The Cooperative Movement is Founded in Panama’s Silver Townships

This is the remarkable Mr. Foster Bournes who, at last reading, had celebrated his 103rd birthday and still going strong

Cristobal Credit Union's Logo upon their 61st Anniversary in 2009

Image of entrance to the Cristobal Credit Coop around 1950

by Lydia M. Reid

Following the important victory in 1947, a few months later Mr. Harold B. Wright, an Afro-American and a regional sub-director with the Bureau of Federal Credit Union attached to the Federal Security Agency headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, was sent to Panama to guide and assist in the organization of this new entity that would establish cooperative banking in Panama.

After an extended period of travel, training sessions, meetings and frustrations, on October 18, 1948, Personería Juridica Federal #5850 (meaning its corporate capacity license) in the Gaceta Oficial of Panama´s National Assembly was issued. This new corporate license surprisingly authorized the official creation of 5 cooperatives in the non-American residential areas with total control by the Silver locals thus demonstrating the capability of non-American employees to run such entities.

Thus began The Cristobal Federal Credit Union within the area that included the communities of Silver City, Camp Coiner, Camp Beird and the City of Colon chaired by Foster Bournes.  The fledgling cooperative movement had taken root in the Republic of Panama and it was all thanks to the determination of the West Indians in and around the Silver townships of the American Canal Zone.

Following on the heels of this first victory the communities of Gatun, chaired by Uzziel G. Ayre,  Gamboa, chaired by Clarence Sampson, Paraiso/ Red Tank, presided over by Thomas U. Sawyer, and Balboa/La Boca chaired by Ernest Williams joined in as members and their Credit Unions were established. Initially the Credit Unions were identified by the names of their townships.

By the end of their first year alone these credit unions totaled $ 31,000 in deposits and a membership of 1,600 people, proving the enthusiasm with which the idea of the cooperatives was received by the non-American labor force living in the Canal Zone, the Cities of Panama and Colon and the surrounding areas.  Mr. Foster Bournes, as creator and first President of the cooperative, in fact, immediately received the first passbook.  Thus, the cooperative movement was born in Panama.

In 1952 the agricultural cooperatives saw its beginnings with the cocoa cooperative in Bocas del Toro which was established in Almirante, Province of Bocas del Toro, with an almost exclusive membership of Panamanians of West Indian origin and their descendants.  These workers, in fact, were supported in their cooperative activities by several new provisions in the newly created Panamanian labor code.

By 1956 the first cooperative founded under the brand new cooperative law was established at El Higo de San Carlos and was named Santa Rosa del Higo, R.L.

In October 1979 as a result of the Panama Canal Treaty, five cooperatives were formed under American federal laws for Panamanian workers being fully integrated into Panama’s jurisdiction and each one received its legal structure.   The old cooperative organized exclusively for American Zonians disappeared with the American administration of the Canal.

To date, only 3 of the 5 original cooperatives are fully working to meet their target communities and their members with more than $ 20 million in accumulated wealth.  Of the other two, the Gatun cooperative was absorbed by Cristobal when its resident population was incorporated as a result of the provisions set out in the Remón/Eisenhower Treaty.

In 1990 the Balboa/LaBoca cooperative known as the Cooperativa de Ahorros y Créditos Ancón,  R.L, or the Ancon Savings and Credit Cooperative, R.L. with sizeable assets that exceeded 20 million Balboas (dollars) was de-capitalized after several years of poor administration by its manager Anthony Hinds and its Board of Directors.

From October 1948 to the present more than 433 cooperatives have been organized in the Republic of Panama of which 211 are credit unions and it was all dramatically set in motion in the Silver Townships of the Panama Canal Zone.

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