Volume 17, Number 3
March 18, 2011
Some of the recently added stories:
Panama in April: crosstown public relations battle over Cuba
US State Department report on human rights in Panama in 2010
Supreme Court scandal deepens: new witnesses, defenses that look like admissions
The Panamanian diaspora's jazz: Eric Dolphy
The Theatre Guild's wish list
A Rubén Blades salsa sampler
Fight Night in Panama City: Concepción vs. Márquez on video
Short Fiction: Evening at Café the Chinitas, Madrid
Aurora Cañero sculptures at Arteconsult
Tango and Flamenco Night at the Teatro ABA
Brazil, Argentina and Colombia lead biofuel production in the region
Gardening with Donna Dawson: The gingers
La sección de opiniones en español ya listo
Presentación del documental "Only the strong survive: a celebration of soul" (PDF)
Airport cost overruns and "off the books" budgeting
M10, We will defend our land, our water, our river
Mining companies' merger allegedly thwarted by Panamanian regulators
Letters to the editor
Bernal, A constituent assembly would make sense
José Ponce's Panama scenes
Courts in the grip of a cascading scandal
Scenes from the David International Fair
Cross-dressing consul resigns
Combination blows to Rio Hato beach communities
Photos of consul in drag prompt criticism from several directions
WikiLeaks bare and aggravate US-Panama tensions
A billboard befitting a Babylonian tower
Sirias, The fruit conceived in bitterness
Thai ambassador practices culinary diplomacy
Human Rights Everywhere, Human rights abuses during the mining protests
The cavalcade at the David International Fair
Final farewell to Billy Ford
US - Latin America and Caribbean economics and trade (PDF, a CEPAL report)
Billy Ford dies
New WikiLeaks embarrass Martinelli (again)
WikiLeaks: PRD administration balked at medical aid to Guantanamo Cubans
The Pan-American Highway, the morning after a truce that ended several days of Ngabe road blockades. Photo by Carole Horowitz
The Dichter & Neira poll says that Martinelli's popularity has bounced right back after the mining dispute, and now he's busy engineering some "constitutional reforms" that would extent his hold on the presidency. Don't bet the farm on things turning out as he wants. It wasn't a good bet about the Chorizo Law and it wasn't a good bet about the Mining Code changes, both of which he went into with polls that said that he had a very high approval rating. The thing is, you can't read the polls here as if this were California or Kansas. Martinelli has people tortured to death, burned alive on national television as his cops taunt them, and you think that when a pollster commissioned by a newspaper controlled by Martinelli's political apparatus comes around asking what people think of the president, a lot of people who fear and loathe him don't think it's wiser to say that they think he's doing a good job?
And if you want to judge how well Martinelli is loved by the Panamanian people by how his support in the legislature is growing? The week that this was written, the President's Cambio Democratico party picked up two more seats when PRD deputies Nelson Jackson and Abelardo "Lalo" Antonío switched parties. But Nelson Jackson, who was mayor of Portobelo before he joined the legislature, came with a reputation. As in, shaking down anyone who wanted to open a business on the coast of Colon Province for this imaginative fee or that one; as in, some interesting real estate deals with Colombian drug cartels about which prosecutors didn't seem too interested at the time. And Lalo? He was facing a tax investigation, which his change of parties has now resolved.
And what about Martinelli throwing foreign journalists out of the country? His friends in the USA surely like that, and his political machine has organized waves of xenophobic hate mail in the online comments section of the daily newspapers. It's probably going to be every bit as effective as when General Noriega played the nationalist card.
So don't look at what polls say about the man's job rating and figure that this settles the question. Look at what they say about the notion of presidents being able to run for re-election, and whether they would vote to re-elect Martinelli.
For many years, a solid two-thirds of Panamanians object to presidential re-election and in every election since the end of the dictatorship most of the incumbent legislators have been thrown out. Whether it's about Martinelli or just a sign of the times, today's opposition to re-election starts at closer to four-fifths than the usual two-thirds and no matter how much money he spends or what glittery promises he adds to his ballot proposal, he's not going to get the voters to approve his ambitions.
This leaves the tactic that Martinelli used to get a Cambio Demoratico pretender as alleged president of a rump Ngabe-Bugle General Congress, or the tactic that Noriega used to have Fraudito Barletta declared president in 1984: outright election fraud. However, the scale of such a fraud and the mood of the country would be such that it would likely prompt generalized rioting and raise the possibility of a coup d'etat.
Do I say that Martinelli is crazy if he thinks he could get away with it? Well, he did run for office on a platform of being crazy --- "Los locos somos más" --- but if he really believes that he can re-elect himself he's crossed the line from being affected by a mood disorder to being delusional.
Were it someone else there would be aides or ministers or people in the ruling alliance's legislative caucus who would warn the president. But Martinelli was warned about the Chorizo Law, and he was warned about the Mining Code changes, and he accused those who warned him of being disloyal.
