Panamanian researcher, journalist and activist Jorge Turner researched and documented the political and social implications of what we would today call a mega-project: the Panama Canal, which opened for business in 1914. Bent Flyvbjerg defines mega-projects as ‘large-scale, complex ventures that typically … take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational, and impact millions of people.’ Mega-projects are now hotly contested because of the notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ which inform them and which they perpetuate, usually at the expense of the natural environment, of the social fabric of the communities who live in the area, and of democratic political process. While mega-projects are usually justified and advertised with promises of jobs and access to conveniences, they have often disproportionately benefitted multinational corporations and undermined workers’ rights.
A prime example of all this was the Panama Canal. The area surrounding it was known as the Panama Canal Zone and it was controlled by the U.S., even though it was on the territory of the Republic of Panama. In the 1904 Isthmian Canal Convention, the government of the newly independent Panama granted the U.S. control and right of use in perpetuity of a zone extending five miles around the canal and of the canal itself. This lasted until 1979, when the U.S. returned control over the canal and its surroundings to the government of Panama. While some Panamanian citizens and politicians hailed this situation as beneficial to the economy, others were fundamentally opposed to it because of the influence it granted the U.S. over Panama, because it undermined Panama’s self-determination and sovereignty, and because of the ways in which it imposed a capitalist model of development on the country. One of those citizens was Jorge Turner.
Turner was born in Panamá in 1922. In his youth and while studying, he worked as a docker in the port of Balboa, inside the Panama Canal Zone. The Panama canal was a meeting point for seafaring folk and port populations at the time, and Turner quickly fraternized with seafarers and port workers from across Latin America and the wider world. The experience of the exploitation of labourers in non-regulated free trade zones, where employers reign supreme and unbridled exploitation in the name of capitalist trade flourishes, that Turner developed a strong anti-imperialist conviction, as well as an affinity with labour organizations and trade unionism and eventually, with the Cuban Revolution. Turner participated in the uprising on 9th January 1964 in Panama which demanded the end of the ‘colonial enclave’ of the Panama Canal Zone. After a 1968 military coup d’état he was imprisoned and, after about a year, released into exile to Mexico. There, Turner continued his organizational and activist trajectory. He organized with fellow exiles, and became instrumental in creating the statutes of what was to become the Comité de Derechos Humanos de Centroamérica. The correspondence surrounding a work trip to Costa Rica for this purpose are available at G AL 1, under the rubric ‘Derechos humanos'.
Turner mostly worked as a journalist, and as an organized journalist as such. His writing brought into focus the question of how to bring into focus issues such as those surrounding the Panama Canal. As an organized journalist he was instrumental to the foundation of the Federación Latinoamericana de Periodistas (Latin American Federation of Jounalists), and one of the founders of the Journalism School at the National University of Panama. Crucial to his work was a constant reflection on the politics and the ethics of Journalism, a continuous thought process reflected in the document ‘Los principios internacionales de ética profesional en el periodismo Periodismo Internacional’ O IN 1, a document elaborated in the context of a series of consultative assemblies held under the auspices of the UNESCO. Like Gregorio Selser, Richard Kapuczynski or Martha Gellhorn, he was constantly engaged with the question of how to conduct a journalism responsive to, and clearly positioned towards, political situations of domination and oppression. This self-reflexive attitude is also present in a collection of his notebooks, a genre which has recently garnered some interest, available under the rubric ‘Periodismo, comunicación y propaganda’ under O PA 1.
Turner was also an activist of exiles. In 1977 he was instrumental in negotiating the rehabilitation and the right to return of those who had left Panama for political reasons, by negotiating with General Torrijos on the sidelines of the negotiations of what was to become the Carter-Torrijos-Treaty. It seems that Turner was recommended to the General as an interlocutor by the Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who introduced him in a handwritten note available under the rubric ‘Periodismo’ O PA 4. Turner’s negotiations were successful; yet, he himself remained in Mexico until his death.
The political complexities and personal heartbreak behind different forms of engaging with power are exemplified by the letters sent to Turner by Rosa de Aragón, the widow of exiled journalist Leopoldo Aragón. Aragón was a friend of Turner’s who, at the time, chose a different form of confronting the powers that be. He set himself on fire in front of the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, in 1977, to protest against the regime of General Torrijos and the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, and died. Aragón’s ashes were given to Turner, who kept them safe until he could give them to Rosa de Aragón.
In February 2011, shortly before he died, Jorge Turner participated at the CAMeNA in the presentation of the new edition of Gregorio Selser’s opera magna, the encyclopaedia Cronología de las Intervenciones extranjeras en América Latina. The speech he gave on this occasion is available under the rubric ‘Periodismo, Comunicacion y Propaganda,’ under O AL 5.
The documents collected by Turner and donated to the CAMeNA by his widow María Guerra are of particular interest for those working on big projects and the Panama Canal, for anyone interested in politically engaged journalism in Central America and, though there are fewer documents on this topic, for those interested in Central American solidarity organizations.
Flyvbjerg, Bent. "What You Should Know About Megaprojects and Why: An Overview." Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6-19