60 Minutes with Dr. Joe
With elections just around the corner in Panama, the Bocas Breeze decided to sit down with Mayor Jose Anderson to take a look back at his 5 years in office. Mayor Anderson, or better known as “Dr. Joe”, has chosen not to run again. He will step down from his position in public service to return to the world of medicine where he has worked as a general practitioner and in the field of forensic pathology. Dr. Joe is also a lawyer, saxophonist and the former director of the Red Cross in Bocas.
We asked the current mayor what he considers his major achievements during his time in office. His proudest achievement is Dumpers. Nowadays, “Dumpers” is merely the name of a surf break about a mile before Bluff Beach and a not-so-distant memory of an environmental atrocity. For 25 years it was the location of the town dump. As tourism on the island grew, along with it grew the amount of garbage, and what was once a trash depository located some 100 yards into the jungle had become tons of waste spilling into the road and consequently into the nearby ocean. Surfers reported all sorts of health problems, and it was quite the eye sore (literally in the case of the surfers).
Dr. Joe entered office in July of 2009 and he made it his priority to put a stop to the pollution of Dumpers. Actually, Dr. Anderson claims it was the very reason he ran for office. In the end, the mayor was able to collaborate with the residents of Bluff, the local surfing community and other concerned citizens of Bocas to clean up Dumpers and relocate the trash depository to a piece of land on the road to Boca del Drago. Allene Blaker wrote an excellent article about the Dumpers clean-up in the September 2009 issue of the Bocas Breeze which can be found here.
Fast forward 5 years later and Dr. Joe is still working towards a solution to the garbage problem on the islands. What has been established is a “mancomunidad”, which is the combining of municipalities to work on joint public works projects (in this case, waste management). The municipalities of Isla Colon, Changuinola and Chiriquí Grande have aligned to provide a more permanent solution for the disposal of garbage in the province of Bocas del Toro.
The current plan is to remove all trash deposits on Isla Colon and relocate them to a piece of land in Changuinola. This will be the new trash depository of the mancomunidad of Isla Colon, Changuinola and Chiriqui Grande. So far, 6.6 million dollars have been put away in Banco Nacional for this project.
All in all, Dr. Joe doesn’t seem have exactly enjoyed his time as mayor. If you look at the photo of him in his office you will notice stacks and stacks of papers behind him. These are lawsuits from various interested parties, including the Catholic Church. He wishes he could take the politics out of government so that the elected leaders could better accomplish what the community needs.
“I wish there could be a city hall where politics weren’t the most important thing, because here, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, the only things that matter are politics and the (national) government. You are here to serve the (national) government,” says Dr. Joe.
He goes on to explain that Panama is the only Latin-American country without a decentralized government, meaning that in the other countries, a percentage (usually 10%) of the gross domestic product is given to the municipalities. This way each local government has resources for projects that can meet the different community needs. Mayor Anderson asserts that this is not the case in Panama- the taxes end up in Panama City and the municipalities are left with migajas, or “crumbs”. He says from the taxes that are charged locally and end up in the capital, the amount that comes back to the local governments is barely enough to pay its employees.
His advice to the next mayor is to keep fighting for the decentralization of government. In fact, at the time of the interview he was preparing for a final meeting in Panama City where he was to address to the national government about the municipalities having the resources that they deserve. Dr. Joe gave a very interesting example as to the power the local government could have today if the Panamanian government were to have been decentralized over a century ago when, according to him, they had the opportunity to so:
“In 1909, if the government had accepted the decentralization and had given 10% to the 75 municipalities of the Republic of Panama, and had divided it in equal parts, to us here [in Bocas del Toro] it would have corresponded to 19 million dollars every year. What municipality can’t work with 19 million dollars?”
Dr. Joe also spoke about the development of tourism in Bocas del Toro and how it has changed the face of the community. According to him, tourism was born with the earthquake of 1991. The Red Cross came to help in the aftermath of the earthquake and it was then that foreigners first set their eyes on the enchanted islands of Bocas del Toro from a helicopter’s view.
“Tourism here did not develop because of the people in Panama City with money; it was because of foreigners. The Red Cross arrived in a helicopter with a group from Italy, from Spain and later on they discovered the island and many came back and bought here. If you take a good look at tourism in Bocas, it’s all foreigners and locals. There are no Panama City business owners like the rest of the country. So this community is no longer only made up of locals, but a mix of people. If Bocas del Toro is a melting pot of races, it’s a mix of Indians, Blacks and Latinos; and now many more groups because there are foreigners from all over the world. So, that is the community that I think needs to begin to work together.”
Dr. Joe has made his advice clear to the next mayor and to the community as a whole: work on decentralizing the government so the municipality has the necessary resources to meet the community’s needs and put political agendas and racial differences aside in order to work together for the common good.
With all that being said, the only question that remains is: Dr. Joe, are you going to retire to the beach or the mountains?
“I’m going to return to my hospital.”