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Volume 15, Number 12
July 22, 2009

front page

Vuelve Rubén Blades y su banda de salsa
Controversy over proposed cell phone and Internet registry law
Martinelli's road building proposals draw critics, defenders
Sailing around the world
Colon's French Caribbean architecture
The photographers' blurb
Supreme Court reopens the investigation of a potentially explosive CEMIS affair
Editorials: Getting the metro right; and New US bases in Latin America?

Minister of Government & Justice Raúl Mulino. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional

Crises, conflicts and changes

Lately in Panama, there has been a lot of talk in certain circles about shooting people. The people who cheer about this sort of thing are, by and large, the sorts of people you ought to avoid. However, not everybody who's talking about gunplay is a nut case.

Take the new Minister of Government and Justice, Raúl Mulino. He has announced that prisoners escaping from prison will be fired upon. That has a few folks denouncing the minister as if he were some sort of Nazi, and a larger group applauding --- somewhat in the fashion of those fans who used to go to the Colosseum to cheer for their hometown favorite lions when the Christians were the visiting team in ancient Rome.

It is, of course, the way that the world ordinarily works that inmates going over or through a penitentiary fence run the risk of being shot. However, Panama has not been a very ordinary place in recent years --- we have seen a steady stream of mass escapes, often by the most dangerous of violent offenders, from our allegedly maximum security prisons.

So will escapees be shot? Well, before things get to that point it might help to fix the fences, which are missing in places. When things get to that point, it might help to repair the guard towers, which in many cases are unusable. It also might help not to have guards who will let inmates escape if the bribe is sufficient.

Mulino's policy may be drastic, but it does make a certain amount of sense. But if the order to shoot escapees is all there is to it, that approach would be inadequate even to meet the narrow issue of jailbreaks.

Let's face it: Panama's prisons are overcrowded, improperly managed hellholes. Simplistic "get tough" policies prompt more cheers than jeers. Realistic discussion of the corrections system's problems is hard to come by. Some of the things that need to be done to get the situation under control will surely be unpopular.

There has been a start at separating those awaiting trial from those who have been convicted of crimes, and minor offenders from the more violent criminals. But largely due to overcrowding, and also in order to avoid gang violence within the places of incarceration, this process has not been completed.

What really makes the situation difficult to manage, even if everyone in charge were an honest and efficient professional, is the "War on Drugs." Panama's jails and prisons are jam-packed, and our court dockets are impossibly backlogged, because of the misguided policy of trying to manage the problem of substance abuse mainly through application of the criminal laws.

It's every bit as much a failure as alcohol prohibition was in the United States, and then some. It's an international folly, one that has given rise to international gangs that make Al Capone look like a third rate street punk who controls a squalid tenement block in Curundu. It has disrupted relations between the United States and other countries in the hemisphere. Although most of the stories and photos have been erased, it has embarrassed the US State Department and the US military, institutions that have repeatedly touted their cooperation with the likes of Ricky Traad, who turned out to be the enemy in this "War on Drugs."

But if US-inspired anti-drug policies are futile, that doesn't make the gangsters who run the drug rackets nice guys who are misunderstood. They are in fact the worst of the many criminals who have been attracted by successive governments to our isthmus. The last thing Panama needs is for them to buy even more control over our economy than they now exercise.

So do we want jails and prisons that can be managed on any sort of sane basis? The populations need to be dramatically reduced. We shouldn't release the murderers, rapists, kidnappers and robbers from whom society needs the most protection. So how do we reduce prison populations to a manageable size?

We do it by ending the "War on Drugs" as we have known it. Those held for relatively minor drug offenses should be put to work cleaning trash off of beaches or roadsides for a matter of days or weeks, then sent on their respective ways with a warning that the Panamanian justice system doesn't want to see them again. Our constitution should be amended so that smugglers who move contraband though our territory, regardless of whether they are Panamanian citizens, will be turned over to authorities of any other country that wants to try and punish them for their smuggling activities. Our immigration system needs to be completely overhauled and one of the most important changes is to end the presumption that a lot of money makes a foreigner desirable. Drug addiction should be confronted with public policies akin to those aimed at discouraging alcohol abuse or tobacco smoking, with only a relatively minor role for the criminal law in dealing with what's essentially a health problem.

Mulino and Martinelli are taking easy first steps. They find little opposition when they insist, even to the point of deadly force, that it's not OK for prisoners to escape. But they have to do a lot more, and take political risks, if they are to have much success in solving the serious problems that afflict our law enforcement, judicial and corrections systems.

*     *     *

Martinelli trashes Figali's fence. Video by the Presidencia

Also under the "rule of law" heading, President Martinelli has showed up at a couple of spots along the Amador Causeway where concessionaires who haven't even paid for what they received have grabbed for more, building illegal landfills and thumbing their noses at public institutions and the Panamanian people.

Vandalizing a rich businessman's fence may be frowned upon if the persons doing it are student radicals or labor militants. In this case, however, it was rich businessmen who have come to high public offices who were doing it, and very few Panamanians are offended by what was done.

There is a big question about just how rich Jean Figali, whose fence is shown coming down, really is. Great fortunes that are mostly smoke and mirrors but are propped up by undue political influence have been a traditional feature of the Panamanian economy, and we shall see if Mr. Figali actually has anything near the many millions of dollars he owes in arrears on his Amador concession. I wonder if he has the resources to make the future payments as they come due.

So is it a case of arrested development? Did Mr. Martinelli miss out on juvenile delinquency and campus activism when he was younger?

