February 22, 1910
August 30, 1988
George Washington Westerman was an autodidact, tennis champion (1936–1938), journalist, diplomat, advisor to several Panamanian presidents, defender of human rights, friend of the United States, and a moderate Panamanian nationalist. The fifth child of George Benjamin Westerman and Marie Josephine Rosena Bridget, he was born in Coolie Town, on the Atlantic Coast of the Republic of Panama. His father was born in Barbados but traveled to Panama in 1905 with his wife and four daughters. Like tens of thousands of West Indians, he found work in the Canal Zone, contributing significantly to the successful building of the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914.
Westerman became one of the best chroniclers of West Indian participation in the building and maintenance of the waterway. He started his journalism career at the age of sixteen with the Panama American, and in 1928 he joined the Panama Tribune. In 1959, Westerman became the editor and publisher of the Tribune, and over the years, he wrote hundreds of articles and editorials, dozens of pamphlets, and several published and unpublished books on isthmian West Indians and their progeny.
Although Westerman wrote on many topics and themes, his journalistic and literary production was primarily driven by his concern for the civil and human rights of minorities in the Canal Zone and Panama. During the 1940s and 1950s he wrote incessantly in defense of non-U.S. citizens in the Panama Canal Zone who were victims of segregation. In Panama, he organized the National Civic League in 1944 to lobby the Panamanian government to return citizenship rights to children of West Indian parents.
Westerman's success as a defender of minority rights on the Isthmus of Panama, and as a diplomat, was due to his reputation as a fair and objective journalist, his moderate nationalism and admiration of U.S.style democracy, and his many support networks among the Panamanian elite and within African-American literary, artistic, and political circles. His penchant for chronicling the West Indian experience on the isthmus and in defending the group's labor interest in the Canal Zone (and their cultural and political rights in Panama) was shaped by his under-standing of their many contributions to the United States and to the Republic of Panama.
On several occasions during the 1950s, Westerman was approached to run for political office. He declined, however, and supported other West Indian-Panamanian candidates. In 1952 he endorsed the successful candidacy of Alfredo Cragwell, who became the first of his ethnic group to serve in the national Legislative Assembly. On the other hand, Westerman was very interested in behind-thescenes politics as well as in diplomatic affairs.
In 1952, West Indian-Panamanians supported the presidential candidacy of Colonel José Antonio Remón Cantera, who was put forward by the National Patriotic Coalition (Coalición Patriótico Nacional, or CPN), a political coalition of five parties, including the Partido Renovador, a liberal party with which Westerman was affiliated. Between 1952 and 1955, Westerman played several important roles in the CPN and in the Remón government. For example, as the United States and Panama negotiated the 1955 Eisenhower-Remón Treaty, President Remón called on Westerman to advise the Panamanian negotiating team on Canal Zone labor issues, a task that prepared him for a larger diplomatic role during the 1956–1960 presidency of Ernesto de la Guardia Jr.
As a friend, colleague, and political partisan of the president, Westerman was appointed to the United Nations (UN) in each of the four years that de la Guardia served as president of Panama. By all accounts, Westerman did a great job promoting the president's agenda and Panama's national interests. He served with distinction on the Fourth Committee, which won him much acclaim and a brief mention to succeed Dag Hammarksjold as UN Secretary-General.
Despite his success on the international diplomatic stage, Westerman will be most remembered for single-handedly tackling segregation in the U.S. Canal Zone in the 1940s and 1950s, and for denouncing prejudice and the cultural exclusion of West Indians in Panama during the same period.
See also Panama Canal
Priestley, George. "Raza y Nacionalismo en Panamá: George Westerman y la 'cuestión' Antillana." In Piel Oscura Panamá: Ensayos y reflexiones al filo del Centenario, edited by Alberto Barrow and George Priestley. Panama: Universidad de Panama, 2003.
george priestley (2005)