Volume 17, Number 5
May 19, 2011
Early morning at the San Francisco de Asis Church in the Casco Viejo.
Photo by José F. Ponce
Do we really want negotiations with the government about basic human rights, with the church mediating?A game that can't be won and shouldn't be played
What would you think about a referendum on whether Jews should be allowed in Panama? How about negotiations about a minimum bank balance that a person who is accused of a crime must show before she or he has a right to a fair trial?
No doubt there would be elements in Panamanian society --- minorities, to be sure --- who would take us back to the 1500s when it was highly illegal to be Jewish in Panama, or to an oligarchic brave new world in which pretenses are dropped and guilt or innocence before what passes for law is entirely and overtly a matter of wealth. But in the modern world, freedom of religion, equality in the eyes of the law and the right of an accused person to due process are taken to be fundamental human rights, which are inalienable, universal and non-negotiable. Many people have fought, sacrificed, suffered and died to secure these guarantees.
Likewise with freedom of expression, one attribute of which is freedom of the press. It's an individual liberty, not a corporate privilege, with those who exercise it always taking the risk of making asses of themselves and those who never use it not to be trusted.
The idea of a "national dialogue" about freedom of the press between people from the corporate media selected by President Martinelli and a government delegation selected by President Martinelli, with Archbishop Ulloa presiding over the talks, is a nonstarter. I read the Catholic press and have a generally positive opinion of Ulloa and the public statements that he has made, but old and recent history point to the church's unsuitability on the issue of freedom of belief and expression. And what is there to talk about? Freedom of expression must be respected, and any process aimed at abridging freedom of expression must be stopped dead in its tracks. The churches, temples, synagogues and mosques might properly urge greater civility in public discourse and other positive values in journalism, but a contrived presidential "dialogue" is not the most credible way for them to do that.
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Peruvian students demand punishment for the death squad massacres ordered by former President Alberto Fujimori. His daughter Keiko is the front runner in the presidential runoff and can be expected to let him out of prison if she is elected. The election race is close, and its result will move Peru well to the right or well to the left, and will be interpreted by some as a regional bellwether. Photo by Gustavo Kanashiro
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Is there cause for alarm? Is there cause for relief?
The overall homicide rate in Panama is down a bit, down to about 21 per 100,000 people per year. That's about double the 11 per 100,000 that our Costa Rican neighbors get, and about double what the rate was in 2004. The spike in our human carnage was almost all about organized crime, with international drug traffickers fighting for smuggling routes through Panama and recruiting local youth gangs as foot soldiers in their battles for control.
As bad as the violence is here, it's much safer in Panama than in such places as Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil. We are a relatively nonviolent society and the drug war executions are an imported phenomenon.
But as teenagers shot it out for control of squalid slums, the rich began to be the targets of home invasion robberies and express kidnappings and the victims of gangland executions were regularly found dumped along the Corredor Sur, people got scared and armed themselves. Now that the drug executions have subsided a bit, the contrary tendency in the murder rate is that domestic violence deaths are going up. With more guns around, beatings have escalated into shootings, so it seems.
And then there is the death of Denisse De La Ossa, a Panamanian citizen and US Embassy employee since 2003. She taught languages to embassy workers and on the evening was returning from Tocumen Airport after a meeting in Washington. She and her son were on the Corredor Sur approaching Punta Pacifica when there was a problem with the car, and after stopping the son set out in search of help and De La Ossa was quite deliberately shot and killed.
Our disreputable local wannabe Glenn Beck immediately declared it an "ambush," with all of the implications of directed terrorist violence against the American Embassy inherent in that. But the police arrested a couple of young men, allegedly members of a Boca La Caja gang. It seems to have been a case of mistaken identity, perhaps because the breakdown happened too close to some illegal transaction. That's the official theory of what happened. Let's wait and see what can be proven, because in such incidents there is often heavy pressure on police to make a quick arrest.
