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Volume 16, Number 6
May 30, 2010

front page

Some of the recently added stories:
Suspect contracts and Bosco's slide to disgrace
Lead contractor for new locks in financial free fall
The Chorizo Laws and pending projects
Panama as the land of opportunity
Is advice from the IMF better than advice from a drunk on the street?
A visit to the Smithsonian's Galeta Island marine biology lab
José Ponce's Panama scenes
Gay Pride in Panama City
National health alert called over equine encephalitis outbreak
High School Musical (en español)
La Universidad de Panamá: El último vuelo del vampiro
Chiriqui protests
Labor and its allies march to the Presidencia
Panama's biggest-ever environmental protest
Labor looks for unity and a way out of a tight spot
Kunas no aprobaron una base aeronaval
Martinelli's catch-all law draws widespread opposition
Rector's foes get the most votes, but the rector claims victory
The Kuna Marine Turtle Festival
The endangered Tabasara River
Leis, Father Gallego's cause
also, look for daily updates from Panama and elsewhere on our Facebook page


Canal expansion at the Third Cut, between Davis and Gatun. Photo by Allan V. Hawkins

Could be better, could be worse

The Panama Canal's expansion is by far the largest of a series of public works projects that's keeping the Panamanian economy going. We are still a relatively poor country, and the gap in income distribution is one of the world's largest. We have a far right-wing government, to the extent that only Colombia, Honduras and Mexico are in the same area of the spectrum in this region.

But if Ricardo Martinelli and Alberto Vallarino are for smashing labor unions, dispossessing poor rural communities and giving their land and water resources to the a few rich Panamanian families and multinational corporations, gutting the environmental laws through non-enforcement and establishing many aspects of a police state, there are certain things that go with the concept "right-wing" in the United States that don't apply here. 

Systematically destroy the public sector? Martinelli is not buying into that Tea Party notion, although you might get a reasonable argument that he is from the nation's teachers or health care workers and their unions. But that version of "The Washington Consensus" that mandated that Latin American countries must slash their public sectors to the bone and place all of their hope and faith in the market doesn't quite apply here. What we have is a more Keynesian than Friedmanite economic approach, in which hard economic times are softened by spending on public works. There are the canal expansion, the commuter rail system, the metropolitan area sewer system and several major road projects in the mix. The numbers of Panamanians directly hired are in the thousands but not the tens of thousands, but the wages of those who do get public works jobs are rippling through the economy.

That's hardly all there is to the Panamanian economic scene, but the international bond rating services like what they see and two of the big ones have upgraded this country's bonds ratings. Standard & Poor's now gives us a BBB- rating, which is its lowest "investment grade" for government paper. They like Panama's medium term economic growth prospects and they like the fact that Martinelli has done something also anathema to the US right by raising taxes. 

The higher bond rating is a big deal in this region, where world financial markets treat most Latin American government securities as junk bonds. But by comparison Spain, which is in the grip of a major economic crisis, has a AAA rating.

Spain's woes, and Europe's in general, are likely to affect us. It won't all be in one direction, though, just as the effects of the US crisis on Panama were not "pure." There will be people fleeing here with their money, and not all of them will be criminals. But against that, our second largest foreign aid donor has fallen upon hard times and some precarious Spanish and Italian companies are among the major Panama Canal expansion contractors so there could be some substantial disruptions if what's happening in Europe gets really bad. And of course, a recession in Europe means reduced imports to that continent and thus a contracted world shipping industry, which in turn affects our canal.

The better bond rating, however, means a bit less money being paid in interest to foreign (and domestic) lenders. That might be spent to prop up the Panamanian economy a bit more, or saved for the inevitable more difficult times.


*     *     *

But everything about the Panamanian economy is not strictly, shall we say, legal. And maybe before we get further into that aspect, we ought to take a musical break with Junior Murvin and come back to talk about Jamaica:


Ah yes, police and thieves --- and the guys who control the police, who may be worse yet. Under US pressure, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding broke his Jamaica Labor Party alliance with the Shower Posse, a gang that's into dealing drugs on an international scale and which controls parts of the Jamaican capital, and sent the army into the Tivoli Gardens neighorhood that's part of his constituency to arrest the gang's leader. There was massive destruction, more people died than the government will admit, and the man they were trying to arrest got away. Now there's a major political crisis, which may bring down the government. If the "War on Drugs" is really a war, this was a terrible rout.

Just how heavy a social and political crisis is this for our Jamaican neighbors? Consider what the Times of London reported:

A former senior police officer urged the security forces to search the homes of politicians and other high-profile people for the fugitive --- despite a botched army raid on a home in the high-class neighborhood of Kirkland Heights in the early hours of Thursday that killed the brother of a former government minister.

Reneto Adamas, the retired senior police superintendent, told a meeting of the Rotary Club on Thursday: "[He may be hiding] at the house of the politicians, the house of certain people in society and there is a particular house that I have great respect for that I will not mention, but a word to the wise is sufficient."

