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Panama News Briefs

Cascading scandal envelopes all three government branches
Polls indicate political sea change
Torrijos shifts gears
On the campaign trail

Panama News Briefs

Six --- maybe make that five -- - heads of state coming for the centennial

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, Ukrainian strongman Leonid Kuchma, Nicaragua’s Enrique Bolaños, Ecuador’s Lucio Gutiérrez and Liechtenstein’s prince will all be coming to Panama to partake of the centennial celebrations. Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had planned to attend, but meanwhile public outrage over his order for soldiers and police to shoot to kill anti-globalization protesters forced him out of office, and it’s unclear whether his successor will attend in his place. The United States will be represented by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Human rights groups criticize Watt-Arias accord

The treaty by which Panama has agreed not to surrender any American accused of a human rights abuse to the International Criminal Court has been criticized by national and international human rights groups. Here Conrado Sanjur, the radical priest and head of the Popular Human Rights Coordinator of Panama, called the legislature’s ratification of the pact “a scandal.” In the international plane, Amnesty International’s Latin American coordinator Hugo Relva told La Prensa that the treaty is “reprehensible.” Ratification, which had been opposed by Panama’s Colegio de Abogados, was briefly stalled by legislators protesting US Ambassador Linda Watt’s pronouncements on public corruption here, but after a plea from President Moscoso the treaty was approved.

Government cancels Blades appearance

Panama’s most famous musician, five-time Grammy winner Rubén Blades, had a $100,000 contract to be the headline act for the official centennial concert. However, that appearance has been canceled by the Centennial Commission, whose Lorena Castillo explained that the government “can’t take the risk” that Blades might talk about politics. Hmmm --- what does it say when a government admits that it’s afraid of a singer?

Montenegro beats the rap

At a solemn press conference last year, Mireya’s security chiefs accused anti-corruption activist Enrique “Chito” Montenegro of “seditious falsehood.” A number of news media had received faxes of what now appears to be a bogus document that purported to be a Ministry of the Presidency list of people whose phones were to be tapped, and Montenegro had called for an investigation. The Mireyista categorically denied that they had been tapping anybody’s phones --- and then they produced reports by undercover agents “El Pintor” and “Oficial Renco,” which showed that they had been following Montenegro around for months. There were raids on Montenegro’s home and a friend’s office, at which computers and fax machines were seized. The activist hang out at El Trapiche with such friends as Guillermo Endara, awaiting arrest. The entire nation chortled. No proof was ever found that Montenegro was behind the fax to news media, but he was charged with making a false statement when being questioned about his reasons for requesting an investigation. On October 9 Doris Valdés de Cargill, a judge in one of Panama City’s penal courts, threw out those charges, holding that the alleged erroneous statements were about minor and immaterial matters, were corrected by Montenegro in any case, and were not made with any criminal intent. Later that day Montenegro, a retiree, took part in the protest march against the Moscoso administration’s handling of the Social Security Fund.

Churches start petition drive

At October 19 Sunday church services across the country, religious leaders and lay volunteer from Panama’s majority Catholic Church and a number of other denomination began to collect signatures on a petition demanding the convocation of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The goal is to collect a half-million signatures, but as Panama has no provisions for initiative or referendum by way of petition, the signatures will have moral and political effect by no legal force.

Weeden freezes Hugo Torrijos’s assets

Comptroller General Alvin Weeden has frozen the assets of Martín Torrijos’s cousin and campaign manager, former National Port Authority director Hugo Torrijos. According to Weeden, when Hugo Torrijos ran the port authority (which has since been merged into the National Maritime Authority) he signed a $15 million contract with a corporation called Ports Engineering and Consultants for the maintenance of buoys and lighthouses. Weeden claims that $6 million of this was an overcharge, because some of the facilities to be maintained belonged to the Panama Canal Authority rather than the ports (now maritime) authority, some of the work wasn’t done, and because Torrijos owns Ports Engineering and Consultants. Torrijos denies that he owns or ever owned any part of the company, or that he has ever worked for or received a paycheck for it. Moreover, he claims that the turf dispute and argument over which work was or was not done arose during the Moscoso administration, long after the ports authority had ceased to exist and he had left government service. Finally, the underlying dispute between Weeden and Ports Engineering and Consultants (whose owners are Americans) is pending before the Supreme Court, which denied Weeden’s earlier motion to sequester the company’s assets. In light of all of this Torrijos is claiming that it’s all a matter of partisan harassment.

Skeletons found behind Noriega’s old beach house

Construction workers digging in the sand to build a retaining wall on property at Punta Barco that used to belong to former military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega made a grisly discovery, uncovering a skull. Police and anthropologists were called in, and now it seems that at least two individuals were buried there some time ago. The work of identifying the remains and determining the times and causes of their deaths is being conducted by the PTJ, and no results have been announced. The PTJ is part of the Public Ministry headed by José Antonio Sossa, who opposes investigations and prosecutions of murders and disappearances under the old dictatorship, so we may never see any results.

Legislature’s actions may be challenged

Legislative Assembly president Jacobo Salas has warned that many of the things that the legislature has done in recent days are open to challenge. The problem is that a lot of legislators are not showing up for sessions, nor sending suplentes in their stead, and some of the votes are being taken without a valid quorum present by way of a legislator and both of his or her suplentes being present on the assembly floor and casting votes at the same time, although it’s only proper for one of them to vote at any one time. But of course, it’s Salas’s job to call people out of order and prevent this practice.

