Pedro N. Rhodes, distinguished Panamanian lawyer and well known Atlantic side politician was born in the City of Colon June 8, 1894. His early schooling at the age of six began at Christ Church School with S. T. Bailey as teacher. His elementary education completed, Mr. Rhodes attended St. Joseph College from where he was graduated with honors.
With the ambition and determination of becoming a lawyer Don Pedro Rhodes took a correspondence course in law from one of the leading law schools in the United States. He also studied law under the tutorship of Alejandro Rodriguez Camarena who was at one time attorney general of the Nation. In 1925 he applied for and obtained a license to practice before the Supreme Court of Panama, and is considered one of the most outstanding and influential lawyers in the Republic.
Unselfishly undertaking and winning many fights for the “under-dog,” Don Pedro Rhodes championed the cause of West Indians and their offspring.
The Prohibited Immigrant Clause- the battle only begins.
On Thursday October 31,1940, despite the vehement protest letters of Pedro N. Rhodes and George W. Westerman and the petitions of several deputies and hundreds of members of Westindian labor and civic organizations, Article 12 of the proposed draft of the new Constitution was passed by a vote of 26 to 5 (with one blank) in the National Assembly. The opposition to this piece of legislation which would, in effect, create a racial barrier, where formerly none existed, to deprive those persons who already possessed Panamanian citizenship of the privilege came from a scant five legislators: Alfredo Alemán, Pablo Othon, Juan Galindo, J. M. Varela and Simon Vega.
Speaking for the Administration Foreign Secretary de Roux categorically denied that the “Prohibited Immigrant” clauses were inspired by racial antagonism, but that these persons had “proven” that they were inassimilable, and that the persons of this “restricted group” – that is, non-Spanish speaking “Negroes, Hindus, Chinese, and natives of Asia Minor and North Africa, were not of the stock which was desired to make up the national entity…and that Panama had the undisputed right to choose the racial stock in the new impulse which is being given to national unity.”
The Foreign Secretary, in fact, was supported in his arguments by the Secretary of Government and Justice, Ricardo de la Guardia, who reiterated that the clauses were not based on racial discrimination but for economic and social reasons; he said that Westindians presented a problem for Panama’s demographics due to their “fecundity.” He also made some pretty offensive and outrageous assertions that Westindians had “not made any contributions to Panama” except for their habit of bringing contraband from the Canal Zone into Panama.
In Deputy Othon’s stirring opposing argument he pointed to his own mixed Jamaican/Chinese parentage as proof that the group, which the Constitution sought to deprive of citizenship, was, in fact, assimilable. The response from some Assembly members was that he was a “brilliant exception to the general rule.” In substantiating his argument the legislator from Darien Province further presented copies of the constitutions of Mexico, Cuba and Colombia to show that none of the other Latin American countries had established barriers to citizenship on the basis of color or race. Othon also cited other prominent members from his province who were descended from the group the Constitution sought to disenfranchise.
Deputy Varela argued that nothing would be gained by depriving those persons who already enjoyed citizenship, but that, perhaps if they could be sent out of the country, this would provide a solution, but that since this could not be done, they would remain in the country harboring resentment and hatred because of their lack of status.
The heated debate even produced accusations from some sectors that some Deputies owed their seats to support from the members of this group of “undesirable persons,” bringing wails of outrage and protest from Deputies Leignadier and Anguizola who flatly stated that had never sought nor did they want the votes of the Antillean group.
The final vote on Clause 12 passed on its second reading and the memorial sent to the National Assembly signed by over 500 citizens of Westindian parentage was mentioned but was not read in its entirety. They could not get over their disappointment and fear for their own, as well as their children’s, future status in a country that had just conspired to disenfranchise them and pulled it off.
Pedro Rhodes and George Westerman would continue their determined battle to restore the citizenship status to their fellow Antillean brothers for the next seven years until in 1947, when Panama was reminded that it had signed a U.N. charter right after WW II that established that none of their member states could pass or maintain laws that prohibited or revoked the right to citizenship on the basis of race, color or national origin of their parents.
These two tireless advocates for their people’s rights presented the plight of the Panamanian born Westindians before the General Assembly of the U.N. in a stirring presentation authored by Pedro N. Rhodes and Panama was, subsequently, forced to back off on the enforcement of the “prohibited immigrants” clauses, thus paving the way for the present Constitution which was passed in 1972and a little more liberal attitude towards their Westindian citizenry.
The “Fathers of the Republic,” however, have never apologized to the Westindian citizens for these past outrages and attempts to disenfranchise them. In future posts we will be amplifying on Don Pedro N. Rhodes and what became of this remarkable man.
This story continues.