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VOL. 14 #20 -- June/ Junio 13 - 19, 2008
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Places

 

Historical house

Built for United Fruit Company management,
the house in Puerto Armuelles was an important
meeting place for Central American leaders

By David Dell

Few houses in Panama have historic credentials equal to Blair House in Puerto Armuelles. This hardwood framed plantation- style house was built in 1927 for Robert Blair, first manager of the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita Bananas).

I sat down the other day with Fernando Carrera Rodriguez, age 70 who has spent the last 50 years of his life taking care of not only Blair but of the many VIP’s that have stayed there.

His stories of the politicians and prominent figures that graced the lounge and bar of Blair house read like a “who’s who” of Panamanian and Central American history. One of his first recollections was when Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza met with the then presidents of Costa Rica and Panama to discuss bilateral affairs circa 1967.


Blair House still stands sturdy in Puerto Armuelles, Chiriqui.

He recalls the times when Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos came to stay. He says Torrijos was a generous man and would go to the nearby golf course and give gifts to local children. Torrijos’ aides always had briefcases full of money.

When Torrijos was killed, in what a recent book claims was an assassination, the leader of Panama became General Manuel Noriega. Noriega stayed several times at Blair house. Most memorably was when he held a conference in June 1989 with seven of his leading commanders. He was apparently asking for their support. It is doubtful if any of his commanders had the courage to deny him.


The lounge where presidents sat.

Fernando recalls an incident when Fritz Stargatty, the manager of Blair house, had a pig roasted in Noriega’s honor. Fritz produced an electric carving knife and proudly passed several slices on a plate to the dictator. Noriega simply pushed the plate away and clicked his fingers for his ever-attendant food taster. Bodyguards told Fernando that Noriega trusted no one when it came to his food. They said even if his mother made it, he would have it tasted.

Although Noriega was less generous than his predecessor, on his last visit he did walk into the kitchen and leave a tip of $100 to be split 25% between the four workers. Noriega joked that they should use the number 25 in next week’s lottery. Nobody could afford to gamble that amount of money, so no one bet. The following week the final two lucky numbers of the lottery were 25.


Fernando Rodríguez 50 years
overseeing the Blair House grounds.

Perhaps this lottery incident stuck in Fernando’s memory, because several years later he retired and was let go without his proper severance pay. Not to worry, after 15 days retirement Fernando was asked back to run Blair house with a 5-year contract. This time he did buy a lottery ticket. Sitting alone at the TV that weekend he saw his ticket win him $10,000. He felt it was justification for the shortchanging of his severance pay.

All of the furniture and fittings in Blair House are original. But Blair House is in need of urgent repairs. All around the lounge are pots and pans catching the water from the constant roof leaks. The present owners cooperative, successor to the Chiquita Banana Company, promises they will carry out the necessary repairs, but will not make any significant changes.

Sitting in the soft cushioned hardwood chairs your mind easily goes back to the time when this room was filled with cigar smoke and presidents in white tropical suits and generals in decorated uniforms, sat and enjoyed the ocean view across the golf course.

 
 




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