Government buys out the Colombian MiBus then hands the Metro Bus system’s management over to a new Panamanian subsidiary of Greyhound
A “nationalization” that’s really
just another privatization
by Eric Jackson
All along, the replacement of the owner-operated diablo rojo buses with a quasi-public monopoly has been a problem.
It started in the Martín Torrijos administration with his moves to take the diablos rojos off of the streets and this ludicrous mantra about articulated buses being the solution to the Panama City metro area’s public transportation woes. Never mind that such vehicles are too big to navigate most of the capital’s streets. Never mind that to make such a system work properly a new set of bus lanes which other vehicles physically can’t cross or use is required. He had the nation’s largest party and most of Panama’s ad agencies on his side and he may have thought that he could convince those Panamanians who get around on public transportation of anything. But by removing more than 500 diablos rojos from the streets — about one-third of the metro area’s bus fleet — without any replacements ready. The ensuing chaos and hardships convinced most bus riders that the people running the PRD don’t know or care about their problems and contributed mightily to Ricardo Martinelli’s crushing 2009 defeat of Torrijos’s housing minister.
In comes Ricardo Martinelli and he had a plan. Line 1 of the Metro? That was built and people like it. The purchase of a fleet of Volvo buses, to be privately managed by a Colombian contractor, with another private company handling the payment cards? First of all, the Volvos are larger and less agile than what is needed, given the capital’s and San Miguelito’s narrow streets. Soon enough many of the buses showed dings which MiBus, the Colombian company with the Metro Bus concession, routinely blamed on the drivers. Attempts to smash unions representing the drivers and other Metro Bus employees, shorting the workers on overtime and holiday pay. Rider annoyance with too few routes, too few buses and overcrowding tended to get taken out on drivers, adding to the bad labor relations.
Martinelli’s takeover of the remaining diablo rojo buses and of their terminals was in many cases little different from gangland theft. Plus there were persistent rumors of the Martinelli family having this or that piece of the action, of the bus or bus card companies being used for money laundering or so on. This reporter has heard many rumors, but not seen any proofs. That these are not playing into the post-Martinelli investigations might have less to do with the facts than with private companies, notwithstanding their public concessions, keeping their records are private.
In any case, Juan Carlos Varela inherited a Metro Bus mess and has had to deal with intransigent MiBus and restless workers in his attempts to sort it out. On September 10 he announced the details of the deal:
The government would buy out MiBus for some $260.9 million — more or less. One gets that number from adding up the items in the government’s announcement, but there are debts to be assumed, periods in which claims must be submitted and various payments stretched out over as long as four years. Will interest or claims yet to be judged raise the total cost? That’s to be seen.
The deal includes the purchase of 1,236 buses acquired since 2010 and in various states of repair, assumption of bank debts for the purchase of these vehicles, assumption of the not entirely determined claims of the now former concessionaire’s creditors, payment of back wages and benefits for the more than 4,000 employees whom the Colombians cheated and an additional payment to TMPSA shareholders.
The government has is buying out the Colombian-owned consortium with the Metro Bus concession, the MiBus parent organization Transporte Masivo de Panama SA (TMPSA), and turning it into a state-owned company. (Will they keep the name? At first glance it seems that they will, but do not be surprised if the government’s political cosmeticians suggest a new name to go with a new image.) The purchase is to be made via Transito — the Land Transit and Transportation Authority or ATTT — but then TMPSA is to be turned into a subsidiary of Metro de Panama SA, which runs the Metro trains and is under the Metro’s secretary general Roberto Roy, who is also minister of canal affairs.
Roy, while wearing his canal minister hat, is dealing with the results of substandard work by the GUPC consortium that got its contract for the new locks by way of a lowball bid that was accepted by a Panama Canal Authority whose administrator at the time was dealing with members of his family who are part of the consortium. In is Metro secretary hat, Roy recently oversaw a bidding process in which the scandal-plagued Brazilian company Odebrecht, which was not the low bidder won the contract for Line 2 of the Metro on technical points — arcane specifications set by a committee that included a former consultant for Odebrecht. In both the GUPC and Line 2 cases, it was solemnly pronounced that there had been no conflicts of interest.
So now that Roy is also head of the Metro Buses, what is the first thing to be done? A no-bid management concession contract with the Minnesota-based multinational FirstGroup PLC, better known by its principal US business, Greyhound.
