Martinelli moves to purge most of his Cambio Democratico party
by Eric Jackson
“Los locos somos más” (There are more of us crazies). Sic. In 2009 Ricardo Martinelli ran for president on a platform of being crazy, ran a corrupt and heavy-handed five-year regime and then fell short of his attempt at a proxy re-election (a figurehead with a surname for president and the first lady for vice president). Now in exile in Miami, the vagaries of the legal systems and politics of two countries make the former Panamanian president’s existence precarious. More than a dozen criminal cases slowly proceed in the Panamanian courts, with perhaps the weakest political case for a US extradition to Panama most advanced. Martinelli’s closest US political friends, the right-wing Cuban-American exiles, are politically at their weakest since the middle of the 1960s. Of the 25-member Cambio Democratico legislative caucus, 16 are in open revolt against the party’s founder and boss.
The erstwhile president’s inner circle is down to about three since an edict from Martinelli that CD Secretary General Rómulo Roux’s functions and powers will be largely transferred to former Labor Minister Alma Cortés but the Electoral Tribunal declining to recognize the validity of that reorganization. The troika would be Martinelli, his publicist Eduardo Camacho and Cortés.
The latest criminal investigation to annoy Martinelli has Panamanian prosecutors asking questions about the ex-president’s brother-in-law Aaron Mizrachi and asking courts to help them obtain bank records or other documents in three countries — the United States, Mexico and the British Virgin Islands — about a bribery scandal which has earned an exec from the SAP software company a conviction in a US federal court that came with a judge’s order not to contact any of his co-conspirators, one of whom was named as Ricardo Martinelli. If evidence comes up pointing to Ricardo Martinelli, as is surely the intention, then the investigation continues in the Public Ministry as to Mizrachi but gets referred to the Supreme Court insofar as it involves Martinelli. An extradition request to the United States about a bribery case that has already been adjudicated as to others in the US federal courts would be more politically palatable to Washington than the current request, which is about illegal electronic eavesdropping.
So is Alma Cortés, who came to the Martinelli administration from a career as a noteworthy defense attorney for money launderers and other mafiosi, going to get her man off the hook? Actually, there are other lawyers working on that — lots of them — but Cortés is facing her own troubles, about allegations that she obtained some $3.5 million while holding a public office, which she cannot explain as having come from any legitimate source.
The dissident CD deputies, now part of a majority legislative coalition with PRD colleagues who have turned their back on their party’s paper boss Benicio Robinson and the members of President Juan Carlos Varela’s Panameñista Party, are busy with talks to divide committee assignments for the next year. The group that rebelled against Martinelli is assured five of the 15 committee chairs.
Ricardo Martinelli vows to expel the wayward majority of his party and remove the rebellious deputies from their seats in the legislature. But the expulsion from the party would be much easier than removing people from the legislature. To remove a legislator the party must show that she or he violated clear party statutes that had been in force and approved by the Electoral Tribunal before that legislator was elected. Past decisions suggest that the election magistrates will set the procedural bar so high that the CD rebels will not be removable by any means that pass legal muster. If the Electoral Tribunal wants to get radical about it — unlikely, but possible — they might hold that it’s flat-out improper to run a Panamanian political party from foreign exile, or that it’s illegal for a political party to be run as a dictatorship in the context of our purportedly democratic society.
The first two test cases for Martinelli’s purge are being brought against Capira legislator Yanibel Abrego and her colleague from Anton, Raúl Hernández. They vow to fight the expulsion both inside and outside of the party. Their lawyers have begin a rather standard defense, arguing that the deputies have not received proper notice of the moves against them. Will they be able to run out the calendar on this year’s legislative term by procedural motions alone? Will the accusers be in jail by the time that any accusation against Abrego or Hernández gets heard in court?
Roux, for his part, is going through the motions of being party secretary general and most probably enjoying the lack of orders from Martinelli. He’s calling for party unity and wants to be the CD nominee in 2019.
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