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Full speed ahead

As you will notice in our lead business section story, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP, by its Spanish initials) is moving ahead with its plans for a toll increase of some two-thirds over three years for container ships, despite criticism from the world shipping industry and especially vehement objections from Ecuador.

The Panama News is not at the moment planning any ad price increases, but in our own way we are also moving full speed ahead, into our 11th year. After an introductory special issue in December of 1994, we began publication --- then as a free-distribution tabloid --- in January of 1995. And yes, we have met resistance along the way and have never been particularly profitable, but The Panama News persists. We've been at it for more than 10 years now, and intend to be around a decade from now.

A lot of important things have been happening of late, some of them cyclical and some of them by chance.

One late December day two Panama natives were serving with the US Armed Forces at an Iraqi National Guard training facility near Mosul when an insurgent who had infiltrated the ranks of the US-sponsored force walked into a cafeteria and detonated the explosive and shrapnel charge he had hidden under his uniform. And thus US Navy Seabee Joel Baldwin, a 37-year-old Builder Chief, and 44-year-old US Army Sergeant Julián Melo Sánchez were among the 22 people killed in that attack and joined the many thousands of people of several nationalities who have died in the Iraq War. The Panama News, like most of the Panamanian people, is against that war. However, that in no way prevents me or the other contributors to this newspaper or the members of Panama's English-speaking community from honoring these brave men for the ultimate sacrifice that they made in service to their country. Vaya con Dios, Joel and Julián.

Such attacks are the norm for that war, and thus in a general sense they are expected. But the men and women serving in Iraq never know when or where the next blast will go off, and the torment of that uncertainty will surely take its toll, as many of warfare's severe wounds involve neither broken nor burned flesh. Whether you are putting up yellow ribbons or carrying protest signs, do not let your politics dull your senses or harden your heart. There is tremendous suffering taking place on the battlefields, in the hospitals to which the wounded are being taken, among bereaved families, on the part of men, women and children who are learning how to get on with their lives in light of war-related disabilities and in the minds of those who have seen too many things that nobody should have to see. It's a time for compassion and a helping hand.

Even more unexpected and far more deadly than that blast in Mosul was the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. In our opinion section Rabbi Michael Lerner takes a theological and humanitarian view of the lawyers' concept that this was an "act of God." Among our letters we have a long and rather Afrocentric take on the tragedy, which regular readers may recognize shares many of the points that have been made before in The Panama News by people from the Association of Caribbean States with respect to the hurricanes that periodically sweep across the Antilles, the Caribbean littoral and the coasts of North America. We can't prevent natural disasters, but through proper preparation we can reduce the death and destruction that they cause.

Another unexpected December tragedy befell the world of journalism, even if some would minimize the loss or argue that it didn't involve a journalist. Gary Webb, who was hounded out of mainstream journalism for a report about the US-backed Nicaraguan Contras' cocaine smuggling operations back in the 80s, died by his own hand. Some of the obituaries in the corporate press were of a jeering nature. But I say that Gary told the truth and was persecuted for it, and I mourn him as a fallen colleague worthy of the greatest respect. The divide between those who honor Gary Webb's memory and those who sling mud at it in many ways follows the boundary between the well-paid corporate elite and the ragtag alternative press, especially because his admirers in the mainstream have learned to keep their mouths shut in order to keep their jobs. But let us remember what Gary Webb had to say in his own words, rather than by his detractors' caricatures of them. Let's pay attention to the black perspective. Let's give more credence to folks like Al Giordano, whose Narco News got the Venezuelan coup story right, than those who passed off bogus pro-coup propaganda as the truth. Let's listen to those brave and honest reporters like Luis Gómez who are covering the War on Drugs straight-up, rather than the elitists whose "inside connections" led them to cover up or misrepresent the drug dealing and money laundering activities of the former commander of US anti-drug forces in Colombia and his wife.

Meanwhile in Panama, some of the changes we have seen had long been expected. At first glance these stories are far more pleasant that the surprises mentioned above.

True, the anticipated change in the Comptroller General's office was accompanied by fisticuffs and the winner of that bout by unanimous consensus, anti-corruption activist Enrique Montenegro, is being taken to task by many a pundit. But after all, it was outgoing Comptroller Alvin Weeden who went out to confront the protesters and this commentator is shedding no tears over the bloody nose he suffered.

Also on schedule, we got a new Attorney General (Procuradora General) and Administrative Prosecutor (Procurador Administrativo), Ana Matilde Gómez and Oscar Ceville respectively. In the Spanish opinion section attorney and activist Alberto Barrow lauds that latter appointment as another accomplishment for the Afro-Panamanian community.

The Gómez appointment, after a decade of la vaina dished out by the corruption-friendly José Antonio Sossa, was a crucial event for this country. We'll have to wait and see how well she does her new job, but this editor likes what he has seen so far. One of her best early moves was the addition to her team of Rafael Pérez Jaramillo, a top-notch investigative reporter who was run out of Panamanian mainstream journalism for reporting truths that certain people bearing the surname Arias preferred to conceal.

And of course, since the last issue appeared the long-predicted change of calendars has taken place. Thus, as is usually the case in the first issue of a new volume of The Panama News, the news section's lead article is our retrospective of the year that just ended. Do not take this as a compilation of the year's most important stories, although the really big one, the recent change of government, is well represented. Instead, look at it as The Panama News in part putting its collective best foot forward and in part drawing a composite of life on this isthmus in 2004.

Also right on schedule, tamarinds are in season, along with the hordes of tourists. To those coming to sunny Panama from colder climes, might I suggest cooling off with some chicha de tamarindo? And if this issue's travel section is not particularly "touristy," visitors would still do well to heed an important if rather unpleasant warning therein. What you don't know could turn the vacation of your dreams into a nightmare.

Do take care. Panama is best experienced with your eyes wide open.


Eric Jackson
the editor

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