Open letter to President Varela: suspend the Barro Blanco flooding
by Carbon Market Watch and nine other groups
Dear President Varela,
We, the undersigned organizations, are deeply concerned for the personal safety and security of the Ngäbe communities, affected by the Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Power Plant Project, who are determined to stay and defend their sacred lands, regardless of the ongoing flooding. We urge you to protect their life and their integrity and to immediately suspend the test flooding which is violating their rights and placing them at risk of irreparable harm.
On May 22, Panama’s National Authority for Public Services (ASEP) announced in a press release that Barro Blanco’s reservoir would be filled, starting on May 24. ASEP’s press release indicated that the water would rise up to 103 meters above sea level by June 21, 2016.
According to a fact finding mission led by the United Nations Development Programme in 2012, the Ngäbe communities of Kiad, Nuevo Palomar and Quebrada Caña will be directly impacted by the flooding. This report indicates that 6 hectares + 9816.86 m² of their lands, including 6 houses and a petroglyph located in the community of Quebrada Caña, will be under water.
Furthermore, we have received reports from members of the affected communities that floodwaters of the Barro Blanco reservoir have reached the limits of the Bakama Area (Corregimiento) of the Ngäbe-Bugle Territory (Comarca) in Western Panama. At this point, the Ngäbe communities of Quebrada Plata, Quebrada Caña, Kiad and Nuevo Palomar — as well as the Mama Tatda ceremonial sites — could be seriously harmed by the so-called test flooding this week, much ahead of the estimated June 21 peak level announced by ASEP.
Contrary to what is stated by ASEP press release, and as confirmed by Milton Henriquez, Minister of Government, the affected communities were not notified or consulted prior to this process. This goes against the international human rights law, which stipulates that indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior and informed consent. As derived from the right to property protected under the American Convention on Human Rights and other agreements, indigenous peoples have also the right to adequate housing, to possess, use, and “freely enjoy” their traditional lands and territories, and to “not be forcibly removed” from them.
Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense – AIDA
Carbon Market Watch
Center for International Environmental Law – CIEL
Center for Research on Multinational Corporations – SOMO
Hillary Clinton won most of the votes in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, giving her the majority of pledged delegates and, barring something very unusual, the nomination. Her winning edge was most of all provided by strong support from African-American voters and those over 45 years old.
Bernie Sanders came close and has every right to stay in the race into the Philadelphia convention. Between now and November Clinton will have to win the support of those who voted for Sanders if she is to have much chance of beating Donald Trump, but conversely Bernie Democrats and his independent supporters would be foolish to sit out the general election or to split off into protest votes. It would be a literally deadly error to allow Mr. Trump and his would-be lynch mob to get their hands on the levers of power.
The movement that rallied behind Sanders will continue. As you read these words it lives on in Tim Canova’s campaign to drive Debbie Wasserman Schultz out of Congress and out of public life in Florida’s August primary. The demographics of this year’s primary season, with overwhelming majorities of under-40 voters going for Sanders, suggest better days to come for that political force. But that movement must also be mature and sophisticated enough to adjust to the ups and downs of multiple political cycles and to deal with the realities of options that are presented at any given time if it is to thrive.
The Sanders phenomenon, seen in its proper context, did not start with him or his campaign — it was evident in the Occupy movement, in the ongoing search for alternatives to corporate news, in a generation unwilling to accept a future of never-ending war and debt. It’s not going away, and although too many comparisons to the bigoted irrationalism of the Tea Party faction of Republicans would be ridiculous, in one sense it’s a mirror image: what has arisen this past year on the campaign trail is likely to shatter comfortable Democratic Party insider arrangements just like the ultra-right has shattered the old Republican establishment.
Due mainly to its prevailing “first past the post” election system the United States has two parties that embrace factions that in most other countries would be four or five parties. What Hillary and Bernie ought to do right now is akin to what happens in parliamentary democracies with more than a couple of relevant parties: they need to sit down for a US version of coalition talks, knowing full well that all of their differences will never go away. In such talks Sanders would be the junior partner in any alliance and promises of cabinet posts and hack jobs in a new administration would not suffice. There need to be some compromises on policy and some understandings about which lines would end the alliance once overstepped.
