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Photo by Eric Jackson

Heaven only knows…

We live, according to the old Confucian curse, in interesting times. In fact, these are times of crisis according to the way that the word is rendered in Chinese ideograms, by combining the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”

The people of Iraq have taken the opportunity to vote in their overwhelming majority for a government that they hope will lead them to happier times. The election, however, was held under the terror of a bloody insurgency and a brutal occupation, and the new parliament that was elected has hardly any army to enforce its writ. Will the Americans take the opportunity to declare victory and leave, knowing full well that the Iraqis will face a lot more chaos and bloodshed before the country --- or the three countries that it could become --- settles down to more peaceful times?

The people of Chile and Bolivia have taken their opportunities to vote in ways certain to shatter old political realities. Chile is divided almost down the middle. While it’s inevitable that the electoral system that succeeded the Pinochet dictatorship will be scrapped, the country could as easily veer to the right as it could to the left.

In Bolivia the American tough talk against Evo Morales has backfired. The first version of this front page was written when it appeared that no candidate would receive a majority of the popular vote, but then the returns from rural areas began coming in and it seems that Morales is to be the first Bolivian president with a popular majority in a long time. Representatives of the American government made inappropriate remarks in the course of the campaign, and if that attitude progresses to heavy-handed US moves like those tried against Hugo Chávez it could inflame the whole Andean region. Morales will still have to treat lightly because he commands only a slight majority, nothing close to the mandate that the Venezuelan president enjoys.

It’s a fun time for those who enjoy watching world politics, but the outcomes in many places will be no fun whatsoever. Given such realities, and given the time of the year it is, maybe the best thing is to remain calm and see what heaven has in store for the world. Or maybe not. Too much passivity in the face of impending disaster can sometimes turn awful possibilities into grim realities.

One group of American Muslims, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is certainly not passive in the face of obnoxious anti-Jewish statements by Iran’s hard-line young president. It would be mistaken to write off their stern rebuke of President Ahmadinejad as a matter of Sunni vs. Shia rivalry or political opportunism in a US situation that’s difficult for them. Actually, when one looks at the more than 1400 years of relations between Islam and Judaism, friendly coexistence has been the rule and deadly enmity the exception.

American Muslims have borne far more than their share of the abuses that the Bush administration has dished out under the co-called Patriot Act, but thanks to a filibuster by 48 senators, most of them Democrats, that piece of legislation has been allowed to expire. This change ought to be felt here in Panama, where despite banking privacy laws the financial institutions bowed to Uncle Sam's information demands, including in many cases against Panamanian citizens. I'm not a big fan of the money laundering that tends to import gangsterism into our business culture, and even less of this country being turned into a financial center for Osama's boys. However, the ill-advised US Patriot Act made it hard for an ordinary person to get banking services in this country and I'll be glad to see these unwelcome foreign-imposed impediments to doing business evaporate.

The Patriot Act is by no means the only infringement upon freedom in this world. From the right of a Brazilian website to report the news, to Casco Viejo artists' ability to make a living to American workers' right to join a union, freedom is everywhere in play. Is it an outrage that a Venezuelan labor leader has been jailed? Should we get indignant about the University of Panama's machinations against Dr. Bernal? Sometimes the issues are not clear-cut, and freedom-loving people have to separate the worthy claims from the unworthy ones.

A good way to separate the wheat from the chaff in journalism is to see who does and who does not passively accept the jailing of their colleagues. The long Committee to Protect Journalists report in our opinion section should be sobering to those who fancy themselves sinophiles or Fidelistas. It also should, but probably won’t, shame many Americans who ought to be concerned but aren’t about the fact that the United States occupies sixth place, tied with Burma, in the number of journalists it imprisons.

And Panama! It seems that the news is entirely dominated by tales of corruption these days, and this isn’t a matter of reporters inventing things in order to attract attention. In fact, it’s those who are most deeply mired in corruption who are making things up, most notably by conjuring up ye olde Yankee interventionist conspiracies.

I am frequently a critic of US foreign policy, including aspects of American relations with Panama. The sovereign rights of Latin American countries have too often been disrespected in Washington. Moreover, I don’t like the over-use of the t-word that has been all the rage in US political discourse these past several years.

But when the folks at Foggy Bottom canceled the US visa of one of our more disreputable judges --- a man who has even been denounced by his own brothers and sisters --- that was a reasonable exercise of American sovereignty. When a Panamanian judge called it “judicial terrorism,” it ought to have reminded us of former President Pérez Balladares’s campaign pledge of “an end to judicial terrorism” and the morass of corruption with impunity that this policy meant in practice.

When Ambassador Eaton replied that the only judicial terrorism in Panama is corruption that only increased the squeals of protest from the insincere. Now as a reporter who has twice been slapped with bogus criminal defamation charges and is by no means unique in that respect, I could get into a fit of semantic quibbling with the ambassador about it. But given that one of my accusers was a presidential aide and the other an American swindler who had the endorsements of former Vice President Arturo Vallarino and the jailed ex-mayor of Bocas del Toro, I can accept the argument that the attempts to intimidate me, like the pressures applied against so many other journalists in this country, were terrors incidental to this country’s generalized political corruption.

Let’s give credit where it’s due, even to an administration that we may not like (and I certainly don’t): George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice did the right thing by pulling Winston Spadafora’s visa and Panamanians as well as Americans ought to be pleased by William Eaton’s forthright talk about this country’s most unfortunate reality.

Ah, but this is not the time to pay too much attention to that little spat. This is the time of the year when the people are doing their Christmas shopping and formulating their New Year’s resolutions, so the politicians traditionally take advantage of the distractions to jam the creepiest legislation through the process. They’re privatizing the public beaches and the Social Security Fund this holiday season, but it would not be all that unusual in Panamanian politics to see even worse things in the works during the rush to pass proposals and amendments before the clock strikes the end of 2005 and the National Assembly session must come to a close.

Maybe that’s dwelling too much on the danger side of the Chinese combination. By the time the next issue appears --- volume one of The Panama News’s 12th year of publication --- the president will have appointed two new Supreme Court magistrates and the legislature will have chosen a new national Ombudsman (or Ombudswoman). I really don’t have much hope for good news from the thugs at the National Assembly, but President Torrijos’s single high court appointment so far, Esmeralda de Troitiño, looks to me like it was a good one, as was his choice of Ana Matilde Gómez for attorney general. A couple of honest and competent new magistrates still wouldn’t give us the votes we need to clean up the judiciary, but it would mean that the removal of a couple more dishonest and incompetent ones could put an end to the majority that consistently supports corruption with impunity. Does Martín have such intentions? Heaven knows….

Just as heaven knows of lighter subjects, like what it means to be a cat person in Panama. Or about the new store in Paitilla where I can get something I have missed since I moved back here from Michigan, cherry cider. Or whether baseball’s first true “world series” can survive political complications, and whether Mariano Rivera will take to the mound for Panama if it does. Or if you can find a good fruitcake recipe online.

And by the way, if you do find yourself looking up at the sky this season, the spires of the El Carmen Church are not your only option. You might just want to grab a pair of binoculars and join the Panama Audubon Society for their annual Christmas bird count.

Have yourself some happy holidays, don’t become a highway statistic and enjoy….

Eric Jackson
the editor

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