Greyhound, and its Canadian version Grey Coach and subsidiary UK, Puerto Rican and Mexican bus companies, has a record. Its US workers are unionized by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which is not shy about saying unflattering things about the boss. It used predatory business tactics and endless litigation to establish itself as the US interstate and intercity monopoly by the 1970s — and then downsized from 5,851 destinations served in 1977 to 2,300 now. That downsizing cut a large Mexican and Mexican-American clientele in the Southwestern United States out of service but starting in the 1980s Greyhound created or acquired subsidiaries, which became the cross-border US and Mexican Americanos USA and the intra-US Crucero USA. The subsidiaries had lower safety standards and paid their workers much less than the Greyhound drivers, and when the company began switching routes from Greyhound to Americanos buses the ATU filed complaints with the US National Labor Relations Board. After long and inconclusive administrative proceedings the company agreed in 2013 to merge Americanos and Cruceros into Greyhound.
El 23 de enero de 2015, la Escuela Normal de Santiago, Juan Demóstenes Arosemena, fue la anfitriona de la aprobación, en primer debate de la Ley 120, “QUE DEROGA UN ARTÍCULO DEL TEXTO ÚNICO DE LA LEY 6 DE 1997 Y DICTA OTRAS DISPOSICIONES.” ¡Un logro para el Pueblo!
Este perverso Artículo es el 138A, que fue agregado en el año 2013 durante el periodo de Ricardo Martinelli, autoriza a aplicar un procedimiento sumario para el uso y adquisición de inmuebles y servidumbres, cuando la construcción de obras relacionadas con las actividades eléctricas sean calificadas por la ASEP de ‘carácter urgente’, y que las partes no hayan logrado un acuerdo previo en un plazo de 15 días calendarios.
El jueves 20 de agosto de 2015, el HD Quibian Panay, Presidente de la Comisión de Comercio y Asuntos Económicos se reunió con miembros de la Alianza Estratégica Nacional para presentarles una modificación, que constituye nuevamente un instrumento de injusticia y atropello a utilizar por el Estado, a través de la ASEP, contra los legítimos propietarios de tierras, en violación flagrante de la constitución en su Artículo 48 sobre la propiedad privada.
Permitir la modificación sugerida por la ASEP, de poder expropiar forzosamente tierras de dominio colectivo o particular a un propietario, con el fin de entregarlas a otro propietario, privado, para el usufructo de un negocio, no puede ser un acto de interés general, sino un simple despojo que atenta contra la seguridad jurídica y los derechos constitucionales ciudadanos; y en el caso de las hidroeléctricas, es sencillamente salvarle la cara a los grandes inversionistas de su deber por Ley, muchos de ellos simples especuladores. Es menester aclarar que con el Artículo 138 A, la ASEP se arroga el derecho de determinar el “interés de urgente” de un proyecto, tasar la propiedad y tener facultades de Juez Ejecutor.
La Alianza Estratégica Nacional propone que el Proyecto de Ley 120 vaya a Segundo Debate y se mantenga el principio inicial de derogar el nefasto Artículo 138 A. Cualquier otro problema que se quiera resolver, referente a necesidades estratégicas para el desarrollo del país, deberá ser parte de otra discusión y proceso.
Rechazar o modificar este principio es, en esencia, facultar la política colonizadora, que permite la invasión de territorios por parte de las transnacionales interesadas en extender sus inversiones hacia nuevos mercados, inundando grandes extensiones de tierra, provocando el desalojo forzoso de poblaciones enteras y creando nuevos cordones urbanos de miseria. Si lo hacen, que los Padres de la Patria paguen el costo de haber legislado para beneficio de los poderosos.
La discriminación, la desigualdad y la pobreza son factores que amenazan a la convivencia pacífica. Estos tres factores existen en las áreas más vulnerables donde los electores son engañados cada cinco años y proponen diputados que no cumplen con sus promesas de campaña.
¡A defender la Ley 120, como fue aprobada en primer debate!…
¡No al despojo de tierras!…
Dado en la Unión Campesina del Lago Alajuela, Puerto Corotú, el domingo 30 de agosto de 2015.
About five years ago, a close friend of mine and I had an idea for a television news program. As luck would have it, my friend had gone to high school with a guy who, at the time, just happened to be the president of NBC. We arranged to have drinks at a fancy hotel bar in Washington, just the three of us, to talk about the idea.
That day, Mr. NBC called to say he was bringing a friend along. No problem, I said. The more the merrier.
When the four of us sat down together and ordered beers, I turned to the tag-along. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Elon,” he said. I answered: “Nice to meet you. What do you do for a living, Elon?” He lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I have a passion for technology,” he said, his hands gesticulating wildly. “I created this company. Maybe you heard of it? It’s called Paypal. And I sold it for, like, a billion dollars. Then I took the money and created another company called Tesla.”
