Two slates contest control over the PRD
by Eric Jackson
Is it true, as if often said, that the PRD and its factions have no ideologies, only interests? To the extent that this is true — or false — the phenomenon goes right back to the party’s foundation by Omar Torrijos, who seized power in 1968 with no particular plan for the nation but rather an objection to Arnulfo Arias’s intention to alter the schedule of promotions at the upper reaches of the old Guardia Nacional. Now there is a battle for control of Panama’s largest political party, which has lost two national elections in a row and is badly split in the legislature. There is a huge issue dividing the major contenders — do they form an alliance with Ricardo Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico loyalists or do they not? But for the two leading slates, the question is tactical and not particularly a matter of either belief systems or public policy.
The sitting party president, Bocas del Toro legislator Benicio Robinson, has enhanced the powers of that office at the expense of the secretary general, but lost control of his party’s caucus in the National Assembly. He’s running for re-election and alongside him former President Ernesto “Toro” Pérez Balladares is seeking to be secretary general, a position he used as a stepping stone for his 1994 election to the presidency. Toro and Balbina Herrera led the cast of characters who rebuilt the PRD into a strong opposition force in the wake of 1989 US invasion that ousted it along with the military dictatorship that founded it.
The current secretary general? Carlos Pérez Herrera, who is also the representante for Panama City’s corregimiento of San Francisco, is running in a three-way race for first vice president.
The major slate opposing Robinson and Pérez Balladares is former health minister Camilo Alleyne for president and legislator Pedro Miguel González for secretary general. González is one of the majority of PRD deputies that has broken with Robinson and allied with Cambio Democratico rebels and Varela’s Panameñistas to take control of the legislature. More than anything the contest is between González and Alleyne who want to exclude Ricardo Martinelli from all political influence on the one hand and on the other hand Pérez Balladares and Robinson who would like to share power with Martinelli, at least in the legislature.
Each of the main slates will have its problems with the American Embassy.
There is a US terrorism warrant out for González, carrying a potential death penalty. He is accused of the 1992 drive-by shooting that killed US Army Sergeant Zak Hernández, an attack that coincided with then US President George H. W. Bush’s visit, which was intended as an election-year victory lap after the invasion earlier in his term. While that happened in Chilibre, Bush’s public appearance in Parque Porras ran into a rowdy protest led by Balbina Herrera, at which cops fired tear gas that the wind blew back onto the stage to rout Bush. https://youtu.be/ujVVf-JQLLQ González was tried and acquitted in Panama on that murder charge, a verdict that Washington has never accepted. The key piece of evidence, an assault rifle that was found buried at the González family’s farm, was identified as the weapon used to kill Hernández by the FBI forensic witness and ruled out as the death instrument by the Panamanian forensic analyst, while the ballistics specialist from Scotland Yard said that it wasn’t possible to tell whether it was the gun with which the American soldier was shot. González presented alibi witnesses who said that he was at the University of Panama when the shooting took place, and evidence and arguments that would not be allowed in a US court — for example, about the FBI’s history of falsifying evidence in politically charged cases — were heard by the jury. In Panama jury trials are before panels of public employees, which Washington argued made them subject to pressures to conform their findings to the wishes of those in power. At the time Pérez Balladares was president, having arrived at that office with more than a little help from the defendant’s father, then a PRD legislator.
Toro had his US visa revoked shortly after he left office. The State Department never comments to the press or the public about visa denials, but Washington had two major problems with Toro. The first, which was the subject of many press reports at the time, was an allegation that he was selling Panamanian visas, and in some cases passports (including diplomatic passports) to Chinese citizens intending to migrate to the United States without following US immigration laws. There were tales — never proven in any court — of people showing up in the United States with papers showing them to be Panamanian diplomats but not speaking a word of Spanish. Later came the tale of PECC, supposedly an American company that won a contract to maintain Panama’s non-canal lighthouses and sea buoys. US prosecutors said that the company was owned behind the scenes by Toro and payoffs were shown to some of the figures in his government, though never directly to the former president himself. An American businessman went to prison under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act over that case, and apparently got a lighter sentence for pointing the finger at Pérez Balladares. Toro has always denied the PECC allegations and has steadfastly maintained that it is Panama’s sovereign right to issue a visa or a passport to whomever it wishes. In the present campaign he is claiming that he lost his visa for defending Panama in this fashion.
