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Archivos Nacionales de Panamá

Page history last edited by Paul Keenan 13 years, 11 months ago

Date of tip: January 2006

Source: Graeme Mount, gmount@laurentian.ca


Location: Avenida Perú at the corner of Calle 31.


Possible Accommodation: Hotel Covadonga, located on Calle 29, between Avenidas Perú and Cuba. The country code for Panama is 507, and the telephone number of the Hotel Covadonga is 225-3998. At the time of my last visit, a room for two with twin beds cost US$50; this included air conditioning, full private bathroom, cable television with 24/7 access to BBC News (in English), and a swimming pool on the hotel roof. The location of the Hotel Covadonga is two blocks from the Archives and within easy walking distance of Avenida Central, the colourful shopping area. Another advantage of the Hotel Covadonga is Hector Guevara, the hotel's tour guide. Hector speaks English and has a degree in law but prefers driving tourists. Not only is he available for drives to and from the airport, but on weekends, evenings, and statutory holidays, he can arrange sight-seeing tours of the city and surrounding areas. With his mini-bus, residents of the hotel can (but need not) share expenses with others.


How to get there: Most researchers will travel through Miami International Airport, from which there are non-stop flights to Panama City's Tocumen Airport.


Link to archive: There are three telephone lines: 507-225-0944, 507-225-9382, and 507-225-0938. There is a fax: 507-225-1937. The email address of Professor Porfirio de Cruz S., Director General of the Archive, is pdecruz@cwp.net.pa. Another option is simply to appear at the door during regular working hours. That is what I have done twice (2001, 2004).


Language: I spoke Spanish (Castilian), and the staff at the archives spoke Spanish to each other. I vaguely recall one official who spoke English very well, and the others probably had some command of English. This I can confirm in November 2005, when I will return to the archives. I was researching the first presidency of Arnulfo Arias, a Panamanian nationalist (1940-1941), and most of the documents were in Spanish. However, some communications with people from the Canal Zone and with US officials were in English, and there were even a few in French.


Getting started: Appear during the working hours. Explain to the archivists what documents you are after.


Opening Hours: The archives opens to the public Monday-Friday (except statutory holidays, which are numerous) from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Researchers must leave between noon and 1 p.m. while the staff takes a lunch break.


General working conditions: This is undoubtedly one of the world's noisiest archives. Staff members visit each other, even accompanied by children, and a radio provides entertainment. Happily, it is white noise which should not prove a distraction. The room is air-conditioned, and the staff could not be more obliging and eager to please. Given the heat of Panama City, researchers may be relieved that it is totally acceptable to wear a sport shirt, shorts, and sandals.

Few non-Panamanians visit the archives, but the staff provided a table for my student and me. During the week of our visit in January 2004, the two of us were the only researchers. We were also expected to wear gloves (provided daily by the archives) before handling the documents. The staff would retrieve relevant boxes at any time of day and within minutes of any request. I sat on one side of the table reading the documents and translating them into English; the student typed what I said into a computer. Given the noise level in the room, our noise made little difference. 


Consultation: There was always someone who could advise regarding available documentation. We had a table only a few feet away from the collection which we were using. The table was small, so we had very few boxes at one time. As I recall, as soon as we finished, we could tell the staff, who would reshelve those boxes and then bring us more. All this happened within a few seconds.


Policy on technology: Digital cameras are allowed. As indicated above, computers were permitted. Plugs and current in Panama are the same as in the United States and Canada; if the laptop's cord can plug into the wall in North America, it can do so in Panama.  


Photocopy policy: The staff photocopied lengthy documents for us in fairly short order. Will confirm the price of photocopies after my trip in November.  


Particularities: While subordinates do not care, the director (La Directora) says that government regulations require researchers to wear long trousers.

As of January 2004, documents were accessible without dispute until and including 1960. This meant that the following subjects were open without restriction: US-Panamanian relations from November 1903 through the two world wars, the early years of the Cold War, and the Eisenhower-Remon Treaty of the 1950s which modified some of the harshest provisions of the 1903 arrangement. Boxes are arranged by presidencies, not by topic. For example, the twelve boxes dealing with the first presidency of Arnulfo Arias (October 1940-November 1941) include foreign relations, language policy, health concerns, agriculture, and police reports. Although much of the documentation has been lost, there appears to have been no deliberate attempt to weed. Following World War II, especially during his second presidency, Arias could have destroyed information which might hurt his reputation, but he did not. In January 2004, his widow was completing a four-year term as Panama's first female president, but there was no restriction on what we could see. Attempts by Arnulfo Arias to blackmail his brother Harmodio (a former president, entrepreneur, and publisher of the country's most prestigious newspaper), the anti-Semitism of Arnulfo's secret police, and Arnulfo's admiration for Franco's leadership in Spain are among the subjects open for research.


How to apply for classified files: This may not be possible. Materials beyond 1960 remain closed. If the topic is one dated later than 1960, I would certainly send a fax to the archive and request written permission. Oral permission by telephone is unreliable. We wanted to look at the third presidency of Arnulfo Arias (1968), and a staff member indicated that we could do so. However, when we were ready to begin, a higher official called Emma told us that everything beyond 1960 was closed. Someone suggested that we go to the Foreign Office, but on arrival, an official told us that there was nothing there and recommended that we go to the National Library (Biblioteca Nacional). The Biblioteca Nacional had books and articles, already published, but no primary sources.


Contact name in case of questions regarding classified files: In February 2001, the person was Professor Porfirio de Cruz (mentioned above). I did not see him in January 2004; the person who denied permission for the 1968 documents was a woman who was vacationing every day of our visit except the day we requested the 1968 boxes. An hour or so before we submitted our request, she arrived with her small daughter for a visit with her staff. I should be able to update this information in November 2005.


General Assessment: This archive is a gold mine, highly recommended. It is no longer academically respectable to write diplomatic history exclusively on the basis of US or British sources, but few non-Panamanian historians have visited the Archivos Nacionales de Panamá. The staff told us that we were the first to have done so, and no American knowledgeable about Panama with whom I have spoken had been there. Costs are low; the efficiency level is good--much faster than in many First World archives; the staff is pleasant and helpful but not intrusive.

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