Things are going to get worse before they get better, but most of Martinelli's political foes --- and there are a lot more of them, with a lot more resources at their disposal, than might appear to be the case from a casual glance --- are looking forward to a constitutional battle because they believe that they will win it and in the aftermath the president will be much weaker. But in the meantime, if you plan to be driving around Panama it might be wise to carry bottled water, a washcloth, toilet paper, a gas mask and a helmet in your car.
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Kids explain the concept of mango season.
Photo by José F. Ponce
Reading some of the English-language email groups, people will tell you that it's not possible for anyone to live in Panama for less than $1,000 per month. If you are not a Panamanian citizen and you are trying to live here on a pensioner's visa, there is a certain legal truth to that. However, the great majority of people here, including those who do most of the production of The Panama News, live on well under that amount.
It's our March fundraising month and we are not asking for pity --- we are asking for contributions to keep us going.
Things can break down in a hurry, but right now our computers and cameras are working --- even if we can always use in-kind contributions of such equipment if it's reasonably modern and in working order.
This website also sustains itself on the articles, photos, news tips and production help that people donate. It isn't always exactly the case in the short run, but the value of The Panama News or anything else is a function of the labor that is put into it.
And what about José Ponce's labor? Yes, he spends a lot of his time going around the city and the country taking pictures. But then, there was a lot of labor --- including years spent in California, after he came back from military service in Vietnam, taking photos for El Malcriado, the newspaper of the United Farmworkers Union --- that went into developing his skills. The son of a Panamanian and of a Mexican who joined the military and naturalized as an American, José grew up here and went to Balboa High, and since his return to Panama in the 90s has spent a lot of time getting to know the country and the city in general and the Casco Viejo in particular, and all of that time is part of the labor that makes the photos he takes things that people want to see.
José does have a place to live --- just barely. He needs to get the utilities back on, and replace termite-infested wood, at his San Felipe abode. This time around, improving José's living situation is our fundraising priority.
If you care to contribute toward the cause, you can do so financially by sending a check made out to "Eric Jackson" --- there is no bank account in the name of The Panama News, so checks made out in that name are not negotiable (and with very few exceptions money orders are non-negotiable in Panama as well) --- with a notation that it's for The Panama News, and mail it to:
Apartado 55-0927 Estafeta Paitilla
Panama, Republic of Panama
The Panama News can accept donations by credit card via PayPal. If you want to help us out in that way, go to http://www.paypal.com and select the "send money" function --- if you don't have a PayPal account you will have to sign up --- send your contribution to email@example.com, et voila.
(PayPal will say you are sending money to Henry Smith. Henry and Nora Smith's panamaretire.net business, provides a great array of services to people who are thinking about moving here. We have an alliance with them that lets us piggyback on their PayPal account, as PayPal wants you to have a US account, which we do not have. The money will get to The Panama News.)You can also take checks, cash or in-kind donations to our office in Perejil. The Panama News office is in the Edificio Muchachas Guias --- Panama's Girl Scout headquarters --- the second to the last building on the right on Calle 3ra in Perejil, which is the street that runs behind the old Colegio Javier that's about to become the Jesuit museum. You may want to call to arrange a time to meet --- especially if you have an in-kind donation to make --- but if you stop by the place during ordinary business hours, find us absent, and leave an envelope with the Girl Scout leaders, they will make sure that it gets to us.
And I thank those of you who have helped out, and will help out.
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This front page was mostly written on St. Patrick's Day, so let's take a break for some Irish voices. It may also be wise to take this song's message to heart:
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Recently one of my nephews was down from the States visiting, and he went by the ruins of the old Tarpon Club in Gatun, down to one of the famous old fishing spots of Canal Zone times. A Panama Canal Authority cop threatened to arrest him for being there.
Later, at the Antillean Fair, I had a long discussion with an old timer about the recreational assets of Gatun Lake. Being a West Indian who grew up in the segregated old Canal Zone, he had no memory of the Gatun Yacht Club or the Ski Docks, but only of dangerous swimming spots where the possibility of getting tangled in the weeds and drowning was very real.
Most Panamanians were never allowed to know either of these sets of experiences, and know next to nothing of the recreational assets that the Panama Canal Authority controls and has mostly closed to the public. It's not a matter of doing away with the vestiges of colonialism, but of rich men trashing the public recreation assets that they can't privatize, of a tunnel vision that has left a potentially huge tourism attraction mostly undeveloped.
One can draw parallels to situations all around the country, along our beaches, on our islands and in our mountains. It won't happen under this administration, except possibly in a year or two if a good opposition presidential candidate raises the subject, but Panama really does need an intelligent public discussion about the nation's public spaces.
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And NOW a blast from the past, a mega-hit from one of Panama's Combos Nacionales of yesteryear, Los Soul Fantastic:
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There are many people in this country, including many foreigners, who are doing this or that to build the nation and improve the lot of its people. It's hard, because people have been deceived so many times and because those who profit from things being corrupt and/or dysfunctional are a jeering section.
