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The “no” campaign holds a forum
by Eric Jackson
The “yes” campaign is avoiding all debates that they can. With the purchase of the RCM television news channel by the former head of the PRD’s Frente Empresarial business owners’ group the “no” campaign is essentially blacked out on all commercial television. State-owned channel 11 is giving the pro and con groups little bits of air time but not sponsoring any real debates. The situation is only slightly better on the Catholic FETV and the Evangelica Hosanna TV. The principal formulators of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan, President Torrijos and canal administrator Alemán Zubieta, steadfastly resist defending their proposal in a face-to-face confrontation with skeptics. In such debates as have taken place, “yes” supporters mobilized by the ACP or politicians have sometimes resorted to shouting down “no” supporters.
That, plus all the information control games and the avalanche of advertising for the “yes” side, has not kept the skeptics from getting their message out. A forum on the evening of August 28 at the ULACIT auditorium was one example of this.
The forum’s organizer, journalist Maribel Cuervo de Paredes, was supposed to be a non-entity according to the PRD script. Last year, under pressure from major donors and the government, she was taken off the air at FETV. Then she was forced out at the Latin American Journalism Center (CELAP), which she had headed for years. Earlier this year, on orders from a Torrijos government official who used to be in La Prensa’s management, her column was canceled specifically because she questioned the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan. Blacklisted by the Polls and the Ariases and the Eisenmanns and the Revilla Gonzálezes and the Pérez Balladareses and the Eletas and the Tapias and the Catholic hierarchy, she was supposed to go away and shut up.
But on this night former President Guillermo Endara was seated in the front row and there were not enough seats to go around. The standing-room-only crowd was mainly middle class and middle aged, relatively well educated and fired up to hit the campaign trail.
There were two parts of the forum. First, four speakers from academia spoke of the little known environmental implications of the canal expansion program. Then Cuervo de Paredes interviewed Tomás Drohan, the canal’s former chief engineer and Dredging Division director.
Ariel Rodríguez, a young University of Panama biologist and Demóstenes Vergara Stanziola, an aging civil engineer, teamed up, the former concisely and the latter in rambling fashion, to make the point that due to the proposed new locks’ water saving basins feature there would be a big increase in salt water intrusion into Gatun Lake. Both relied on data published by the ACP’s own experts, with Vergara warning that without mitigation the lake water upon which about half of Panamanians depend for household needs would within a few years become imputably salty and Rodríguez reviewing the possible mitigation methods and pointing out that none of them are completely effective, some of them are impossibly expensive and the chosen one, flushing the locks with fresh water from the lake, would surely cause water shortages for the metro area.
University of Panama economist Maribel Gordón, a member of FRENADESO, looked at the water question from another angle. To her, the canal expansion is but one more in a series of attempts to appropriate public water resources for private purposes and the worst part of it is a series of hydroelectric dams planned for virtually every river in Panama, for the generation of electricity to be sold to a regional power grid through multinational electric companies. Reviewing the 37 dam permit applications that list an individual as the person responsible (most of them don’t, taking advantage of corporate secrecy), she listed the surnames. To Gordón and FRENADESO, the attempt to privatize Panama’s fresh water supply can thus be summed up as the Alemán - Arias - Aramburu Porras - Btesh - Cleghorn - Eleta - Espino - García - Kuzniekcy - Mangravita - Martinelli - Motta - Palacios - Pardini - Real - Salerno - Tarazi - Vallarino - Virzi Plan. The crowd roared with laughter, and not because they thought the economist’s point was ridiculous. The canal expansion was thus presented as one more raid on public water resources, in this case to the detriment of people in the canal watershed and for the benefit of construction companies, banks and politicians of the same and related families, and for multinational shipping lines.
Dr. Bogdan Kwiecinski, a University of Panama Oceanographer who as a student took part in a famous 1958 expedition to Spitzbergan in the Arctic, looked at another environmental matter that bears on the canal expansion decision, global warming as it will affect the arctic region. After explaining the basics that are known and what is not known about global warming, he explained that whatever the specific details of the cause, rapid change is underway and will continue throughout this century at least, no matter what measures humanity might take to change the way it lives. The implication? While in the winter the northern passages will be frozen over, by 2050 there will be a 100-day summer season when it will be much quicker for container ships from North Asian ports to travel to European ports around the top of Russia and to the East Coast of North America around Alaska, Canada and Greenland than for them to use the Panama Canal. Thus, if Panama Canal tolls go too high shippers on the routes that now make the greatest use of our waterway will have an increasingly viable option for part of the year.
The Drohan interview was the main feature of the night, and he attacked the heart of the ACP’s economic arguments.
The $5.25 billion price tag? A flagrant lowball bid, he claimed, citing the 1993 Tripartite (US - Japan - Panama) Commission estimate, the figures of international lenders and his own calculations. The projected canal usage? “They say we’ll make all this money, but when they open there won’t be the ships and we’ll be losing.” The urgency of a canal soon to be at full capacity? First, he argued that the Panama Canal is only really busy for a few months of the year, and second, he pointed out that when a good or service goes into short supply, at least for the short term the law of supply and demand makes that extra profitable for the seller or service provider.
Drohan argued that the world shipping industry has committed to nothing and is waiting to see if we expand the canal, at which time they will make their new business calculations that may or may not include us depending on the tolls we demand. He said that if the world’s maritime powers really need the excess capacity, they’ll be willing to put up the money for an expansion.
Drohan also deflated some of the ACP’s claims to managerial genius. The obvious target would have been the mantra about how Panama has received more money in the few years since it took over the canal than in all the decades that the American ran it, as if that means that Alemán Zubieta’s management prowess rather than the decolonization for which generations of Panamanians worked and fought is responsible, but Drohan skipped that argument and narrowed his focus on the results of a management study by the AOE Corporation, an ACP consultant.
The study, he said, found the ACP “administratively weak” because it’s incapable of recruiting and keeping qualified people; it has an aging work force of people who get sick a lot and thus have a high rate of absenteeism; and that it is “incapable of cost containment.” He blames the 1999 ACP decision to abolish the canal’s apprenticeship program as Alemán Zubieta’s key management blunder behind most of these problems.
The bottom line for Drohan? “The Panama Canal is an excellent business for Panama. Why do we want to risk it on this madness? The ‘no’ is to protect the $600 million in profits that we need to address social problems in Panama.”
Several of the many organizations in the “no” campaign were passing out literature or signing up volunteers at the event, and doing quite well in an atmosphere marked by confidence and fervor.
And Maribel Cuervo de Paredes? On this night she pretty much showed that although they can make life miserable sometimes, church, state and media barons neither make nor break the best of journalists. At the moment you will hear her on the radio, but look for her to return to far greater prominence than she previously enjoyed.