooler. Her kitchen is not accessible from the rest of the house. The house is in an orange orchard, a picturesque setting that costs her all of $50 a month. There are mango trees nearby, the fruit dropping to the ground. The people can not get enough for them to make harvesting worthwhile. There is supposedly a nearby location where you can see both oceans at once.

Medical translations

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April 27, 2010

A team of Army Reserve (Southern Command) doctors, dentists, nurses and support staff flew to Panama last week to conduct free clinics in the Cocle Province, about 8 hours by bus from our house. Two weeks ago 4 or 5 other volunteers assisted in the translations. This past week there were fewer so I went then instead.

I worked with the optometrist and the dentists. The former needed assistance with the distance exams. The biggest challenge was hearing the people talk, as many of them spoke in very soft voices, mumble, or both. Some of them tried to tell me about their vision problems, thinking I needed to know, but the test told us what we were looking for.

Working with the dentists gave me a close up view of the dental problems here. As there are relatively few dentists and the vast majority of the people do not have the money to pay, most people do not get preventative care. On this trip the dentists could only do exams and extractions since they did not have a complete set-up so cleanings and fillings were out of the question.

I interviewed people as they came in to find out what the problems were. I looked in a lot of scary mouths. Decay is common, caused by a high sugar diet (causing type 2 diabetes as well) and lack of care, leading to large cavities, pain, and the loss of teeth.

There were many with serious bone loss for lack of brushing and regular cleanings, and no one here uses floss, all leading to plaque and the development of dental pockets where bacteria grow, eating away at the bone. This gum loss produces snaggly teeth that decay, break and just plain fall out for lack of anything to hold onto. I know all this because I inherited a proclivity for all of these problems.

On the last evening the mayor of Penonome gave a party for the soldiers, to which they invited us. A Panamanian woman invited me to dance with her, which was a lot of fun. We did a salsa of sorts, and then I danced with another woman and we did the merengue. They were both good dancers.

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