Morales leaving public health post to run for mayor of Boquete

One of the more prominent Moscoso administration officials who hasn’t been immersed in scandals, Public Health director Dr. Esteban Morales, is leaving his post a the Ministry of Health to run as the Arnulfista candidate for mayor of Boquete. Morales was the point man for the government’s response to a hantavirus outbreak in the Azuero Peninsula that forced the cancellation of Carnival festivities in Las Tablas in 2000, and has organized a vaccination campaign to reach kids in remote rural communities where immunization against childhood diseases used to be the exception rather than the rule.

One dead, 187 homeless in Santa Ana arson fire

A string of suspicious fires in the slums of Santa Ana, Calidonia and Curundu became deadly on October 12, when flames raced through a rickety tenement on Santa Ana’s Calle 14, incinerating a deaf mute woman who couldn’t hear neighbors’ cries and ended up trapped in her burning apartment. The blaze left her grieving husband, who wasn’t home at the time, and 186 other people homeless, and now police and fire inspectors are saying that it was definitely arson and are hunting for an 18- year-old man whom they believe set the fire.

UN: AIDS spreading rapidly in the region

Prompted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), health officials in Panama and the Central American countries have signed an appeal for cheaper anti-retrovirus medicines and more outside assistance in the fight against AIDS. The UNDP’s Elizabeth Fong said that the rate of HIV infection is “making gigantic strides” throughout the region and that “now is the time to renew the struggle... to detain and reverse” the epidemic. The health ministries of Panama, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica also promised to fight discrimination and social stigmatization against people infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. The UNDP estimates that there are between 180,000 and 200,000 HIV-positive people in the Panama-Central America region, and that more than 73,000 children have been orphaned by the epidemic in the same area.

Big Brother?

The National Police may be watching you via hidden cameras. As a crime fighting measure, the cops told El Panama America that they are installing video cameras at undisclosed public places around Panama City.

Ministry reviewing broadcast regulations

The Ministry of Youth, Women, Children and the Family (MINJUMFA) is looking into broadcasters’ self-regulation rules to determine if the morals of today’s kids are being properly protected. According to El Panama America, the Public Services Regulating Board (Ente Regulador) is also looking into the matter. Panama’s commercial television networks, especially those run by MEDCOM, are mainly owned by PRD members or supporters and the owners’ politics tend to be reflected in their news departments’ orientations. Panama has a Board of Censors that picks on local programs, but which scrupulously avoids posing any objections to the sex and violence that we import from Hollywood or the Latin American telenovela industry.

14,000 young voters disenfranchised

Despite publicity campaigns by the Electoral Tribunal and especially the PRD, more than 14,000 people who turned 18 or will turn 18 between the close of voter registration at the end of this past April and next May’s elections missed the October 15 deadline to file the papers that will allow them to vote. Martín Torrijos, who is involved in what at the moment looks like a close contest with Guillermo Endara, ran television ads and unleashed the PRD youth in a major bid to get as many of the 18-year-olds as possible on the rolls, as he expects to win among younger voters. The other candidates, while not pitching themselves as a new generation of leaders, are also making their appeals to young voters. More than 10,000 young voters registered in the last week before the deadline.

Sexual harassment back before the assembly

Legislator Gloria Young’s proposed law to provide criminal sanctions for sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutions, which was defeated in the assembly’s last session, lives. A resolution that was supported by both government and opposition legislators revived the proposal and sent it for consideration by the Women’s Affairs Committee. Young, an Arnulfista from San Miguelito, was the founder of Panama’s first battered women’s shelter and seeks to be re-elected from the Chiriqui district of Baru, where she and her husband maintain a residence.

Arturo Vallarino quitting politics

Only one other person has ever served as many consecutive terms in the Legislative Assembly as he did, and most politicians never get to be vice-president, but the Rosas family now owns the MOLIRENA party and treats First Vice-President Arturo Vallarino as a leper, the governing coalition in which he serves appears headed for certain and catastrophic defeat and Vallarino has thus decided that it’s time to withdraw from public life. He told La Estrella that the time has come to stop trying to do things that he won’t be able to complete, and so he won’t be seeking any public office in the 2004 elections and doesn’t plan to accept any appointed positions either.

Ex-corregidora convicted of smuggling coke on police plane

Mariela Buenaño de Mendoza, who was serving as the corregidora for Jaque at the time of her arrest, has been given a 28-month prison sentence for carrying a kilo of cocaine in her briefcase on a police flight from her Darien community to Panama City. Three Colombian accomplices received 55- and 56-month sentences.

China rejects Panamanian appointment

It’s not uncommon for consuls to be foreigners, either at Panamanian consulates abroad or at foreign consulates here. But in the Peoples Republic of China, where Panama has consulates but no embassy due to our diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Chinese citizens serving as consuls for foreign countries are not accepted. The same applies for lesser official posts at consulates. The issue came up recently when Panama’s consulate in Shanghai appointed Fung Siu Kuen, a Chinese citizen, to be a maritime inspector for the consulate’s work of registering ships under the Panamanian flag. China has refused to accredit the appointee, alleging that Panama has violated the bilateral agreement on consular relations by attempting to put a Chinese citizen in the post.

Also in this section:
Panama News Briefs
Cascading scandal envelopes all three government branches
Polls indicate political sea change
Torrijos shifts gears
On the campaign trail

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