For the next 60 days you may be fined for watering a lawn with potable water, police will show less patience when people block the roads over water outages, fire permits are suspended and there won’t be any new irrigation permits
Cabinet declares drought emergency
by Eric Jackson
Government and PanCanal meteorologists predict that we won’t get much rain, especially on the Pacific Side, until the heavy seasonal rains come in October and November. Those annual cloudbursts, they expect, will end early and we will get into a more severe El Niño dry season that will stretch into next year. Many farms and communities have lost their water sources or are about to, the Panama Canal has imposed draft restrictions and our ability to generate electricity at the nation’s hydroelectric dams is threatened.
Thus the cabinet has decreed a 60-day state of emergency that should get us to the October rains, after which new measures may be announced. In the meantime, there is no watering of lawns or gardens with potable water allowed — wastewater is allowed for such purposes — and the government will be issuing no new irrigation permits. Existing fire permits are also suspended, to prevent the bomberos from having to use precious water supplies to put out fires that get out of control.
At the same press conference at which Environment Minister Mirei Endara announced the new measures, Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera announced that police would be less tolerant of road blockages, moving in with clubs and tear gas more quickly than has been the practice. This policy is without regard to the cause of the particular protest, but with the drought and consequent breakdowns in many water systems we are seeing a lot more traffic disruptions over water outages than is normally the case at this time of the year.
There may be more delays in the canal expansion but a strike at this moment will not be the cause. Photo by the Panama Canal Authority.
Strike averted, Corcione to face probable suspension from the ACP board
PanCanal does damage control
by Eric Jackson
On the afternoon of August 11 two ballooning problems for the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)deflated. First, it was announced that talks between the GUPC consortium that’s building the new locks and the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union had come to enough of an agreement that the union suspended its call for an August 12 walkout. Later, Minister of Canal Affairs Roberto Roy, citing a call by anti-corruption czarina Angélica Maytín for action to suspend or remove ACP board member Nicolás Corcione and general provisions of the code of ethics for Panama Canal Authority employees, announced that Corcione’s colleagues on the board would address the matter.
Under their contract the workers were owed pay raises on July 1, which GUPC had not paid. The agreement give canal expansion construction workers their raise, retroactive to July 1. GUPC complains that the ACP ought to pay for the raise but PanCanal administrator Jorge Luis Quijano rejects that, warning that the pay issue is between the contractor and the union. The implicit threat is that if GUPC provokes a strike that delays the project’s completion — again — the consortium won’t get any relief from the late delivery penalties that are part of its contract with the ACP. A sub-text of what’s going on is that the previous canal administration improperly accepted an unrealistic lowball bid from GUPC, as is the norm with such schemes to contractor is trying to add extra charges to the bill to make up the difference on its low bid but the new administrator is unwilling to play that game.
Corcione is accused of coordinating bribery, kickback and money laundering scheme for construction and renovation work on the nation’s courts, with the ultimate beneficiaries jailed former presiding Supreme Court magistrate Alejandro Moncada Luna and former Vice President Felipe Virzi (who is under house arrest) and Corcione taking a payment of at least $200,000 for his role. Testimony from others involved in the scheme and a money trail though Banco Universal, which the government has taken from the Virzi family and has put up for sale, points to Corcione. But he claims that as a member of the ACP board of directors he is immune from being investigated or prosecuted by ordinary prosecutors. That claim is widely reject, now including by Administrative Prosecutor Rigoberto González Montenegro, who opines that membership on the ACP board of directors is not an administrative post calling for special procedures against a person in that position.
Roy didn’t set a time for the ACP board to meet about Corcione, but he told La Prensa that this is not a long term issue. Roy’s imprecision about when the meeting will happen my be to allow a race among several possible events — Corcione’s arrest, Corcione’s resignation from the board or Corcione’s flight — to take its course.