Perhaps the first order of business in any unity talks should be a commitment to new voting rights legislation, not just to restore that part of the old law that has been gutted by a Republican Supreme Court but to prevent another set of abuses like we have seen this primary season. There should be no discrimination or vote suppression based on age or a person’s status as a student. People should go to prison for tampering with voters’ registrations. Those jurisdictions that played these “We reduced the number of polling places to save money” or “We ran out of ballots in the campus area so many of those voters got provisional ballots that are not counted” games should be under permanent federal election supervision, as was once the case — and should be again — with jurisdictions that have a history of preventing racial minorities from voting.
An immediate big problem for Democrats is that in order to fit the Clinton low-turnout primary strategy Debbie Wasserman Schultz in many ways demobilized the Democratic Party for several years. She cut off discussion and debate among Democrats, prevented voter registration drives and reduced the party’s visible presence to insulting and ineffective email spam to raise money. It’s an abbreviated catch-up game to make up for lost time.
Where should Democrats go looking for votes in this too short of a voter registration and turnout effort? First of all, among everyone whom Donald Trump has gone out of his way to insult.
Should we have an explosives expert as security minister?
It ought to be a no-brainer to have somebody with vast police experience as Minister of Public Security. The problem is, Panama had a 21-year dictatorship and before that a Guardia Nacional that frequently stepped in, either overtly or behind the scenes, to tip the balance in decisions that should have belonged to the voters alone. In the wake of the 1989 invasion there was a national consensus in favor of putting the police agencies descended from the old Guardia under at least three levels of civilian control.
The problem is that we have never gotten around to writing a new constitution to replace the dictatorship’s 1972 political charter and the patches upon patches have been insufficient. Times changed, external pressures to join the US “War on Drugs” and take sides in Colombia’s civil conflict altered our post-invasion determination to demilitarize and the breakdown of our political party system has most of the political caste terrified of a constitutional convention that can’t be controlled by their usual political games.
We need a new constitution in which cops don’t dominate the political institutions, politicians don’t run the sports federations and a man or woman who has risen through the uniformed ranks can be treated as a trusted and honored public servant and expert in his or her field. We hope that he doesn’t feel the need to blow anything up, but we wish former National Police Commissioner Alexis Bethancourt Yau every success at his new post as Minister of Public Security, which he will occupy during the too-long interim before the Panamanian people decide what the qualifications for and functions of that job ought to be.
Bear in mind…
A truly free society must not include a “peace” which oppresses us.
Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand.
All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
Hypatia of Alexandria
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Panama’s win at the WTO still leaves an opening for money laundering duties
by Eric Jackson
And on-and-off decade-long trade battle between Panama and Colombia may have ended with a June 7 ruling by the World Trade Organization’s appeals panel in Geneva. WTO rules put maximum duties on textiles, clothing and shoes at between 35 and 40 percent, but Colombia applied a 10 percent plus more depending on a variety of factors formula on these products coming in via the Colon Free Zone, with the totals exceeding the allowed percentages. The Colombians argued that the prices of things going in and out of the Free Zone are often unrelated to market value, with nominal values set very low for money laundering transactions in which profit or loss in the supposed business doesn’t really matter. Buy low and sell high and you can make a lot of money, and write make-believe billings that purport that this is what’s happening and you can launder a lot of money. The Colombians claimed that their national footwear, cloth and needle trades sectors were getting hammered but such scams as already cheap Asian product came into their country via Panama at much lower prices than a real market would bear.
Did Panama say that Colombia’s government is trying to protect its own apparel manufacturing sectors against foreign competition? Of course. It’s true.
The panel in Geneva did not reject the Colombian proofs, nor did it deny that money laundering is affecting Panamanian – Colombian trade. They just held that the duties in question were not necessary to stop these sorts of transactions. Might such a duty be necessary in another case? Maybe, but the panel just dealt with the dispute at hand. Wit this ruling on the heels of the Mossack Fonseca revelations and the Waked bust, Panama avoided a third high-profile money laundering stain in as many months.
