Ruben Blades: King of Salsa wants to become president of Panama


A charged crowd in Aguadulce, Panama, cheers as Hollywood actor Ruben Blades, the salsa superstar, leaps to the stage and grabs a mike, his music scratching from a pair of old speakers. But the man idolized all over Latin America as the "King of Salsa" isn't in this sugar-cane farming town to give one of his explosive concerts. Mr. Blades is here in a more challenging role: He's running for president of Panama.

The fact that he's lived in New York the past 20 years, becoming a millionaire celebrity while Panama suffered through corruption and decline, has made some critics see him as an Americanized carpetbagger. That doesn't deter the 44-year-old Latin heartthrob.

"They ask me where I was when I was living in the United States; they ask me where I've been," Mr. Blades screams into the microphone. Then, capitalizing on the disgust those in his country feel toward their current leaders, he reminds them, "Look who lives here. Puhleeez."

At least in spirit, "I have been here with you through it all," he reassures the crowd. "I will be here. And I not only will run for president; I will win."

Five months before Panama's first free elections in 25 years, Mr. Blades may have a chance to do just that.

As the political party he founded held its convention Sunday to nominate him, Mr. Blades was the most popular presidential hopeful in Panama. He leads every poll and draws breathless attention everywhere he goes. Two years ago he founded his political party, Papa Egoro ("Mother Earth" in one of Panama's indigenous languages), whose well-educated '60s-generation leaders operate under a mantra of no-politics-as-usual.

In a country sodden with disillusionment, Mr. Blades is to many Panamanians a sort of political reverie, a white knight come to save them.

Still, after making movies with Robert Redford ("The Milagro Beanfield War") Jack Nicholson ("The Two Jakes") and Spike Lee ("Mo' Better Blues") while his homeland was stung first by dictatorship and then by a U.S. invasion to capture drug-dealing Gen. Manuel Noriega, Mr. Blades has a lot to prove.

Can a rich superstar still legitimately call himself a man of the people? Is he ready to give up his stardom for the role of president, or does he consider the post little more than a five-year gig?

"If he will give us the things we need, well then, all to the good," said Catarina Campo, 50, a farmer's wife who sat patiently if skeptically waiting for Mr. Blades to speak in Aguadulce last week.

"We don't have water; we don't have light. These politicians come again and again to our community and promise everything, but they never come back to make good. This Blades is a rich man. Why should he be any different?"

These are not idle questions in Panama, a country drained from years of the Noriega dictatorship, which made the country little more than a shell for drug running.

Current President Guillermo Endara, who was chosen in bloody balloting in 1989, deposed by Noriega and then appointed again after the U.S. invasion, cannot run again. It is unlikely that Panamanians would elect him, anyway: The country is saddled with 16 percent unemployment, Mr. Endara's government faces scandals on a par with those of the thugs he replaced, and the nation is suffering a sharp increase in crime, including drug use and trafficking that were supposed to end with Noriega's capture.

Panamanians don't have the energy to be robbed and left for dead again by their leaders. They are not blind to the fact that Mr. Blades still keeps his home in New York. Much as they adore him, they want a leader who will stay around.

"His popularity is rooted in his newness, he doesn't come from the ruling class, and he sings about the ghetto," says Marco Gandasegui, director of the Center for Latin American Studies in Panama City.

"But I think it very improbable that he will win the presidency, and I think it even less probable that he will solve our problems. Because politics is not like salsa; you can't improvise. And it's not like acting; you can't walk off after the curtain falls."

Mr. Blades' supporters say his bid is no act. The policeman's son from the barrio, who possesses a Harvard law degree and charisma to spare, has a history of political activism in his songs, which scream out against imperialism and the ghetto, injustice and the military boot.

"When I got my fame and I got my fortune," Mr. Blades says, "I always wanted to use it to work for my country, so that wherever I went, whatever I did, people would say, 'Ruben Blades is a Panamanian.' "

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