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Volume 15, Number 8
May 4, 2009

front page

Panama elects a conservative president
Martinelli's team
The legislature takes shape, with reason to raise an eyebrow here or there
A documentary tale from the "expat community"
José Ponce's Panama City scenes

Martinelli supporters celebrate. Photo by Eric Jackson

Mayor's race close between Bosco and Bobby, Martinelli coalition will have a fragmented legislative majority
Martinelli blowout
The polls had been closed for only about three hours when the Electoral Tribunal unofficially declared Ricardo Martinelli the president elect. The presidential race was close in Colon, Darien and the Kuna comarcas, and Balbina won among the Embera and in the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca, but everywhere else Martinelli piled up  double-digit leads. With a little more than 91 percent of the precincts reporting, Martinelli scored around 60 percent to Balbina Herrera's approximate 36 percent.

It was touch and go, and we won't know for awhile, whether former President Guillermo Endara's Vanguardia Moral de la Patria has received the four percent of the vote that it needs to retain its status as a legally registered political party. The Liberals appeared headed for extinction. Except for these two parties, initial indications were that the Partido Popular won a single seat in the National Assembly and the others all won several seats.

The Martinelli win was resounding and marks the beginning of a conservative period in Panamanian politics, but possibly an unstable period too. Initial returns --- and it will be at least several days after the election before the legislature's composition is known --- indicate that Martinelli's alliance of his own Cambio Democratio party, the Panameñistas, MOLIRENA and the Union Patriotica will have a majority by a few seats, with the biggest component of that the Panameñista contingent. The question is whether that adds up to a big faction fight over who gets what, or to a stable working majority. Beyond that, the PRD will control the judicial branch during most of Martinelli's administration, including both the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and the Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez, a Torrijos appointee, will retain that post throughout the next administration. But Martinelli has served in both PRD and Panameñista cabinets and might go for a grand alliance with the PRD in the legislature if his campaign allies give him too much grief.

The president-elect will inherit a government plagued by scandals, a capital city with a new mayor coming in with severe legal problems that could cut short his tenure in office, a collapsing education system, crumbling infrastructures and a high national debt.

A businessman who did his apprenticeship with Wal-Mart and doesn't believe in unions, Martinelli comes to office with organized labor weak and divided but perhaps inclined to unify and strengthen itself by giving the new administration a hard time. The teachers, firefighters and public health care system doctors are all restless as the change of administration looms.

The turn to the right that Martinelli's win means for Panama runs counter to the tide across most of Latin America and to trends in the United States as well. That probably doesn't mean any special diplomatic problems in Latin America beyond the possibility that the presidents of Panama and Venezuela will say snide things about one another. Relations with the United States may be more complicated, as Martinelli's for the US-Panama free trade pact but the US Congress is unlikely to ratify it without some substantial weakening of Panamanian banking secrecy. That sort of legislation would divide Martinelli's conservative base but there is a chance that the lame duck PRD government could pass it before the change of administrations on July 1.

Balbina Herrera addresses her supporters on election night. Photo by José F. Ponce

The PRD presidential nominee losing with 36 or 37 percent of the vote, and her party leading the legislative polling in Colon city and touch-and-go about retaining the mayor's offices in Panama City and San Miguelito? It's a stinging defeat in many ways, but the old PRD base of support remains largely intact. The question is what changes there will be over the coming five years.

The PRD is a political machine that thrives on patronage, and which looked to maintain its hold on power by handing out goodies in key places. But in the first place, under the rules of the US-defined globalization that the nominally socialist PRD embraced, there are not and can't be enough goodies for a small and relatively poor country to pass around. In the poverty-stricken indigenous comarcas, usually the big swing voting areas of the country, the Red de Oportunidades program in which the president went around passing out envelopes with $50 to families that keep their children in school seemed to have worked. In those places there was a higher than usual rate of abstention but the PRD held its own.

But on the election night dais with Martinelli, the supermarket baron son of an Italian-Panamanian Veraguas rice processor, were Alberto Vallarino and Vice President Elect Juan Carlos Varela. Vallarino made a fortune that makes him if not a billionaire at least halfway there mainly in banking, but it seems that his major business activities are in the hotel and resort sector these days. Varela is the scion of Panama's principal liquor distilling family. If the PRD used public funds to pass out lots of goodies in search of votes, one of the keys to the Martinelli victory was the mobilization of private funds to pass out even more goodies than the PRD.