The dispute may or may not end now, because Colombia may disregard the ruling, or it may come up with some new sorts of sanctions. Panama has this reputation in the world of trade and financial services, and Colombia is not the only South American country that has been complaining about it. The next retaliatory or discriminatory measures may or may not get thrown out by international tribunals.
Find links to the WTO panel’s decision, and an addendum to it, here.
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If you are away from Panama City, you can still join the Democrats Abroad meeting
Just a reminder that Democrats Abroad Panama will be holding its next meeting on Saturday June 11th from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Balboa Yacht Club. If you are not able to attend in person, you may attend online via WebX. The use of WebX is free to you — but Democrats Abroad always welcomes donations to cover this and other costs. Please find below details of how to attend.
* Topic: DA Panama, Sat, 6/11 14:00, 1
* Date: Saturday, June 11, 2016
* Time: 2:00 pm, Eastern Daylight Time (New York, GMT-04:00, Panama 1:00 pm)
* Meeting Number: 731 901 255
* Meeting Password: padems
To join the online meeting:
1.) Select this direct link to the meeting :
(or, you can find your meeting on the WebEx Calendar at: https://democratsabroad.webex.com/)
2.) Enter your name, _with your Country Code _ and email address. Note: If you don’t know the code, just write your country and/or the group you represent. (This is not required to logon to the meeting)
3.) Enter the meeting password: padems
4.) Click “Join”.
5.) When the WebEx Meeting Center application opens, _select the button that says “Call Using Computer”_ (in the Audio Conference pop-up box, under Use Computer for Audio), and you will be able to hear the call conversation.
6.) Please remember to always MUTE your microphone (use the Red Mute Mic button next to your name in the Participants List on the right side of the screen). This will make the audio much clearer for everyone on the call.
To only join the audio portion of the meeting:
– Call-in toll number (US/Canada): 1-650-479-3208
– Meeting Call-in Access code: 731 901 255
(Please Note: DA is charged 5¢ per-minute for all calls made using this number.)
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by William Camacaro and Frederick B. Mills — Council on Hemispheric Affairs
The fact is that we need not only a new human rights system, but a new inter-American system. We must understand that the Americas to the north and to the south of the Rio Grande are different, and we must communicate as blocs. The Organization of American States, the OAS, has historically been the prisoner of North American interests and visions, and its accrued biases and atavisms make it inefficient and unreliable for the new times that Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing.
Speech by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, April 10 to 11, 2015, Panama City, Panama1
The Organization of American States (OAS), on account of its traditional subordination to North American interests, has proven to be adversarial to the Bolivarian movement towards Latin American integration and independence. This contradiction has come into full relief in the ongoing attempt by Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, to use the institution’s Democratic Charter against the administration of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. This essay takes a brief look at two historic regional conferences held during the past week that reject Almagro’s interventionism and partisanship and implicitly call into question the continued viability of the OAS.
An “extraordinary session” of the Permanent Council of the OAS, convened by petition2 of the permanent missions of Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica and the United States, was held on June 1, 2016 in Washington to consider the “project of a declaration about the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Venezuela had also submitted a request to convene the Council to discuss “the dialogue initiative currently being pursued in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, promoted by [the Union of South American Nations] UNASUR … as well as the submission of a draft declaration of support for the aforementioned initiative.” The extraordinary session ultimately accommodated all of the petitions and was held just one day after Almagro invoked the Democratic Charter against Venezuela.3 On June 4, 2016, the Seventh Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (AEC) met in Havana and took the opportunity to weigh in on the same issues. The communiques coming out of both of these conferences, in effect, reject the activation of the Democratic Charter against Venezuela and support the ongoing mediation efforts of the UNASUR. We will discuss these conferences in more detail below.4
Almagro at the helm of the OAS
With its image already tarnished by decades of serving as the seat of imperial domination in the region, the OAS has been in a free fall since the new Secretary General, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, Luis Almagro, has been at the helm. In his first year, Almagro has doggedly represented the US-backed Venezuelan opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which won a majority of seats in the National Assembly last December, and he persistently has attacked the Chavista administration of President Nicolas Maduro. This blatantly partisan and interventionist campaign culminated at the end of May 2016 in Almagro’s invocation of the Democratic Charter on behalf of the opposition and against the will of the Maduro administration.
