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EDITORIAL: Panamá para los Panameños

Foreigners Struggle for a New Identity in Panama

I wonder what it’s like to think of home and not remember it. What it’s like to yearn for a place that no longer exists. What it’s like to feel like an outsider in your new home. It’s been eight years since Venezuelans began fleeing their country for Panama and since their status permanently changed from temporary to ordinary.

But why, in eight years, does this barrier between us and them, guests and hosts, still exist? The reason for this is not a lack of connection between the two nationalities, but an absence of empathy between human beings.

The crisis in Venezuela is characterized by three main aspects: the economy, the government, and the rampant violence present in the country. In 2016, approximately 27,479 people were murdered in Venezuela, placing the country as the second most dangerous nation in the world. The crime in Venezuela has reached the point where people are simply afraid to leave their homes, aware that simply stepping outside the confines of their houses could end their lives.

In terms of the economy, after years of hyperinflation, the currency in Venezuela is seemingly worthless due to the depreciation of the bolivar, causing a myriad of effects throughout the country. Basic needs in the country are not being met. It is estimated that in Venezuela, a roll of toilet paper costs approximately 2.6 million bolivares. A value that is approximately equal to 27 US dollars, adjusted for inflation. While humanitarian efforts are underway in the country, this has been made difficult by the the unstable and authoritarian government of Nicolas Maduro. In an effort to provide basic necessities, the government has set up price controls for these products. Nonetheless, due to the devaluation of the currency, these goods are produced at an extremely limited supply and they are normally bought and resold in the black market, further impacting the bolivar.

Many Venezuelans, seeking asylum from the unlivable conditions in their home, have come to Panama, where they have not been welcomed with open arms by all. In Panama, there have been several cases of xenophobia against Venezuelans living in the country. These range from verbal harassment on the streets, to physical assault of Venezuelan children at Panamanian schools, to protests being organized in the country against the extranjeros, or foreigners. In 2016, a term that emerged from an anti-Venezuelan march in Panama was “Panamá para los Panameños” which translates to “Panama is for Panamanians”. This phrase is one that serves to describe the events that have occured in the country against Venezuelans. In 2017, according to Panamá Today, a Panamanian bar published an advertisement where they would give customers 50% off on drinks if they punched a Venezuelan. They called the advertisement, “Metele su Pingazo”. In El Estimulo, an article was published about a young Venezuelan girl who was changed three times from Panamanian schools because she was beat up several times by Panamanian students due to her nationality. In 2016, a march was organized with the goal of “letting Venezuelans know they were not welcome” in this country because they were stealing the jobs of Panamanians, according to the article published in El Diario de las Americas.

This does not imply that the lives of Venezuelans in Panama is a hopeless situation. The indignation against Venezuelans is clear, but this xenophobia is not a feeling expressed by all Panamanians. On September 11th of this year, a friendly match between Venezuela and Panama was played, where Venezuela ended up winning on Panamanian soil. While many were skeptical about the game, remembering past offences and less than amicable relations, the game was played with surprising results. Venezuelans and Panamanians stood together, playing against one another, yet coexisting without conflict in the same space, according to an article published in La Prensa. There was no resulting violence or major outrage from the game. While it is clear that Panamanians are not all on the same page in terms of Venezuelans living in Panama, not everyone is unaccepting of their residence in this country. Panamanians and Venezuelans coexist happily all over the nation. At most schools and workplaces, there are no clear distinctions between the two nationalities, as many have become more open-minded to the idea of Venezuelans in the country.

Panama is often called “el criollo de las razas”, meaning the melting pot of races. This simple term serves to express the values of one whole nation, the values we should all be working together to uphold. In the end, the truth is that the crisis in Venezuela was perpetrated by few, but felt by millions. Those millions have had to flee their homes due to the sheer fear that they would not survive if they stayed. How can we, the “melting pot of races”, the bridge between two continents, not promote the values from which we originate. It is our job to step over the barriers that separate us, and work together to strengthen our humanity. We must remember that the factors that divide us are uncontrollable. What we can control, however, is our impact on the people around us. On the people who are here, not because they want to, but out of necessity. We must show them that while this is not an experience most of us have gone through, we will make them feel at home, integrate them into our culture and allow them to call Panama their second home. We must focus on upholding the values that spur connections between people, the similarities that bring us together, and more than anything, always bring out the one characteristic that defines us all: our humanity.

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