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Volume 16, Number 5
April 14, 2010


Also in the news section:
Panama gets a new Catholic archbishop
Proposed "Carrot Law" would set city bar and nightclub closing hours
Prosecutors adopt Canadian career criminal's defamation charge as their own
Labor leader's home raided, computer seized
Campaigning begins for University of Panama rector
Stiff criminal penalties for protests that block the streets
April Fools' Day Special --- First Obamacare Death Panel convenes in Panama

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page, which you need not register with Facebook to see

Those who protest "will have to do it on the sidewalks," Martinelli vows. The next event that his legislation criminalizes is the annual Mayday parade.  Archive photo by Eric Jackson
By way of amendments to law to open police records to potential employers
Martinelli "legalizes" bribery of opposition pols, bans protests
by Eric Jackson

Criminalizing street protests

A few weeks ago, construction workers on their lunch hour marched in the streets to protest against a 40 percent increase in the sales and services tax. Nobody was hurt, no property was damaged. Some drivers were inconvenienced. Later, after it was all over, the National Police riot squad attacked construction sites with tear gas and clubs, and some of the workers in the upper floors responded with stones. Hundreds were arrested and held without charge for four days --- although the law says a suspect must be charged or released within 72 hours --- and then fined $15 apiece, without trial, for creating a disturbance.

(The president prevailed on Panama City's slow-witted Mayor Bosco Vallarino and the mayor's appointee corregidores to provide the auspices for the illegal detention, but now that there is a dubiously appointed but dependable acting attorney general and a lapdog Supreme Court, Bosco will probably not face any consequences for this rather flagrant and specifically criminal abuse of power.)

So why the rumble after the parade was already over? Because to the present government, marching in the streets is itself a violent act, which inherently deprives the property right of third parties to drive their cars wherever and whenever they please. Thus, although it was the police who picked the fight with the construction workers, Martinelli argues that they were just responding to labor union violence.

Now comes Law 110, some of the other provisions and procedural and technical quirks we will get into below, which provides as follows:

Whoever, abusing the right to meetings or demonstrations, by use of violence, impedes or obstructs the free transit of vehicles on the public ways of the country and causes damage to public or private property shall be punished by six months to two years in prison.

There are no definitions in the law, and thus it's amenable to being interpreted away into nothing or on the other hand into the most draconian suppression of dissent. You can bet that in 2014 Cambio Democratico rallies will be held per se to not be abusive of the right to meetings no matter how bad the resulting traffic jam. It is also a safe bet that if FRENADESO gets political party status its rallies will be ruled abusive per se. But we only need to listen to Martinelli and his top lieutenants to know how they mean to interpret it. The president told El Panama America that all street protests are now illegal, that parades must take place on the sidewalks (and presumably can't go more than one block, as then they would block an intersection). National Assembly president José Luis Varela told La Estrella that protests can only take place on the sidewalks. Panama provincial governor Mayín Correa rejoiced in La Estrella that "minorities" would no longer be able to march on Via España.

The SUNTRACS construction workers' union is one of many organizations, which will surely be joined by various individuals, vowing to challenge the new restrictions in court.

Legalized bribery

During the dictatorship --- under which Ricardo Martinelli and his businesses prospered --- General Torrijos offered certain blandishments to the political parties to get them to participate in rather meaningless electoral structures, so as to have some semblance of democracy to show to the US Congress when the Panama Canal Treaties were being debated.

One of these was the legislators' and representantes' circuit and corregimiento funds, sums of money meant to be spent on discretionary projects in elected officials' constituencies. Some communities got ambulances, some got road repairs, some got sports programs for the kids, some got to see their elected officials tooling around town in luxury cars.

The legislators' and representantes' discretionary funds received a big boost by the privatization sales of state-owned enterprises in the Endara and Pérez Balladares administration, as the proceeds were put into a Social Emergency Fund, later known as the Social Investment Fund (FIS), from which the politicians' drew money for their constituencies.

In the Moscoso and Torrijos administrations, the legislators' and representantes' discretionary funds were progressively eliminated in favor of complete presidential control of the FIS. However, the FIS was still used to meet certain deputies's requests for this or that expenditure.

Mireya ran an undisguised kleptocracy and the system became embroiled in all manner of scandals, which continued into the Torrijos years with slightly more subtlety. President Martinelli is trying to suppress investigations of FIS abuses to the extent that his allies are involved and prosecute insofar as Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) members are implicated. But it's difficult because an outside audit by a CPA firm named people on both sides of the aisle. Martinelli called the audit "unauthorized" --- not necessarily a lie, but not what he wanted to hear --- and handed the matter to the erstwhile CPA for his private businesses, now the Comptroller General.

(The tale gets more sensational with the involvement of the Catholic Church. Some of the more irregular transactions involved money laundered through accounts in the name of a convent, without the knowledge of the nuns. The Martinelli-allied ex-legislator involved says that the Catholic hierarchy knew all about it and was a direct participant.)

Another incentive to opposition parties to participate was a promise that the dictatorship would not buy otherwise off the people whom they elected, which was enforceable by a constitutional provision that the national leaderships of the parties could remove elected officials elected on their tickets who switched to other parties or voted against the party on key issues.

Lately the Martinelli political apparatus has been enticing elected officials of the PRD, and also of parties within his alliance, to abandon the ranks of the parties under whose banners they were elected and join his Cambio Democratico. There has been particular success with representantes in some of the nation's smaller municipalities, but legislators and small-town mayors have also switched parties.

