Kuna - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kuna are known for their egalitarian forms of social organization. Most agricultural labor in San Blas is organized at the community and household levels or through small collective entrepreneurial groups called sociedades (voluntary associations). All males and females of appropriate age are required to participate in community work projects and are fined if they do not. The senior male and female of each household are responsible for the organization of its labor. Sociedades, which are prevalent, consist of aggregates of friends, relatives, and neighbors. They are organized around specific activities such as selling gasoline, operating a retail store, or engaging in subsistence-agricultural production or coconut cultivation.

Kuna households and/or individuals may have different amounts of land or money. Factors affecting socioeconomic differentiation include the amount of land a household controls, ancestors' level of industriousness in planting coconuts, the extent to which current household members have planted coconuts, opportunities for paid employment, and income from mola sales. Age is another key variable in determining differences in wealth. Older men and women hold most of the land, whereas young migrant laborers obtain consumer goods and cash. Wealthier households in San Blas do not automatically accrue political power, nor do they usually appropriate the labor of poorer ones. Inheritance patterns tend to prevent the accumulation of wealth and ensure the redistribution of rights to land and to coconut trees among households across the generations.

Political Organization. Each Kuna village has a local congreso (community meeting house). Every village in San Blas has four to six traditional or administrative saklas. Traditional saklas are considered political as well as religious leaders. Ranks and strata are absent, and very little social distance separates leaders and followers. Leaders are chosen for their wisdom and morality; leadership is not hereditary. After the 1925 Kuna uprising known as "La Revolución Tule," a Congreso General Kuna, comprised of local authorities representing each village, was established. The Congreso General Kuna created a unified political entity that can negotiate with the Panamanian government. Today it meets approximately every six months; emergency sessions are called if a crisis occurs. The region has three caciques (chiefs), each responsible for a particular subregion, and a regionwide intendente (administrator). Caciques are selected from Kuna leaders at the local level, whereas the intendente, until the 1990s always a non-Kuna, is named by Panama's president.

In 1968 new political boundaries were drawn throughout Panama. San Blas became politically and administratively separate from the province of Colón. Government ministries, previously administered through Colón, opened regional offices in San Blas. The comarca of San Blas was divided into four subareas called corregimientos. Each area elects one representative to the Asamblea Nacional de Representantes de Corregimientos. Local chapters of a wide range of political parties were organized within their communities. In most villages, women organized their own chapters and activities separately from the men's, even within the same political party. Women have become increasingly active in politics at the national level. In 1980 the Kuna elected a Kuna representative to the national legislature.

Social Control. Within a household, the eldest man and woman exercise the most authority. He is responsible for organizing the labor of the men, she that of the women. At the village level, the local congresos are the loci for social control. In the past, public shamings were sufficient control mechanisms. Today congresos levy fines and require community labor in addition to public shaming. The region has several jails. Serious cases are referred to the Panamanian judicial system.

Conflict. Disputes that cannot be resolved within a household are taken to the local congreso. There is ongoing conflict both with the Panamanian national government and with outsiders (non-Kuna Panamanians or U.S. citizens) trying to establish businesses (usually hotels, tourist resorts, or stores) in the region or to convert the Kuna to a particular religion. There are also occasional confrontations with colonos (settlers) from the interior who encroach upon Kuna land. The Kuna have developed the Project for the Study of the Management of Wildland Areas of Kuna Yala (PEMASKY) to help firmly establish the comarca's borders and to stop the deforestation of their rain forest. This project has received substantial support from international funding sources.

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