So gangsterism, which has long been a political problem in Jamaica, now becomes a principal threat to democracy.

So, what does that have to do with us?

The Panamanian president's cousin --- the former treasurer of the president's political party --- is in prison in Mexico. He's charged with laundering money for the most vicious of Mexican drug gangs, the Beltran Leyva Cartel whose private army of enforcers, Los Zetas, is led by US-trained former soldiers and has carried out gangland hits within the United States.

Despite the presence of US military forces here, there are evident strains in the US-Panamanian relationship. These may or may not have to do with the substance of the sensational allegations made in a series of articles in a leftist Costa Rican news website. They may have to do with other thugs who have been seen associated with the Martinelli administration. The Americans, who have a treaty commitment to defend the Panama Canal, certainly do not like the way that Martinelli has raised the waterway's profile as a target for the Osama bin Ladens of this world by using an enhanced security relationship with Israel as an occasion to taunt Arabs and Muslims in general.

If the Obama administration believes that the Martinelli campaign received funds from the Beltran Leyva Cartel it could be as bad as Noriega days. Those who point to this or that sign to the contrary should look back at the history of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations' falling out with Noriega, and how until almost the very end you had different parts of the US government sending conflicting signals about the situation. I have heard it from various sources that the DEA is investigating the allegations about Martinelli and the drug smugglers, but those sources are far from direct and the DEA generally does not comment about ongoing investigations, so I just take those tales as rumors. Rumors for what purpose? That's another interesting question.

Then, setting aside all of the substantial allegations as unknown, President Martinelli's reactions give rise to a separate set of concerns.

Recall that early in the 2009 presidential campaign, Martinelli's adversaries began a mudslinging campaign that alleged that he has bipolar affective disorder --- "manic depression" by the old terminology --- and takes medicine for it. Martinelli first denied, and then turned it around with the "Los locos somos más" (There are more of us crazies) campaign slogan.

Now I happen to come from a long line of bipolars and don't believe that the condition necessarily disqualifies a person from being president. If a good control strategy is used, it shouldn't be an impediment.

However, when the stories started appearing in Costa Rica's Nuestro Pais and then were repeated by the likes of FRENADESO Noticias and reported by small media like this website and larger ones like La Estrella, the Martinelli team's reactions were at first incoherent or provably wrong. They blamed the stories on the PRD, then on communists, then on anarchists. And then the Costa Rican reporter said on a Panamanian radio station something that might have been factually incorrect about an Israeli role in canal security. It turned into a euphoric "gotcha" moment for the president and his men, who declared that it was a lie that put that Panama Canal at risk, and that they were going to file charges in the Costa Rican courts.

Say WHAT? The president of Panama is going to bring a case in which it will be necessary to discuss Panama Canal security arrangements in a foreign court? That's bizarre. That's nuts. That's an act of manic impulsiveness, and a sign that Martinelli's inner circle doesn't have anybody who can calm him down and convince him to think twice, then think again. The nature of the people around Martinelli again has its parallels to Noriega times, when after the death of his older brother there wasn't anyone who could talk sense to the strongman.

So are there an awful lot of us nutcases out and about? You'd better believe it, and you should also know that we are not the only ones who see something that's frightening in the way that the president acts.

*     *     *

Open the way. Let's make way for a musical interlude with one of Panama's musical talents, singer Any Tovar:


If the political situation is more volatile than presidential approval ratings as shown in the polls suggest, and the economic situation is more uncertain than the judgments of bond rating agencies suggest, and the doubling of Panama's murder rate over the past six years or so has a lot of people on edge, we still have a vibrant cultural scene here. But an American jazz musician and blogger who lives down here pointed out to me in the course of an email discussion the other day that it's tough making a living when going out to clubs to hear bands doesn't seem to be a part of the national lifestyle. I wonder to what extent that's a passing phase, a function not only of the current crime wave but of a broken transportation system that makes it well nigh impossible to find a bus at night and often difficult to get a cab as well. I know that despite my poor man's protective measures, I get uptight when stuck waiting for a cab and carrying an expensive camera at night.

However, despite any and all such concerns, there are cultural scenes blooming around the country, even in the hardscrabble city of Colon. A few days after these words are written there will be a press conference at which details of the 2011 Panama Jazz Festival will be announced, and my advice to jazz fans in cold northerly climes is not to let the sharp increase in gangsters killing one another over drug business scare you away from this. Just make sure that you have your transportation to and especially from the festival venues arranged in advance, so that you are not wandering around a strange city at night looking for a bus or a cab.

*     *     *


President Martinelli, in uniform. Photo by the Presidencia

What about the stability of President Martinelli's coalition?

I'm not talking about the man's standing in the polls, which is fairly high, probably heading down a bit, but probably can be counted upon to maintain itself as more positive than negative unless and until some great crisis besets Panama.

I'm also not playing shrink and getting into any more speculation about the man's emotional stability than circumstances alluded to above would warrant.

I'm talking about the base from whence his ability to govern arises, and his ability to put together a political force that survives as such as his term comes to an end.