Activation of Articles 20 and 21 of the Charter could ultimately result in the temporary suspension of a member state from the OAS, but such a move would require an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the member states after other remedies are considered to have failed.5 In the case of Venezuela, given the push back by the Permanent Council of the OAS and the position of the AEC against activation of the Charter, such a scenario is highly improbable, but should it somehow proceed, it would likely exacerbate an already volatile political climate and could help provide a pretext for foreign intervention in that country. Taken in context, Almagro’s efforts are aligned with the Obama administration’s renewal of an executive order against Venezuela last March, a bellicose measure that follows more than 15 years of US support for the counter-revolution in this South American nation.6
The Extraordinary Session of the Permanent Council of the OAS
At the extraordinary session of the Permanent Council of the OAS held in Washington on June 1, 2016, neither Almagro nor Washington were able to call the shots. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA) and the Caribbean nations took a strong position in favour of regional sovereignty and even some of the more conservative governments which are often critical of the Maduro administration joined in the consensus. The Declaration of the Permanent Council clearly supports the efforts at dialogue over activation of the Democratic Charter in the case of Venezuela. The body of the declaration7 states:
That the Charter of the Organization recognizes that representative democracy is essential for stability, peace and development in the region, and that one of its main purposes is to promote and strengthen democracy in accordance with the respect for the non intervention principle in the domestic affairs of the States; and that every State has the right to choose, without external interference, its political, economic, and social system and to organize itself in the way best suited to it.
1. Its fraternal offer to the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in order to identify, by common accord, a course of action that will assist the search for solutions to the situation through open and inclusive dialogue among the government, other constitutional authorities and all political and social players of that nation to preserve peace and security in Venezuela, with full respect for its sovereignty.
2. Support the initiative of the former Presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Leonel Fernández of Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama for reopening of an effective dialogue between the Government and the Opposition, in order to find alternatives to promote political stability, social development and economic recovery of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,
3. Support for the various national dialogue initiatives that may lead to, in accordance with the constitution and full respect for human rights, the timely and effective resolution of differences and the consolidation of representative democracy.
4. Support for all efforts of understanding, dialogue and the constitutional procedures.
While there was consensus on the final declaration, not all members were content with the process. In a recent interview with Colombian Radio F.M., Juan Jose Arcuri, Argentine Permanent Representative to the OAS and Chairman of the Permanent Council, described Almagro’s management of the process as “without consultation or coordination” and agreed with his fellow ministers that “the entire question of Venezuela ought to be dealt with by the Venezuelans.”8 It is also likely that some ministers were hesitant to set a precedent for one member state to invoke the democratic charter as a political instrument for isolating and delegitimizing another member state or one of its branches of government.
Something much larger than pragmatism, however, was operative in the resistance to Almagro’s interventionism at the extraordinary session of the Permanent Council. Having been an instrument of US hegemony since its founding in 1948, the OAS appears to have lost all of its luster in the global South as formerly subaltern peoples insist on expressing their own cultural identities and exercising sovereignty in the political and economic spheres of their territories.
The Seventh Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (AEC)
On June 4, at the Seventh Summit of the AEC, which includes 25 of the 34 member states of the OAS, met in Havana. President Raúl Castro opened the session with a statement that included some of the common concerns of the association:
We cannot remain indifferent to disturbances in Latin America and the Caribbean resulting from the imperialist and oligarchic counteroffensive unleashed against popular and progressive governments, which emerged after the failure of the neoliberal wave. This constitutes a threat to peace, stability, unity and indispensable regional integration.
He expressed solidarity with the government of President Nicolas Maduro and concern over the interventionism of the Secretary General of the OAS:
It is a source of deep concern, the unacceptable attempt by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States to apply the so-called Inter-American Democratic Charter to interfere with the internal affairs of Venezuela.
