Kindling Self-determination Among the Kuna


The San Blas Kuna of Panama are an indigenous population of 30,000 people. Their reserve, the Comarca de San Blas or Kuna Yala, is a strip of land between the Caribbean coast and a mountain chain which runs from Colombia to approximately 60 miles east of the Panama Canal. Supporting themselves by subsistence agriculture, marine fishing, cash-cropping of coconuts, migrant wage labor, and tourism, the Kuna are relatively well fed, prosperous, and secure. They enjoy a measure of political autonomy within their reserve, and despite massive social change, they have managed to preserve the integrity of their culture and their ethnic identity.

San Blas and the Kuna have great appeal for certain tourists. Although isolated from the city, the reserve can be reached by light planes in half an hour. The scenery is spectacular, the swimming and diving excellent. The Kuna's large nucleated villages, located on coral islets a few hundred yards offshore, facilitate access for tourists. They have been willing to adapt to tourism in some ways, for instance by sponsoring performances by village dance troupes.

Most of all, tourists admire Kuna women and their costumes. "Traditional" women's dress - which is in fact of fairly recent origin and almost entirely of imported materials - consists of leg and arm wrappings of beads, a patterned red headcloth and patterned green or blue skirt, a nose ring, and often large earrings and chest ornament of gold. The centerpiece is the mola blouse, put together from two cloth panels, both of them sewn with beautiful and elaborate designs. Thousands are sold each year in Panama, North America, and Europe.

Tourism brings a great deal of money into San Blas, some of which actually reaches the Kuna. It also helps them in their struggle for autonomy, by giving the national society a stake in the preservation of Kuna culture: one individual suggested that in the event of a major crisis with the government, the Kuna could bring it to its knees by having all the women replace their molas with western dress. The Kuna are also aware, however, of the dangers of tourism. Of the various ways in which tourism has undermined Kuna society, the intrusion of outside tourist interests into the reserve is perhaps the most significant.

Most tourists visit San Blas for short stays. Of those who fly from Panama City - estimated at roughly 6,000 passengers in 1973 by a government-sponsored study - 60% are day-trippers, and 90% stay three days or less. These figures do not include either the trickle of yachts that pass through the islands, or more importantly, the thousands of passengers disgorged each year by cruise ships onto a single island in western San Blas. Molabuyers, adventure tourists and amateur enthusiasts of Kuna culture stay longer and make closer contact with the Kuna than other tourists but these probably number only a few hundred a year.

Tourist hotels in San Blas fall into two categories - comfortable resorts catering to North Americans and low-budget pensions.


Although the Kuna worry about the influence of short-term visitors to San Blas, their primary concern is with outside commercial interests established in the reserve for long periods. From the late 1960s to the present the Kuna have been involved in a series of clashes with non-Kuna tourist operators.

Efforts to control tourism and other intrusions are complicated by the political structure of San Blas. The constitution of the reserve and a 1953 law give supreme power to the Kuna General Congress, a council of delegates from the 50 or so communities in San Blas that meets semi-annually. Before renting or buying land, non-Kuna must obtain the approval of two successive general congresses. Most outsiders however, prefer to deal with individual authorities, who include three elected regional chiefs of caciques, a governor or intendente appointed by the government, and since 1972, three elected representatives to a national legislative council. Political crisis follows when the Kuna suspect outsiders of trying to manipulate or even subvert their leaders, and a serious recent crisis led to schism in San Blas.


In the mid-1960s an entrepreneur from the United States, W.D. Barton, began looking for a site in San Blas suitable for a resort. He signed a contract with the government and obtained a permit signed by the three caciques of San Blas but did not bother, apparently, to seek approval from the General Congress. Having found a suitable island, which was owned by a Kuna coconut cooperative, he built a fancy psuedo-Polynesian resort called Islandia.

Trouble developed rapidly. The Kuna were upset that the caciques had signed the permit and even more that two of them had travelled to the U.S. at Barton's expense. Some Kuna were so mad they proposed abolishing the caciqueship. Kuna of the village nearest Islandia benefited financially from it, especially the owners of the island, but Barton was arrogant and tactless in his dealings with the community, and the costumes and customs of his tourists offended many Kuna, A dispute developed with the island's owners over alleged underpayment of rent and non-payment for work, and when they did not obtain satisfaction, the resort was burned to the ground in 1969.

Barton soon began rebuilding, and the hotel reopened in 1969 or 1970. Barton conceived a number of schemes for developing Islandia, including establishing it as a stop for cruise ships. Eventually he began bringing in parties of homosexual tourists, further offending the Kuna. He also wrote a malicious article about Kuna custom for the Miami Herald, which was noticed by the Kuna (the Herald is distributed in Panama City) and read out loud in translation at a General Congress. Complaints about contract violations resurfaced, and in 1974 Islandia was burned a second time. It has remained closed since then, and the government has not allowed Barton to return.

The IPAT Hotel Project

During the early 1970s IPAT (Institute Panameno de Turismo) targeted four regions for tourist development: Panama City, the Pearl Islands, Pacific-side beaches, and San Blas. For San Blas IPAT proposed a resort hotel of 686 rooms (twice the size of the largest hotel in Panama City), with a Kuna museum, a wharf for cruise ships, and an airport large enough for small jets - all except the airport was to be located on an artificial island built over reefs in western San Blas, thus, IPAT hoped, avoiding problems with Kuna landowners.

The Kuna were incredulous but passive when the plan was first presented to them in a 1973 General Congress, and opposition developed gradually over the next two years, with much of the initial impetus coming from the communities nearest the proposed site. A document authorizing feasibility studies signed by the caciques and representatives in October 1973 was later a subject of debate. A subsequent document, endorsing the study, supposedly signed by village chiefs of western San Blas, was challenged by many chiefs who claimed the signatures were forgeries.