With a ruling due on time limits for investigating those with legislative immunity expected on August 13, even if the limit is upheld the prosecution has received an extra 42 days of information on Martinelli’s spy schemes
Hardball over time limits
by Eric Jackson
It would be interesting to know what top police commanders and US diplomats told Ricardo Martinelli in the final weeks before the May 2014 elections. The former president had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the public treasury — some directly, some by overpriced contracts with kickbacks to the Cambio Democratico campaign — to shower gifts on voters. The police had stockpiled huge arsenals of anti-riot munitions. Virtually all online media that Martinelli did not control had been hacked. Every appearance was that whatever the voters said, the former president intended to hold onto power through his proxy slate. It would seem that somebody with superior power to bring to bear warned him to desist.
But maybe not. There was also a Plan B in motion. The Martinelli administration and the legislature it controlled had passed laws to make it difficult to prosecute themselves for crimes that they had committed. One of these was the addition to the Code of Criminal Procedure that limits the time for prosecutors to carry out an investigation against someone with legislative immunity to two months from the time the investigation starts. If formal charges are not brought within that brief window of time, then the case must be closed and the matters it addresses may not be brought up by the criminal justice system again. As a former president, Martinelli became a member of the Central American Parliament and would be covered by this privilege.
However, Panama’s often ignored constitution says a few high-minded things about equality before the law. Article 19, for example, prohibits privileges, immunities or discrimination on the basis of social class. So is Ricardo Martinelli’s self-protection amendment to the rules of criminal procedure the creation of a social class with special privileges and immunities?
The second of several criminal cases against Martinelli to get to the Supreme Court is about illegal electronic eavesdropping. It’s a difficult case because key figures have gone into hiding, the equipment used has gone missing, foreign contractors have clammed up and the basic facts of what happened were hidden under veils of “national security” at the time. But two former national security directors are under arrest and talking, charges have been requested against a third, audits have uncovered money trails and international hackers have hacked into the data of one the key foreign contractors, Italy’s private company Hacking Team, and published those data. The Public Ministry has been investigating people without legislative immunity all along, and much of what they find either implicates Martinelli or gives leads to other sources that are likely to do so.
So on July 2 there was a hearing in Martinelli’s eavesdropping case, with defense counsel seeking to prolong matters so as to run out the time for an investigation. But the high court’s prosecutor in the matter, magistrate Oydén Ortega, filed a constitutional motion challenging the special time limit. That stopped the countdown and most of the proceedings against Martinelli, save the previous motion in the Electoral Tribunal to lift the former president’s immunity.
While that freeze was in place, more facts about the surveillance program became known. It turns out that there were at least four major contracts involved, three for electronic equipment and one for software. It turns out that some of the hardware was bought through a company owned by the ex-president’s brother-in-law, Aaron Mizrachi. When that connection became public knowledge through reports in La Prensa, Mizrachi went to Albrook airport and took off in Martinelli’s private jet for Miami, where like the ex-president he is now in self-imposed and us-tolerated exile.
On August 10 the Electoral Tribnal rejected a motion for reconsideration of its order lifting Martinelli’s immunity. So when the full Supreme Court rules on the challenge to the shorter time for investigations legislators — in another case, not on Ortega’s motion — will Ortega have just 60 days to investigate if the rule is upheld? In effect, he’s already had a month and a half more than that.
The Barro Blanco Dam will be finished but not necessarily its generators, with decisions on whether it will ever be put into operation, who will own it and what would be done to reduce the damage if it is put into operation put off until later
Varela and Carrera punt
by Eric Jackson
On August 10, one faction of indigenous opponents of the Barro Blanco Dam vowed to close the Bridge of the Americas. The riot squad showed up but the protesters didn’t. Meanwhile another group blocked a road in Bocas del Toro. The main action, however, was at the presidential palace. There the general cacique of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca, Silvia Carrera, and the president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, signed a truce that doesn’t really settle the most controversial issues — some of them are not even mentioned — but does seem to buy time in a situation that was headed for a major confrontation.
