Kuna Yala is an autonomous territory or comarca in Panama, inhabited by the Kuna indigenous people. The name means “Kuna-land” or “Kuna mountain” in the Kuna language. The area was formerly known as San Blas. The capital of Kuna Yala is El Porvenir.
Kuna Yala has an area of 924 square miles (2393 km²) and a population of 36,487 people (2004). The comarca consists of a strip of land stretching 232 miles (373 km) along the Caribbean coast of Panama, bordering Colombia and the province of Darién. The San Blas Islands, an archipelago of 365 islands, runs along the coast. About 36 of the islands are inhabited by Kuna communities. An additional 13 communities are located on the mainland coast, for a total of 49 communities.
The Kuna revolution began on February 25, 1925 when an armed group attacked the Panamanian police stationed on the islands of Tupile and Ukupseni. The police had been involved in the violent suppression of Kuna cultural practices and had been abusing the populations of various communities. The revolution was led by Nele Kantule of Ustupu and Simral Colman of Aligandi. It took place after many meetings with the Panamanian government and even a delegation to the United States.
The flag of Kuna Yala was adopted in 1925, and is based on a swastika design, an ancient symbol in Kuna culture. A number of variations on the flag have existed over the years; red top and bottom bands instead of orange were previously used, and in 1942 a ring was added to the centre of the flag to differentiate it from the symbol of the Nazi party (this version subsequently fell into disuse). To this day, different versions of the flag are used on different islands. The flag is most often seen on the islands which were directly involved with the revolution, such as Ustupu, Aligandi, and Ukupseni.
The autonomous status of the Kuna was officially recognized in 1930 in response to political pressure by Kuna leaders. The Comarca of Kuna Yala was established in 1938, under the name of Comarca de San Blas. The comarca was formed from the provinces of Colón and Panamá. The governmental structure of Kuna Yala is defined in the Carta Orgánica, of Law 16 of 1953.
The Kuna General Congress is the highest political authority of Kuna Yala. It consists of representatives from all of the communities in Kuna Yala and meets twice yearly. Each community has one vote regardless of population size. The Kuna General Congress has a permanent office in Howard, in the former canal zone.
In April 2003, a meeting of representatives of the 68 Kuna communities in the three comarcas of Kuna Yala, Kuna de Madugandí, and Kuna de Wargandí, declared their desire to unite the three comarcas and were reprimanded by the Moscoso administration.
The comarca is divided into three corrigimientos; Mulatupu, Aligandi, and Carti. Narasgandup Bipi (also known as Naranjo Chico) belongs to Carti and the closest village to its shores is Rio Sidra. Each corrigimiento is represented by one diputado in the national assembly of Panama. The governor of the comarca has an office in Porvenir. The comarca has no districts.
Tourism is a force in the Kuna economy. It helps the Kuna people to maintain their autonomy and thus in certain way cotributing the conservation of their unique culture. There are several Kuna-run hotels in the archipelago offering ecotours, fishing, snorkeling, and touring of nearby villages. A hotel on San Blas islands means mostly rustic accomodation as there are no modern facilities and infrastructure, which is mainly an advantage for those who really want to get away from civilization. Most tourism in Kuna Yala is centered in the region of Carti, where there is a greater number of uninhabited islands and beautiful beaches.
For additional information about Guna Yala, please visit sanblas-islands.com.