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Volume 15, Number 18
December 15, 2009

front page

Schedule for Panama's big week of jazz
José Ponce's Panama scenes
Is this the last photo ever taken of Father Héctor Gallego?
San Carlos beach wars, episode ∞
The Panama movie premiere that wasn't
High drama as Attorney General Gómez resists attempt to remove her
Route for Metro mass transit system unveiled
The coastal and island right-of-possession land titling law that finally passed
Dolphins in the Gulf of Chiriqui
Discurso de Presidente Martinelli en la Asamblea Nacional de Diputados
A Caribbean perspective on Copenhagen
Ex-President Pérez Balladares prosecuted for money laundering
Martinelli gets his high court nominees approved, at a political cost
Sirias, Uplifted at a president's funeral

An Albrook Mall Christmas display. The harpy eagle is Panama's national bird and thus a symbol of this country. This common depiction of Santa Claus is based upon the 1930s creation of a US advertising agency.  Photo and electronic alterations by Eric Jackson

Una Navidad típica a todos y todas...
Season's Greetings from Panama

Panama's a mostly Catholic country, but The Panama News is not particularly written for Christians as such. Panama has had a couple of Jewish presidents, and Panamanians don't consider boxer any less of a national hero on account of his Muslim faith. During the long nightmare when we were part of , Panama was mostly a bastion of the Liberal camp that was opposed to declaring Catholicism the official state religion.

Now for the first time in a long time, and really to a greater extent than at any other time in our history as an independent country, the religious right --- Opus Dei and such --- holds substantial power and influence as part of the ruling political coalition. So what does a discredited sticky-fingered liar who finds himself in the mayor's office do this time of year? Why, he wears his religion and his poor taste on his sleeve by investing public funds and mobilizing corporations (mainly those who depend on staying in favor with the government) to create what he hopes to be the Guinness Book of World Records largest Christmas display. But just like the US religious right attempts to avoid offending anyone who might have different religious ideas (but mostly, offending courts that are disposed to uphold the constitutional ban on government establishment of religion), Bosco the Clown has given us a series of quasi-secular and commercial displays, with the , snow, reindeer and other gringo cultural imports that have nothing to do with Panama.

It's all a juicy target for our local satirists, so we should not be surprised that Pedro Altamiranda has given Panama a song for the season, . Mayor Bosco Vallarino is so incensed about this musical summary of his entire administration that he told TVN --- a television station in which President Martinelli owns an interest --- that if they play the song he'll kick their corporate display out of the Christmas village.

Meanwhile, I went on Facebook --- where I maintain what's essentially an expanded version of The Panama News --- to find someone of whom I expected more wisdom forwarding this screed about how the Jews killed Jesus.

I am sometimes accused of anti-Semitism for criticizing things that Israel does, and I reject both those attacks and actual anti-Semitism. There is no master race, there are no chosen people, there is no nation whose manifest destiny is to rule over other nations, there is no class whose members should be immune from accountability for what they do. The Holocaust, whose principal but not only victims were Jews, was a singular event in human affairs but by no means history's only example of genocide.

Let us understand first and foremost that the thinking that led to the Holocaust was a Medieval perversion of Christianity, with bits of crackpot eugenics, social Darwinism and German anger at the rest of the world mixed in. They had to alter the truth about Jesus the historical character to incite the base lynch mob instincts in the highly cultured German people.

And who was this Jesus Christ?

Let us get beyond the disagreements among Muslims, who consider Jesus a prophet, and Christians, who consider Jesus the son of God. Let us look back to before the arguments among Jesus's followers about the nature of the person and his legacy. Let us get back to the historical Jesus, the common denominator of what we know.

Jesus was an observant Jew, who preached a message of reform and revival among other Jews. A carpenter living in a country under the yoke of foreign occupation, he was a member of a dissident group called the Nazarenes. He argued for a rule of law tempered by concepts of justice, mercy and forgiveness. He opposed the corrupt religious and political authorities of his time and place, describing the games that these sorts of people play in terms that still withstand the tests of time. He was a fairly nonviolent man, but he resorted to force to run the moneylenders out of Jerusalem's temple. That militant action attacked the financial infrastructure that upheld the religious establishment that was allied with the Romans, and it got him arrested and crucified a few days later.

I'll avoid the theological arguments about whether Jesus died or could die, about his familial or other relationships with God, about the resurrection and so on. All of those things are tangential to the man's message anyway. I will, however, take notice of the religious heterodoxy of the allegation that anybody killed Jesus Christ, and of the unfair broad-brush smear that "the Jews" killed this leader of a Jewish social movement. The basic charge underlying the faux Christian anti-Semitic screed just doesn't stick.

Jesus lived. Santa Claus is a fictionalized character invented by Coca-Cola's ad agency. The teachings of Jesus Christ maintain their validity, while Coca-Cola's commercial message is eminently disposable. Your choices of the traditions and messages you embrace do matter. Photo from the San Francisco de la Montañas Church by Eric Jackson

Don't mistake me for a preacher or religious authority. Don't make the even worse mistake of choosing Tom McMurrain for your guru --- although if you are attracted to his message and methods you probably deserve your fate. I went to Sunday School at the Margarita Union Church but have picked up some beliefs of which the Christian Coalition and Opus Dei would not approve. Some of the websites with religious orientations that I like and recommend include the blog of local Anglican priest Michael Dresbach, ; the online magazine founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner, Tikkun; Panama's main Liberation Theology website, ; and the Christian humor site The Door.