“Oh my God,” I interrupted. “Are you Elon Musk?”
He was. I was so clueless that I’d asked the Thomas Edison of our time what he did for a living.
Of course I knew who Elon Musk was. He was the guy who created Paypal. He was the genius behind the electric carmaker Tesla and its long-life battery, which is on the road to disrupting the entire auto industry. He was the visionary behind SpaceX and the 600 mph “hyperloop” service that he says will whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes by 2025.
Musk did most of the talking that night. He talked about entrepreneurship, he talked about technology, and he talked about alternative energy sources, including wind and solar energy. I agreed with most of what I heard, although I think he’s dead wrong about nuclear power being a “clean” fuel.
Musk said several other things that I can’t forget.
First, he said that the United States is falling behind other industrialized countries because we neglect our infrastructure. Building and repairing roads, bridges, and hospitals shouldn’t be controversial or political. It ought to be something we all agree we need. This country should have the best roads, bridges, and hospitals in the world. And we don’t.
Second, he said that our universities should be incubators to the greatest cutting-edge technologies in the world. But colleges and universities have become so expensive that many potential students just can’t afford higher education. As a result, we’re denying ourselves some of the best minds the country has to offer.
And third, he said that the United States is behind the curve — and the rest of the Western world — when it comes to tapping the full potential of solar and wind power. We’ve made a lot of headway since that chance meeting I had five years ago. But if you look at how much renewable energy we’re generating on a per capita basis, it could take us years to catch up to the Germans or the Scandinavians. Even the Greeks are ahead of us on solar power.
I listened, enthralled. I should have gone home, logged onto my brokerage account, and bought as many shares of Tesla as I could afford. I didn’t, though. My loss.
My friend and I never pitched our TV news show either. But we got a first-hand lesson in entrepreneurship from the man who’s arguably the country’s greatest living entrepreneur.
When it comes to our infrastructure, student debt, and alternative energy, our politicians could stand to get a lesson, too.
OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s also a former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Universidad Interamericana de Panama on Via Brasil
We will have light snacks.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby is building the political will for a stable climate, by empowering individuals to have breakthroughs in their personal and political power.
It’s an amazing, inspiring group to be connected with, working on something so dreadful and still having fun while doing it. The opportunities for personal growth are huge, and the chance to have a real impact on the future our planet is moving.
This Panama chapter is focused on work within Panama, but expats from other countries will find it easy to connect with chapters at home and participate remotely. We will facilitate that. It’s a great way to stay connected.
with information on registration and voting in the 2016 US elections
Saturday, September 12 at 1 p.m.
at the Country Store and Restaurant in Ancon
and online from wherever else you might be
To get to the Country Store and Restaurant
On foot and navigating by landmark in the Panamanian fashion
If you climb the stairs to the front door of the Balboa Union Church, turn around and look down the hill you just climbed, across the street at the end of the side street where the Banistmo is located, you will be looking right at the Country Store and Restaurant.
If you will be driving to get there:
From the Bridge of the Americas take the Albrook exit. You will go under the bridge. Continue to the traffic light — the Arnulfo Arias Monument will be in your left as you get to the light. Turn left at that T, immediatelygettting into the right lane. At the traffic light Banistmo will be to your right. Turn right at that light, and the Country Store will be immediately in front of you.
From the city center go toward the bridge. Just past Mi Pueblito get in the right turn lane and take a right turn just before the pedestrian overpass. Follow this street to the second traffic light (they are very close), turn right in front of the bank and the restaurant will be straight ahead.
From Albrook or Clayton follow signs to Puente de las Americas. You will pass the Port of Balboa. At the port entrance you will turn left at the light, continue past Balboa Theater on your right, past two traffic lights. At third light you will see Balboa Union Church on your right and Banistmo on you left. Turn at that light, past the bank on your left. Country Store will be ahead of you.
How to log on to participate in the meeting online
Democrats Abroad – DA WebExHost invites you to attend this online meeting.
* Topic: DA Panama, Sat, 9/12 1 p.m. Panama time
* Date: Saturday, September 12, 2015
* Time: 1:00 pm, Panama time (GMT-05:00)
* Meeting Number: 730 136 767
* Meeting Password: dapa
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 log onto the meeting)
3.) Enter the meeting password: dapa
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.
The scant coverage of PanCanal woes in international media
by Kevin Harrington-Shelton
It is hardly surprising that the Panama Canal expansion´s travails have received scant coverage in international media: from its onset it has been shrouded in secrecy. And this has damaged both Panama’s democracy and its sustainable economic development.
