Legislative session ends early, probably with no special session

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Castillero et al
Marcos Castillero chairs the last session of his two-term National Assembly presidency, closing shop early on April 29 at a reasonable hour. No mad rush to debate pressing business or controversial measures this time, and with that lost opportunities to slip outrageous amendments into the law without anybody looking. Asamblea Nacional photo by Erick Santos.

Little drama allowed at the end of the Pandemic Days legislative year

by Eric Jackson

Some legislative years go right up to the midnight on April 30 deadline in a frantic rush. Sometimes, to avoid that, important legislation gets put off for special sessions, which only the president of the republic can call and can only take up the business the chief executive specifies. There will be committee meetings, courtesy calls and photo opportunities between now and the July 1 start of the next legislative year, but it’s unlikely that there will be nay more plenary sessions on Marcos Castillero’s shift.

After presiding over the National Assembly for two consecutive legislative years, Castillero is stepping back. Into which post, we shall see. Not only are the body’s new officers for the coming year selected in early July, but also the committee assignments are made and the committee chairs elected. Several are the plum positions, but the chair of the budget committee is typically the most prized of these. Six PRD deputies are lobbying their colleagues to be the next National Assembly president, including PRD party president and Bocas del Toro deputy Benicio Robinson.

So, what did Castillero himself point to as the main accomplishments of this past session? At the top of his list was the COVID epidemic, with sanitary laws, budget adjustments and provisions to keep statistics on the calamity passing through the legislature. The wave of business failures prompted by the pandemic in turn prompted some adjustments to the bankruptcy laws. The travel restrictions during the most severe of the lockdowns presented special problems for cancer patients who would have to come from the Interior to the capital for treatments so the legal basis — although not yet the funding and other details — for a cancer treatment network in the Interior was laid. The Santamaria River watershed in Veraguas was declared a protected area. There will be day centers for senior citizens living on the edge in urban areas, where they might get certain services or just hang out with their peers. All manner of symbolic resolutions honoring this or that were passed.

The big economic stuff? Some banking legislation was passed but the president vetoed it. If Castillero talked about incentives for construction companies that build or renovate sports facilities, can we honestly engage in that conversation without talking about the legislators who have misappropriated PANDEPORTES funds, or who play boss in various of the national sports federations? Outgoing National Assembly presidents generally don’t like to talk about the scandals and Castillero didn’t even though there was plenty to talk about were there the will to do so.

The moratoria on utility shutoffs, foreclosures and evictions are presidential decrees with expiration dates that were already extended. With the labor unions at the forefront of growing economic protests it’s easy enough to see a coming social explosion if and when the banks and utilities get to declare all arrears due and owing and act to enforce that. Wonderful fishing waters for demagogues, not so wonderful if you are the banker who is vice president of Panama and to whom many policy decisions have been devolved by the president. So deputy Zulay Rodríguez (PRD-San Miguelito) had her package of legislation to address these at the banks’ and utilities’ expense. Most of her colleagues didn’t care to hear her scream about it in her usual style, but most importantly, Commerce and Economic Affairs Committee chair Ricardo Torres (PRD-Veraguas) would not put it on the agenda. So, social media storms in which Torres was reviled as a traitor, and the convening of a crowd of supporters to cheer her on from the legislature’s gallery for a planned confrontation. But Castillero locked Zulay’s supporters out.

What got left out

It wasn’t just Zulay’s rants that Castillero’s adjournment until July cut off. 

The also didn’t want to see Arquesio Arias (PRD-Guna Yala), just acquitted by the Supreme Court with five magistrates voting guilty of rape against four voting not guilty. Maybe the boys’ club might want to welcome and congratulate Arquesio, but guys like that hate to see the feminist and anti-corruption protesters who are not done with Arias. 

More generally, the government’s debt has gone up more than $20 billion in the less than two years since Nito Cortizo took office and will climb some more due to epidemic exigencies. Many businesses are gone forever, others are trying to get by via wage cuts, the informal economy is now without any doubt MOST of the Panamanian economy and if the bankers call in their loans, let’s see what sort of market there will be for their collateral? And a foreign sugar daddy? Put China and the United States in competition for this dubious honor and Panamanians are likely to find that the deals they offer are not so sweet.

Then, with the slow unfolding of Panama’s vaccination program, due to high prices of patented medicines, we can’t be sure that the present low COVID infection and death rates won’t give way to a deadly third wave before this epidemic runs its course. Not that this PRD caucus has itself obeyed health restrictions, but if things get worse again there will be some extra added budget complications for them to address.

What better time to take a couple of months off?

 

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