And Castro made it clear Havana had no interest in returning to the OAS:
I would only reiterate our view that the OAS, from its inception was, as it is and will continue to be, an instrument of imperialist domination, and no reform whatsoever can change its nature or its history. That is why Cuba will never return to the OAS.
It is significant that Castro referred to the inability of the OAS to “change its nature or its history.” We are living at a time when Latin America and the Caribbean are coming to terms with the historic memory of the dirty wars of the past century. We are also witnessing the continued revitalization of the Bolivarian independence movement that began with the election of Hugo Chávez as President of Venezuela in December of 1998. What is impossible to comprehend from the point of view of US exceptionalism is the rationality and humanity of today’s tremendous resistance to foreign domination that motivates the popular sectors throughout the region.
Taking note of the efforts at dialogue promoted by the government of the Republic of Venezuela, accompanied by UNASUR:
We support the initiative of ex-presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama, for the re-opening of an effective dialogue between the government and the opposition, with the goal of finding alternatives that favor political stability, social development, and the economic recovery of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela;
We also support the different initiatives for national dialogue that are directed, with adherence to the [Venezuelan] Constitution and with full respect for human rights, in an opportune, prompt and effective manner, towards the resolving of differences and consolidation of democracy; and we support all the efforts at mutual understanding, dialogue and constitutional procedures. [Unofficial translation by the authors]
This communique provides a further bulwark against the traditional imperial pretensions of the OAS. It also constitutes a victory for the cause of dialogue in Venezuela at a time of economic crisis and intense political polarization.
The final declaration of the AEC11 makes it clear that the Association rejects not only intervention in Venezuela, but also US coercive measures against Cuba or any other country in the region:
[The Association] welcomes with satisfaction the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States of America and the reopening of their respective embassies. Reiterates its deepest rejection to the application of unilateral coercive measures and reaffirms its call to the Government of the United States to put an end to the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on that sister nation, repeal the Helms-Burton Law and cease its extraterritorial application. Urges the President of the United States to use his broad executive powers to substantially modify the blockade.
Despite the defeat of Almagro’s partisan initiative on June 1st and again on June 4th, there is still a request pending by Almagro to the Chair of the Permanent Council for an “urgent session“12 sometime between June 10-20 to consider the activation of the Democratic Charter against Venezuela. Though it is not on the official agenda, Almagro has also indicated his desire that “the theme of Venezuela” should be raised at the Annual General Assembly of the OAS13 that will convene on June 15 in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The main topic of the assembly will be “strengthening the institution.” The irony will probably not be lost on the member states.
William Camacaro, MFA, is Senior Research Fellow at COHA and co-founder of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle of New York; Frederick B. Mills, Ph.D., is a Guest Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University.
Some “permanent tourists” — people living here on tourist visas and in many cases carrying on economic activities not allowed under such visas — may be about to get a break. The Varela administration has announced some immigration policy changes.
The xenophobes are already complaining, much as they did about the previous Crisol de Razas program to regularize the status of foreigners who are living in Panama without benefit of proper immigration papers. The long-term problem of back then remains — there is a six-figure number of foreigners living here illegally or working here in violation of the terms of tourist or student visas, and the cost of rounding them all up and sending them back to from whence they came would not only be a great burden on law enforcement budgets, but it would also tear big holes in the Panamanian economy by eliminating productive workers and valuable customers.
What appears to be different from the context of the previous program is an ulterior economic motive. Ricardo Martinelli was out to smash the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union and public health care professionals’ unions by bringing in cheap foreign workers who would not be entitled to Social Security or any other benefits, but this does not seem to be Juan Carlos Varela’s purpose.
So on June 3, after consultations with some of Panama’s ethnic groups, the Ministry of Public Safety issued two new immigration decrees, number 167 and 168, the latter applying exclusively to persons from the People’s Republic of China. The American community, which does have immigration issues, was not part of any formal consultations but some allege that the influence of the US State Department was felt in the process.
The basic rules are that an applicant must:
Have been living here for at least one year as of June 3, and if having left to renew a tourist visa, not have been gone for more than 30 days;
Have no application for any change in immigration status that’s pending;
Have no recent serious criminal record in his or her country of origin or here in Panama; and
Personally appear for an interview with immigration officials.
