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Times change (but not all that much)

So why is the grimy cover of a long out-of-print second-hand book on the cover of this issue of The Panama News?

It's not because I have spoken with its author, although that might be an interesting thing to do.

(Raúl Arias used to be a legislator, but these days he's better known to the world as the proprietor of the Rainforest Tower, an old doppler radar installation out in the jungle near Gamboa that has been converted into an upscale little hotel and one of the world's most celebrated birdwatching perches.)

It's not because I have spoken with the book's seller, although I frequently do. Augusto Barragán is a working class intellectual and a worthy heir to ancient Ireland's bards. He sells used books on a street corner near me and, like any good descendent of an Irish lineage, retains an acute sense of history.

(Ireland's recorded history is the second-oldest in Europe, surpassed only by that of the Greeks. The Irish are most unique and noteworthy for taking their conquerors' English language, advancing its literature several notches and turning it into a powerful weapon of national liberation. Yes, Maggie Thatcher held all the cards, but Bobby Sands, writing poetry as he starved to death in a grimy cell at Long Kesh, won the election and smashed her ambitions for a military solution to Northern Ireland's political and ethnic problems.)

I put this old book cover on this issue because Panama is engaged in the first stages of what promises to be a bruising referendum campaign, and already a number of the corny tricks that were employed in the 1984 election theft orchestrated by one Manuel Antonio Noriega are making their reappearance. The cast of characters is different, that's for sure. Ricardo Arias Calderón is now allied with the PRD, as is La Prensa, which was the main news medium that the dictatorship didn't control back then. On the other hand a number of notable PRD founders, among them former President Jorge Illueca, are leading voices in the skeptics' camp.

However, the wholesale bribery of the mainstream media and resulting slanted news reporting we see now are remarkably like what Raúl Arias described back then. Lack of government transparency and the use of specious arguments that can only thrive in a climate in which free debate and full information have been stifled are also common themes from then and now.

(That the beneficiary --- for awhile --- of Noriega's fraud, Nicky Barletta, is a canal expansion supporter is too obvious a connection so I would expect that we won't hear a lot from him between now and Referendum Day.)

Looking at more recent times, recall the 1999 presidential race. On the last day when it was legal to publish polls, La Prensa ran a survey that showed Mireya Moscoso overtaking Torrijos. PRD operatives bought all copies of that day's La Prensa from the newspaper distribution mafia and threw them away. The Electoral Tribunal ratified this campaign tactic but Mireya won anyway.

I'm not sure we can trust the OAS or the Carter Center. Recalling that Reagan supported Noriega's theft of the 1984 election and knowing that Washington thinks that a canal expansion is a good idea, depending on Uncle Sam to defend Panamanian democracy wouldn't be any wiser now than it was then. .

However, we do need international observers for this referendum because the Electoral Tribunal is partial to one side, public funds are being poured into the campaign and if the vote is close it would be naive to rule out the possibility of fraud. Such democracy as we have and public order require a vote count that both is and is seen to be honest in this matter.

Yes, I know. What I am saying will enrage some people, and likely get me accused of advocating foreign intervention in Panama. But observing the canal expansion debate at the Hotel Caesar Park before an audience packed by the Panama Canal Authority, seeing Dr. Keith Holder shouted down by the "yes" campaign, hearing the canned applause for defective arguments and reading the misrepresentations of what happened in La Prensa ought to leave any thinking person with the impression that the fix is in.

Among my life's experiences is my participation, in some cases as a major protagonist, in a number of local and state ballot initiative campaigns in the state of Michigan. Believe me, when one starts out a ballot issue campaign in which there will be organized opposition with only about 57 percent of the people supporting you, the odds are that you will lose. The "yes" campaign hasn't even put their proposition to the National Assembly and already they are hemorrhaging. At the Caesar Park debate they acted as if they were in a panic. There is a distinct possibility that they could go into wounded tiger mode, and don't be naive about the histories of some of these people. The Panamanian nation needs to raise its guard against fraud and international observers are one useful tool for this purpose.

The canal expansion issue is front and center in Panamanian public discourse and will remain so for many months to come. It is, however, far from the only thing going on in this country.

