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On strike!

There has been a lot going on in Panama, and in the world, over the past couple of weeks. This issue's cover photo is of labor leader Andrés Rodríguez, the Colon high school art teacher who's secretary general of the Asociacion de Profesores and leader of the labor/left FRENADESO coalition. A coalition of educators' unions of which his is a part has walked off the job, and despite pretensions of an agreement with a government-sponsored coalition of rival unions, public school teachers have by an overwhelming majority heeded the strike call. There are also labor stoppages by workers at the Social Security Fund.

Given that the union leaders in these controversies are also among the major critics of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan to expand the Panama Canal, and given that the "yes" campaign has a slim lead but the momentum is and has been with the "no" side, these labor disputes could be a turning point in the campaign leading up to the October 22 referendum, either way. Basically people could associate the "no" campaign with annoying street blockages by unreasonable people, or they could associate the "yes" campaign with heavy-handed and unfair labor relations on the part of the government. In either case it might be enough to change the campaign's dynamics.

The situation is complicated by the politicians' usual betrayals of the public interest. It turns out that in the $1.77 billion sale of Banistmo to HSBC, Torrijos and the legislature rushed through a special capital gains tax break that in effect gives about $400 million to be divided among five individuals, one of whom is Vice President and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro and three others of whom are opposition political figures who have come to play prominent roles in the "yes" campaign for the Torrijos Alemán Zubieta Plan to expand the Panama Canal. The government's hard line on unions' wage demands rings a bit hollow when one considers that total capitulation to organized labor would still be a lot less of a hit to the public treasury than this giveaway has been.

This issue we cover a presentation by Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, the nation's former environmental protection director and current member of the staff at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who supports the "yes" side, to the readers' club at Excedra Books. As many of you may have guessed I am leaning toward the "no" side, but I really do want to present all sides of this complicated debate fully and fairly because this matter is too important to Panama's future to be decided by simplistic slogans or blind partisan or social loyalties.

Although The Panama News gets some letters supporting the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan and we print these, the "yes" side appears to be pursuing a strategy of not submitting things to media they don't control. This boycott will not be permitted to, in the name of "balance," silence the plan's critics. There are a number of opinion columns about the referendum this time, the most noteworthy of which is by Tom Drohan, the retired chief engineer for the Panama Canal, who is opposing the government's proposal and herein writes about what he estimates the cost of the project would really be.

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, Fidel Castro is ill and may be dying, the Israeli Defense Forces have suffered a major humiliation by their inability to defeat Hezbollah, and the Connecticut Democratic primary result may have been a watershed event in US politics. These international subjects are examined from various angles in our English and Spanish opinion sections, each of which is larger than usual.

Castro is discussed in three Spanish-language columns, sympathetically by University of Panama professor Olmedo Beluche and in a most derogatory fashion by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Also, on the occasion of the release of one of the 25 journalists that the government in Havana had been holding as political prisoners the Committee to Protect Journalists weighs in on the special problems with press freedom under the Castro dictatorship. Fidel's legacy and Cuba's future are also the subjects of this issue's editorial.

The warfare in the Levant is the subject of two English-language opinion columns and three Spanish ones. Frequent contributor Willy Gutman defends Israel, while Israeli peace movement leader Uri Avnery, who served in Israel's army and parliament, ponders how it was that the Israel Defense Forces proved unable to defeat Hezbollah. In the Spanish pages Association of Caribbean States secretary general Rubén Silié, the communist United Popular Movement and 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel all weigh in on the Arab - Israeli violence.

The spin doctors are and have been all over the place about the defeat of Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut primary elections, and in this issue economist Mark Weisbrot looks at it as handwriting on the wall for the Democratic Party's hawks. But of course, Lieberman might still be re-elected, as he is running as an independent in the general election.

Everything in this issue is not about hard news or serious analysis, but there are edges of these things in the other sections as well. For example, I took my camera to the ExpoFlora flower show, and in addition to all the beautiful plants and table settings and orchids and so on, one salient feature of the event was that the government of Taiwan, a major aid donor to Panama, was the principal sponsor.

I went to the Ancon Theater to see and review a very funny play --- a 1980s satire about CIA spooks, mama's boy dicatators, degenerate generals, wild and crazy guerrillas, nosy reporters and people who do weird things with dead bodies. In addition to the political nature of the satire, that excursion happened across the satirical nature of the news --- as the taxi taking me to the theater made its way past the adjacent headquarters of the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), the prosecutors were raiding the cops. They were taking away computers that allegedly contained evidence of the corruption in the form of false certifications. Recall that a few weeks ago a couple of guys at the PTJ were arrested fabricating the clean police records that allow so many foreigners with serious criminal records to get residency here. (Will it lead to Father Ron Kelly, the Canadian ex-priest with 10 counts of child molesting on his record, being thrown out of Panama? We shall see.) This time, however, it seems that it was about people in the forensic lab imitating the Rector Magnifico (he of the fake doctorate) and buying their certifications from a Colombian diploma mill without having to bother with the muss and fuss of actually attending classes.

This issue's community section is also a bit larger than usual, with a mixture of sadness, tales of good works, a clarification about misuse of a respected community organization's name, some pets looking for homes and an activity that many of you US citizens resident in Panama may want to attend to promptly, your applications for absentee ballots for November's congressional elections.

And given your residence or at least interest in a tropical land, did you ever wonder where coconuts come from? Clusters at the top of these palms? Well, of course --- but the question here is posed in terms of natural history. At the Smithsonian's Paleo-Talk series fossil evidence found in a Colombian coal mine may challenge the conventional wisdom.

If coconut is really not your favorite, don't despair --- this issue also gets into lobsters, bananas and spicy Indian food.


Eric Jackson

the editor


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