There are all sorts of documents that an applicant must present to support his or her case — proof of residency for example by utility bills going back a year or more, two passport sized photos, copies of police records, a valid foreign passport and so on, in addition to forms that one must fill out. Surely to the consternation of lawyers, as was the case with the Crisol de Razas progam, none of these have to be submitted by an attorney.
There is a scale of fees. These start at a basic $500 for favored countries whose citizens do not have to get a visa other than as a tourist to enter Panama such as Canada, the United States and Colombia, go up to $1,000 for most countries without such agreements and are $2,000 for citizens of “restricted countries” such as most of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Under the separate Decree 168 it’s $2,500 for ciizens of the Peoples Republic of China. The fee discrimination goes back to the early decades of Panama’s history as an independent republic and there are plenty of people in our large Chinese community who resent it, but The Panama News is told that with all of their objections and reservations to the new decrees, most leaders of the Chinese community view the overall package as something mostly positive.
Two new requirements at a sponsor — and there is a bunch of paperwork for that — who must be a Panamanian citizen or legal permanent resident; and the applicant must register with Seguro Social and provide proof of that.
So how may people are going to get in? That seems to be up in the air. We are not yet told when the Migra will start taking applications, or where. We are told that at the end of the year we will be told how many people will be allowed to normalize their status during the following year — it’s not going to be an unlimited entitlement program, as the Crisol de Razas was alleged to be.
The requirement that an applicant had to have been here at least a year by June 3, 2016 puts this program in the intended category of a one-time amnesty possibility, rather than an invitation to newcomers.
Whether an application is accepted appears to involve a certain amount of discretion by public officials — a classic opportunity for bribery in an immigration systeme that has been notoriously corrupt. The applicant who is accepted gets a card that allows him or her to stay her for two years. After that, if she or he has stayed out of trouble, that immigration permit can be renewed.
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Do we actually have the rule of law in Panama? Many deny it and most who know anything about the subject note our legal system’s serious shortcomings. Now come three significant tests that will again raise that subject.
Since the end of the Martinelli administration, the dozens of legal cases arising from its many aspects of corruption — the ex-president alone currently faces 15 separate criminal cases in the Supreme Court — have mostly not come to the point of trials based on the facts of those matters. Mostly they have been about who has what sort of immunity and whether it can be lifted or cicumvented, or which infomation is privileged and unavailable to the courts of law, or what exceptions to the general rule of law and who the beneficiaries of such disparate treatment may be.
Is it some sort of shell game, with a figurative pea under a figurative walnut shell that’s being rapidly and erratically shuttled around among other shells? But now mallets are being drawn and shells and peas may be crushed. (Figuratively speaking, of course.) In three sets of cases some major dodges from the law are under challenge, or about to be so because they have been assserted. Certain Panamanian ways of doing things may end — or may not. The worldwide furor over the Mossack Fonseca revelations and the US warning that that was the Waked bust probably mean that some anomalous Panamanian ways are facing extinction. But in the first instance, whether to change certain key things will be up to this country’s justice system.
Politicians’ privileges when prosecuted
Most of the proceedings about Ricardo Martinelli’s alleged crimes have been about lifting the immunities that he has enjoyed as a member of the obscure and powerless Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) or as the boss of the Cambio Democratico party. These privileges and immunities have not only included flat-out bars to investigation and prosecution — which can be lifted in time-consuming proceedings — but also special time limits in the event that there is an investigation or prosecution.
Now Administrative Prosecutor (Procurador de la Administración) Rigoberto González has challenged Article 470 of the Penal Code, which limits the time for a criminal investigation that has been started. It must be finished within two months if the accused is the president, a high court magistrate or a legislator. If an ordinary citizen is suspected of a crime, once a formal investigation has begun the prosecutors ordinarily have six months to conclude their probe and bring what charges they will. In either situation extensions may be granted in limited circumstances.
In the Civil Code family of legal systems of which Panama’s is part, precedent is not as binding as in the Anglo-American Common Law family of legal systems, so an attack on a particular law based on a particular principle will not necessarily sweep away other laws that are flawed according to that principle. However, an argument that persuades once may persuade again.
