Editorials: Panama has been warned; and Joe knows

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The SINAPROC disaster relief agency on a rescue mission to recover someone swept away by flood waters. It was the unfortunate usual result: a lifeless body recovered. So many rainy season drownings result from lack of or failure to use common sense around storm drains, streams and rivers. A lot of other casualties are of people living where they should not be, in harm’s way. Photo by SINAPROC.

As bad as it was it was just a warning

Sideswiped by two hurricanes in quick succession, very late into what has . traditionally been the hurricane season. We might be lucky to say it was just a freak event to go down in the record books for future generations to ponder. A bit more realistic would be that it’s a warning of climate changing in that direction.

We found all sorts of weaknesses in our defenses.

• Illegal construction in flood plains, some of it with the connivance of local officials, much of it makeshift housing built by poor folks with nowhere else to go.
• Buildings erected in places clearly vulnerable to landslides.
• An underdeveloped road transport system, such that in many places there were no practical detours around bridges carried away by floods or roads blocked by cascades or rocks or mud.
• Already inadequate storm drainage systems in many areas overloaded way past their maximums.
• Populated areas, from islands in the San Blas Archipelago to parts our main cities, that are clearly not prepared to survive even a slight rise in mean sea levels.
• Admirable and sometimes even heroic work by joint task forces from several agencies, but many of which were just not equipped for the tasks they faced.

Let’s play down the interminable processes of blame assignment and move forward from here.

Under poor leadership we run the risk of an increasingly militarized police state, or the transfer of corruption opportunities from one set of public officials to another. We must always be on our guard. But to SENAN, SENAFRONT, the Transito cops and the other divisions of the Policia Nacional, this country’s Security Ministry ought to add a Corps of Engineers with wide-ranging tasks and a vast and varied set of civilian reserves who can be called into service when needed.

A big part of the debt crisis that Panama faces is the product of at least a decade and a half of corrupt dealings with thug construction companies. The losses to the Panamanian public are in the multi-billion-dollar range. Bid rigging practices have become both sophisticated and lowbrow arts, and the legal sophistries upholding these ways of doing business are in themselves good arguments for a new constitution and the expulsion of many individuals from the nation’s bench and bar. So why not create a public engineering corps, perhaps based in part on the US Army Corps of Engineers, to take charge of our important public works construction projects?

Worthy public building inspection is hard to come by in Panama. Proper zoning and building permit decisions vary in each community with each change in local government officials, but when disaster strikes it’s national government agencies that have to come in. So might prevention be nationalized in addition to relief, via a corps of engineers that’s in charge of building permits and the inspection of construction projects?

If the Colon city center, and parts of the nation’s capital, are to be saved from slowly but inexorably rising seas, do we want Odebrecht, or Bolota’s relatives, or the usual highway construction gangsters, in charge of building the dikes and levees that will be needed to save it? It would be much cheaper and more effective to have an engineering corps, calling up labor from a large pool of reserves, performing the design and construction work.

We have been warned. Let’s look ahead, plan ahead and organize the government for the challenges to come.

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The complaint from the one side….

Joe knows

Let’s first understand something about the US political system. With single-member congressional and legislative districts and in most places a first past the post style of determining winners – some places have runoffs if nobody gets a majority – the math of American elections is what gives the United States a two-party system. But each of those parties is a coalition of forces that would be different parties in another country’s form of democracy.

The Republican factions traditionally unify over common interests in protecting the property and privileges of the very rich. The Democrats tend to fight out all the main issues of their times: civil rights for many categories of people, the existence of labor unions, the Vietnam War, the social welfare net, alcohol and drug prohibition – these were all by and large fought out among Democrats.

A presidential primary season affected by Bernie Sanders’s heart attack and Michael Bloomberg’s expenditure of half a billion dollars baiting him about it, then cut short by the COVID-19 epidemic gave the nomination to Joe Biden. It wasn’t some sneaky theft, nor was it a conspiracy within the Democratic National Committee. People who think in such conspiratorial terms do themselves and the causes they support no favors.

In the Congressional primary season, the right side of the party set all sorts of rules to stop the left, then broke their own rules in several races against left incumbents. They backed a dynastic surname against Senator Ed Markey in Massachusetts and lost. They campaigned with racist and bigoted dog whistles against Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in Michigan and Minnesota respectively and lost. One of the senior ranking House Democrats and 50-year dynasty were outed by left challengers in New York and Missouri. The left side of the party won a bunch of open seat primaries, and in the general election those Democrats who supported Medicare for All won their races while several Democratic incumbents who didn’t lost to Republicans. The House Democratic Caucus shifted to the left this year, with two runoffs in Georgia to determine whether control of the Senate shifts from the Republicans to the Democrats.

First things first for Democrats – those two races in Georgia are crucial.

Beyond that, none of the party’s factions would gain from a failed Biden presidency, and if Biden has much sense he’d realize that if he tears his party apart with divisive policies there won’t be enough Republicans available for him to reach out and accomplish anything. So Democrats may be used to bickering, but there will be a need to unite the factions around a core of policies.

Then everyone on all sides of US politics ought to realize that nothing can go back to exactly what it was. The diplomatic world, American society, US government finances at every level, international trade relations and the things that are possible after a great pandemic don’t allow any return to the past. Nor do the changing demographics of US society. There is no return to the norms of the World War II generation or even of the Baby Boomers. Presuming that there is would be as delusional as any of the weird conspiracy theories.

Joe Biden knows all of that. Let’s see what he can do in the face of a new situation, without too much prophecy based on what he did in former circumstances.

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Bear in mind…

Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.

Lenny Bruce

My mother, with her excellent understanding, knew that prejudice squints when it looks, and lies when it talks.

Laure Junot Duchesse de Abrantès

If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.

Molly Ivins – about a Texas politician

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