Marcos González gave Martinelli problems about some gangster pictures, and both the cabinet and the government caucus rallied around the president, the former showing their faces alongside Government and Justice Minister José Raúl Mulino at a press conference denouncing González's claims, the latter by stripping González of his leadership positions in the legislature.

But the legislature has balked at Martinelli's proposal to have plebiscites over issues he chooses. They have had no problem with riding roughshod over the constitution, but now they are complaining that Martinelli would do this, to the National Assembly's detriment.

I think that Martinelli's plebiscite concept is a bit of demagoguery that emanates from a control freak mind. But it's also a recognition that the Panamanian political system is so totally tied up that most people don't believe in it, so if they have a problem with the government they resort to things like blocking the road. The legislators think that their move to criminalize road blockages takes care of that problem, and they don't see the more systemic problem that Martinelli does. Martinelli would provide a carefully controlled escape valve, whereas the legislators tend to have more simple, more grasping, more short-term minds and they want to block anything that might give rise to any change that might affect their prerogatives.

And about Marcos González --- might that not have just been about his son getting but only holding onto a well-paid hack job for a month? Isn't the legislator, after all, a product of the notoriously thuggish taxi syndicate politics? Isn't he historically a guy who "seen his opportunities and took 'em," as in, for example, the National Bus Terminal?

Could be, but notice that Martinelli fired Rumba Alfaro, the notorious go-between for an undercover reporter looking for underage prostitutes who got a top job in the Ministry of Government and Justice by way of his relationship with Mulino.

Notice as well that Martinelli let his appointed governor of Colon fire the mayor of Colon city --- who was subsequently convicted of an old vehicular manslaughter charge and given a prison term which is most likely going to keep him from coming back. Notice also that Martinelli stripped his choice for mayor of Panama City, Bosco Vallarino, of his powers, prerogatives and duties with respect to collecting the garbage.

(I got a call from a reader the other day, when the city announced that it was going to take another round of bids for the purchase of 51 garbage trucks. He's a businessman interested in bidding, but the city's and national government's web pages with bidding information were not functioning. So was Bosco the Clown trying to pull one more dim-witted "fast one" in public sanitation, which turned out to be one too many for Martinelli to digest? I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.)

Vallarino is the stuff of which satirical musical plays are made, but he exists in his position because Martinelli has thrown his weight around to rescue him from the consequence of a long train of illegal acts. Why's that? I think for the benefit of Vice President Juan Carlos Varela and the Panameñista Party. If the deal was that Martinelli was the unified anti-PRD candidate in 2009 and that the Panameñista choice would be at the top of the unified slate in 2014, Varela would want a Panameñista mayor to hire all sorts of party members to political patronage jobs, but he wouldn't want someone who might use the mayor's office as a springboard to launce a primary challenge. Indeed, nobody thinks of Bosco as presidential material.

But think about it. Martinelli now controls the Public Ministry through the compliant Giuseppe Bonissi. He got Bonissi by way of having Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez removed pending trial for tapping the phones of some crime victims who asked her to tap them, without a court order. But Bosco Vallarino staged a raid on a brothel with reporters in tow, but without a proper warrant. Bonissi could have him removed for that in an instant, or could find a half-dozen other grounds without stretching things as much as the were stretched to get Gómez.

I think that eventually the alliance between Martinelli and the Panameñistas will break down because the rank-and-file in Varela's party will demand it. However, my expectations have been that we will see this only as the time to select 2014 presidential candidates draws near.

Lately, though, Martinelli has declared that he thinks that the opposition PRD, which counts on nearly one-third of Panamanian adults as members, will disappear. FRENADESO says that it will form a leftist political party and become the real opposition, but they don't seem to be either moving to do that or talking with other folks on the left about founding such a party as anything more than an also-ran sectarian electoral expression. So if the PRD is beaten down by trials and convictions of many of its leaders, and FRENADESO is beaten back by its own mistakes and by police truncheons, does that leave Ricardo Martinelli as the party leader of a one-party Cambio Democratico state? I would expect that Panameñistas would have other ideas and that if Juan Carlos Varela doesn't share those ideas, he's likely to get ousted as party leader.

Right now there are certain signs of tension in the ruling coalition. The removal of Bosco Vallarino and his replacement by the vice mayor, Cambio Democratico member Roxana Méndez, would escalate these tensions --- even though there are many Panameñistas who consider Bosco to be a total embarrassment. So paradoxically, even though Bosco Vallarino is the most obvious example of the ruling alliance's pathology, his excision would probably be a sign of the Martinelli coalition's sundering.

*     *     *

Enough about political intrigue for one front page. Let's get into a jazzed-up bolero standard, with Carlos Garnett and Yomira John. This is, after all --- much more than scheming politicians or pompous oligarchs --- who Panamanians are.


Enjoy.

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 keep changing their policies and functions around, but at the moment I hope that I have the page set up so that one may have access to its "wall" without registering as my Facebook "friend."




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© 2010 by Eric Jackson
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