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Teaching tomorrow's attorneys environmental law
American expats: How secure is your position?

Business & Economy Briefs

Confrontations on banana farms
A wave of violent confrontations has swept across the Chiriqui banana fields in the wake of the union's defeat in an August strike against the Puerto Armuelles Fruit Company (PAFCO). The strike's key unrealized aim was to stop PAFCO, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands, from transferring farms to independent businesses or cooperatives. Since the strike, workers for independent banana producers have staged strikes and protests, most notably at the Santa Catalina farm, where workers who said that they hadn't been paid blocked owners' and administrators' egress from company headquarters on September 25. The previous day, hundreds of laid-off banana workers marched peacefully through David to demand government assistance, and 100 workers at the Finca Balsa walked off the job when the farm's independent managment announced a unilateral 20 percent pay cut. Four days before that, some 200 banana workers who say they're owed back pay by independent farms blocked the Pan-American Highway for several hours and fought with riot police at the bridge ove the Rio Chico in Buguba district. Meanwhile, PAFCO workers armed with machetes maintained their occupation of the Ceiba farm in Puerto Armuelles, which the company has attempted to transfer to a cooperative. The dissident banana workers took over the farm on September 17, after the company began to cut down the banana plants at other farms that it plans to close.

Phone call tax ending
The $1 tax on international telephone calls is on its way out. The PRD-dominated Legislative Assembly has agreed with the Moscoso administration to repeal the 1954 tax, which was once defended as a means to extend telephone service to the interior but is now seen as an obstacle to Panama's development as an international business center. The Cable & Wireless telephone company, which has a monopoly on international telephony until the beginning of 2003, has announced that it will lower international calling rates as well, but it's unclear how much of this reduction will come from the elimination of the tax and how much will be from the money that the company collects.

Bishop criticizes canal expansion meeting boycott
Uriah Ashley, the Catholic bishop of Cocle, has criticized the Campesinos' Coordinator Against the Dams, an umbrella group of those opposed to the expansion of the Panama Canal watershed into western Colon province and Eastern Cocle, for boycotting a meeting with Panama Canal Authority officials. The bishop's criticism is another sign of division withing the Catholic Church about the project, as the Catholic Caritas social ministry opposes the project and supported the meeting boycott. Another smaller area residents's committee does not oppose the expansion in principle but seeks assurances that the displaced people will not be cheated.

C&W cuts affordable Internet access
Until and unless wireless competitors move into the Interior, many areas that have recently obtained access to the Internet will soon effectively lose it. The Cable & Wireless telephone company, which had offered Internet service throughout Panama via a toll-free number, has announced that access will now be had through a new number, which is not toll-free and will cost the 15" per minute long distance rate for much of the interior. Exactly who will be affected and to what extent is unclear. The company says that those who live within 10 kilometers of one of several "nodes" will have access to the new number without paying long distance rates, but the map that it provides of these nodes is rather impressionistic and the information that customers have obtained from the number provided for questions to be answered is in many cases contradictory. What is clear is that some communities where many retirees live, such as Santa Clara and El Valle, will effectively lose the Internet access that they have previously enjoyed.

Funds for Colon projects blocked
The Moscoso administration has taken a firm position that it will not pay for any job training programs or unemployment benefits to relieve Colon's economic distress, unless it receives labor in return. The national budget does include money for part-time jobs painting public buildings, repairing streets and sidewalks and other odd jobs for the unemployed. However, President Moscoso's National Economic Council has blocked the expenditure of such funds in Colon, explaining that there is no money available for this. The president has also frozen the legislators' circuit funds, much of which have traditionally been spent on small-scale public works projects. She has, however, declared Colon an economic "emergency zone."

Arnulfista to get Fort Randolph
Arnulfista activist Antonio Dominguez, who served as immigration director under the Endara adminstration, has unveiled plans for a $330 million cruise ship center for Isla Margarita, an ecologically sensitive part of Colon that was once home to Fort Randolph. Environmentalists, historical preservationists and Colon residents who resent the city's best public assets being handed out to politically connected outsiders have criticized the plan. Moreover, given that the Gatun Yacht Club, Colon 2000 and Panama Ports have found themselves competing for a limited number of cruise ship visits, there is some question whether a 67-hectare complex that would include a cruiser port, yacht club, luxury hotel, recreation center, indigenous cultural display, shopping mall, upscale residential area and office buildings makes any business sense at all for Colon. Dominguez claims that his Caribbean Paradise project has US and "Asiatic" (reportedly Taiwanese, according to some of the daily newspapers) financing.