The defections, along with a series of corruption investigations directed only at the opposition (not at, for example, former President Mireya Moscoso and her entourage), are alleged by PRD leaders to be attempts by Martinelli to destroy his political opposition. Given all the circumstances of the president's various power plays since coming to office, the charge is not easily dismissed. On the other hand, the president's dismissal of PRD complaints as the whining of crooks who have been caught also appears to be built around a certain grain of truth.

The PRD has moved to defend itself by stripping a number of local officials of their offices. This procedure, however, has proven during the Moscoso and Torrijos administrations to be ineffective because delays can be interposed in the judicial proceedings, which allow even the most flagrantly corrupt or disloyal elected officials to run out the calendar until the next elections without being removed. The PRD may be trying a tactic with a low-percentage chance of success because it still dominates the Electoral Tribunal, the only major arm of the national government over which it still maintains control.

But now, by Law 110, a new set of procedures has been created:

  • The party's national executive board must unanimously approve the revocation of office; 

  •  The question must then be submitted to a regular party convention --- and some of the parties only have one of these every five years or so --- at which two-thirds of the delegates must approve the revocation; and 

  • Then the question must be submitted to the voters in the circuit, municipality or corregimiento in question, and be approved by two-thirds of all qualified voters in that area (a three-to-one drubbing with an 80 percent voter turnout, thus, leaves the hugely unpopular politician in office).

In other words, the dictatorship's constitutional deal is off and Ricardo Martinelli is free to offer whatever enticements to get the opposition's elected officials to switch parties. The thing about the PRD, however, is that even in the dark days of Noriega times its one-third of the electorate was fairly rock-solid. The old guard of the party created by the dictatorship may be dying off, and the first generation to grow up in the party, exemplified by Balbina Herrera, may be unable to mobilize support beyond the core of party loyalists. But there it is, a block that won't go away and is not going to be marginalized unless Martinelli can effectively create a two-party system or a new election system with a second round of voting with which to confront it.

The indications are that Martinelli is not changing any of the basic corruption that dogs Panamanian public life. Notorious international criminals who have been allowed into this country --- people like Martin Erkamps, who kidnapped Freddy Heineken for ransom and was a fugitive as a result of that crime until he got caught smuggling drugs --- are being allowed to stay here. The constitution is ever less respected and the courts and prosecutors are ever more politically manipulated. Panama is as far from the rule of law as it ever has been.

Thus, although the man is quite popular now, there is an excellent chance that by May of 2014 Panamanians will be sick of Martinelli and his entourage and ready to back the opposition force with the best chance to win the election. We have been on that cycle since 1989, or 1984 if one wants to recognize that Nicolás Ardito Barletta's election was fraudulent and then, too, voters rejected the group in power.

But this latest change in election laws is but one more move by Martinelli to consolidated control of all things into his hands.

Oh yes, the criminal records

Are you a potential employer, or just a nosy neighbor, who wants to know a specific individual's criminal record? Now these may be readily obtained from the police, provided that they do not go back for more than 10 years.

(The guy who wants to work at your daughter's school just got out of prison yesterday, after spending 20 years in prison for raping and killing several little girls? Ricardo Martinelli is against you being able to obtain information about that conviction. It's "stale," being more than 10 years old.)

Are you a reporter who's interested in the criminal record of the person who has just been appointed to a sensitive public post? Assuming that bribes were not paid or other pressures brought to bear to erase the record, you as a private citizen can obtain it. However, if you publish that information it will be a violation of Law 110, penalty unspecified.

The procedural and constitutional problems

The blocking traffic provision of Law 110 is a limitation on the size of protests against a government that has already passed steep tax increases for most people but hefty tax cuts for the richest Panamanians; that intends to invest half of the Social Security Fund into a partnership with the financial black hole that is Máximo Haddad's fly-by-night PYCSA company; that intends to slash spending on public education; that intends to gut what remains of the labor code; that is actively dispossessing rural communities in favor of rabiblanco cattle ranchers, large foreign mining companies and a variety of hydroelectric dam speculators who figure to make most of their money off of carbon bonds rather than the generation of electricity. It's really about revoking the constitutional rights of people with grievances to meet and hold demonstrations.

The arcane and impossible procedures about revoking a mandate are about voiding an old constitutional guarantee, albeit one made to political parties more than to the Panamanian people.

Were Panama to have the rule of law, then, these things would be struck down as unconstitutional. However, the constitution means very little in the Panamanian political scheme.

And then there are the National Assembly's regulations. Under Article 148 of the Martinelli faction's own rules of parliamentary procedure, adopted on its first day in office, only one subject can be addressed in a given piece of legislation. Law 110 started out as a proposal about criminal records, but then the revocation of mandate and street blocking penalties provisions were added on second debate.

By that procedure, there were no committee hearings on the two most controversial parts of the legislation. No citizen and no organization was given an opportunity to be heard on these subjects.

The constitutional and procedural objections to Law 110 should be reverberating in the courts for years to come. But that may well happen with many dissidents serving long prison terms under that law. 

Click here to see Law 110 in its Spanish original.

Also in the news section:
Panama gets a new Catholic archbishop
Proposed "Carrot Law" would set city bar and nightclub closing hours
Prosecutors adopt Canadian career criminal's defamation charge as their own
Labor leader's home raided, computer seized
Campaigning begins for University of Panama rector
Stiff criminal penalties for protests that block the streets
April Fools' Day Special --- First Obamacare Death Panel convenes in Panama

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