That same weekend, a young soccer hero, Javier De La Rosa, was gunned down just outside the dressing room at Artes y Oficios Stadium, where he had just scored a goal in the course of a victory that got his team into the finals of the LPF closing tournament. The league had paid for police protection but the cops went home before the crowd did, and the gunman just walked away.
A few days after that, the son of Colon's mayor was shot and killed by a gunman on a bicycle near that community's city hall. Police say they think they know who did it, but are less sure about why.
Then President Martinelli told foreign reporters that violent crime is under control in Panama.
It really isn't. Due to heavy US surveillance of smuggling routes that pass through Panamanian territory, the drug cartels have shifted to other routes. But when the Americans redeploy to deal with that, the heavy gangland infiltration of the Panamanian government and our unique geographical position will again attract the smugglers who have been scared off for the moment.
President Martinelli's big problem is that statistics are abstractions to most people, especially in a poorly educated society like ours. Whatever numbers may be cited, there is a public perception that crime is out of control and this is not a helpful thing for a politician who champions the most violent sort of police brutality. The perception is that he has turned the police into thugs and the ordinary thugs are just carrying on as usual, with a few minor adjustments. That perception is not really Martinelli's fault, nor is it something his political enemies created. The bodies of gangsters dumped by the side of the road don't affect people's thinking the way that the random killing of a middle class professional on her way home or the slaying of a star athlete on his night of glory do. What is Martinelli's fault is that he's so out of touch with what people perceive about this and many other matters.
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Let's take a break for some Panamanian rock and roll, with some Interiorano influences:
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The game changer has happened in US politics. It's a political eternity until November of 2012, but the Obama administration did what the Bush administration didn't by tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. The US president is in a commanding position to be re-elected, especially now that the Republicans are following up their 2010 victories by doing foolish and unpopular things.
Many people for whom I have great respect protest that this was a flat-out assassination of an unarmed man in his bedroom. They may be right. I don't expect that either the Navy SEALS or bin Laden himself contemplated the al-Qaeda leader being taken alive.
Can we set aside George W. Bush's whiny little argument about how he's the good guy and bin Laden is the bad guy, so the US Armed Forces are soldiers and al-Qaeda are illegal combatants, so Bush's guys get to torture bin Laden's guys, while if al-Qaeda guys torture US military personnel or mercenary contractors it's despicable terrorism? This is not about eight-year-old boys playing war games, but about a powerful but troubled nation playing an end game against an enemy that could easily grow another bin Laden if the situation is not properly handled.
Accept that bin Laden was a soldier, and a CIA-trained one at that. But if you do that then you should also recognize that he violated universal written and unwritten codes of conduct for soldiers and committed heinous war crimes. He not only made targets of non-combatant civilians in the United States, but he also did so in several other countries. He was a vicious bigot who hated not only Christians and Jews, but also Hindus and Buddhists and such Muslim denominations as the Shia and the Sufis.
The US tactics against bin Laden in particular and al-Qaeda in general --- assassination by a special ops squad, and the whole question of drone warfare as it has been used --- ought to be reviewed and debated. The use of torture, and the massacre of prisoners at the outset of the war in Afghanistan, ought to be the subjects of a series of criminal trials. But this editor has no tears to shed for Osama bin Laden. His Taliban allies may have blown up those massive Buddhas, but they did not knock the wheel of karma off of its axis. What goes around comes around.
More shots are going to be exchanged between US forces and jihadis, but now the name of the game is to pivot from a mainly military strategy to a primarily political approach. Getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and assuring the Muslim world that Islamist movements and political parties are not considered enemies of the United States just because of their religion or politics, are key elements of a political strategy to isolate the remaining jihadis.
