Those of you who live in the Coronado area know the name Roberto Eisenmann I, very well, and, like most of us, you probably associate the name with real estate. Perhaps you bought your land from a family member, or perhaps you had your house built through an Eisenmann company. However, do you also know that in the country of Panama, Roberto Eisenmann is more than just a land owner/developer? Since the time of dictatorship and during Panama’s struggle to become an independent nation separate from US interference, Roberto Eisenmann has been part of the very backbone of this country!
Recently, Playacommunity.com had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Eisenmann. Here we present the first of several installments of our interview. We hope you enjoy learning more about one of Panama's significant history makers.
Roberto Eisenmann is a tall, controlled gentleman just past 70. He fills the room with his presence, and somehow you can just tell he is well respected. However, without any prior knowledge of the history of Panama, one might not know that this man is a legend in the fight for freedom of the press and the fight against the military dictatorship that was Panama.
Putting his life in danger for what he believed, over the years Mr. Eisenmann has been a fearless and outspoken advocate against corruption and for the people with the least amount of power in Panama. He is well known for his articles in La Prensa, the newspaper that he founded, through which he dared to speak out against the forces that would strangle his country. He reached out to the Panamanian people and stood as the only voice daring enough to speak out against governments.
Years before he founded the newspaper, La Prensa, Eisenmann was already targeted as a government threat. One day, while he was taking his children to school, his car was surrounded by military personnel, and he was escorted to the airport and placed on a plane to Guayacil, Ecuador. “We didn’t know where we were going. At one point we were flying low over marshes. That’s when I became really scared.”
Fortunately for Panama, Eisenmann was not dumped out of a plane. Instead he spent years in exile from his homeland; first, in Ecuador and then in the United States. Speaking out from his host country, Eisenmann became a regular on television news shows. He appeared on the McNeal Report, NBC, CBC and other stations. He became known for speaking out against the Panamanian government at a time when Panama was without a free press. Due to his activities, Eisenmann was declared a ‘traitor to the nation’ by ‘Noriega’s rubber stamp legislature’. He goes on to say, “That’s my biggest political medal.”
While in exile, Mr. Eisenmann convinced a number of friends to become investors and start a newspaper in Panama, hence La Prensa was born. It was 1980, in the midst of the Noriega military dictatorship. “A totally crazy thing to do, creating an independent newspaper in the midst of a dictatorship. I mean the chances that we were going to survive were something like one in a hundred.”
La Prensa would not be left to run without difficulty, “They [the government] destroyed the equipment three times. We had to rebuild. But every time they hit us, we came back stronger. We became the voice of the opposition. There were no opposition parties. La Prensa became the rallying point.”
When things got “hot” for Roberto Eisenmann in Panama, he accepted the offer of a Nieman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard University where he spent a year. The program is designed for mid-career journalists, which Mr. Eisenmann says was like “a trip to Disneyland.” “I was at Harvard for a year, in a mature state, when education really means something to you.”
During this time in exile in Boston with his wife and family, Roberto tells a story of one of his sons, Eduardo. Eduardo stated that he would never learn English! However, one evening when Eisenmann called the children to come in for supper, this same son arrived in the house and told his father that his name was now “Eddy, not Eduardo.” Eisenmann jokes about worrying that his son would lose his cultural identity!
It was when he was on his way back to Panama that things heated up again. While Mr. Eisenmann was passing through Miami, an editor and friend from Costa Rica called and warned him of a New York Times article accusing Noriega of drug running and gun running. After he called friends at La Prensa, Eisenmann decided to stay in Miami for awhile longer. This was in 1986. The prediction that Noriega would blame Eisenmann turned out to be true as the Panama legislature declared Roberto Eisenmann a “traitor to the nation,” hence he chose to stay in the US until after the invasion of Panama by US forces ousted Manuel Noriega in 1989.
Once the invasion had happened, Mr.Eisenmann decided it was time to move his family back to Panama. As soon as CBS heard about this, they called him saying, “We want to come back with you.” They stated that they had supported him during his exile and that they wanted a favor in return. They wanted to be there to cover his return to Panama! “They had a camera crew on the plane with me. When I got to Panama, the newspaper was open but destroyed. We were cannibalizing the machines to get one to work. The US army was outside protecting the newspaper.”
Describing his first meeting at La Prensa in years, he says, “I was sitting at an editor’s meeting planning tomorrow’s newspaper and automatic weapons fire started outside. The CBS crew ran outside and after a while came back in.” The CBS crew said, “You stayed in this meeting and didn’t budge,” recalls Mr. Eisenmann. I replied, “This is the first time I have been at a meeting here and the bullets were flying “that a way” and not “this a way,” so why should I get disturbed?”
Going to church when he returned home was to have been a private experience. However, CBS wanted to go along and promised not to be intrusive. So, expecting a quiet Sunday at church, Mr. and Mrs. Eisenmann arrived for mass a few minutes late. Mr. Eisenmann recounts how the priest, who had been active against Noriega, stopped the mass and announced, “Mr. and Mrs. Eisenmann had just entered the church.” “Everyone stood up and clapped. He asked us to come up in front and give a little talk.”
Mr. Eisenmann recalls that the US TV crew said, “People in the states hate us journalists. How do you get to this point?” Eisenmann replied, “We have been the symbol of the fight against the dictatorship, so that’s what it is.”
End of first installment