The canal is one of the few things in Panama which does not defy logic. Working with — rather than against — nature, tropical rainfall is gathered into a man made lake in the highlands, and then eased downward onto either ocean by gravity, carrying with it the oceangoing vessels. Its expansion follows the same logic — for larger ships.
The cause of Its travails lies elsewhere. The current canal (begun in 1904) was financed by the US Federal Treasury. In 1881 the (failed) French effort had relied on private shareholders. The expansion (2006) is to be financed by shippers using the international public utility, rather than opting for widespread ownership giving Panamanian investors a stake in their country´s future (in the manner Egypt financed its own expansion in the Suez canal). To a man, Panamanian politicians preferred to retain their short leash on the pork barrel. But, as the $5 billion expansion here was intended to kickstart some $60 billion in public works abroad (as major ports improved existing facilities to handle the wider and longer ships for which the expansion was designed), its international media profile has been kept intentionally low.
Perceived corruption has hampered the expansion from day one. The 2009 international public tender was a fracas, with disparities so huge as to inferr that it was hardly at arm’s length. The executed contracts have never been made public, despite repeated freedom of information requests.As The Economist reported, Bechtel, one of the losers, suggested the winning consortium’s bid would barely cover the costs of the cement involved. This proved prescient, as cement quality did indeed pose technical problems from commencement of works (2010), and last week social media carried photos of widespread leakage in concrete poured into semi-completed locks. None of which were reported in the local press.
Succesive governments since 2006 have flounted the rule of law, disregarding extant legislation which calls for mandatory progress reports to Parliament every six months. And, despite his repeated claims to a transparency patently lacking during former President Ricardo Martinelli’ s allegedly-corrupt administration, no such reports have been rendered since President Juan Carlos Varela took office on 1 July 2014 (see WikiLeaks).
With grass root reactions to governmental corruption a sign of our times, the mounting erosion in president Varela’s credibility bodes ill for Panama.
Four simultaneous situations may hold the keys to whether the public desire for accountability for crimes in high places is satisfied or thwarted
Crunch time for Panamanian justice
by Eric Jackson
September 9 brought us a Supreme Court plenary session at which the investigation against Ricardo Martinelli for the broadest, deepest and most serious of the 12 cases pending against him, the Financial Pacific investigation, might be thrown out but instead was put off for a rearrangement of the file. Thanks mainly to coverage in La Prensa, that’s the situation that has been getting the most attention.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly’s Credentials Committee is about to take up criminal complaints against magistrates of the high court, several of whom face multiple possible charges. In the legislature’s Budget Committee, there’s money for a Disney parade in Panama City but a proposed cut in the Electoral Tribunal’s fiscal 2016 budget that would hamper investigations of things still pending from the 2014 elections and rule out a constitutional reform process being put before the voters. And then, awaiting strokes of the presidential pen to approve or veto all or parts of it, there is Bill 214 that was sent to the legislature to reduce the impunity of public officials but amended to greatly increase it. Also in the Supreme Court there is a ruling pending on a motion to throw out the special short time limits on investigations of politicians, which might be resolved in a narrow technical way or might lead to a sweeping constitutional rejection of special privileges and immunities for the politician caste.
In the Supreme Court
After a two-month delay, the nine-member plenum of the Supreme Court met on September 9 to consider whether to accept the complaint against Ricardo Martinelli in the Financial Pacific case. This file was forwarded to the court by the Securities Market Superintendency (SMV) when in the course of investigating other people it found evidence of insider trading and money laundering by the former president. As Martinelli is a member of the Central American Parliament, the high court rather than ordinary prosecutors and lower courts is vested with jurisdiction over criminal complaints against him.
But magistrate Hernán De León, to whom the matter of whether to accept the case was assigned, argued that the matter should not be accepted because the file was sent by the SMV, which can only impose administrative sanctions. If the other magistrates — actually, six magistrates and two alternates who are in acting capacities after the removals of Alejandro Moncada Luna and Víctor Benavides for corruption, and in this actual session four magistrates and five suplentes — had given De León the five votes he needed to prevail on that, it would have suggested the dismissal of other matters referred to the courts by the Comptroller General and the Tax Tribunal.
But De León, who was appointed to the high court by Ricardo Martinelli, could find no support for rejecting this high-profile case. Instead the magistrates eventually came to a unanimous agreement to rearrange the file — and there is other material from the regular prosecutors and possibly other sources that might be added — and bring it back to be accepted for formal investigation as reformulated.
