Panama is what we have in common
by Eric Jackson
The other day I marched in a crowd that included a few folks whom I consider reprehensible. With the great majority of the people who marched I have some serious political disagreements. Do the differences matter?
In certain times and circumstances they will. Former legislator Teresita Yaniz de Arias and I have very different ideas about economics and those will spill over into considerations like foreign policy. But when it comes to getting serious about public corruption, or men’s use of violence to control the lives of women, we are on the same page. I will not much agree with Alvin Weeden about how to characterize the life and times of Arnulfo Arias or the nature of Arnulfismo and its evolution, but we both consider the implantation of Odebrecht as the tree whose roots keep the political caste from eroding into nothing as an historic catastrophe for Panama.
This former lawyer thinks that attorneys take too damned much from Panama, to the extent that it’s bad for business. Yet there I was, parading in a crowd convened mainly by lawyers and with many lawyers in the crowd. We can argue about whether lawyers should be needed for ordinary immigration procedures or whether an individual should be able to formalize his or her occupational status by filing an inexpensive certificate of doing business under an assumed name without need of a lawyer to file it. There will be plenty of occasions for this, but never to the exclusion of our agreement that government by bribery is a poisoned tree whose toxic fruit sicken all strata of Panamanian society.
Were there some very wealthy people in that crowd, and a lot of reasonably well off professionals and small business owners? Certainly there were. Also, some low-paid professionals from the teachers’ unions, PanCanal workers, brewers, bakers and bureaucrats of the barely compensated and usually ignored kind. Some of the leftists who weren’t there derided the labor participation as that of the “most revisionist” unions and asserted some of the arguments that Karl Marx made amidst the workers’ uprisings that came to a head in Europe in 1848 as inflexible rules. (As if, a generation later, Marx didn’t lend his critical support to a US government led by a railroad lawyer, one Abraham Lincoln, both by mobilizing German-Americans for the Union cause in the Civil War and by campaigning to prevent British recognition of and aid to the Confederacy.)
So the nation’s most important labor union, the construction workers’ SUNTRACS, was not there. Its leaders criticized the presence of the xenophobic demagogue legislator Zulay Rodríguez and cited that as one of the proofs of how messed up the crowd was. But understand a few things. First, Odebrecht’s sudden departure from Panama could throw a lot of SUNTRACS members out of work. The Brazilian conglomerate is above all a construction company and although its activities in Panama have included money laundering and the concealment of records from Brazilian authorities, most of what Odebrecht does in Panama is construction and SUNTRACS represents the people who do that work. Second, while one faction of Panama’s communists were in the march, SUNTRACS has leaders from the other main branch of that tradition, the November 29th National Liberation Movement (MLN-29). That organization traditionally does not participate in anything that it does not control.
And what about Zulay? She was not one of the people who called, organized or endorsed the march. Along the parade route she inserted herself into the front line of protesters, along with two or three acolytes. The next day she was in legislative committee session, working to revive legislation that was in part the reason for the January 25 protest. The woman’s an opportunist and no credible news medium swallowed the bait and portrayed her as the leader of the anti-corruption protest or movement. Moreover, if the anti-corruption movement comes to full boil and the records of all public officials are called into question, Zulay is going to be embarrassed when people start asking about the times when whe was a judge.
Let’s get real about the power of organized labor. As a political and social force it’s largely marginalized in Panama. But due to its unique position, SUNTRACS could shut down Odebrecht’s operations in this country in an instant. But the leaders must be quite cautious about any move that could take away the jobs of rank-and-file members. Those who would call Saúl Méndez and Genaro López totalitarians, or destroyers of business, ignore history. They maintain the support of workers who are not communists — who in some cases are religious conservatives — but who want a hardcore commie to talk to the boss for them. They get re-elected to their posts as labor leaders because they’re loyal to the rank-and-file and are in close touch with their needs and aspirations. SUNTRACS survives because its leaders are quite astute about what the market will bear and tend settle their contracts accordingly. Even if the construction workers’ union stays away from other people’s marches, acting apart they could strike some staggering blows against the systemic corruption that the Odebrecht scandals represent. If they decide to do so, of course.
To move a divided society toward an effective response to a national emergency, people who don’t necessarily like one another have to agree to disagree and join forces to deal with the issue at hand. This time it’s not about our wish lists, ideologies or friendships. It’s about Panama. It’s about a chronic Panamanian illness that has worsened to approach critical condition. It’s about a public and private affairs lifestyle disease, commonly called “juega vivo,” which has afflicted all of the registered political parties and many persons and institutions in both the public and private sectors. It’s about a company whose corrupting influence has tainted the current administration and the two governments preceding it.
We need to know who took Odebrecht money, both as outright bribes and in the form of campaign contributions. We need to expel that company and those who took its money from Panamanian public life.
Time to chop down that toxic tree, and let the chips fall where they may.
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