At this point it is important to underline the tireless work of Pedro Rhodes, a young, well known and well versed lawyer from Colon who, together with George W. Westerman, initiated a challenge to the 1941 Constitution long before it became law in January of 1941.
Pedro Rhodes and George Westerman saw the urgency of opposing the new constitution which, in effect, would denationalize all children of Westindian descent born in Panama after 1903, rendering them “stateless” since they could not claim U.S. citizenship on the Canal Zone either. The two teamed up in 1940 and Pedro Rhodes prepared a brief to appeal to the Panamanian National Assembly in open session.
When the text of the proposed constitution was being debated George Westerman and Pedro Rhodes requested a “Cortesía de Sala,” permission to speak before the Asamblea, and Pedro Rhodes was awarded time to offer his arguments. Although he gave an impeccable presentation in Spanish claiming that the basic document was a blatant violation of the human rights of the population of West Indian descent, the Assembly went ahead and approved the constitution, making no revisions to its basic structure, including the notorious “prohibited immigrants” clause.
To prepare the ground for the reception of the new law of the land, the fact that the Population Census of 1940 had not included figures of the population classified by race, transformed the group of Panamanians of Westindian descent into an invisible group which later became the basis for the racial restrictions inside the new constitution.
After the 1941 constitution became law the Arias administration applied the denationalization clauses denying Panamanian citizenship to the children of “prohibited immigrants.” Protests from Westindian leaders fell on deaf ears and the new constitution began wreaking havoc in many sectors. It virtually left more than 50,000 people without citizenship and it caused hardship and anxiety for many thousands more. As one may imagine, its greatest impact was felt by anyone wishing to travel outside of Panama as they were hard pressed to obtain their passports with many Panamanian individuals born in Panama received passports stamped “nationality unknown.” Westindians with British passports, like my grandmother, who were still British subjects, held on to their passports and could travel without restrictions.
“The Nationalization of Commerce and Commercial Carnet Laws” passed in July of that same year further complicated life for the Westindians. Although they were intended to target Chinese retail merchants, who, by the way, were also affected by the “prohibited immigrant” clause, these new restrictive laws “nationalized” commerce and, in effect, prohibited the establishment of retail businesses by members of the group labelled “prohibited immigrants” causing great turmoil and loss to Westindian businesses. It virtually wiped out some of the oldest and most prosperous Westindians who suffered great losses to their businesses and property. It especially affected Westindian English schools by requiring a deposit of $15,000 to enable them to operate.
Probably its greatest evil was to further worsen relations between the immigrants and the rest of Panamanian society. The 1941 constitution reflected more than a decade of ever rising racial intolerance and bigotry on the part of Panamanians. The constitution further gave white Zonians an excuse to tighten the gold/silver roll restrictions while posing as benevolent protectors. It was during this period that Zone officials used the new constitution to discourage U.S. blacks completely from applying for canal employment.
Ten short months after the passage of the new constitution Arnulfo Arias Madrid was deposed by the National Guard while he was temporarily away from the country. Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia assumed the presidency and although he did not vigorously enforce the citizenship provisions of the new constitution or the other restrictive laws he did encourage the rising tide of racial discrimination and, in fact, accentuated the restrictive measures based upon race, color and language.
In 1946 the 1941 constitution was supplanted by a new constitution which referred to nationality, but, by and large, the restrictions on the children born in Panama of foreigners, particularly black children, remained (Article I paragraph 9b).
In 1947 Pedro Rhodes and George Westerman pressed home the issue of the violation of the Constitutional rights of their people by taking advantage of the fact that Panama was signatory to the U.N. Charter against discrimination against national born citizens based on color and race. In an article appearing in the Panama Tribune on November 23, 1947, the byline read “Open Assault on Racism in Panama’s Foreign Ministry.” The article referred to letters sent by Rhodes and Westerman to the President of the country charging the violation of constitutional rights to citizenship as supported in the U.N. charter.
Again, the only reaction to these demands on the part of Panama’s lawmakers was minimal. The constitutions most restrictive and damaging clauses were not revoked. The pressure on the Westindian population, however, was lessened and several notices in the newspapers appeared to the effect that the once “prohibited immigrants were no longer prohibited. Newspapers announcements inviting Westindian parents to register their children freely in the public schools, in fact, started appearing regularly.
It was not until 1972, however, when a totally new and restructured constitution supplanted the 1941 model that the issues of race, class and national origin were even referred to specifically throughout the document. The reference to the former “prohibited immigrant class,” however has not appeared in subsequent laws nor in the constitution. The issue continues to be evaded. But, more about that in future posts.
This story continues.