In and of itself the Financial Pacific case is the deepest, broadest and most serious of the ongoing Martinelli scandals. It’s the most serious because it probably involves a murder, the November 2012 disappearance of SMV senior analyst Vernon Ramos, who was investigating allegations that Ricardo Martinelli had used an account named High Spirit to conduct insider trades in shares of Petaquilla Minerals, the Canadian parent company of the Petaquilla gold mine. No body has been found and identified as the missing analyst, although one corpse was found in Colon and rejected by the medical inspector as that of Vernon Ramos without any DNA samples having been taken or tested. La Prensa cartoonist Víctor Ramos, Vernon’s brother, says that he has his doubts about that finding.
A basic rule of Panamanian securities law is that a brokerage account may only be in the name of one natural or juridical person and nobody else can put money into it, take money out of it or conduct transactions through it. In two accounts attributed to the former president, High Spirit and JAL Offshore, a rogue’s gallery of figures from other Martinelli scandals, generally through companies, moved money in and out, with the money for and proceeds of insider stock transactions treated as unspecified account credits or debits or misrepresented as other things. Martinelli’s brother-in-law Aaron “Ronny” Mizrachi, a key figure in the purchase of spy equipment illegally used by Martinelli to eavesdrop upon and harass opposition political figures and media people, was one of these. Former Vice President and ex-banker Felipe “Pipo” Virzi, who bribed now imprisoned former magistrate Alejandro Moncada Luna and used his former bank, Banco Universal, as something of a clearinghouse for bribery and kickback schemes, was another. Cristóbal Salerno, who has admitted to paying kickbacks in the Cobranzas del Istmo privatized tax collection scheme, was another player in Martinelli’s Financial Pacific accounts.Seven other individuals have been named in these transactions, including both of the former president’s sons and former La Prensa director Juan Luis Correa.
Martinelli had moved former Banco Universal loan officer Ignacio Fábrega over to the SMV to essentially serve as an informant about confidential regulatory matters related Financial Pacific. He has pleaded guilty, been sentenced to prison and turned state’s evidence in the case. He joins Mayte Pellegrini, another former Financial Pacific employee who was charged with embezzlement and jailed during the Martinelli years and who remains under house arrest but has never been brought to trial, as a star witness in the case. The brokerage house was started by West Valdés and Iván Clare, two friends of Martinelli’s sons without experience in financial services, and essentially run a an international money laundering scheme for all manner of criminals, including sticky fingered politicians from several countries. Records weren’t kept in any regular order, and notwithstanding that no clients complained, SMV auditors found a $12 million shortage according to such books as there were. That’s when Vernon Ramos got onto the case, and was soon thereafter removed by his disappearance. The insider trading scheme that he was investigating was canceled by Alejandro Moncada Luna, who as presiding high court magistrate at the time corruptly — against the plain letter of the law — ruled that insider trading in shares not traded on Panama’s Bolsa de Valores — as shares in the Canadian company Petaquilla Minerals were not — is not a crime in Panama.
(Article 249 of the Penal Code provides that “whoever for his or her own benefit or that of a third person uses or improperly divulges privileged information, obtained through a privileged relationship, with respect to securities registered with the National Securities Commission [now the SMV] or securities that are traded on an organized market, in a way that causes damages, will punished with six to eight years in prison.” Even were it held that insider trading on a foreign organized market is not a crime in Panama, any dealings with the proceeds of such foreign criminal activity amounts to the crime of money laundering in Panama.)
Ignacio Fábrega, on some points corroborating what Mayte Pellegrini had earlier said and apparently also backed by paper and money trails that have been discovered, said that Moncada Luna’s ruling gave Valdés and Clare time to sell the brokerage house. The buyers, however, were not investigated as would ordinarily be the case in an intervened brokerage. They were in form a Brazilian group called Banvalores composed of Mendo Sampaio, Carlos Osorio y Josué Absalón Chávez. However, Fábrega said that in reality these were front men and that the true buyers were Brazilians Mario Sampó and Mendo Sampaio, the Colombian-Panamanian former Tourism Minister Salomón Shamah and Ricardo Martinelli, the two Brazlians putting up $4 million each and the two Panamanians $3 million apiece. Mario Sampó would never have passed muster before any credible investigation — at the time he was facing a number of criminal charges for such things as running an unlicensed bank and had dozens of civil lawsuits pending against him. Martinelli and Shamah would not want their interests known at the very least for how bad it would look, and if the allegation that Shamah put up $3 million is true he would probably be vulnerable to charges of inexplicable accumulation of wealth while holding public office. (Martinelli denies that he had a stake in Financial Pacific.)
