Archivo del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Panamá
by Micah Wright
Texas A&M University
The Archivo del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Panamá is a government archive charged with preserving the nation’s diplomatic records. It is located within the ministry building, in the Plaza Bolivar of Casco Antiguo (San Felipe; the historic district). Although the collections contain some records from the nineteenth century, most cover the period from independence to the present. Due to the unique affiliation between Panama and the United States through most of the twentieth century, the bulk of the collections deal with Panamanian-U.S. relations. Some of the more frequently consulted collections include correspondence from the Legación de Panamá en Washington, the Legación de los Estados Unidos de America en Panamá, and the Gobernador del Canal. The archive also boasts a number of potentially useful government publications, such as the Memorias de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores.
First time researchers must conduct an interview with an archivist before requesting documents. Advance notice is expected, as the ministry is a secure facility. Visitors must report to the security desk and present appropriate identification every day. Too, researchers must turn in their identification badge whenever they leave the building. While not offered online, the archive’s extensive card catalogs help make short research trips productive. An even more valuable resource is the team of archivists, several of whom are amateur historians, and all of whom are knowledgeable about the content of the collections. Indeed, once a graduate student has described his or her project, it is likely that most relevant documents will be delivered to them unsolicited. In addition to the ability to read Spanish documents, researchers should have a basic proficiency in spoken Spanish. While the archivists show patience with nonnative speakers, none of them are fluent in English. The archive is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and documents are pulled throughout the day, except for the lunch hour (which varies).
Although a major government archive, amenities are somewhat sparse. The archive is currently preparing to move to more spacious accommodations (within the same building). Currently, the research room contains only a single table which can become crowded with students undertaking class projects. Only one outlet is easily accessible, which sometimes necessitates jockeying for position when the room is crowded. Aside from the lack of space, the research room is a comfortable place to conduct research, and the archivists are unfailingly helpful. Scholars may use a digital camera, though the archive requires that a permission form be filled out for each volume of documents. Unfortunately, many of the collections are bound in volumes held together by screws, and the bindings can obscure the edge of some documents. The archivists will help you to remove the cover if requested, but it is often easier to take notes on documents rather than straining with a camera. It is recommended that researchers bring a supply of note cards or legal pads. The staff can also make copies of most documents for a nominal fee.
Unfortunately, the archive’s location in the tourist center of Casco Antiguo makes finding inexpensive accommodations a challenge. Although there are a few hostels and hotels nearby, these are more expensive than the norm. Rates are more reasonable farther afield, but the daily commute is complicated by the area’s distance from the bus routes. Taxis are plentiful, and relatively inexpensive, but will require haggling, as tourists generally pay more than double the local rate (decent Spanish is a valuable asset here). For short trips, hostels in the vicinity of Casco Viejo run about $40-$50 a night, depending on the season. For longer stays, researchers will probably want to search for lodgings in areas such as San Francisco and Río Abajo.