When the US representatives come here, what should they demand?

Panama is a sovereign country. George W. Bush may toss his infamous "regime change" demands here and there all over the world, but neither the United States nor any other country has the right to change another sovereign nation's laws. For that reason, at first glance it looks unseemly that a delegation of US representatives headed by House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel should come to Panama and Peru demanding changes in these nations' laws as the price for their approval of proposed free trade treaties.

It looks so unseemly, in fact, that we have been treated to ludicrous anti-imperialist rhetoric by none other than The Wall Street Journal.

But wait a minute. These treaties are about mergers of sovereign nations' economies. As legislators of a sovereign nation the members of the US House and US Senate would be remiss in their duties if they approved such economic marriages knowing that certain things about the proposed foreign partners made them unsuitable for such an undertaking.

That's why House Democrats have very properly killed the free trade pact with Colombia. US workers should not have to put up with employers who intimidate their unions by threatening to move to Colombia, where companies can and do hire paramilitary hit men to suppress any labor organization that they doesn't control.

In Panama, as in the United States, there is plenty of room for improvement in our labor and environmental laws. However, if the visiting US representatives focus on those issues they will have missed the essential point.

Panama has many good laws on the books, but we hardly have the rule of law. In fact, we have ever-stronger laws on our books, and practices adopted by our courts, that are for the precise purpose of thwarting the rule of law.

Just look at the ongoing controversy swirling around anti-corruption prosecutor Maribel Cornejo: César Pereira Burgos, a now deceased former president of the Supreme Court, wrote a large check against insufficient funds in the state-owned Banco Nacional de Panama; La Prensa found out about it; Roosevelt Thayer, the former housing minister under the Pérez Balladares administration deposited the funds to cover the bounced check; then a few days later Pereira Burgos and several colleagues issued a controversial decision to quash a case in which a paper trail indicated that while he was president Ernesto Pérez Balladares had given himself a piece of the action in a government contract to maintain this country's lighthouses and buoys. Pereira Burgos had immunity from investigation, but he left the court and has since died. Arguably, Pérez Balladares had and has immunity. Cornejo was looking into the conduct of the lesser public officials in this sad affair, but an earlier decision of the Supreme Court had held that when a legislator who has immunity enters into a bribery conspiracy with non-legislators, that legislator's immunity also protects his or her accomplices from investigation or prosecution. So now it's Cornejo who is fighting for her job, her reputation and her freedom against criminal charges of abusing her authority.

And the United States is seriously considering an economic merger with a country in which this is what passes for the rule of law?

What about that new provision of the recently passed new Penal Code that makes it a crime for a journalist to publish or even possess a business memo that comes into her hands even if the content is a business executive writing to an assistant: 'Hey Carlos, after you're done bumping off that union steward, I want you to take this envelope full of cash down to this Supreme Court magistrate's office'?

What about the laws that say that anyone filing a complaint against a public official must attach to it complete proof that a crime was committed and the official did it, otherwise no investigation of suspicious circumstances might be undertaken?

What about the secrecy in campaign contributions?

What about all the rich foreign criminals like the convicted pedophile Ronald H. Kelly who are allowed to live in this country despite our immigration laws that are supposed to exclude such people?

What about the endless stream of foreign hustlers who, apparently for the right price, have been allowed to operate international frauds from here, sometimes even with the endorsements of top government officials, notwithstanding the prohibitions contained in our laws?

What about the politicians' persistent overt and covert bribery of the media, often done with public funds?

What about the banking and corporate secrecy that make it well nigh impossible to investigate all but the stupidest public officials who violate our laws against inexplicable enrichment while holding public office?

Now it might just be that the Rangel mission is designed to create an excuse, either for the Democratic leadership to deep-six treaties that are unpalatable to their caucuses or for the same leaders to sugar-coat treaties about which many rank-and-file Democrats are deeply and justifiably suspicious. But assuming that it's not all a charade, the questions that ought to be asked cut right to the core of what's rotten in all branches of Panama's government.

Bribery, partisan loyalties, family ties and business alliances routinely trump the rule of law in this country. That's the reality that makes any quibbling about this or that section of the Panamanian labor or environmental codes ridiculous, and any assurances given by our politicians to a visiting congressional delegation inherently suspect.



Martín can't avoid questions with goon squad tactics or corny tricks

Even the PRD's loyal hand-picked Defensor del Pueblo says that the presidential guards need to be more tolerant. Even the man that Torrijos put in charge of dealing with the poisoned medicine crisis in ways that don't involve accountability for the top government officials whose conduct contributed to the tragedy says that the SPI used uncalled-for force against the families of the victims. When the beaten leaders of a small protest were jailed and charged with disrespecting the presidential guards, the corregidor had little choice but to release them because the law making disrespect of a law enforcement officer a crime was repealed several years ago.

The president should be embarrassed. However, when his behavior during this entire crisis is considered, it suggests that the man is desperate to avoid even greater embarrassments. People working in the public health care system sounded the alarm about a rash of mysterious deaths and illnesses last July, but the government only admitted that there was a problem in October. That information control game played by the Torrijos administration led directly to the deaths of dozens of innocent people.

Oh, but top government officials have various sorts of immunity. Oh, but you can't investigate the conduct of public officials unless first you come up with complete and compelling proof of wrongdoing that magically appears without an investigation. If someone checks a fact before making an allegation, that's an illegal investigation and the person making a charge that's well grounded in fact, not the misbehaving official, is the one who's treated like a criminal.

And besides, the PRD and their allies control most of the mainstream corporate media, so if MEDCOM and La Prensa won't raise the issue, it doesn't exist. Right?


Beatings, illegal arrests, creatnig a PRD front group of one victim's relative who supports the health minister and Seguro Social director, obstructing the investigation of the case by denying the funds that were needed to exhume and examine hundreds of bodies in time to find traces of the poison, promises of compensation that are not honored, vitriolic personal attacks that unfairly impugn the motives of the president's critics, media spin --- none of this is going to save Martín Torrijos from the obvious questions:

·        What did the president know about the rash of deaths and illnesses, and when did he know it?

·        How many bottles of poisonous cough syrup did the president and first lady pass out to unsuspecting citizens during their canal referendum campaign swings through remote indigenous communities?

·        Was the government news blackout on the poisoned medicine situation a deliberate referendum campaign tactic?

·        Was the failure to properly fund the prosecutors' investigation of the more than 600 claimed deaths a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice?

Most Panamanians already know that the Torrijos administration messed up very badly in this crisis. The questions that the president is apparently trying to dodge by his gutter-level political tactics run to the knowledge, intentions and degree of fault of top administration officials. The president's continued protection of Health Minister Camilo Alleyne and Seguro Social Director René Luciani raises reasonable suspicions that he won't let these men who were clearly at fault go because if he did they might start saying things that directly implicate the chief executive in very serious misconduct.



Bear in mind...


As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become victims of the darkness.

William O. Douglas


The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly... it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.

Joseph Goebbels


Immature people crave and demand moral certainty: This is bad, this is good. Kids and adolescents struggle to find a sure moral foothold in this bewildering world; they long to feel they're on the winning side, or at least a member of the team. To them, heroic fantasy may offer a vision of moral clarity. Unfortunately, the pretended Battle Between (unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil obscures instead of clarifying, serving as a mere excuse for violence --- as brainless, useless, and base as aggressive war in the real world.

Ursula K. Le Guin



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