But is there any value in just chilling out for a moment about the ideologies, and appreciating the holiday season as a time for  families and communities to get together? Nothing wrong with that, either. In fact I really enjoyed the Theatre Guild of Ancon's annual Christmas show, and I also take notice that not everyone who participated was of the Christian faith.

And I also get into this baroque expression of the Christian faith, one of the great works of Johann Sebastian Bach, a great Protestant composer from a time when the Reformation's intra-Christian conflicts were working themselves out, performed here by Celtic Woman, most of whose members are Irish Catholics:

*     *     *

How is Panama's economy looking?

This has been a rough year for a lot of people and businesses, to the point that were it not for all of the pre-election political spending and the Panama Canal expansion our Gross Domestic Product would be somewhere on a continuum from stagnant to shrinking.

We have a primarily service-oriented economy, based largely on world shipping and serving as a wholesaling, warehousing and import/export center for parts of South and Central America.

World shipping is off severely, and we really don't know when and how much it will recover. The other day when crossing the Bridge of the Americas, I saw a COSCO ship piled as high as possible with containers heading into the Pacific Ocean and riding high on the water. It was riding high because it was carrying a load of empty containers from the United States back to China. The sight said terrible things about the state of the US economy, truths that most Americans hesitate to admit. It may be that the recovery of our canal business will be led by Brazil's continued rise as an economic power rather than a recovery of the US economy.

The price of oil is down, which is good for some people and not so good for countries with petroleum economies like Venezuela. The decline in crude oil prices has also affected , and of more immediate importance to us, reduced the Colon Free Zone's exports to its biggest customer, Venezuela.

Meanwhile the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a UN agency, is that in our region the economic recession will end earlier than had been expected. This positive forecast is tempered by a warning that the recovery may not be sustainable.

The Panamanian government is and fees, but despite the cries of anguish and alarm, look for that to have but a modest effect on the economy as a whole. Next year's tax legislation argument is going to be about a flat income tax and it's bound to create all sorts of controversies driven by economic philosophies. However, there are all sorts of ways to do a flat tax and it's best to wait to see what President Martinelli specifically proposes before jumping on any bandwagons.

I never did believe the stuff that the bankers were saying a year or so ago about how Panama would be unaffected by the world economic crisis. On the other hand I also notice that, although this country has made some risky bets and some of its most pompous families' great fortunes are mostly based on smoke and mirrors, our local business elites were unable to create a monster nearly so destructive as the US housing bubble. Yes, with funding in large part from foreign sources, some of it surely the drug cartels' money, they did create an upscale Panama City condo bubble. Plus, the canal expansion is likely to fall short of the economic expectations that Mr. Torrijos and Mr. Alemán Zubieta created with taxpayer money back in 2006. (Their revenue projections have already been shown to be ridiculous, but the cost side still might be kept within the budget guidelines.) However, this country never went so far as to put six- and seven-figure price tags on those matchbox houses in Arraijan and La Chorrera and then bet the entire financial structure on it, which would be the rough equivalent of what was done in the United States.

We are affected and will continue to be affected, but if the economies of our neighbors in the region will be picking up, we stand to rise on that tide as well. I'm cautiously hoping for a 2010 that's a little more prosperous than 2009 has been.

*     *     *

The Martinelli administration's honeymoon period is over, but the president still remains fairly popular. Local components of his coalition are bogged down in ugly and divisive controversies in and . Essentially all of and his policies. This administration's are well underway and if it persists in the notion that really ought to be strip mined for copper ore then it will mean a huge fight with the great majority of the Ngobe. The teachers' unions are snarling at the Ministry of Education and some sort of a showdown between Martinelli and organized labor seems to be just a matter of time.

Look for political trends in Latin America to give Martinelli a few more friends, but as he'll still be in the minority among the region's heads of state. Panama's also getting a divorce from the Central American Parliament (), so that will be one less forum in which he will be able to look for support. A lot of the things that could happen on the international relations scene are way beyond Martinelli's or Panama's control, but the decision to align Panama more closely with the US War on Drugs and the Uribe regime in Colombia both carry the danger of stoking nationalistic fervor here, at the president's expense.

The economy, however, is likely to be the most important issue. A little bit of improvement that falls short of public expectations can be even more explosive than the depths of economic hard times. That's probably Martinelli's greatest political risk at the moment, so look for him to downplay the prospects for a quick and robust economic recovery.

*     *     *

In this , the Copenhagen climate talks have most of the world paying attention to . Predictably, the biggest carbon dioxide emitters' suggestion that they will go on doing what they're doing, create a new carbon bond scheme for the Wall Street swindlers and tell the rest of the world to put a brake on their economic development is a non-starter. Any useful kind of agreement on how to stop adding to the greenhouse effect appears to be far off, which is the way that a coalition of corporate interests and the anti-scientific fanatics they back want it.

There is another side to the equation, which is actually more urgent. It's not a matter of "if" or "when" --- climate change is upon us right now and the questions are in the nature of "how severe" and "how quickly." Floods and are in the forecast, and what's done to mitigate the damage and adjust to the change will be the premise for many social, economic and political conflicts within many countries, and very well may be the cause of wars between countries.

One would think that Panama, a little country with two long coastlines, would be preparing itself for the prospect of rising sea levels. This is not the case and I expect to live to see a day when most Panamanians regret this.

*     *     *

Finally, let us leave on a Panamanian musical note, this Rómulo Castro tune:


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.

Most new articles are also uploaded to my Facebook page, on which I post news items about Panama and the world that are derived from other sources on a more or less daily basis. Also on that Facebook page I upload the Wappin Radio Show several times per week. Facebook is changing some of their policies around, but at the moment I believe that I have the page set up so that one may have access to it without registering as my Facebook "friend."

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