The agreement that was signed allows for the completion of construction of the dam itself, as the government urges that the failure to to this creates a risk of changing the course of the river and flooding downstream communities. However, the closing of the gates to flood the area behind the dam will not happen unless there is a new agreement to allow that. A joint government and indigenous technical commission will study the questions of the unfinished power plant and bridge abutments. Work on the generators is stopped unless and until there is another agreement that would allow it to resume. Talks will continue with United Nations moderation and will broach the subject of the dam’s ultimate ownership, with the possibility of a buyout of the project’s developer GENISA specifically raised.
GENISA is denouncing the agreement, which was made in its absence ane mentions no direct role for it in future talks. Some Ngabe militants have also expressed opposition or skepticism. The most important of Silvia Carrera’s intra-Ngabe rivals, Mama Tata leader Clementina Pérez, has yet to state a position on the agreement. GENISA had intended to inundate some ancient petroglyphs along the Tabasara River’s banks, a monument that the Mama Tata religion considers holy. The agreement puts off any immediate threat of that.
Lawsuits and labor troubles, the usual sort of crisis when lowball bidding is the game — now the question is who takes the loss
GUPC shorts its workers — who say they’ll walk out on Wednesday
by Eric Jackson
In the last Panama Canal expansion crisis, between December of 2013 and February of 2014, it was the GUPC consortium composed of Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso, Italy’s Salini Impregilo, and as junior partners the Belgian dredger Jan de Nul and Panamanian company Constructoras Urbanas SA (CUSA) that shut down work. In 2009 their bid for the design and construction of the new locks was more than one billion dollars less than the next bidder and no serious construction industry analyst believed that the job could be done for the amount bid, let alone done at a profit. By the 2013-14 shutdown the consortium was demanding nearly $1.6 billion more. Work started again when Sacyr’s and Impregilo’s performance bond insurers agreed to pay $400 million and the Panama Canal Authority agreed to advance another $100 million while disputes would run through the course of the contract’s dispute resolution mechanism. But new claims from the contractors kept coming in and now total nearly $2.7 billion in demands, some $290 million of which have been settled in favor of the company but the rest of which are in various phases of dispute resolution that do not appear to be going so well for GUPC.
This past May Impregilo warned of an impending liquidity crisis. On July 1 the master contract between the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union and the Panamanian Chamber of Construction (CAPAC) called for the nation’s construction workers to get raises, but GUPC, whose contract with the union follows the master agreement, did not pay. After more than a month of fruitless talks SUNTRACS unsurprisingly did not agree to cover GUPC’s crisis and scheduled a strike to begin on Wednesday, August 12.
SUNTRACS has militant communist leaders who make it easy for politicians and business leaders to make it the convenient whipping boy. ACP administrator Jorque Quijano, beset by many labor troubles, is saying that the country can’t tolerate a canal expansion strike. However, he’s blaming GUPC, not the union.
Nobody in the government nor the corporate mainstream media are blaming the ACP or its former administrator Alberto Alemán Zubieta, who came to work for PanCanal having been CEO of CUSA, which members of his family own. At the time that the bid was accepted all allegations of a conflict of interest were rejected because Panama has no conflict of interest law to speak of.
The lowball bid tactic usually doesn’t involve such a conflict. Often it involves a bribe or kickback. In any case, it’s a common enough phenomenon in the construction world, especially where construction industries are allowed to play corrupt games without serious penalties. The bidder gets the contract on an unrealistic low bid, then makes astronomical demands for more money and ultimately the litigation is compromised to give the contractor a lot more money than the bid price.
So where does the new Impregilo claim come in? It’s essentially about the same allegations as the matters in the various phases of contract dispute resolution — concrete mixes that the ACP rejected, the consortium claiming to have relied on faulty ACP geological studies, higher costs of labor and materials and so on. This claim, however, is asserted under a 2009 Panamanian – Italian “free trade” agreement and in it Impregilo asserts that it’s not just part of a consortium hired to do a job, but an Italian “investor” in Panama.
It becomes an existential matter for the SUNTRACS leaders. Most of the members are not so radical as the leaders, but they do appreciate having a hardcore militant dealing with their boss. With the contact and the law on the union’s side and the nation grown weary of the games being played with the canal expansion, SUNTRACS leaders can’t afford to cave in on pay raises owed but unpaid.
