Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Homophobia rears up its ugly head in Panama: Lesbian couple jailed for kissing, consul forced to resign over leaked photos

A couple of notably homophobic incidents this week in the Central American country of Panama:

Panamanian consul to the Canary Islands resigns over photos distributed on Twitter:  I have a feeling that when 22 year old Ítalo Giovanni Afú Quiel was appointed as the Panamanian consul to the Canary Islands in Spain he might have felt as if he'd won the lottery.

Known as a tourist destination for its beaches and relatively mild year-long climate and situated in the southern tip of Spain just across the northern coast of mainland Africa, the archipelago seems like a dream destination for just about anyone, particularly a young politically connected guy like Afú.

His appointment had already drawn some controversy in May of last year when it was revealed that he was one of ten individuals who found cushy government positions after his former boss, Juan Carlos Varela, became the country's Vice President.

That report also reproduced an e-mail message in which Afú boasted that one of Spain's leading store chains had agreed to carry a rum brand produced by Hermanos Varela, the company owned by the VP's family for which he and the VP had previously worked.

Nepotism, using a consular office to promote a sitting Vice President's economic interests? No big deal. Showing up to an annual carnival celebration dressed up like a woman and being caught on camera? An almost immediate resignation.

Three photos, apparently taken on March 12th on the final night of the annual carnival celebrations in Las Palmas, show Afú dressed in a pink dress and carrying a fuchsia-colored purse as a plastic yellow banana sticks out of his chest.  Apparently, the images only started making the Twitter rounds early last week quickly exploding on the national scene with the major Panamanian dailies running daily articles about the "scandal".

On Friday, the leading Panamanian newspaper, La Estrella, breathlessly reported on the images.  It quoted academic leaders as saying that the images were "yet another insult to the dignity of the community" while Vice President Varela defended him.

"He could have dressed up as a pirate, he could have dressed up as sea robber, or he could have dressed as - I don't know - Donald Duck?", the Vice Predident said, "We have to call it what it was: Carnival, a costume party".

The damage was done, tough, the director of the conservative and homophobic paper Hora Cero called him part of a "flowery" cadre of diplomats known for their homosexuality ("The diplomacy of 'el florón'"), conservative journalist and former political candidate Carlos Zavala called him a "faggot" ("Carlos Zavala confronts consul Afú") and, to top it all off, a Miami television station made homophobic fodder of the whole deal by showing a jaw-droppingly bad video of skimpily clad girls dancing to an all-female group singing lines such as "a confused consul went to a party wearing a woman's dress instead of pants" to the tune of "Guantanamera".

You might laugh but, apparently, though, Panamanians are incredibly concerned about how their country is viewed by a tiny Miami cable station ("U.S. television station makes fun of Panamanian consul - Newspapers of the world feature the case" La Estrella screams out).

What to do? Well, Afú resigned as a consul yesterday, effective April 30th.  In an interview published before his resignation, Afú revealed that Vice President Varela had called him after the scandal broke and warned him that he'd be fired if he ever showed up dressed like a woman to work or to any diplomatic event. Afú told Crítica he'd never dress up like a woman ever again. Sigh.

Lesbian couple held behind bars for hours after kissing in public: Surprised that a consul might lose his job over dressing up for carnival instead of charges of political nepotism?  Wait until you read this...

On Sunday, 32 year old Valentina Hernandez (right) and her 24 year old girlfriend were enjoying a romantic walk down the streets of the historic Casco Antigüo colonial district of Panama City when she stopped to give her girlfriend a kiss.

Hernandez, a psychologist by profession, reached out to Panamanian newspaper Prensa and shared details of what followed ("Police abuse reported").

Hernandez says that a member of Panama's presidential guard who had seen them kiss approached them and accused them of improper behavior.  When Hernandez asked him to explain clearly which law they had violated, the guard grew exasperated and called for reinforcement.  She says that ten other members of the Institutional Protective Service (S.P.I.) quickly showed up and took her ID and cell phone as they whisked the couple to the local police precinct.

Hernandez says that, once they reached the precinct, she was given an intrusive body check by a policewoman.

"I felt they touched me everywhere," she said, "They rubbed their hands on my genitals, it was disgusting, my girlfriend was asked to take her pants off."

Hernandez says that they were both held behind bars for hours until the authorities asked her to sign a three-page document which they did not allow her to read completely but in which she was told she would free the authorities of any responsibility for their detention.  "I signed," she said, "because I did not want to spend a night in a jail cell."

Late that night, Hernandez said, they were taken to a court where the judge granted them freedom not before warning them that they might be penalized if they were caught doing the same thing again.

Prensa says that the S.P.I. office released a statement saying that the women had been arrested for "drinking alcohol in public" but counters that assertion by pulling out a police report by one of the officers, Alfonso Rodriguez, who reported the arrest was made on the basis of "interfering with police activity and engaging in immoral activities in public".

Speaking to La Estrella, Hernandez says that the couple has hired a lawyer and is exploring the best way to fight back against those who violated their rights.

Interviewed by TVN-2, catholic priest Rafael Siu said that the women should have respected a public environment and said that it was not the way to express love towards others.

To date, as far as I know, neither the Panamanian President nor the Vice President have spoken out about this flagrant human rights violation in the same way that VP Varela came to the defense of the now former Panamanian consul of the Canary Islands.

No comments: