A scandal-tainted University
of Panama votes on June 29
by Eric Jackson
On June 29 the University of Panama — including all of its branches — goes to the polls to elect a new rector, deans and vice deans in each department and the heads of the regional university centers. The outgoing rector and some of his entourage are the subjects of at least six different criminal investigations by the prosecutors of the Public Ministry, with other complaints winding their ways through the Comptroller General’s office. These include probes of large and valuable tracts of university land essentially given away to people with political connections, at least $3.5 million missing from the university’s treasury without explanation over the past few years, a “private foundation” into which university funds were poured for years without accountability, “innovation centers” (CIDETEs) whose purchases the administration refuses to explain, an employee on leave of absence after police arrested him for allegedly smuggling drugs using a university vehicle, people getting degrees without having done the class time and work to earn them — and the audits have only gone back three or four years of rector Gustavo García de Paredes’s 24-year reign at the university.
Although he is not a candidate, the self-proclaimed “Rector Magnifico” has been handing out raises and bonuses as if trying to buy votes. For which, if any, of the six candidates for rector García de Paredes would like to tip the scales is not a matter of public knowledge. It may be presumed that physics professor and former Sciences Faculty dean Eduardo Flores, who ran for rector five years ago, would not be favored by the man who beat him. But an open endorsement of a favored successor would be something like the kiss of death.
The last time Flores clobbered García de Paredes in the student vote, did better than expected among the faculty and was trounced by the non-academic employees who owe their jobs to the rector. That added up to a Flores win in total raw votes, but when the heavier weight to faculty and staff choices was calculated, a rout in favor of García de Paredes.
The student body is almost entirely different from five years ago, but the body of university employees is by and large the product of a political patronage machine that has been in power for a generation. However, if such employees might be expected to be obsequious yes-people, maybe not when prosecutors and auditors are nosing around and asking questions. Can the fix be in under such conditions?
In a way it already is. Many of the faculty and staff have received extra pay for consulting or other services — often of questionable value to the university — and have become reliant on that income. None of the six candidates for rector — Flores, Argentina Yin, Justo Medrano, Dorindo Cortez, Nicolás Jerome and Gilberto Boutin — are talking about eliminating sinecures. They are all talking about various Rs: reform, renewal, rehabilitation or renovation (but not revolution). Flores is promising that nobody will lose his or her job. No candidate is mentioning the CIDETEs or any moves to set aside the land transactions. Inflated salaries are a taboo subject. Accountability for what has gone on is off the agenda. Everything is in prospective terms, as if a generation of scandal had never happened. The result is petty bickering about things like who would have a right to retire and then double dip atop a pension with an administrator’s salary. As law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal put it, “the current UP campaign is like this: prudish, hypocritical, vulgar, anarchic, dirty and biased. Out of it will come a new rector and new or re-elected deans and regional center directors.” Flores, playing to people who voted decisively against him five years ago, is content to make the argument that the university must make mostly unspecified changes if it is to survive as an institution. It’s as if there is a general consensus that things can’t go on as they have, but that everyone who believes it thinks that his or her particular gravy train can and must keep running on time.
Is García de Paredes whispering to people about the covert anointment of a successor? It could be. But some of his recent ploys would seem to have undermined the credibility of such a thing. Yes, he did send out a tiny band of student sycophants to block the street and do battle with the riot squad in order to demonstrate displeasure with the investigations. All it showed was that he doesn’t have actual campus radicals on his bandwagon like he once did, and that, old apparatchik of the dictatorship that he is, his ties with the forces of repression aren’t so good anymore. He offered the law school’s most internationally famous graduate, entertainer and former Tourism Minister Rubén Blades, an honorary doctorate — and Blades turned him down, at least pending a less scandalous new university administration taking office.
Is García de Paredes’s patronage machine like Gorbachev’s Communists, or the last Aztecs? Perhaps. They don’t want to go, but they probably can’t stay under the same terms. An era does seem to be ending, albeit with an apologetic whimper.
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