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Carlos Garnett, the dean of Panamanian jazzmen who's playing his role in bringing up a new generation of excellent musicians, has been blowing his saxophone in the States of late. I am told that he's going to be playing in Los Angeles and that he's going to fly over the ocean and play in Austria in June. As Panamanian public education is in dreadful shape and mostly getting worse, private people and institutions are going around the schools to make at least some excellent education available to kids from families without a lot of money. A new cycle of music classes is about to begin at the Danilo Perez Foundation, and if you are in Panama and know a kid who has the aptitude and desire but not the means to study music privately, you ought to pass on this information to the youngster or to his or her parents. But meanwhile, back to Carlos Garnett and something that he recorded decades ago, but has only recently been uploaded onto YouTube:
Former WBA and IBF super-bantamweight champion Celestino "Pelenchín" Caballero is back in Panama to train for a June 18 bout in Argentina, where he will be fighting Jonathan Víctor Barros for the WBA featherweight title. His preparations will be under the direction of his trainer, Jeff Mayweather. The fight in Buenos Aires will be broadcast in Panama on a special edition of Lo Mejor del Boxeo.
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On June 3 in Panama City's Palacio Dorado there won't be any world championships on the line but you will see some good boxing and just might see a future world champion in one of the night's earlier matches. At the top of the card journeyman Edwin "La Pantera" Díaz will face the veteran Carlos "Shangai" Melo.
What's more interesting, maybe from a boxing perspective but certainly from a social and demographic point of view, is the presence of four Venezuelans on the card. Panama has long had a Venezuelan community. Now, thanks in large part to Hugo Chávez's personality and policies and also due to volatile world oil markets, that community is greatly expanded. We're seeing that in the proliferation of Venezuelan restaurants, in the infusions of Venezuelan talent into the Theatre Guild of Ancon and the Spanish-language theater scene, and in a greater Vene presence in upscale schools and neighborhoods. Around The Panama News office in Perejil we have seen a more middle class Venezuelan social stratum established. I would imagine that Panama's Vene community will be well represented on Fight Night at the Palacio Dorado.
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Do you feel an urgent need to believe? Well, it's good to believe in something, but even better to have more sophisticated understandings and beliefs through constant reference to and incorporation of the facts. So, what are you to believe about the Panamanian economy?
If you place your total reliance on someone who's trying to sell you something you are likely to be deceived and you will deserve it. There are certain media here that regularly and knowingly promote the sleaziest of hustlers, who generally use "fellow expat" or right-wing politics hooks to run affinity fraud schemes. And then there is the Martinelli administration, which assures us that there is no unemployment in Panama.
Therein lies the reason for the virulence of Martinelli's attacks on his critics. He's spinning fairy tales about Panama under his guidance, he's used to getting his way, and he doesn't want anybody contradicting him.
Are you going to come to Panama because it's "the next Dubai" and you think that you will get rich flipping upscale condos? That's a delusion. Are you here to hide money from the taxman, federal agents who suspect you of bribery or your ex-wife? That may or may not be the product of delusional thinking. Did someone tell you about Panama's bright economic outlook, without a cloud on the horizon? That's an exaggeration, but it's hard to tell how severely distorted that narrative is.
In less than two years, Mr. Martinelli has increased the Panamanian government's debt on the order of about 10 percent, with some critics pulling out parts of that picture to show him doubling the debt and some supporters comparing the debt increase to something else (inflation, the overall government budget or GDP, usually) to argue that the debt hasn't gone up at all. As I see it, to run up the public debt when business is on the down cycle can be a wise thing to do, but the smaller the country the more risky such counter-cyclical spending tends to be. There is no doubt that the canal expansion project and other large public works are driving the national economy, and if they haven't made unemployment disappear, they have reduced it to the lowest levels in many years. But there are three caveats that quickly come to my mind:
Apart from the macroeconomic trends, to the extent that the economy has been strong the wealth hasn't been spread around very well, and that's one of two very dangerous socio-economic time bombs that are ticking away. The other is the abysmal state of Panamanian education.
Panama has some important strengths, and by certain measures things are going relatively well with the economy. But take government propaganda with a boulder of salt and don't believe everything that everyone tells you.
* * *And with that caveat in mind, let's get into something by La Maquinaria Plumas Negras:
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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