González says that Article 32 of Panama’s Constitution — “Nobody shall be tried, except by a competent authority in conformity with legal procedures…” — is violated by special procedures for politicians. He’s arguing that the special rules prejudice any accused politician, although these rules are most often invoked by their defense lawyers. He also argues that the Penal Code provision he would strike down violates Article 22 of the Constitution, which provides for the presumption of innocence and due process of law.
The administrative prosecutor’s arguments are such that a defendant would be unlikely to raise them. The more obvious line of constitutional attack against Article 470 of the Penal Code would be founded in Article 19 of the Constitution: “There shall be no immunities or privileges, nor discrimination, for reason of … social class….” This being Panama, though, that part of the nation’s basic law has always been more or less a dead letter.
But if the Supreme Court buys the arguments that González makes in his challenge to Article 470 — that special procedures prejudice a person against whom they are brought — there is an impressive edifice of legislation applicable only to the caste of public officials that could fall to similar challenges.
The University of Panama’s self-proclaimed “Rector Magnifico,” Gustavo García de Paredes, has for many months been resisting, then relenting a bit, then hardening his resistance, against a wide range of court proceedings and in particular audits by the Comptroller General. There are at least eight comptroller’s audits still going on at the unviersity, but those that have concluded — and have been sent to the Attorney General for criminal investigation and possible prosecution — include some $3.5 million missing from university coffers and more than $400,000 gone from a “private foundation” that García de Paredes set up to handle university funds. In the works now are investigations of land sales and rentals, including the sale of 325 hectares adjacent to Tocumen Airport to the airport for $109.8 million — that’s about $33 per square meter, and Comptroller General Federico Humbert wants to see the university’s assessments that went into the decision to accept that price. The rector says that the university has given up all documents, but the comptroller says that the assessments are not there. A long-term lease to politically connected developers at about 5¢ per square meter is also under the looking glass.
As has been claimed at many points in the auditing process and in court cases before, the Rector Magnifico claims that it’s not about him but about the university — which, he argues, is protected by an autonomy that does not allow comptrollers and courts to question his decisions. Look for that point to be litigated once more.
Under intense political pressure from without and a growing loss of effective power within the university, García de Paredes is not running for another term. His long reign at the University of Panama should by the normal cycle end in less than a year. Look at the assertion of university autonomy as a defense to what looks like ordinary crime as a delaying tactic that has kept him from being removed in a pending criminal process so far and might help to get one of the rector’s followers elected to succeed him. But even so, decisions handed down even after his departure may parse the distinction between rector and university and define just what university autonomy is and how far it goes.
Confidential information under the Transparency Law
If Herculean efforts are being made to shield Odebrecht in particular but multinational companies caught paying bribes around the world in general from any consequences in Panama, and to keep evidence gathered by foreign prosecutors out of Panamanian courts, this country does have treaties that mandate cooperation with other countries’ legal systems. The Martinelli administration made the tension between the sovereignty of Panama’s legal system and Panamanian commitments to other legal systems under international law more acute. In recent years — going back to before Martinelli’s time in office — there have been prosecutions in the United States, Italy and now Brazil and Switzerland about bribes paid to Panamanian officials. None of these have made it before Panama’s courts under Panama’s laws. Brazil is asking for Panamanian assistance in its massive Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal, parts of which are the laundering of money or payment of bribes via Panamanian corporate subsidiaries or shell companies, parts of which are Brazilian companies bribing Panamanian officials. Our Attorney General Kenia Porcell says that she is cooperating, but Brazilian prosecutors say that’s not so.