Search for bin Laden funds here
The international effort to suppress the financial end of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network has tangentially involved Panama. It started when the Swiss press reported that a Panamanian company named Taqwa SA was being investigated in Switzerland for a suspected role in the movement of funds for Al-Qaeda operations. Panama's anti-money laundering Financial Analysis Unit quickly reported that there was nothing to the story, because neither Taqwa SA nor Osama bin Laden's name appear in the Public Registry. It later turned out, however, that there is a Takwa SA registered in Panama, which attorney Diogenes Arosemena, who prepared the documents for its incorporation, says belongs to a South American businessman with no ties to bin Laden's network. Taqwa, or takwa, means "fear of God" in Arabic. After the quick denials and some subsequent second checking, both the US embassy and the Panamanian government concluded that there is no proof that Al-Qaeda's money has passed through Panama. Both the US Embassy and the Moscoso administration say that this country is cooperating in the ongoing international investigation into the extremist network's finances.

ARI real estate sales off
Though a lot of real estate has been sold, most of the land and buildings that Panama received in 1999 under the Panama Canal Treaties is still in government hands, under the management of the Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI). However this has been a terrible year for ARI's real estate business. In the first six months of 2000, ARI deposited $18,790,590 from the sale of land and buildings into the nation's Fiduciary Fund for Development. In the same period of 2001, the authority deposited $408,638 in real estate proceeds into the fund. There are various explanations floating around, including higher maintenance and administrative costs incurred by Mireya Moscoso's appointees. However, the main part of the problem appears to be a severe economic crisis that has few people buying Panamanian real estate, especially at ARI prices that most informed observers consider to be inflated.

Newspaper prices rise
EPASA, the company that's owned by descendants of the late President Harmodio Arias and that publishes El Panama America and La Critica, has raised the price of both newspapers from a quarter to 35". La Critica, a tabloid that specializes in gory cover photos, has since the 1989 invasion of Panama been the country's best selling newspaper. El Panama America is a broadsheet with a more respectable editorial policy and a generally conservative political orientation, and these days competes with La Prensa for the unofficial honor of being Panama's "newspaper of record." The price increases were made necessary by falling ad sales revenues, and the company reports that most of its papers' readers have been willing to pay the extra dime. The other daily newspapers --- La Prensa, El Universal, El Siglo and La Estrella --- still charge 25" for their Monday through Saturday editions.

Canal letting more temps go
The Panama Canal Authority is denying unions' allegations of "administrative terrorism" and mass layoffs, but admitting that the contracts of several hundred temporary employees are being allowed to lapse. The authority has about 750 people working on temporary contracts. Many are holdovers from the canal transition with rare skills that the new Panamanian administration needed, and many others have been working on specific projects like the widening of Culebra Cut. The authority is following a policy of not renewing temporary contracts when it can be avoided. Canal workers' unions warn that the elimination of temporary employees is part of a move to "outsource" canal jobs to private contractors.

No fees for retirement fund certificates
After many waves of political firings of public mployees, mismanagement of their retirement fund and the onset of an acute economic crisis, the administration and legislature agreed earlier this year that current and former public employees would be able to withdraw much of their accrued savings from the fund. However, the first inquiries about how this was to be done elicited tales of negotiable certificates that would cost an average of about $50, money that many hard-pressed former public servants don't have at the moment. After many protests, Comptroller General Alvin Weeden has announced that there will be no charge for the certificates. The money is still not available, because the Social Security Fund, which manages the retirement fund, has the monumental task of building a database and in the process sorting out the errors and abuses of several administrations.

Oil exploration permit issued
The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has given Harken de Panama, a local subsidiary of the Houston-based Harken Energy Corporation, a permit to explore Bocas del Toro, Colon and Darien provinces for oil. The two-year permit does not allow the drilling of wells, but does allow for core samples to be taken and sonic testing to proceed over a two-year period. If anything worthwhile is found, there would have to be new negotiations for drilling or extraction permits.

also in this section
MEDCOM goes after TVN with dubious statistics
Teaching tomorrow's attorneys environmental law
American expats: How secure is your position?

©2001 The Panama News