Fábrega claimed in open court that SMV chiefs Alejandro Abood and Juan Manuel Martans knew all this about Financial Pacific and its behind-the-scenes second set of owners, and that he was constantly reporting to Martinelli and Shamah about investigations.
So how deep does the Financial Pacific situation go, and how broad of a stream of corruption does it represent in the Panamanian financial system? That’s a set of rude and interesting questions, about which rumors abound. Who else participated in the insider trading? Do the scandals have anything to do with Bolsa de Valores founder Roberto Brenes’s announcement that he is leaving that institution? Above all, what happened to Vernon Ramos?
The backdrop and basis for rude questions includes two discomforting facts. First, since long before the days of Ricardo Martinelli the Panamanian justice system has treated frauds big and small in which foreigners are the victims as laughing matters. Second, the Bolsa de Valores has never operated like a normal securities market — it rarely enforces its own disclosure rules and there isn’t much relationship between prices and values.
Is the Financial Pacific scandal but a symbol of a much more widespread malady in Panamanian society and its public and financial institutions? If that’s the case, wouldn’t dominant elites perceive a vital interest in keeping inquiries from becoming more generalized?
In any case, it’s but one of a dozen criminal complaints that have been filed against Martinelli. In one of them, the matter of overpriced no-bid contracts with kickbacks for dried foods for school lunch programs, prosecuting magistrate Oydén Ortega has filed a constitutional challenge to the special short time limits on investigations of politicians and that’s probably the next big Supreme Court ruling to come down with respect to Mr. Martinelli.
In the National Assembly
On July 1 an alliance between Democratic Revolutionary Party president Benicio Robinson and Cambio Democratico founder and boss Ricardo Martinelli had as one of its principal aims the takeover of the Credentials Committee that hears judicial matters, so that all proceedings against people from the Martinelli camp would be shelved and instead an attempt would be made to impeach President Varela. It caused major revolts in both the PRD and CD ranks that left Robinson and the Martinelista loyalists stripped of influence and patronage. But now we are about to see how the strange coalition of members of five parties plus the legislature’s lone independent is going to run the Credentials Committee.
There are pending criminal complaints against all members of the high court, with many magistrates facing multiple accusations. Some are at first glance frivolous or at least legally deficient, but a bunch are not. In the coming weeks the committee will be reviewing these, one by one. We have already had two high court magistrates impeached — one was convicted and the other resigned and still faces charges before the ordinary courts. We may see more forced off of the bench.
Meanwhile, the president has not filled the two vacancies. At the end of the year more terms will expire, so he may have enough magistrate and alternate appointments to make a pork barrel deal that satisfies enough legislators to get his nominees ratified.
Since the 2014 elections old non-aggression pacts have broken down. The old unstated rule that legislators don’t impeach magistrates and magistrates don’t impeach legislators is suspended if not shattered forever. The old deal where parties would alternate in office and refrain from investigating one another was broken by Ricardo Martinelli, who ineptly went after a lot of people from Martín Torrijos’s PRD administration, but on the other hand used investigations to blackmail a lot of politicians from other parties into switching to the Martinelli camp. But now half of the legislature’s CD caucus is in the anti-Martinelli coalition and it does complicate calculations.
The Varela cabinet sent legislation to the National Assembly intending to repeal Martinelli administration changes that shortened statutes of limitations and periods to complete investigations when elected officials are involved. It was amended and passed such that it would make it harder to hold anyone in the legislative, executive or judicial branches of government accountable for any crime. The law awaits Varela’s signature or veto.
There is a “line item” partial veto option available to Varela under the Panamanian system of government. PRD legislator Pedro Miguel González, one of the anti-Robinson rebels, warns that in case of a veto he thinks that a two-thirds super-majority may be obtained to override it. But the legislature’s action is unpopular and any veto override vote would be, both among the deputies and in the public at large, quite acrimonious.
The Electoral Tribunal budget
Come the end of the year there will be a vacancy to fill on the Electoral Tribunal, as Erasmo Pinilla’s term is ending and he says that he doesn’t want another one. Already people are jockeying for that nomination, among them magistrate Harley Mitchell, will be leaving the Supreme Court as Pinilla is leaving the Electoral Tribunal.
The tribunal’s work is partially crippled by a sneering Martinelista crook, Eduardo Peñaloza, as Electoral Prosecutor. Criminal charges against him are on the back burner at the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over malfeasance in office and other complaints against him.
