Cuba & US Present Among the Kuna in Panama

Fernando Ravsberg

Dr. Arnaldo Thompson studied medicine in Cuba. (Photo: Arnaldo Thompson)

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 27 —  A group of international journalists were invited by the World Tourism Organization to their Central American trade fair (CATM) held in Panama, and in this context we visited Kuna Yala, an autonomous region inhabited by the Kuna community.

It is a strip of land in the north of Panama on the Caribbean Sea, and possesses mountains covered with a tropical forest as lush as it is virgin – with 378 paradisiacal islands of which less than 50 are inhabited.

However even in this isolated environment Cuba was present.

When I met the manager of the island where we stayed, he told me that he had worked as the coordinator of a literacy campaign that used the Cuban method known as “Yo si puedo” (Yes I can).

Ernesto Harris explained that the project had been initiated in Kuna Yala during the administration of President Martin Torrijos, but the subsequent government decided not to pursue the effort and classes ended abruptly.

But this wasn’t the only problem. The Kuna Cultural Council was also unsympathetic to being taught to read in Spanish rather than the language of the community, so no effort was made to regain contact with the Cubans.

This was the first conversation I had there concerning Cuba, but not the last.  On our visit to the island of Carti I ran into Dr. Arnaldo Thompson, who told me he had studied his profession at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences (ELAM) based in Havana.

“I was sent by the Kuna General Congress on one of the scholarships offered by the Cuban embassy in Panama. I spent two years in Havana and the other four in Ciego de Avila Province,” explained the 30-year-old doctor.

“Culturally, the only conflict was the food.  There were many of us students and the food wasn’t always prepared well.  Otherwise I had no major problems adapting.  After all, I’m Caribbean too,” he smiled.

Nor did he suffer much upon his return. “I never stopped being Kuna, speaking our language or respecting our culture; so my return was very normal.” He works in his community in a health center funded by the Panamanian government.

However not everything is rosy.  His work has some limitations, the most important of which are transportation to travel between the islands and shortages of medicine.

“We often don’t even have the basics to attend to people,” he explained.

Dr. Thompson said that around 30 Kuna doctors who graduated in Cuba are now working in communities, while the arrival of another 25 is expected, which would be close to 50 for a population of 40,000.

“The project is of utmost importance,” the doctor told us. He added, “Previously we had some Panamanian doctors who didn’t speak our language or know our customs, which made providing treatment difficult here in Kuna.”

Attorney Atencio Lopez, president of the “Kuna Yala Development Institute” (Spanish: Instituto de Desarrollo de Kuna Yala), told me that “long before ELAM existed there were Kunas studying there under an agreement struck between Fidel Castro and our chiefs when they visited Cuba.”

The diplomacy of the Kunas is very pragmatic.  At the same time they send young people to study in Cuba, they send others to the US and maintain the best relations with that country, from which they received decisive assistance in 1925 during the revolution that won them autonomy.

Elias Perez, the boatman who took us from one to another island, is also an elementary school teacher and speaks perfect English.

He learned it while studying in the US under a scholarship that was awarded by an American university to the Kuna Congress.

Relations with the US are close. For years there were Kuna cooks on US military bases, most of the tourists who visit come from that country, and basketball is one of the most popular sports in the region.

Nevertheless love has limits, and at this very moment Kuna is refusing to authorize the creation of a naval base in Panama or to allow the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to operate in its territory. “Ultimately armed men always bring problems,” explained one of the local leaders.

Many of the things I saw among the Kuna surprised me.  One was to find a nation where people, and especially their political leaders, talked to me with respect and even admiration for both Havana and Washington at the same time.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.