In early 1975, club-wielding Kuna prevented a party of officials and technicians from surveying the site of the proposed airport. Soon afterward, the head of IPAT personally defended the project to the General Congress, promising he would not proceed with implementation without their explicit, approval. The scope of the plan was reduced, with one study calling for implementation in stages, the first stage limited to 240 rooms. By this time however, a large majority of Kuna saw the project as a threat to the reserve. Only a minority were still in favor including the three representatives. In September 1975 the General Congress revoked permission for the feasibility study. Newspaper articles emanating from IPAT, however, insisted that the project would be built. Kuna school teachers who spoke against the project were disciplined and even fired from their jobs.

In March 1976 the General Congress called for the removal of the three representatives, but the latter managed to maneuver the caciques as well as the government onto their side. A subsequent Congress in May, attended by delegates from 40 islands, elected a new state of leaders to replace the caciques, only a week after a government decree which partitioned the reserve into three divisions, each to be governed by a cacique and representative. With the government backing the old caciques, and the eight islands in their immediates spheres of influence lined up behind them, a schism ensued which lasted into 1977, when the two states of leaders were reconciled and the division order rescinded.

IPAT eventually abandoned the project. Its reasons included the following: other government agencies had never supported the project; IPAT functionaries began to realize how fanciful their plans were; and the Kuna indicated that they would use violence if necessary to keep the hotel from opening.

Hotel Anai

The most substantial of the Kuna-run hotels, called Hotel Anai (My Friend), located in the village of Wichupwala in far western San Blas, was owned by a Kuna entrepreneur named Alberto Gonzalez. In 1977 Gonzalez leased the hotel to a Panamanian named Diaz, without obtaining the approval of the General Congress. Diaz subsequently had repeated run-ins with village leaders, whose authority he rejected, but because of his political connections complaints against him were ignored.

On March 25, 1978, seven months after taking over the hotel, Diaz brought in an electronic band to entertain his guests. Wichupwala is a very small island with only a few hundred inhabitants, and village authorities asked Diaz to turn down the, volume for the sake of two gravely ill residents, but to no avail. A contingent of Kuna students who happened to be spending the night on the island on their way back to Panama City, staged two demonstrations against Diaz, which ended in throwing rocks and coconuts at the hotel. On the 26th the village shut off a well for the hotel which they claimed was contaminated, and on the 27th the national guard and a government representative removed Diaz to Panama with orders for him not to return. As of a few weeks afterward, the village was trying to run the hotel as a communal venture, and Diaz was threatening to sue Gonzalez and everyone else involved.

Pidertupo Island

Thomas Moody, a North American, came to San Blas in 1967. He obtained written permission, signed by the three caciques, allowing him to look for a hotel site. After finding a suitable uninhabited island, called Pidertupo, and renting it in perpetuity from its Kuna owner for $200 a year and various small favors, he built a resort, without however, obtaining the approval of the General Congress. In 1969 the caciques repudiated the permission to explore. Since then repeated General Congresses have called on Moody to leave, but the government never moved against him,

Unlike his predecessor Barton, Moody maintained good relations with the community nearest his resort, paying taxes for passengers and freight at the local airstrip and doing favors for friendly individuals. Less diplomatically, he kept Kuna from fishing or seining minnows next to his island or coming ashore there, a policy whose symbolic significance he does not seem to have recognized.

After the IPAT hotel crisis in the mid-1970s, opposition to Moody intensified, and the Kuna owner of the island eventually grew dissatisfied with the terms of the lease. For several years the General Congress issued declarations to expel Moody. Finally, in the spring of 1981 they formally declared that he would not be safe in San Blas after June 20th.

On the night of June 21st a party of young Kuna men landed on Pidertupo. They tried unsuccessfully to burn the cabanas, which were rain-soaked, and they attacked Moody, shooting him once in the foot, beating, and tormenting him but ultimately letting him live - he later recovered to a considerable extent from his injuries. The men fled at dawn. After Moody was ferried out by helicopter from the local airstrip an hour or two later, a mob from the nearest village - who though forewarned of the burning like all the other Kuna of San Blas, were evidently very upset by the violence against Moody - stormed out to Pidertupo. There they clashed with Kuna national guardsmen sent to restore order (who were out of uniform), killing two and wounding another.

Only then did the government move against Moody, barring him from returning to Pidertupo. The resort is now abandoned, the useable equipment confiscated by Kuna authorities for possible use in a proposed native-run hotel. Moody's attackers were never found, but a man who took blame for killing the guardsman was surrendered to the government after the island was quarantined. Moody immediately began a media campaign against the Kuna, claiming among other things that he had been driven out because he knew too much about drug trafficking in San Blas. Since then he has organized ex-guests of his resort and several U.S. Congressmen to write letters on his behalf, and he opened a law suit against the Panamanian government, reportedly for two million dollars.


In spite of the apparent violence of these reported incidents, in each case the Kuna in fact showed restraint. In each case they avoided violence until it had become painfully clear that the law would not otherwise be enforced, and in each case, those who used violence did so to force the government to intervene.

While Kuna success to date is encouraging, it has had political costs, provoking anti-Indian sentiment in the capital and straining relations with the government. Among the Kuna, tourism has led to killings and intercommunity hostility and to political schism. In the latter case it almost cost them the democratic governing of the reserve.

Something more substantial than holding the line does seem to have emerged from the struggle. The Kuna are thinking and talking about tourism more seriously and thoroughly now. They are more attentive to the early stages of penetration by outside interests. And they are working on elaborate schemes to take the initiative themselves and create their own collective tourist projects.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: