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Volume 16, Number 2
February 20, 2010

front page

Recently added stories:
Art in the Park in Penonome
Despite protests, Martinelli's tax plan breezes through the legislature
A Coffee Party in Panama City
Performing Arts Festival schedule (in Spanish)
On this International Women's Day
Letters to the editor
Leis, The National Education Council
Strike threat looms as students get ready to return to school
Saving on the food bill at the Mercado de Abastos
10th Panama Performing Arts Festival
The Panama News Acrostic
Our endangered institutions
Sirias, Translating a people
Declaración de Cancún
Carnavalito in La Pintada
Gómez throws high court magistrates' argument back at them
March workshops at the Finca La Maya cultural center in San Carlos
Panama Canal Quilters hold a raffle for a good cause
New online Smithsonian guide to Panama's Pacific marine plants

also, look for daily updates from Panama and elsewhere on our Facebook page

Salomón Shamah. Archive photo by Eric Jackson

God save (us from) the queen!

Let me not equate the tourism minister with Queen Debbie I. Queen Debbie, this year's gorgeous drag queen, had poise, tact, discretion and a righteous human rights cause to promote. Salomón Shamah had none of these things, but unlike Queen Debbie, had an urgent need to show the world who's boss.

OK, Salo, by default you get to be the queen, even if you don't have half the looks or one-tenth of the brains of Marie Antoinette.

You twice had the crowds pepper gassed, for that wonderful Colombian purpose not of suppressing any criminal activity, but as your goons' spokesman put it, "to avoid a violent situation." Spoken like a true paramilitary thug.

Your guys caught some teenagers with alcohol --- so you had a political rival who could not be shown to have had anything to do with furnishing it to them arrested and fined.

You could have stepped in early on, and actually done the work of organizing a Panama City Carnival. You could have just let the private sector organize it as best they could afford, with the government just limiting itself to police protection, health inspection, street closings and trash collection.

(The mostly "stay aloof and let community groups do it" approach actually worked quite well with respect to the Antillean Fair on Carnival Saturday and Sunday. I shudder at the thought of the current white minority regime deciding that they need to take over this event, too.)

But no, you had to step in at the very last moment, when it was too late to properly organize, and assert your authority not only to choose the location, but to decide who could and could not have a float, which music people could listen to after the culecos turned off the water spray, who would control and spend the money that private parties had raised, even whether the old tradition of burying a sardine at the end of the festivities would be allowed.

Carnival started on Friday, but you showed the extent of your respect for the people who live in the area by announcing the street closures on Thursday.

There are a couple of ways to look at this, Your Majesty.

One of them is that you've had your fun, that you were the reigning monarch of a Carnival past.

Alternatively, we can look at your tenure as Minister of Tourism.

The first thing you did was to announce an intention to modify the laws about short term apartment rentals, so as to protect the hotel industry --- without consulting anyone --- and then had to quickly back down. Strike one.

Then you proposed at a Cabinet Council meeting --- most improperly, if the Panamanian constitution means anything --- the elevation to the Supreme Court of Mrs. Latorraca, a living symbol of rabiblanco privilege. You may think it's OK to run down and kill someone without a lot money, drive away from the scene of the accident and attempt to conceal the evidence, all with a lavish public display of impunity, but that case shocked a jaded public. Your suggestion was so odious that the administration's own legislative caucus voted it down. Strike two.

And now you have Colombianized Panama's Carnival culture, suppressing Carnival as Panamanians and many visitors have known it and substituting a tawdry display of arbitrary power. Strike three.

Oh, I suppose you have some narcissistic questions to put to the mirror, and some manzanillos to distribute, but it really is time for you to go, Queen Salo. We will be very lucky if we can repair the damage you have done to Panamanian tourism in just a year's time.

Panama City Carnival revelers. Hail Queen Salo I! Photo by Katie Zien

*     *     *

So am I being too partisan, and too harsh, with the Martinelli administration?

First, consider what I am and am not. I am not a member of any Panamanian political party, that I am a man generally of the left but also not a member of any Panamanian leftist organization. I am not subject, nor am I willing to be subjected to, any sort of Marxist-Leninist discipline. I believe in freedom, and as such am the only journalist in Panama who has consistently spoken out in favor of liberating the two dozen or so Cuban journalists held as political prisoners. I believe in democracy in its fullest sense, which puts me at odds with Panama campaign finance secrecy laws and the recent US Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations spend unlimited funds on election campaigns. I am a Panamanian citizen by birth because I was born in Colon, and a US citizen by birth because my parents were gringos. I served in elected and appointed public offices in the United States, for which I took an oath to uphold the constitution, which I did. It is a standard to which I have not always lived up, but I do believe in the rule of law. I am against the arbitrary exercise of power and don't recognize the majesty of individuals --- especially of those who assert the loudest demands for obeisance.

Then, consider what has come from the government in the last couple of months:
  • A guy who stood up in open court and falsely accused me of procuring the Costa Rican arrest warrant for his client --- convicted fraud artist and erstwhile "patriot" militia shill turned offshore hustler Mark Boswell alias Rex Freeman --- is now on the Supreme Court.

  • A young woman who ran down and killed a little boy in the family BMW and sped away from the scene of the accident --- but whose surname is Latorraca so was able to game the system to escape liability for that hit-and-run incident --- is now the National Ombudsman's "human rights defender." (That young woman's mother, who helped game the system in favor of impunity, was nominated as an alternate to the high court, but the appointment was rejected.)

  • The law has been changed so that now 12-year-olds accused of committing serious crimes will be tried as adults.

  • Panama has openly joined Colombia's civil conflict, with joint military actions with the Colombian army --- and very likely with its allied right-wing paramilitary groups --- that included a "shoot first" ambush of some alleged FARC rebels going down the Tuira River in a cayuco.

  • Because Panama's law enforcement would be no match if FARC, even in its present depleted state, decided that the Panamanian government was the enemy and decided to stage a hit against the president, Ricardo Martinelli has brought the Israeli Mossad back to Panama as his bodyguards. Recall that the last time the Mossad was here, under its Latin America chief at the time, Mike Harari, it supervised a bloody purge that included tortures and extrajudicial executions of Panamanian soldiers actually or thought to be disloyal to Manuel Antonio Noriega.

  • The president, with the support of his two new high court appointees and three holdovers from the Moscoso kleptocracy, has stricken down Article 224 of the constitution, which was there to grant the Public Ministry a certain amount of autonomy from political pressures. This was in order to remove the Attorney General and replace her with a dependent presidential appointee, who has embarked on a thorough political purge of the institution.

  • The president's "free WiFi connections for all" Internet program has yet to be implemented despite a schedule that would have it done by now. Why? Because there are technical glitches in implementing the Cuban-style control system that Martinelli wants --- things like a police log of every web page that someone who logs on from Panama views, and governmental power to control the speed at which selected websites download, as in the effective power to block websites carrying messages that Martinelli wants to censor.

  • The National Assembly is considering legislation to revive the Noriega-era Censor Board --- but this time, not primarily to cut out the sex scenes in movies, plays and television programs, but primarily to control newspaper and television coverage of violent crime.

I understand that corrupt elements of the PRD oppose what Mr. Martinelli is doing because part of his agenda is to have certain leaders of the opposition party thrown in jail for the corrupt things they did when in power. I am not for any partisan witch hunts, but I also believe that Toro Pérez Balladares and the people who looted the Education Ministry in the Torrijos years ought to be held accountable for what they did.

Martinelli's people use the fact that PRD folks are also protesting his increasingly dictatorial moves to smear all of us who are concerned about what's going on as Norieguistas. However, this is far from the case and how much it is at odds with reality is reflected in polls that show a sharp drop in the president's popularity.

It will also be interesting to see what happens about the breathtaking corruption of the Moscoso administration, in which Martinelli served. The current president's performance as Minister of Canal Affairs in that kleptocratic regime is and ought to be the target of public criticism, but by all accounts and all appearances he was one of the people in high public office during those years who did not steal. But Mireya spent about $1,000 per day in public funds over five years to buy herself jewelry and fancy clothing, and came out of the presidency with a mansion on the beach on formerly public property in Pedasi. She and her sister set up foundations to systematically "privatize" --- loot --- aid from Taiwan. She divided her administration into political patronage and nepotism fiefdoms in which all manner of abuses reigned. So are we going to see accountability for the corruption of the Moscoso era? The president's practical political problem is that Mireya Moscoso and her political party are part of his ruling coalition, such that an even-handed prosecution of public corruption could cost him control of the legislature and put him at odds with his vice president, Supreme Court magistrates on whom he depends and members of his cabinet.

*     *     *

With all that ugliness in the public sphere, understand why I react as I do to its intrusion into one of our important cultural institutions, Carnival. However, aside from politicians' attempts to intervene, the cultural scene is one of the bright spots in Panamanian life at the moment. So will the leader of this band and his well-known political affiliation get me once again accused of being PRD? Oh, well --- I sometimes get accused by PRD folks of being an Arnulfista, too. But still, Rómulo Castro and the musical scene that revolves around him are a national treasure, one that serves as a foundation for Panamanians to hope for better days even if he and I may have voted for different candidates:

*     *     *

Looking north and south, there are a couple of recent noteworthy stories about the news media and how well they do or do not inform the general public.

Turning north to the United States, there was this guy who owned a suburban Austin, Texas home mortgage-free (he bought it with a lump sum of cash), his own airplane and the company where he worked. He also took trips to Norway every year. And he thought so deeply that it was his constitutional right not to pay taxes that he got in his airplane and staged a kamikaze attack on an IRS office. One IRS worker, who was old enough to have taken retirement, was burned to death in the attack. A 35-year-old colleague was severely burned over 25 percent of his body.

So, just an isolated nutcase? Or, according to some sickies who briefly showed themselves on Facebook and a few other places, a big hero?

The man was not acting on behalf of any organization or movement. He was someone with a political grievance who because of that took his revenge on innocent people. Just because he was white and named Joe rather than dark-skinned and named Abdul is no excuse to distinguish him from that category of people who are known as terrorists. But for many of the US corporate mainstream media, the American who bombs an abortion clinic is not a terrorist but the Arab who shoots at foreign invaders of his land is. I remember vividly in the hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, when talking heads on the TV were speculating about whether this was an act of terrorism or not, as if the religion, nationality or politics of the man who did it had any bearing on the nature of the act.

Joe Stack was not a hero. He was a terrorist, a vicious punk who burned his wife and stepdaughter out of their house and then launched a suicide attack that killed innocent people.

Turning south to Brazil, we saw the saga of Julia Lira, the seven-year-old samba queen.

In Brazil, there was concern that the task of heading the drum corps for one of Rio's more famous samba schools was too great a strain for a little girl. The Brazil-based liberation theology ADITAL news agency didn't pay attention to the story, but while the Julia Lira controversy was being played out elsewhere it did report a disease outbreak that killed four kids in a rural indigenous community.

In the English and Spanish international media, the news from Brazil was dominated by lurid Associated Press reports that had as their fundamental premise the idea that Rio's Carnival in general and samba dancing in particular are lewd, sexual activities --- and thus that the girl's selection was a variety of sexual exploitation of children.

At the recent Panama Jazz Festival, we had a 10-year-old boy who amazed a lot of people, myself included, with his accordion playing. So is it OK to celebrate a prodigy whose talent is music, but not OK to celebrate one whose art form is dance?

Moreover, if I go to a remote Embera or Wounaan village where the women and girls tend to go topless, is it a "sexy" experience?

We can get into philosophical questions about moral absolutes and cultural relativity, but there is a larger question here. Is it healthy that the international news that people around the world receive, including that which people across the developing south get, tends to come from corporations based in the industrialized north and tends to be presented through distorting North American or European cultural lenses?

*     *     *

Finally, if we can argue about the beauty or ugliness of cultural phenomena, and have opposing partisan takes on which news is inspiring and which is disgusting, can we agree on nature's beauty? I suppose that somewhere out in cyberland, there is someone who would think that a new car or a new condo tower trumps this scene, recorded by nature photographer and photojournalist Milton Roldan, with whose work you might want to decorate your home or office:


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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