Ocean swells to hit Pacific beaches on Tuesday and Wednesday
Hurricane Hilda has roared past us and is into the Central Pacific, but the waves that she kicked up well south of where she now is are still on their way here. Panama’s SINAPROC disaster relief agency warns of ocean swells affecting all of Panama’s Pacific coast starting on the afternoon on Tuesday, August 11 and subsiding by Friday. The swells will be highest on Wednesday and SINAPROC warns people to stay off of Pacific beaches on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The cloudburst of public corruption scandals that have appeared in recent months in Panama is, to say the least, appalling. It’s more evidence that crimes, and the attitude and behavior that go with them, are the social scourge of corruption and its inseparable partner, impunity. This calls for a strong public reaction to contain the damage, apply corrective measures and overhaul public service.
The common good, defense of the general interest and service to fellow citizens seem to have been banished from public office. We must act in unison to restore them to public life and to truly improve our social mores. Otherwise we will find ourselves without public institutions and, frankly, without the human resources to be a society.
The lack of enthusiasm for the study of the public sector that has existed in our society and in academia in our country affects every part of our fragile social structure every day. This fact was aggravated from the moment that we took the international responsibility of the administration, operation, conservation, maintenance and modernization of the Panama Canal. We soon lost sight that all is for naught if we have a canal without having a functional country and society.
It is worth recallning here that the concept of the state and its main instrument, the public administration, has a transverse character that overflows the bounds of any single scientific discipline and proves to be a meeting place for political science, law, economics, management theory and sociology.
The transmutation of the “political” and “official” roles has generated an institutional cross-dressing understood as the confusion of roles between politicians and functionaries. In other words, we have politicians who in practice occupy themselves with the roles and skills of civil servants, and civil servants whose practice and comptence is more of a political character. In Panama, this absurd role reversal has no name, but it’s deadly.
La falta de liderazgo del Primer Mandatario aflora en todo el gobierno. Ahora tocó a la seguridad, un problema prioritario — para el resto de la ciudadanía….
El diputado Gabriel Soto Martínez (quien habitualmente toma la iniciativa en áreas en que los demás Panameñistas prefieren pasar agachados) abordó en el Pleno la poca productividad de los millones “invertidos” en la Policía Nacional. Pero es triste que, cumpliendo con el control del Legislativo sobre el Órgano Ejecutivo, el joven e idealista líder comunitario de Arraiján sintiera la necesidad de responsabilizar a su Director General por su seguridad personal y familiar. Y escandaloso el que callaran al respecto, el resto de los diputados de todas las bancadas. Pero peor, el silencio del Jefe de la Fuerza Pública (por demás jefe político del “Panky”), quien abdica así a su responsabilidad como Jefe de Estado.
Como diputado, Soto tiene acceso a todas las finanzas del gobierno, y actúa responsablemente al expresar su opinión que no se justifica esa enormidad. Su critica específica (que el comisionado Omar Pinzón gana más que su Jefe) es patente a quienes sólo tenemos la información a la que se nos permite acceso. Consta que el Presidente tiene presupuestado $7 mil mensuales, y el señor Director General $10 mil. Lo que chorrea, queda en la penumbra. Lo de los $30 mil mensuales para lo que los franceses denominan “la porción de los lagartos” es ya otra cosa.
En vez de actuar con transparencia para aclarar la realidad, la reacción del poder tras el trono militar ha sido desatar una campaña propagandísta en medios acríticos — del patrón heredado de “el gobierno anterior”.
Al tomar posesión, el presidente Juan Carlos Varela no reparó en violar la Constitución, al nombrar a Pinzón, Pinzón en aceptar y el resto de la oficialidad en callar ante este trastoque del escalafón que en 1968 conllevó al retiro del mandatario Panameñista de entonces. Para coronar este irrespeto que hoy hace metástasis en toda la Nación, en 2014 Varela también causó que se cerrara el programa “Alternativa” del Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal — quien le había admonido públicamente en contra del nombramiento ilegal.