Meanwhile, Varela had promised that a constitutional convention would be convened by now, with elections of delegates to such a body. However, he has backtracked, claiming that the time is not right. The proposed 2016 fiscal year budget, for the 12 months starting on October 1, does not have money in it for elections of people to draft a new constitution.
So where are we at?
There are no mobs out in the street howling for politicians to go to the guillotine. Demonstrations of the “stop persecuting Ricardo Martinelli” variety draw negligible crowds. The man is hated and has lost control of his own party.
What’s missing at the moment is an alternative to what we have that has captured the public imagination. Surely what has happened with Bill 214 has weakened the political parties and any argument in favor of leaving constitutional reform to the seasoned professionals. But most of those who are most fervent for change are talking about procedure — whether or not delegates to a constituent assembly should take over the powers of the branches of government while they deliberate — rather than the specific changes they want in the way that we govern ourselves.
The political situation is not volatile. People are not passionate about Varela. Most Panamanians like him, even many who find him a bit plodding or even downright boring. The situation leaves room, however, for a charismatic leader or a popular movement — perhaps driven by dramatic unforeseen events — to arise and take hold across the country. None of those are visible on the horizon.
Panama also has human smugglers, economic migrants and war refugees arriving — and some of them dying in the attempt — and we share some of the problems that Venezuela has with Colombia and vice versa
Strip away the prejudice and emotion
and there’s still something there
by Eric Jackson
Are you moved by screechy ultra-right propaganda coming from the north? Breitbart’s headline goes “More Than 700 African Illegals Allowed To Travel Through Panama En Route To US This Year.” It’s for US domestic consumption, but Latin Americans should be concerned.
Yes, we do have human smugglers and they do take people without visas from African and Asian countries on circuitous routes that run through Panama with the ultimate aim of getting into the United States. A lot of them come from war-torn Somalia. Some come from oppressive Eritrea. We get people from Bangladesh and Nepal. The route these days comes by sea to South America, by land across the Darien Gap along the Colombian-Panamanian border, then off to other places along the way. We have not seen horrifying photos in part because the area has been turned into a war zone in which reporters who are not embedded in government forces are treated as enemies, but people die along this route, lost in the jungle or drowned in quick-rising rivers and streams.
When they fall into the hands of authorities here, whether or not they are fleeing from war zones, they don’t want to apply for asylum as refugees here and the Panamanian government seems to accept that as something of a blessing. They are treated as people in transit without proper papers who must leave Panama. The costs of deportation proceedings involving countries with which we in many cases have no diplomatic ties, flying these people from here back to places from whence they came (and with which we have no direct air connections) and incarcerating these people in the meantime are avoided. Panama is spending as little as possible on soothing the bogeyman fears on which Donald Trump is riding toward the Republican nomination and the US ultra-right is unhappy about that.
Since they are headed toward the USA and they are not wanted there, it seems likely that someone from the American Embassy here would be asking about them and it’s reasonable to expect that the Varela administration shares what information it has. But an international coast guard effort to keep the smugglers from getting people within walking distance of Panama? The resources that might reasonably be directed toward that purpose are instead used by Washington, Panama and most of our neighbors for the totally failed US “War on Drugs.”
The war in Syria has turned international migration into sensational headlines, but it is a global set of problems of which Panama has its share. It’s more than one problem but there are those who want to lump the bona fide war refugees — who have certain rights and protections under international law — under a general heading of migrants, whom they consider undesirable per se. There is a whole US vocabulary of hate phrases about “illegal aliens,” “anchor babies” and so on. These buzz words move the emotions of few Panamanians but it seems to be part of the Republican agenda to force their fears and phobias upon us.
Closer to home, two fellow Bolivarian republics are having problems with one another along their common border. Venezuela has closed part of its border with Colombia and kicked hundreds of Colombians out of the country. More hundreds of Colombians who were not ordered out have left due to fear, disgust or other reasons. The war of words between the presidents of the two countries has become quite strident at times. To hear the Venezuelan side of it, the issues are smuggling and subversion. The Colombian president, who well represents the attitudes of most of the people whom he serves when it comes to this matter, says that Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela and not Colombia. They each have a good point, and Panama ought to understand.
Venezuela is into a legislative election season and looming over everything is something that the government can’t control and if the opposition came to power they couldn’t either. The country’s economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas exports and the prices of these commodities have fallen through the floor. They may never again approach what they were. It’s not President Maduro’s fault but it happened on his shift.