As this front page was in production three journalists from the TVN television network, Eduardo Lim Yueng, Siria Miranda and Kelineth Pérez, were informed that they have a preliminary hearing in a criminal case against them set for May 16. So, what did they do?
A cop who stopped someone for a traffic violation took money from the driver, another person caught it on video and submitted the video to the television station, and after checking it out TVN put it on the air. The formal charge is criminal defamation but there is no question about these three journalists having doctored or misrepresented the video.
But what about garden-variety crimes, like assault and battery? After a March 15 soccer game between FC El Chorrillo and Sporting de San Miguelito, Cambio Democratico legislator Raúl Pineda slugged sports reporter Antonín Aizpurúa. President Martinelli's obedient legislative rubber stamp wanted Aizpurúa to interview him about some political point, and Aizpurúa's news judgment was that it wasn't germane to his reporting. Pineda, of course, has legislative immunity.
There is a context to former Ambassador Stephenson's report back to Washington on the nature of the Martinelli regime, and to his expulsion order and vulgar screed against Spanish journalists Pilar Chato and Paco Gómez Nadal.
However, it's not a one-sided context. The crude totalitarian ambitions we see would be almost laughable, but for all of the journalists who would accept the blandishments of those who harbor such ambitions. The jeering section that lets one journalist go to trial for reporting the truth about thugs without the support of colleagues because "(s)he's not a real journalist" is a very real fifth column for corruption and tyranny within the media. Too much suspicion is paralyzing, but there actually are a lot of sapos --- literally, toads, but in Panamanian Spanish traitors, informers, agent provocateurs and scabs --- circulating among us.
Like the dictatorship, this administration is drawing some very clear lines about who is what. But this time will we learn? Panama still has the dictatorship's constitution because Panamanians left it up to Washington to sort out the Noriega mess. It's nice to know that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been well-informed about the nature of the government here, but the WikiLeaks cables were not meant for publication and you don't hear many Washington politicians talking about their subject matter. It's up to people here to get the word out about what's happening in Panama, to defend whom and what need to be defended and to oppose whom and what need to be opposed.
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Panama is a birders' paradise, and the trogons are one reason why:
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Panama, both the government and private individuals and organizations, is pitching in for a good friend in distress, Japan. They are richer than we are and we have many unmet needs, so it is to be expected that here and there we hear a complaint about earthquake relief. It is, however, a sign of the Panamanian character that these complaints are few, amidst a general outpouring of sympathy for the Japanese.
Panama is not going to have nuke plants anytime soon, so the Japanese disaster's lessons about that mostly don't apply to us. However, many other things do apply, and not just in the areas of earthquake and tsunami response.
We have seen pictures of terrible devastation from the tsunami, but many fewer scenes of inland earthquake destruction than one might expect from a tremor of that historic magnitude. That's because the Japanese take their building codes seriously. They are well designed for life in a seismic zone, and well enforced. Good building code enforcement saves lives, and we should learn from the Japanese example.
People can and will get into historical, cultural or racial factors about why Japan is such an orderly society, and journalists might note that the Japanese press is not as free as it is reputed to be, but the lack of looting that we have seen, and the low incidence of phony earthquake loss claims and dishonest reconstruction contractor practices that we are likely to see, will mostly not be the products of information control. There are Japanese attitudes about social cohesion and national unity that other societies would do well to emulate.
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Ngabe protesters appear to have fended off strip mining plans for Cerro
Colorado for the third time in 30 years. Photo by the International Cry
One of Panama's richest men, who owns the power of the presidency, has lost a major political battle to the poorest of Panama's poor. It is far from over.
Readers of The Panama News often ask me what they can do to help relieve Panama's poverty. The Supreme Court has served notice that it is not possible for a rich person, especially a rich American, to leave money to charity in a will.
In any case, you need not be wealthy to help the poor. One way that almost anyone can contribute to the standard of living in the impoverished Ngabe-Bugle Comarca is to make a lifestyle adjustment and fashion statement that steers some business in the direction of the people who live there. Don't carry a briefcase, or a purse, or one of those Asian bags woven out of synthetic fibers. Carry your stuff in a chacara, one of the woven bags that almost everyone in the comarca carries. They come in a wide range of sizes and various natural fibers. You can buy them in lots of places in Panama, generally not directly from the people who make them.
It might seem to be a gringo hippie thing to do, and it is, but there are also some of Panama's more conservative business leaders who can be seen lugging their laptops and other portable items around in chacaras. Down here it's a way of saying that this is Panama rather than New York or Hong Kong --- a bit of cultural nationalism --- and an economical purchase of something that's useful, which supports skilled craftswomen in desperately poor communities.
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I caught Shorty & Slim at the Antillean Fair, where they were well received and people were shooting videos. I await the publication of parts of their performance at the fair on YouTube, but this is one of their better videos from the last year or so:
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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Contributing Editor - José F. Ponce
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