Panama: The Indigenous Leader Who Took on the Government

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Panama went through one of the biggest crises it has seen since democracy was restored in 1989 when the indigenous people of Ngobe Bugle decided to take over the highway on January 31, 2012, protesting mining and construction of hydroelectric facilities in their district. They stayed there until February 5, when national police removed them by force.

The crisis has been alleviated for the moment with an agreement between the indigenous group and the government. Even so, the uncertainty of what could happen if there is hydroelectric construction or mining in these districts is still on the minds of Panamanians.

President Martinelli (@rmartinelli) [es] threatened via his Twitter account that without hydroelectric power, things would become more expensive and the country would become even more impoverished:

El problema con los indigenas es que NO quieren que haya mas hidroelectricas en Panamá. Esto encarece todo y nos emprobrece aun mas

The problem with the indigenous group is that they do NOT want any more hydroelectric plants in Panamá. This makes everything more expensive and makes us even poorer.

In the midst of all of this crisis, one name has emerged as the standard bearer for the indigenous fight. The cacique [Taíno word meaning tribal leader or chief] Silvia Carrera who, after becoming the first woman to be elected to this position, has risen up in opposition to the current government's mining plans.

The following video by Orgun Wagua, uploaded to YouTube by laoruguitaecoloca [es] on February 4, shows the cacique spearheading attempts to start a dialog during the conflict:


UNICEF Panamá dedicated a section on its website [es] when Carrera was campaigning for the position which tells us a little about this woman:

Silvia Carrera Concepción nació, fue criada y vive en Alto Laguna, en el corregimiento Cerro Pelado, en el distrito Ñurum  de la comarca Ngäbe Buglé, comarca que tiene el mayor índice de mortalidad infantil (55.4%) en el país. A los 12 años se integró al movimiento que lideraba Camilo Ortega, que luchaba porque los ngäbe y los buglé tuvieran su comarca. A sus 13 años alumbró su primer hijo, Bernardo Jiménez Carrera, y a los 18 años dio a luz a Sixto Jiménez Carrera. A los 19 años, se separó de su marido.

La resolución de Silvia Carrera fue trabajar la tierra. Sembraba yuca, ñame, otoe, arroz, frijoles, maíz, para alimentar a sus hijos. Y no dejó de militar en el grupo indígena de Ortega, a sus compromisos ella cargaba con sus hijos. Para esta madre fue prioridad enseñarle a sus muchachos que “es importante luchar por nuestros derechos, pedir que nos respeten”. En aquellas reuniones, dice, su hijo mayor aprendió a ser un joven líder. Bernardo Jiménez Carrera, de 27 años, es comisionado de derechos humanos indígenas y está en segundo año de la licenciatura en derecho y ciencias políticas.

Silvia Carrera Concepción was born, raised and lives in Alto Laguna, municipality of Cerro Pelado, Ñurum district of the Ngäbe Buglé region. This region has the highest infant mortality rate (55.4%) in the country. At the age of 12, she joined the movement led by Camilo Ortega, who was fighting for the ngabe and bugle to have their region [recognized]. At the age of 13, she gave birth to her first son, Bernardo Jiménez Carrera, and at 18 she gave birth to Sixto Jiménez Carrera. At 19, she left her husband.

Silvia Carrera's goal was to work the land. She grew yucca, yam, otoe [root vegetable], rice, beans, and corn to feed her children. And she didn't stop fighting with Ortega's indigenous group, even with the commitments she had to her children. This mother's priority was to teach her boys that “it's important to fight for our rights, insist that they respect us.” It is said that during those meetings, her older son learned to be a youth leader. Bernardo Jiménez Carrera, 27 years old, is an indigenous human rights commissioner and is in his second year working on a degree in law and political science.

The cacique recently opened a Twitter account and continues the fight begun on the highway, through social networks. [all Twitter accounts are in Spanish]. From her account (@CaciqueGeneral) she has sharply criticized Ricardo Martinelli's current leadership with messages in which she calls him a liar:

@rmartinelli es mentiroso nosotros NO queremos Minería, por favor de la cara y no se esconda del pueblo que le dio el voto.

@rmartinelli is a liar. We do NOT want mining, please face us and don't hide from the people who voted for you.

The sympathy of Panamanians seems to have turned in favor of the cacique who has shown herself to be a woman of courage. Vladimir K. Polo (@kendriv) even took an informal poll on the web, putting the cacique up against the president and one of the main presidential candidates. The cacique won:

En la encuesta de hoy ganó la Silvia Carrera Cacique General GB para presidente de la Rep. de Panamá.

In today's poll Silvia Carrera, general cacique, won for president of the Republic of Panamá.

Joel Jonas (@joeljonas16) tweets his applause for the cacique, and his appreciation for the clarity with which she expressed herself compared to Minister of Security Raul Mulino, who has been harshly criticized for his handling of the recent crisis.

APLAUDO a la cacique general #Ngöbe por sus palabras, en 3 minutos se expreso mas claro y directo de lo que lo hizo #Mulino en 3 días

I APPLAUD the general cacique for her words, in 3 minutes she was clearer and more direct than Mulino was in 3 days.

Enrique Sosa T. (@esosatribaldos) thinks, on the other hand, that the cacique is exaggerating things a little by saying that they are not taken into account, and for him the proof is that the cacique is able to get free internet access provided by the state.

En cuantos países una cacique general tiene acceso a internet gratis? Piensen 2 veces antes d decir q no son tomados n cuenta #PANAMA

In how many countries can a general cacique get free internet access? Think twice before saying we aren't taken into account.

On February 8, the cacique gave a speech to the legislative assembly where she lashed out at the president and warned them that if he didn't keep his promises, they would return to the streets. The speech, which was broadcast on the assembly's channel, was seen and admired by a large number of Panamanians.

Luis Carlos Chacon (@lcchacon) devotes a few words of praise for the leader:

Que ejemplo de dignidad, honorabilidad y valentía nos esta dando La Cacique General Silvia Carrera @CaciqueGeneral

What an example of dignity, honor, and courage General Cacique Silvia Carrera is giving us.

Along the same lines, Evelyn Castrejon (@ECastrejonC) comments that the cacique is a real leader:

La Cacique General: Verdadera Líder! Primera vez que pongo el canal de la asamblea!

The general cacique: a real leader! It's the first time I watched the assembly channel!

Paco Gómez Nadal, a Spanish journalist who was repatriated by the current government for his alleged participation in indigenous protests, comments in the blog Otramerica [es] about the importance of this woman's fight:

Carrera no se ha ocultado en ningún momento de los amargos días de represión y hostigamiento. La historia sigue y las mujeres Ngäbe han demostrado en las manifestaciones y en las protestas que han protagonizado desde hace años, en el río Tabasará, en Changuinola, en ciudad de Panamá, que la dignidad es una palabra de género femenino.

Carrera has not at any time hidden from the bitter days of repression and harassment. The story goes on and the women of Ngobe Bugle have shown in the demonstrations and protests in which they've been involved for years, at Tabasara River, at Changuinola, at Panama City, that dignity is a word of the feminine gender.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.


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