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Bernal, Where is Panama headed?
Where are we headed?
by Miguel Antonio Bernal
The rhythm of the events raining down upon us in our country in recent weeks leaves no doubt about the malaise in which our society finds itself. Once again, "things are so bad that they look like they're good." Values, principles and truths are ever scarcer and discounted in the national market, and we citizens feel ever less in control over society and over those in charge of public powers.
To debate or to have a dialogue about the national situation, to be able to take an inventory of realities, to formulate and respond to certain questions, these are things that these days are a rare exercise in Panama, even when they should be the daily task of citizens who are concerned about politics in a society whose democratization process, with the passing years, appears more mirage than oasis in a desert of debates and confrontations of ideas that's in open competition with an ocean of private interests, in which that of Panama is not to be found.
We should all have learned that to speak of democracy and democratization we don't refer to a static ideal, but we speak of a dynamic process that must be lived day by day, shared and developed. The events through which Panama has gone over the past three decades now place us in the waiting room for the making of transcendental decisions, which we can summarize as the central problem: peace or violence; participation or imposition.
Sixteen years after the invasion, the necessary conditions for a democratization process in a society that lived for 21 years with its back turned upon democratic freedoms are every day more discounted by the current government. These conditions include:
1. Removing the residues of authoritarianism at all levels, a basic requirement to establish institutions and practices that permit our society to advance in the most homogenous way toward the objectives of democratic forms of government. Lately they've been doing more to strengthen these vestiges than to remove them. Just look at Customs, the Transit Authority, Immigration, the Security Office in the Ministry of Government and Justice, Law 1, the Penal Code, the PTJ Law, the role of the DIIP National Police detective squad, and the administration's Integral Security Plan, to mention only a few examples. The militarist constitution continues as a straitjacket on society and a bas for the remnants of authoritarianism to impose themselves on the constitutional order.
2. Fully effective political rights. This requirement is a condition sine qua non to be able to speak of democracy, given that political rights, without exception, must be in force for all opinions, yet here in Panama we continue without opening channels for real participation in public affairs for all sectors of the population. Availing themselves of the structures and content of the Electoral Code that was designed for autocracy, those in power impede citizen participation, as can be seen by the recent actions of the Electoral Tribunal to exclude thousands of Panamanians from the voter rolls, the multiplication of obstacles to independent candidacies, the ban on independent candidates for president and the privilege of infallability for the magistrates.
3. Broad participation of the citizenry in the processes of forming the government. The clamor for "justice, democracy and freedom" has been neither heard nor understood nor practiced by the past three governments. The chain of revelations about practices contrary to due process of law, the presumption of innocence and judicial independence never ends and while that's a scandal to some it pleases others. The state of decomposition is growing, although "Team Martín" calls it an advance.
4. A capacity to respond to social situations that require government action. As this doesn't exist, the population becomes impatient after having been left dissatisfied by the government's growing incapacity to respond to daily needs on a community or sector level, such as water, electricity, transportation, health, employment and means of communication, despite demands that are heard more and more across the nation.
5. Effectiveness, that is, the ability to put into practice, that which has been decided and adopted by majorities. How can the government demand that the people silently accept the inexcusable delay of what has been planned and promised? Zero corruption, less unemployment and more security have become unkept promises.
6. Coherence and efficiency. Ever more sectors of the Panamanian population have arrived at the conclusion that these qualities are absent in those who govern us and increasingly the rest of society has begun to live with the anxiety that's spread by the protest groups. Just look at the reactions to the street blockades.
With our civic capacity for participation, without revanchist motives but imbued with a determination to have effective democratization, we can lay the foundations that will move the country toward an effective participatory democracy. Otherwise....
Miguel Antonio Bernal is a law professor at the University of Panama, the president of the Colegio de Abogados Honor Tribunal (the national bar association's disciplinary board), a practicing attorney, a radio show host, past president of Panama's chapter of the Alliance Français and a member of the Violet Legion, an honor society of intellectuals nominated by presidents of France, in this case for Bernal's journalism for Le Monde Diplomatique. Successive Panamanian governments have insisted that Dr. Bernal isn't a "real journalist" because he doesn't have a journalism degree from the University of Panama.
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Bernal, Where is Panama headed?
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