If anything was actually accomplished when George W. Bush visited here, it will probably be awhile before we know any of the details. Yes, we can presume that Martín and Dubya talked about the free trade negotiations and we know that Bush softened his administration's line --- ever so slightly, it seems --- on the cleanup of old US military firing ranges and chemical weapons testing sites. But we know none of the particulars of either of those things, and neither administration has any reputation for candor that allows us any expectation of knowing very much very soon. To the extent that Bush and Torrijos talked about security issues common to the United States of America and the Republic of Panama it's likely to be even longer before we really know the substance of what was discussed and agreed. While in some cases that's reasonable --- no right-thinking person wants to reveal the canal's defenses to Osama's boys --- in other cases it may be outrageous.
* * *
Free trade is a misnomer the way that successive US administrations of both parties have used it. More than anything, it has been a bludgeon by which employers have smashed most of what was left of the American labor movement. “Give us your pension fund so that our kids and grandkids will be sheltered from the economic collapse toward which we are driving this country, or we're moving your job and the livelihood of your entire community to Mexico” is a typical version of the NAFTA threat.
And has it been Mexico's gain? Not really. In many cases the owners of the American factories that fled from the USA play the same games with the Mexicans, threatening to move to cheaper elsewheres if the workers unionize. Species of beans and other produce that had been cultivated as part of Mexico's culture since pre-Columbian times have been driven off the market and toward extinction by cheap subsidized US food imports. America's corporate elite has won the right to send American managers to run businesses in Mexico, but the middle class Mexican who wants to open a restaurant in the USA has no analogous right.
Economic integration could bring many good things to the Americas, but any system that does not allow free movement of working people across borders is not, from the labor perspective, economic integration. In the European Union a person can more readily move from Portugal to Germany in search of a better job, or from England to Spain to open a bed and breakfast, than is the case with their respective counterparts in Mexico and the United States. While the threat of moving to Thailand or Nigeria may still be potent, German industrialists have a harder time threatening their workers that they'll move their plants to Greece because the EU policy is to gradually equalize the living standards for the Greeks and the Germans.
On January 10 Panamanian and American government representatives will sit down and try to compromise on the outstanding issues on their agendas, mostly in the agricultural category. If the farm issues can be settled, look for a comprehensive deal of a scope that few people here thought about, and then brace yourself for a series of shock waves throughout Panamanian society as we realize what has been agreed. Will Panamanian journalists and cartoonists retain residual rights to their work, as is the case under our copyright laws, or will the corporations grab these as they do in the USA? Will Panama's indigenous property rights in their ancient healing traditions be surrendered to multinational drug companies? Will our poultry industry be swallowed up by Tyson and Holly Farms, so that Panama becomes an exporter of hormone-raised breasts and an importer of chemically tainted thighs? Will we get US food and medicine prices as part of the deal? Will the promise of an economic multiplier effect from the construction of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal be transferred to somewhere other than Panama? Will the Americans in effect write our banking, food purity, insurance, drug safety, securities exchange, environmental, real estate, forestry, trade with third countries, fisheries and cultural policies?
A free trade agreement with the United States would surely be presented to the Panamanian people as a take it or be left behind proposition by the rabiblanco and PRD media and the ad agencies that the Torrijos administration would hire. But Panamanians with any sense should ask whether we could get a better deal out of MERCOSUR. Brazil, Argentina, et al are promoting hemispheric economic integration on a much different basis than the NAFTA model, on terms that at first glance appear much more friendly to Panama than the US offer.
* * *
One of the unfortunate things about the culture here is that people are overly impressed with anything that looks high tech, regardless of whether its appropriate for use in a given situation. Rich Panamanians hardly ever buy sailboats, opting instead for gas-guzzling power boats. The great tragedy at Mariano Rivera's house happened because one of his poor relatives thought that the more advanced solution to keeping dogs out of the pool was to electrify it. Our markets for organic foods and clothing made of natural fibers are not as well developed as they ought to be. Concerns about the dangers of inappropriate genetic engineering are pretty much off the radar screen of public consciousness.
Another weak point of Panamanian culture is this slavish attitude about how only the Americans, and in particular only the US government, can solve our problems. That's what's behind the lingering pathetic belief that what this country's economy really needs is a return of US military bases. That's the thinking that led to Major Giroldi's foolhardy decision not to pull the trigger on General Noriega, to the 1989 US invasion, and to the continuation of the dictatorship's constitution to this day.
So if Bush's announcement during his visit here about his government's willingness to talk about decontamination of former US military sites is more than just an illusory “I'll consider it” promise, then Panama has to figure out what it should request and the two bad attitudes mentioned above may pose serious problems for us.
Would we be wowed by expensive new electronic devices marketed by the usual gang of US defense contractors? We shouldn't be. The proper technology for clearing a minefield or a firing range is to use specially trained dogs or pigs to sniff out the explosives. Once that has been done a ground penetrating radar can be a useful device for the determination of a buried bomb or shell's precise position, but it would be slow and expensive to try to scan an entire firing range with one of these machines. The high-tech part of the “cleanup” that the departing Americans did on small parts of some of the ranges was really an experiment in expensive inappropriate technologies for the benefit of certain US defense contractors and not Panama.
We need to clean the firing ranges ourselves, with American observers present to verify that the work has been done, and send Uncle Sam the bills as the job progresses. The ranges can be cleaned for a lot less than the Americans estimated if Panamanians become more sophisticated and self-reliant.
* * *
Panama and the United States have certain security agreements, and certain common interests. Let us understand, however, that on the other hand the Bush administration has supported US-based, state-sponsored Cuban-American terrorism against Panama. Moreover, an integral part of the Plan Colombia that George W. Bush and before him Bill Clinton have backed has been the tacit alliance between the Bogota government and the AUC death squads that have attacked Panama on several occasions.
The present US administration is recklessly adventuristic. This is most evident in Iraq, but it's Bush policy around the world. It would not be in Panama's interest to join in this insanity.
Notwithstanding the joint naval maneuvers and various other programs, it does seem that the Torrijos administration has backed away from such policies as Mireya Moscoso's support for the AUC and the Miami-based terrorists who attacked this country.
With Panama so small and the United States so powerful, and with certain treaty commitments firmly in place, a balancing act is necessary. Let us hope that the Bush visit didn't tip this balance to the extent that Torrijos has adopted Mireya's foreign policy follies.
Bear in mind...
Everybody is born with genius, but most people only keep it a few minutes.
Time is the best judge of the acts of men and of peoples.
One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.