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Panama: Poor But Not Forgotten Thanks to Online Videos

Coco Solo was once a United States Navy submarine base on the Panama Canal Zone, near Colón, Panama. Today, Coco Solo is the home of some of the poorest, most marginalized Panamanians.

In 2008, Reuters published a story about the “poverty and decay” in Coco Solo, where John McCain (then Republican presidential candidate) was born:

McCain was born in 1936 on the Coco Solo submarine base in a U.S.-run territory in Panama where his father was a Navy officer.

Now, children play next to open sewers in the town that was built around the base and large homes once inhabited by American service families lie abandoned and strewn with debris.

Bored young men stroll around topless, sporting gang tattoos that boast of the number of people they have killed. Areas that were once softball fields have been taken over by rough saw-grass.

The report continues:

Panama gradually took back control of the base and the rest of the Canal Zone after a 1977 treaty with the United States, and Coco Solo has since been converted into a huge container terminal known as Manzanillo. Washington handed over its last remaining Panamanian outposts in 1999.

But apart from this story by Reuters, little has been reported about Coco Solo. Online videos are a few of the available online media that show life in this community.

One of the organizations that frequently uploads videos of Coco Solo is Cambio Creativo (“Creative Change”),

an educational platform that promotes critical thinking skills, determination and self-expression through the process of exchanging ideas and skills. We facilitate a space for mutual exchange between a group of mentors and students in Coco Solo (Colon, Panama). Monthly interdisciplinary workshops are led by mentors from Colon, Panama City and abroad. We trust that by stimulating knowledge, creativity, and positive experiences, participants will find alternatives for their own social and economic development.

Photo from Cambio Creativo website, used with permission.

Two years ago, the co-founder of Cambio Creativo, Rose Cromwell, uploaded a short documentary about Coco Solo by film maker Eric Soussanin. Marisa Treviño from news website Latina Lista shares an excerpt of the documentary and writes:

The men, women and children who live in Coco Solo are described as the ones in Panamanian society who have given up on life because they feel they have been forgotten. Yet, a short documentary about the plight of the Coco Solo people makes sure they’re not forgotten and, in fact, that the world knows about them.

Cambio Creativo works with youth from this community through different workshops. Cromwell blogs [es] about a photography workshop which took place in January 2012. She shares a video of a brainstorming session:

The students’ photographs are showcased and sold through an online gallery hosted on the Cambio Creativo site. The money from the sale of these pictures goes directly to the young artists.

You can watch more videos of the Cambio Creativo staff and volunteers working with the youth in Coco Solo on Rose Cromwell's Vimeo page, including the following of a “body percussion” class:

This post was sub-edited by Jane Ellis.

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