In the news section, it appears that Panamanian feminism is on the brink of a watershed victory, the removal of Liborio García as the nation's ombudsman. He's accused of domestic violence and guilty of saying some truly obnoxious things about the subject, but legally those can't be reasons for his removal. An old allegation that didn't result in a conviction is not grounds for removal under the law that created his job, and there must be a two-thirds vote in the legislature to throw him out.

But meanwhile García went out to one of these food distibution events with one of the despicable deputies who represents my circuit, Sergio Gálvez. (Sergio hardly ever shows up at the legislature, except to pick up his official pay or envelopes full of cash. He's one of these "bread and circuses" style politicians whose only shortcoming by the old standard is that he has yet to feed any Christians to lions in his circuit's J.D. Arosemena Stadium.) An ad hoc legislative committee set up to review the Liborio García affair has seized upon this appearance with Gálvez to allege a violation of the ban on political activity by the ombudsman, and voted unanimously to recommend his removal.

The ruling PRD-Partido Popular coalition has been split along gender lines, with a number of the men in those parties also siding with the women. Even the first lady has been calling for García's head. The opposition would love any opportunity to embarrass the parties in power, and a government in trouble on a front it considers much more important would like to cut its losses. So there may very well by enough votes in the National Assembly to oust García, in which case the matter would go to the courts.

A lot more people are sending things to The Panama News lately, so we have an unusually large community section this time. We have the ambassador and the mayor, the VFW and Democrats Abroad, the yachties and the high school kids. And then there's the obituary for Paddy Roy, sent to me by his fellow retired firefighters. Paddy was one of the Panamanians who integrated the Canal Zone Fire Department in 1956 and not just another face in the crowd but a man who rose to the rank of captain based on his talent and work. The Panama News serves this country's English-speaking community, both here and abroad, and the likes of Paddy Roy are also "who we are."

Thanks to another contributor, Ivan Klasovsky, who is formerly of Gatun but now resides in Germany, our travel section takes us to France. We also see a most unusual architectural feature of the Catholic parish church in San Carlos, and revisit the Casco Viejo.

(One recent morning in the latter neighborhood, by the way, I stopped in at the Brooklyn Cafe for a cup of coffee and discovered something else about that establishment. It's one of the growing number of places in the capital where someone with a properly equipped laptop can get a WiFi connection to the Internet.)

I caught a really cool school play at the Ancon Theater the other night. All of the kids performed well and a few of them brilliantly, but none of it would have happened without the work of the show's true stars, the adults who taught them how to do it. Musical director Luis Zuñiga and director Charles Todd Apple did not appear onstage during the play, but they put in the best performances of all as far as I am concerned.

(Will someone sue me over the review? For some reason there's always somebody who takes offense when I write about the theater. Maybe it's because, as my drama major ex-wife used to say, my sense of taste is located entirely in my mouth. But anyway, all of you would-be litigants out there may have to get in line. Someone who claims to be in the estate business in the Interior called me the other day to threaten me with a $10 million lawsuit if I don't erase certain things from this website. I am not impressed, but I do wonder why the Torrijos administration lets someone with a US money laundering conviction like this guy has --- if I was not dealing with an impostor --- live here. Maybe it's for the same reason why the Moscoso regime issued a Panamanian cedula to Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Joaquín Montaño Rayo, who was the main target of a recent international series of drug busts.)

Finally, rainy season is manifesting itself. It's not a matter of rain coming through the roof into my office anymore, but of insects emerging from the ground and vegetation outside and swarming to the light of my computer screen. The hard little black ones that bite have come and gone, and the harmless but annoyingly crunchy June bugs have yet to make their appearance. For this issue it has been flying termites. My office spiders --- protected animals according to Jackson family tradition --- have been feasting. And in pots at the office in Panama City and at my mom's house in San Carlos, the rains are making my garden grow.

I'll take the bugs along with the flowers, and just from walking the streets of the city and answering my email, I can tell that an ever increasing number of visitors and foreigners thinking about coming down here to live are accepting that equation too. Panama's a great place during the rainy season.


Eric Jackson
the editor

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