In the end, the PRD base had shrunk just a bit. Were it not for Balbina Herrera's Partido Popular and Liberal junior coalition partners, Panama's largest party would have dipped below 30 percent of the vote, down to approximately its level in the 1989 election that its boss at the time, one Manuel Antonio Noriega, tried to annul.

Incomplete returns had the  PRD candidate for mayor of Panama City, Bobby Velásquez, trailing Panamenista Bosco Vallarino but still possibly in a position to be elected. Those results had Miguel Antonio Bernal far behind with 14 percent. Assuming that Velásquez can pull out the victory, there still would loom his legal problems in the David Murcia Guzmán scandal that would likely prove insurmountable in the event that a photo or video of him walking out of Murcia's suite at the Hotel Sheraton carrying a suitcase ever comes to light. But either a defeat at the hands of Vallarino --- who has even worse legal problems from the point of view of holding the mayor's office --- or Velásquez's removal and replacement by his Partido Popular running mate Anibal Culiolis would mean the PRD's loss of the capital's municipal government and the $100 million budget and 4,000 jobs that go with it.

The PRD won the 2004 elections with massive support from young voters, including many of the best educated ones. We saw by the scant participation by younger voters in the 2006 canal expansion referendum that this voting block had not been incorporated into the PRD hard core, and we saw young voters swing solidly behind Martinelli this time around. Out on the campaign trail, the PRD's foot soldiers --- still an impressive army --- were a combination of the aging old guard and poor and poorly educated younger voters, particularly younger women. There will be no government jobs for the latter, and the inexorable ravages of time will cull the herd of the former.

So the PRD's base may be mainly intact, but the party is in an existential crisis. On election night former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who lost a struggle last year to recapture control over the party, called for the entire National Executive Committee to resign. Balbina was hearing none of that, promising in a long, rambling and all but tearful election night speech in which she barely conceded and certainly didn't congratulate Martinelli that she would continue as the leader of the opposition. In the internal world of the PRD, however, the night's likely winner was vice presidential candidate and former Panama City mayor Juan Carlos Navarro, whom Balbina narrowly defeated in a primary for the presidential nomination.

Whether Martinelli, and more importantly Attorney General Gómez, continue the "Pacto MaMi" --- the all but explicitly spelled out agreement between Martin Torrijos and Mireya Moscoso that incoming administrations would not investigate the corrupt predations of their predecessors --- will have a great bearing on Balbina Herrera's and the PRD's future. Although a PRD-dominated Supreme Court could be the party's salvation in this and many other matters, even with that safety net in place the outgoing administration could be made to look so bad in the public eye that the PRD old guard whom Herrera represents might never be able to win another primary.

Juan Jované marching in the Mayday parade. Photo by Eric Jackson

At this point in 2004, few expected that Ricardo Martinelli, who had finished in fourth place with a low single digit percentage of the vote to just barely keep his Cambio Democratico party on the ballot, would come back in five years time to win in a landslide. It's a testament to how Panama, although caught up in a style of politics much akin to that of New York's old Tammany Hall and shackled with a constitution inherited from a dictatorship that fell 20 years ago, is a lot more politically volatile than all the real estate hype and dogmatic Washington think tank pontifications suggest.

On the eve of the election, the Supreme Court threw another wild card into the mix for future contests. It struck down that section of the Electoral Code that bars independent presidential candidacies. Even where they are legal the PRD-controlled Electoral Tribunal goes well out of its way to discriminate against or suppress independent candidates, but nevertheless Panama got its first legislator elected as an independent (Yanibel Abrego in Capira, who took a seat away from the PRD) and when the final tallies are in she may have company in the independent caucus.

The high court decision to legalize independent candidates came on a challenge brought by leftist would-be candidate, economics professor and former Seguro Social director Juan Jované. The left accounts for maybe 10 percent of Panamanians but it's fragmented and squabbling, and thanks to a calculation by the November 29th National Liberation Movement (MLN-29) that it couldn't control a primary in a mass-based leftist party, FRENADESO and its friends were AWOL in this election. (Is that a Leninist thing to be? Read Comrade Lenin's "Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder," all you kids who, in lieu of thinking seriously about changing your country, accept the Marxist canon as the latest word.)

In the end, the left vote was split among those who spoiled their ballots by writing in Jované, those who cast blank ballots, those who stayed home and those who voted for the least-unappealing establishment alternatives. Judging from the Mayday parade and other signs, the ULIP labor/left coalition has gained ground on the FRENADESO alliance that MLN-29 dominates. (In Marxian jargon, one might say that the revisionists stole a march on the deviationists.)

