THERE'S LITTLE TO LOSE
! Look and =LE IN
By Douglas Hyde
THE recent arrest of Dame Margot Fonteyn by the Panamanian Government and the news of the invasion of Panama by a band of 30 rebels have brought this little "Catholic" country in Central America into the news. But the general impression left on the mind of the public by recent events has been that it was all rather like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.
On the face of it there is, of course, a Ruritanian element about a rebel invasion, allegedly inspired by a member of one of his country's wealthiest families, who uses as a cover his wife who happens to be one of the world's best known ballerinas, and whose handful of followers can all be got into one small boat.
Whether there is any real significance in these developments depends on whether the leaders are able in time to gain popular support in the way that Dr. Fidel Castro—whose example has clearly inspired them —did in Cuba. Hitherto, Panamanian revolts have tended to be no more than palace revolutions. Almost every political position of any consequence has for years been held by members of a small handful of ruling, and contending, families.
The first time l visited Panama. some years ago. I learned just as I was leaving home that the President had been assassinated. I expected to arrive in a country in turmoil. In fact. there was no sign of unrest and the great mass of the Panamian people were much less interested in what had happened than I was.
It was none of their business, it did not touch their lives at any point, and they just could not care less.
When, a few days later, I met the new President, who had received his university education at the hands of the American Jesuits at Fordham, one might have supposed that he had just arrived in his position as a result of the quietest of quiet elections.
Apart from the publicity which was bound to be associated with cloak and dagger charges being made against such an internationally known figure as Dame Margot Fonteyn, what gives the present moves in Panama significance is the recent example of Dr. Castro in Cuba.
The Cuban rebel leader began his revolt on June 26, 1953, with a following of 50 youths armed with a few rifles and old revolvers.
The rising failed. but he tried again in November, 1956. The time he arrived in a boat with /i2 young rebels. Just 12 survived, bre these managed to establish them selves in the tropical jungles gradually got the population on their side, then fanned out throughout the country until, within two years, they were its rulers.
That is sufficient to make any Latin American dictator or small ruling caste feel insecure today Moreover it is known that Dr. Castro's own career as a revolutionary began with the intention of invading, not his own country. but the Dominican Republic.
Panama's Presidents are not totalitarian dictators. But if the flame which Dr. Castro has lit in Cuba spreads to other lands, ordinary Panamanians must be expected to become politically conscious before long, and they will then demand far-reaching changes
Their lives are remote from those of the ruling few. In theory. at least, the latter are of pure Spanish origin. The remainder of the population is composed of people of American Indian origin, Negroes, a mixture of both or those who combine Spanish with either Negro or Indian blood.
Technically there is no colour bar. In practice. however, one's position in society is dependent upon how much or how little Spanish blood one has—which adds up to a complex but fairly rigid caste system.
Technically, too, Panama is Catholic. In practice, however, the extent to which Catholicism has meaning for the people is bound to be conditioned by whether they have sufficient priests, understand their religion and have a tradition of church-going.
In Panama there is only a tiny handful of priests, and Panamanian vocations are very few and far between. Large numbers of people live out of reach of a church.
Once you get out of Panama City you run into jungles which are still so dense and untamed that over large areas the only human
beings living in them are little Indians who shoot poisoned darts through blow-pipes and by so doing successfully keep 20th century civilisation at bay.
I attended a Mass in a jungle town, less than a couple of hours' flying distance from the capital, which was the first to be celebrated there in living memory. The Indians who had come from miles around (they are numbered as our fellow Catholics) were, in most cases, attending a Mass for the first time in their lives.
Priests working in the hinterland (amongst whom are some grand American missionaries) find the going very tough indeed. Many of the people amongst whom they work combine a good deal of pagan animism with a Catholicism which has perhaps more of folk lore in it than religion. Even so some of them told me that they thought their job was easier in some respects than that of the priests working amongst those to whom Catholicism appears at times to be little more than a social convention.
In such a country, where power resides almost exclusively in a capital city set against a jungle background, a rising along Fidel Castro lines might clearly some day he possible. The mass of the people have little to lose.