It is said that Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has big public works contracts here in Panama and whose former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht is serving a 19-year prison sentence in Brazil, used a Panamanian subsidiary, Constructora Internacional del Sur SA, to pay some $50 million in bribes between 2007 and 2014, to public officials both in Brazil and in a number of other countries including Panama. Brazilian justice wants to see all the data from the Constructora Internacional del Sur accounts in two Panamanian banks. The walls of Panamanian corporate and banking secrecy have already been partly breached by the seizure of documents and hard drives in the hundreds of Lava Jato raids carried out in Brazil, by information provided by cooperating witnesses and by data shared by courts, prosecutors and police agencies around the world. There are treaties mandating Panama’s cooperation in obtaining and sharing things like bank records in criminal investigations. Such sharing is pretty routine when the United States asks Panama for data in the course of drug trafficking cases, or in the event of the laundering of illicit drug business proceeds.
Now, however, Porcell appears to have interposed another protective wall. Among other claims such as the alleged imprecision of Brazil’s requests, she issued a press release asserting that since there is an ongoing investigation, Panama’s Transparency Law provides that access to this information is restricted to Panama’s Public Ministry so the Brazilians don’t get it.
Anti-corruption activists who pushed for and helped to draft the Transparency Law are appalled. Ramón Ricardo Arias, who heads Panama’s chapter of Transparency International (the Fundacion para el Desarrollo de la Libertad Ciudadana), complained in La Prensa that “As an NGO that actively participated in the drafting and promulgation of that law, it looks shocking to us to attempt to cite that norm as an excuse to deny or limit international assistance in criminal matters.” He said that international cooperation is an exception to the Transparency Law’s confidentiality of information about ongoing investigations provision. Law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal points to Article 425 of the Penal Code, which might complicate matters. That law is about subverting the state, among other things by submitting it to the authority of a foreign state. So would it apply to information sharing between criminal justice systems? Would it apply to the protection of those making payoffs through Panama or a Panamanian entity to corrupt officials of a foreign government?
Legal twists are one thing, but public appearances and international political realities are another. Does the Varela administration protest, in the wake of the publication of Mossack Fonseca files and growing international pressures based on those, that Panama has done a lot to share information with other countries in tax and criminal matters? A big new hole in that like the one that Porcell suggests is likely to increase pressures against Panama already coming from the United States, the European Union, South American countries and the OECD. These could make it very hard for Panama to maintain an international financial center.
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You are cordially invited to attend the next Democrats Abroad Panama meeting, Saturday, June 11 from 1-2 PM at the Balboa Yacht Club*. Help us elect a new Board of Directors so we can get back to our goal — to help eligible voters cast their votes to defeat Donald Trump in the approaching election.
Check the Democrats Abroad Facebook page for updates, as well as a copy of the Democrats Abroad Panama By-laws and the minutes for the last general meeting.
** If you are unable to attend in person you will be able to attend via Web Ex from your computer. Invitations with log in information will be sent to you in a separate email**
WHAT WE ARE GOING TO DO…
Introductory comments by Meeting Chair – Phil Edmonston
Schedule Special Elections to elect all new members of the Country Committee Board of Directors at a meeting to be held on Saturday, July 16, at a time and place to be determined. Further, that the elected Board members serve until a General Election at the Countrywide AGM in the first half of 2017, AGM tentatively set for February 2017.
The Meeting Chair shall then request volunteers to serve on a Nominating Committee of three or five people to complete the development of a slate of candidates, and promote/ manage the Special Election. The slate of candidates, the By-law sections governing elections, as well as any instructions for remote voting, will be posted by the Nominating Committee on the Democrats Abroad Facebook pages and distributed to all members of DA Panama via email from the Regional Vice Chair. All persons wishing to serve on the Nominations Committee need to submit their intent to serve to the Deputy RVC Jody Quinnell at email@example.com by June 12, 2016
The Meeting Chair will open the floor for nominations to the Board from the members attending the meeting. Individuals nominated from the floor must submit their willingness to serve and for what office to the Deputy RVC Jody Quinnell at firstname.lastname@example.org by June 14, 2016
Brief update on transfer of treasury.
Additional discussion and motions from attendees.
*The Balboa Yacht Club is an informal open air club, well-known and easy-to-find. Turn right at the beginning of the Amador Causeway as if going to Country Inn and Suites. Drive 2 blocks and turn left. The entrance to the parking lot is on the right. Stay after the meeting for drinks and conversation.
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These announcements are interactive. Click on them for more information.