The rector’s would-be no-bid purchase of gullied land without irrigation water for the agricultural faculty’s experimental rice farm was not approved by the Presidential Goals Secretariat and his underpriced sale of the old experimental farm to the national government, which in turn intended to turn it over to Martinelli’s hustler friends, is under increasing scrutiny
Suppose they gave a student demonstration and nobody came?
by Eric Jackson
Officially, there is still more than a year left of University of Panama rector Gustavo García de Paredes’s current term in office. There is much shouting and pleading to come, and there will be elections that are successfully or unsuccessfully rigged. But the events of the past week and processes that are unfolding pretty clearly indicate that it’s all over for the self-proclaimed Rector Magnifico.
Back in April of 2012, the University of Panama sold its experimental farm near Tocumen Airport to the national government’s Tocumen Airport Authority for $109.8 million. The 285-hectare parcel, with an appraised value of about $600 million, had been used for experiments in rice cultivation, cattle husbandry and irrigation engineering. But was this for the airport expansion for which the Motta family — principal owners of Copa Airlines — had been pressing for years? Apparently it wasn’t.
At the time that the university sold the land to the Martinelli administration, some person or group hiding behind Panama’s corporate secrecy laws was publicizing a project they called Panatropolis overlapping that same site. Panatropolis, so the hype went, would “supply all the needs of international companies, corporations and traveling business men in one living entity; from state of the art convention and exhibition centers to first class hotels and casino, from high end offices complex to wide range of residential opportunities, from luxury retail malls and fine restaurants and cafes on the main boulevard to huge logistic and industrial parks.”
Upscale housing with airport noise? It all seemed unrealistic at the time. Perhaps it was a pitch to extract the riches of Venezuelans with more money than brains. The usual presumption about upscale projects of these sorts is that if they are not outright frauds they are money laundering vehicles. In any case, too many Venes had already paid top dollar for substandard buildings at Costa del Este to find many so clueless as to buy into a fanciful scheme by people with neither identities nor accomplishments as developers to show. The world of wealthy Venezuelan fools is finite. Probably the world’s supply of ill-gotten cash to be laundered also is, but it seems not to be. In any case, the Panatropolis scheme is still promoted online, but if one calls the phone numbers listed they are used for other projects.
The university’s agonomists abandoned the experimental farm with no place to go in 2013 and any deal that may have been pending with the Martinelli administration’s configuration of the Tocumen Airport Authority surely came to a screeching halt as the results of the May 2014 elections were announced. University reform activist say that on top of the agro faculty’s homelessness, not all of the proceeds of the experimental farm’s sale were deposited in accounts that can be linked to the University of Panama. That’s one of the reasons behind a demand for a Comptroller General audit of the university’s finances and land dealings, a probe that’s underway against resistance from the self-proclaimed Rector Magnifico.
Had the land in Tocumen been sold for anything like its estimated value, a suitable new farm could be had for that price. But after a couple of years’ delay and with the rector’s behavior in office under question from several directions, the university declared an emergency to get around the law’s usual public purchasing requirements. The given excuse was that if the purchase went out for bids, the university might have to buy land in Bocas del Toro or some other remote place. (That, by the way, is ridiculous — proximity to the central University of Panama campus could be written into bid specifications.) But the rector found a deal with the Ferrabone family, which is well connected in Ricardo Martinelli’s circles. It was a 250-hectare parcel in Chepo district, a real steal at $5 million — except that the land is mostly hills and ravines and has no source of irrigation water for the dry season.
For some reason the Varela administration’s Ministry of Agricultural Development signed off on the purchase but the Ministry of the Presidency’s Goals Secretariat would not. So the word came down from the university administration and the rector’s astroturf student movement sprang into action on August 25, with a dozen or perhaps a few more students blocking the Transistmica in front of the university. The riot squad moved in and made arrests. The rector left those detained to their own devices, but closed the university’s central campus for the rest of the week and issued a communique calling on students to “close ranks” with more demonstrations “to defend the integrity of this institution.”
Attorney and student defender Anayansi Turner, whom the rector has been trying to eliminate from campus, saw to it that the arrested students were represented. After a brief stay behind bars they were released.
La Estrella and La Prensa ran scathing articles about the nature of the land that the rector sought to buy for the new experimental farm. The University of Panama Cleanup Movement (MOVADUP) issued a scornful dismissal of the administration’s position in leaflets passed out when classes resumed on August 31.
On September 1 the Ferrabone family withdrew its offer to sell. The agriculture students still don’t have a place to practice. And the Rector Magnifico? The remaining gleam on his pharaonic magnificence seems to have gone away.