Both major factions of a divided right-wing opposition are — again — in explicit and implicit ways calling for foreign intervention so that they can come to power. There is nothing new about that. Part of the opposition is and has long been interested in sabotaging the national economy to drive the Chavistas out of power. A dozen years ago the tactic was to shut down the oil industry with a strike, lockouts and even tanker mutinies. Encouraging capital flight, and the exodus of multinational companies, has also been part of the economic destabilization strategy.
The Chavista government has responded with severe currency controls and other measures that it might say have avoided mass starvation, but on balance they have made the situation worse. We can see the results here in Panama. The hundreds of millions of dollars that Venezuela owes to Copa Airlines hurts our economy. So do the billions in long-delayed payments — not to speak of lost sales — in Venezuelan dealings with Colon Free Zone businesses. The troubled Venezuelan economy does not affect the whole world as it affects us, but Colombian companies, and those of other countries in the region, have also been left holding the bag in dealings with the Venes.
Almost all of the Venezuelans who have moved here and who vote in Venezuela’a legislative elections will support the opposition. Few of them, however, made their moves as part of a political strategy to oust the leftist government. We can argue about how much choice the Chavistas have had, but a big part of Venezuela’s malady has been the government’s cure and a lot of people have responded to that medicine by leaving.
Controls often have a tendency to create black markets. Make it illegal to export money and smugglers will offer their services to get around the law. Create severe enough shortages of goods that people want — whether they are intended or not — and again smugglers will find a niche in which to operate. Haven’t we learned at least that much from the “War on Drugs?” And then Venezuela’s currency exchange controls have created a thriving black market in dollars, which in turn has driven a boom in money laundering via real estate here in Panama. Hustlers grown rich from the black market currency exchange in Caracas buy condos offices which remain empty here, but they report large rental incomes in Panama to justify wealth actually accumulated in Venezuela.
So Maduro closed down border crossings where smuggling had been particularly rampant and expelled hundreds of Colombians for contraband activities. This has created extra problems on both sides of the border, and not just for those expelled. For example, there are parts of Colombia whose stores had customarily been supplied from across the now closed Venezuelan border crossings. Then there are Colombians who study at Venezuelan universities. It’s a mess.
And who are the contrabanders whom Maduro has thrown out? Some come from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary death squads, now formally demobilized but in many cases atomized but still operational as criminal gangs. This was a criminal element to begin with, which is why they were hired for paramilitary thuggery. Now some of them, in tandem with elements of Colombia’s political far right and media oligarchs, are aligned with that part of the Venezuelan ultra-right that intends to come to power by whatever means it can.
And don’t we know something about that paramilitary and ex-paramilitary Colombian social element here in Panama? People in every country with a border on Colombia do. As in heavily armed and militarily organized gangsters like the Urabistas. As in purchasers of political influence like the cartels who worked through David Murcia Guzmán. As in gunrunners turned real estate scam artists. As in a vast set of money laundering operations that has bought up enough of the Panamanian economy that we face a threat of our business culture being paramilitarized. Is Maduro exaggerating this sort of threat to his country? Perhaps. But he is not making it up.
President Varela is trying to mediate this dispute and he has faced a lot of criticism about the way he’s doing it from rabiblancos who have a sense of solidarity with Venezuela’s traditional oligarchs. Panama has refused to formally take sides and helped to block the OAS from intervening in the matter.
In the first instance Varela has maintained the neutrality that a credible mediator must have. In the second instance he has kept Canadian and US electoral politics from aggravating the dispute, as an OAS intervention would surely do. Does the conservative Mr. Harper, who is trailing the democratic socialist Mr. Mulcair, want to bash Venezuela to prove to Canadian voters that they would be foolish to vote for the left opposition on October 19? Do American demagogues want to appeal to the base instincts of voters who couldn’t find either country on a map by calling for drastic measures on behalf of Colombia against Venezuela? Keeping the OAS out of it reduces the opportunities for North American mischief in a South American affair.
Whether or not Varela ends up being able to play a useful role in resolving our neighbors’ dispute, and whether or not the wave of African and Asian migrants coming through here ebbs, Panama really does need an intelligent discussion about migration. The crude xenophobic vitriol coming from the likes of PRD legislator Zulay Rodríguez is not such a discussion. Neither would any conversation based on imported hatreds qualify. But climate change is real and increasing, such that dried-up farming regions and flooded-out islands and coasts are likely to drive migrations and provoke wars here and there all over the world. The conflicts that have always been with us and always will be are just gravy. Panama needs to be prepared for all of that, both as a nation and as a member of the international community.