Alleyne and Robinson also have their embarrassing histories. Alleyne was health minister during the Martín Torrijos administration, when hundreds of people were poisoned by cough syrup mixed in the Social Security Fund’s medicine lab, using lethal dethylene glycol that was mislabled as glycerin. While Dr. Alleyne could rightly claim that his ministry did not produce that toxic brew, shared of the blame for failures to properly test that and other medicines and a coverup rather than a zealous effort to help the victims after the mass poisoning became known were properly laid on the Ministry of Health doorstep. Robinson is a rather stereotypical political patronage politician from Bocas del Toro, which has a sordid reputation for corruption compared to most other provinces. He has never been caught at the sort of thing that should get someone sent to prison, but he does advocate an opposition alliance with former President Ricardo Martinelli. Power plays against Varela and a division of the patronage spoils were among the reported details of the agreement that Robinson and Martinelli had in 2015, but in any case they both saw revolts in their respective party caucuses and thus failed to muster the votes to take over the legislature.
A living symbol of Martinelli sleaze, former Vice President Felipe “Pipo” Virzi, is running for fifth undersecretary. Virzi is under house arrest for a series of scandals and his candidacy gives him electoral immunity that has disrupted his trial for accepting some $10.2 million for a Tonosi irrigation project that never happened. Virzi and the Banco Universal that he controlled functioned as a racketeering clearing house during the administration of Ricardo Martinelli, with whom Virzi is related by intermarriage among their extended families and by business ties. The Moncada Luna bribery and inexplicable enrichment cases, kickbacks on construction contracts, the criminal activities of the Financial Pacific brokerage house and sundry alleged computer and telecommunications schemes run through that connection. Members of a couple of party factions have challenged Virzi’s right to run on the radical and never before accepted if obvious ground that it’s just ploy to block or delay criminal proceedings and also because Virzi’s Martinelli ties and activities take him outside of the universe of PRD membership. The challenges will probably be rejected, but in the meantime prosecutors will probably move get Virzi’s electoral immunity lifted.
All up and down the ballot for the many party offices at stake are well known names in search of state-financed sinecures along with the immunity that comes with such party offices.
It’s an intra-party affair, but what does the public think? Running at the head of the pack of those whom people consider the right person to lead the PRD — but not running for any position in these party elections — is former legislator and agriculture minister Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo. He represented Colon’s rural coastal district, first as a member of the old Solidaridad party that was aligned with the Lewis Galindo brothers’ interests and perspectives. The July Dichter & Neira poll showed Nito with 17 percent public support, tied with don’t know / won’t say and four points ahead of Toro. Cortizo resigned as agriculture minister during the Martín Torrijos administration in protest of the US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement, which he predicted would be a disaster for Panamanian agriculture. There are surely folks on the left who would dispute the claim, but Cortizo, who wants to be the PRD’s 2019 presidential nominee — as does Toro — would represent those party factions that oppose the neoliberal policies of globalization on corporate terms.
Public support for Robinson and González as functional leaders of the PRD is roughly tied in the low single digits, according to Dichter & Neira. Running slightly ahead of them, still very unpopular overall, is current National Assembly president Rubén De León.
So who represents the “Torrijista ideology?” Omar Torrijos was a military man with some nationalist politics that went along with his history of serving US interests, the son of a Veraguas school administrator of Colombian origin who cared about his reputation and historical legacy and a pragmatist who muddled along in the situations in which he was presented. Coming to power along with Boris Martínez, his first orders of business were to suppress those who opposed the coup and then to rid himself of Martínez. He then set his sights on a new canal treaty, a project that had been underway before he seized power. For this purpose he made several moves, bringing many intellectuals and diplomats into his entourage, convincing most labor activists and most business leaders to accept a national truce of sorts while the treaty negotiations were underway. Part of the left was brought into positions of influence and those who didn’t accept the deal were ruthlessly hunted down. The Colon Free Zone flourished and a new business class arose through the cracks of old elites that were partly displaced. A new constitution, the one we have today albeit with a few patches, was passed in 1972 and gave most power to the executive but gave the legislators and local officials access to funds to spread around in their districts and among their supporters. So is the PRD just a “political patronage party?” That would befit the arrangement of General Torrijos’s constitution. Is it a national liberation party, with a leftist tinge? That would befit the drive for the canal treaties. Is it a party aligned with national and international business interests? That would befit the growth of commercial and financial sectors during the dictatorship, and the policies of the Pérez Balladares and Martín Torrijos administrations. A struggle for the party’s “soul” would put different strains of the general’s legacy into play against one another — but the main contestants are thinking of far more worldly concepts.
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