*     *     *

Meanwhile, in some of the English-language email groups, a relatively few individuals have been preaching that more guns are the solution to the crime wave we have been seeing.

I am not talking about most people who have seen fit to arm themselves to defend their homes, businesses or persons. Most such folks don't talk very much about this because if you think about it --- like many of them have --- advertisement of the fact that one is armed is often counter-productive. Notice, for example, how often security guards and even police officers are assaulted by street gangs seeking to take their weapons.

However, there are these yahoos who not only ignore the fact that, statistically speaking, a firearm tends to make a household more dangerous than safer, but berate American residents of Panama who don't arm themselves for acting in a way that "invariably leads to other citizens, tourists, ex-pats, etc. getting mugged/hurt/murdered."

This is an importation of an American malaise, a sickness in which people try to live out Hollywood fiction.

*     *     *

President Obama and Senator Kennedy on the 2008 campaign trail. Photo by Ragesoss

Teddy Kennedy is calling universal health care "the cause of my life" as a serious illness has him walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs and the enemies of all changes other than tax breaks for the rich are cutting Senator Kennedy and President Obama no slack at all.

It's easy enough to disqualify Senator Edward M. Kennedy as a candidate for sainthood --- especially because he has never asserted such a claim for himself. But the invocation of visceral hatred of a man who is generally respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle as well as by his constituents is one of many signs of desperation by those dedicated to defending the untenable. One bit of opposition to health care reform in the United States that has been circulated in Panama's American community takes aim at Kennedy as "a man who buys his way out of killing the assistant he was banging, buys his way out of a cheating scandal in school, etc., etc., etc. Teddy's been a sleazeball his entire life."

Yes, we learned back in the 90s how vicious the special interest groups for whom the outlandishly expensive US health care system is a gravy train tend to get. But now they are even worse.

The other day I happened upon an American looking at the right-wing Newsmax website, at an article under a headline that declared: "Obama Health Plan to Cover 12 Million Illegals." In other words, having long since written off African-American voters, these people are now willing to invoke unfriendly passions against immigrants and forsake Hispanic voting groups for a generation in their bid to defeat health care reform. (Yes, they'll say they're just against those in the USA illegally, and when they let the seriously injured patient from a Mexican-American family that's lived in Texas for six generations go untreated and die because she isn't carrying proof of citizenship, I'm sure they'll find a suitably swarthy scapegoat.)

What's it about?

South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint, addressing the special interest front group Conservatives for Patients Rights, took it way beyond the usual politics of greed and special interest power. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him.”

Obama shot back: "This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy."

Of course, the economy works just fine for some Americans. But look at the critically ill auto industry: notwithstanding conservative union bashing, US auto workers' wages are not much different from those of their counterparts in other industrialized countries. But the relative costs of health care distort things so that the same car can be built for hundreds of dollars less in Canada than across the river in the United States.

The owners of small businesses on small town Main Streets across the USA --- usually a reliable Republican constituency --- not only can't afford meaningful health insurance coverage for their employees. They can't afford it for themselves either.

The system is broken for almost everybody, but there are exceptions. So while the far right faction that now controls the GOP is spitting pure venom, the lobbyists for those who profit from the present system are calling in a collection of IOUs that has been built up over many years in an attempt to extract Democratic senators and representatives from the ranks of those who are supporting reform. But rank-and-file Democrats were already compiling a hit list --- those who opposed labor law reform or supported torture are going to have well funded primary challengers. Those who jump ship on health care reform will be toast.

This isn't 1993. Americans have seen where the politics of greed have led their country. There will be disagreements and these will be the inevitable source of tinkering and compromises. The United States will not get the very best health care reform package that it might have had --- isn't that almost always the way it works in a republic with a bicameral legislature? Nevertheless, despite any and all divisions among Democrats, the angry passions that are being stirred up to avoid reforms to the system are unlikely to have the effect that those who invoke them would like to see.

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Bessie Smith, an American legend, died where hospitals were segregated

If you think that the possibility of atrocious incidents of racial discrimination at hospitals as alluded to above is far-fetched, you would be right that regardless of the laws, most US health care providers would not demand proof of citizenship before treating a critically ill person who arrives at a facility.

However, when the law mandates or even permits abuses, those will be forthcoming. Haven't we already seen obnoxious government officials dumping US citizens who happen to be of Latin American background over the border in Mexico?

There is an apocryphal horror story about the death of blues legend Bessie Smith, but regardless of the inventions and exaggerations in that story, it is true that in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she died, the hospitals were racially segregated in her time. Nor do we have to go that far afield or as many years back in time to get to the old Canal Zone hospital system, whose services were generally limited to Americans and those non-Americans who worked for the old Panama Canal Company or the US military. Moreover, despite laws and evolving ethical standards, there is still a racial gap in US health care.

Arguments in favor of denying health care to any group in society are not just the inconsequential rants of rare and isolated individuals. They are the policy of one of the two major US political parties.

*     *     *

Strange nights at the Ancon Theater

All is not the blues this issue, nor is it all politics in this summer of high drama in Washington and rainy days of a new government in Panama. We have some other genres of music in this issue's Cool Internet sites. We spend an afternoon in El Valle. We get the establishment view of Panama's economy. I note the difference between a noteworthy passing and a celebrity death. Silvio Sirias does what he can to help a young writer on her way. We take a peek at some of George Scribner's new paintings. We look at interesting characters and scenery in Panama City. And so on....


Eric Jackson
editor & publisher

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