In any case Panama, which heavily depends on international trade for its economic survival, has one of the most capitalistic populations in Latin America. Gallup found that for every 100 Panamanians who describe their economic philosophy as capitalistic, only 87 describe their attitude as socialistic. In most Latin American countries these days, there are socialist-oriented majorities.

Jované says he has already started his 2014 campaign and if the left has any collective sense it would be in the primary of a leftist party rather than as an independent. However, whether as an independent or on a left party's ticket, consider what the presence on the presidential ballot of a candidate who challenges globalization according to the NAFTA template would do to the PRD, which is affiliated with the Socialist International.

Add a court decision and the showings of a few independents to the mix, and the PRD's future becomes even cloudier.

*     *     *

As regular readers will have noticed, I took sides in this election, particularly in the mayor's race. The candidate I supported lost, and there are people who have criticized the things I wrote about his opponents.

First principles first. I reported the truth.

Second, there is an interplay among being fair, being accurate and being restrained, but the pretense of many journalists and media of having no opinion is none of those things. It's generally a dishonest non-disclosure of the reporter's, editor's or publisher's point of view.

Third, I hear particularly from the Bobby Velásquez camp, which has a bit of hack writing from the Brookings Institution to uphold his innocence in the Murcia affair, that I was terribly unfair. So the PRD is complaining that I played hardball with them. As in, the people who during the canal referendum drove up to next to where I was sleeping in a boom truck a little before 4:30 in the morning and started blasting "Cueco! Cueco!" at me are telling me to mind my political manners. As in a PRD administration among which somebody took a bribe to let a convicted felon "patriot" militia shill who's wanted by Costa Rican authorities into the country, a PRD administration that went on to let this far-right fraud artist continue his predations using Panama as a base, and, when this Mark Boswell alias Rex Freeman charged me with criminal defamation and the scamsters' American cheering section piled on with a published call for people to file more frivolous calumnia e injuria charges against me, the former head of the PRD's Frente Empresarial and one of the few of his campaign contributors that Bobby Velásquez has identified, financed this appeal for my further prosecution. Well, Bobby and friends, you complain that I played hardball with you? I don't apologize.

*     *     *

On the eve of the Mayday parade when this part of the front page was written, let me remind you of an adage adopted by the Wobblies --- the Industrial Workers of the World --- of which my paternal grandfather was one in his youth, and which is still valid today:

"An injury to one is an injury to all."

One of our colleagues in Panamanian journalism has been injured. After an unfair trial in which his lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine a key prosecution witness, El Siglo editor Jean Marcel Chéry was convicted of trespassing on a government official's farm and sentenced to two years in prison. It is the latest episode in a long vendetta by Supreme Court magistrate Winston Spadafora for some reporting that Chéry did when he was with El Panama America, about the kleptocratic abuses of Mireya Moscoso's inner circle.

And if Mayday is a leftist holiday honoring workers' solidarity, let the journalists of this country, and Panama's leftists, uphold basic principles with respect to the hemisphere's oldest leftist government, that of Cuba. Yes, the US policy of trying to isolate and embargo Cuba is a miserable failure and Barack Obama's moves to change that approach are overdue. But Cuba still holds more than 20 journalists in prison and still bans independent news reporting. It's time for the Panamanian press corps, and the Panamanian left, to join in the call for Cuba to free our imprisoned colleagues.

*     *     *

This issue gets into many sides of Panamanian life, from a visit to a good Chinese restaurant in Panama City to a land dispute in Bocas; from the government's attempts to liquidate the Stanford Group's holdings here to a pipeline worker's tale from yesteryear; from allegorical tales of mythical beasts to a varied discussion about the torture scandal that's ongoing in the USA. (And by the way, if you haven't seen the documents that the Obama administration released and have just what the pundits say on which to form your judgments, go to the source by clicking here.)

We also start our process of getting back to normal after a long political campaign, with a slightly expanded collection of cool Internet sites, half of which are music videos; and with a collection of cute kittens that need homes.


Eric Jackson
editor & publisher

PS: People who are on The Panama News email list are notified as new articles are uploaded onto this website, as the production cycle bears an ever more tenuous relationship to the stated dates of any particular issue. People on this list started getting links to articles in this issue more than a week before this front page was uploaded.  Send me an email asking to subscribe if you want to get on the email list.

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Editor & Publisher - Eric Jackson
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© 2009 by Eric Jackson
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