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Volume 17, Number 7
June 19, 2011
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opinion

Also in this section:
Editorials: Lunatic land grab, and US war powers
APEDE, The Torre Financiera
Baucus, The US-Panama Free Trade Agreement
AFL-CIO, US-Panama FTA not the answer to the jobs crisis
Arghiris, Defending the Tabasara River
Bernal, The "dialogue" about freedom of expression
Smyth, Oakland journalist's murderers convicted
Amnesty International, Bahraini woman gets a year in prison for reading a poem
Toensing, Washington still hasn't learned about brutal and repressive governments
Acosta, Funes's broken promises
Boff, Sustainability: adjective or noun?
Burggraf, Peru and genetically modified crops
Via Campesina, Against rich nations' food grabs
Greenpeace, Italy says yes to a nuclear-free future
Birns & Soltis, Brazil vs. the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Hightower, The GOP's Medicare lies
MacAuley, Blowing the whistle
Jackson, Martinelli violates the dictatorship's guarantee
Sirias, Goodbye to teaching (for now)
Letters to the editor

A brief excursion through the dictatorship's constitution and the fate of Omar Torrijos's deal
The structures that Martinelli and his predecessors have broken
by Eric Jackson

"I don't vote for the party, I vote for the person." I used to hear that in the States a lot more than I do here, but I have heard it here. The problem, of course, is that "the person" that the voter perceives is more often than not an artificial persona, and when the reality of the situation is recognized it's usually unfortunate and usually too late for the next several years. But then Panamanian voters will feel betrayed as usual and take it out on incumbents. The quinquennial voters' revenge is a strong trend that President Martinelli and his followers will try to overcome, but I doubt that they will be able to do so by anything but the most fraudulent means. I also don't think that he can win any sort of constitutional referendum, even if he can muster the votes to rig the election laws. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the structural changes in Panamanian government continue. The basic deal that General Omar Torrijos offered to those civilian politicians willing to play ball with him has been asphyxiating under several administrations, but now it has been definitively strangled.

In 1968, a week and a half into a new government's tenure, the second string officers in the Guardia Nacional, then Panama's combined army and police force, took control of the government, exiled the president, dissolved the legislature and banned the political parties. A few months later Omar Torrijos turned on his partner atop the junta, Boris Martínez, and exiled him to Miami. With the help of a man Torrijos described as "my gangster," one Manuel Antonio Noriega, Torrijos fended off a coup attempt by junior officers and consolidated his power. By the ordinary cycles of the previous dysfunctional democracy, there should have been elections in 1972. Instead, Torrijos imposed a "constitution" by which he declared himself the maximum leader of the revolution, and an arcane process by which he more or less appointed civilian representantes for each corregimiento. In 1978, with a need to put on a pretense of democracy for the Americans in order to get the Panama Canal Treaties ratified, his lapdog representantes amended the constitution into much the format that we have today, although there were more dictatorship amendments in 1983 and several post-dictatorship amendments.

All presidents were military puppets until the dictatorship fell in the 1989 US invasion. Most were appointed, but in 1984 Nicolas Ardito Barletta was imposed by way of election fraud, later to be deposed at General Noriega's whim.

With respect to the majority of civilian politicians, the deal was this:

  • Representantes (city council members, one from each corregimiento) and legislators would have no substantial legislative power;

  • On the municipal level, the representantes would have powers circumscribed most of all by the national government's control of local financing and national government entities' control of maintaining urban infrastructures, collecting the garbage, regulating buses and taxis and the other normal things that cities in most of the rest of the world do;

  • In the national legislature, deputies would have powers circumscribed most of all by a limited ability to propose legislation and an only theoretical power to investigate and oversee the executive power --- which remained in the hands of the military until December of 1989 --- and more formally by what is now Article 163, section 2 of the constitution, which bars the assembly from interfering in matters which are the exclusive provinces of other branches of the government;

  • In exchange for the lack of ordinary legislative powers, the deputies and representantes got certain limited executive powers, most notably through the corregimientos' juntal comunal structures and the legislators' circuit funds, money to distribute more or less as they saw fit among their constituents --- the standard practice being that politicians opposed to the national government's executive of the moment would get a pittance, but something, while those who supported the administration would get a lot more; and

  • Opposition parties were protected from the dictators', and later the presidents', manipulations by way of the parties' power to revoke the mandate of a representante or deputy who sided against the party.

It was a sleazy little deal, which relatively honest politicians might use to fix the Little League field or provide ambulance service in their constituencies, and which the usual sort of grasping social climber who went for such offices might spend on a luxury car in which to tool around town. Some good projects owed their existence to the legislators' and representantes' discretionary funds, but the abuses became something of a national joke.

Starting with Ernesto Pérez Balladares and accelerating under Mireya Moscoso and Martín Torrijos, political patronage was centralized through first cutbacks and then the elimination of deputies' and representantes' discretionary funds. Now Ricardo Martinelli is going several steps beyond by eliminating some of the few remaining independent municipal revenue sources (sign fees, for example) and by blocking all manner of national spending in legislative circuits and corregimientos represented by opposition politicians who refuse to defect to his Cambio Democratico party.

Since the Moscoso administration, the corrupt magistrates of the Electoral Tribunal have interposed delays that have effectively prevented political parties from removing defectors to other parties, and flagrant crooks who got caught in the act, from their public offices. Martinelli has jammed through legislation that's probably unconstitutional --- but he controls the courts. It sets up impossible procedures for a party to revoke a legislator's or city council member's mandate. Mainly through blackmail, Martinelli has coerced many legislators, mayors and city council members to defect to his party.

Should anybody sympathize with anyone in all of this? If a slippery opportunist who ran for an office that she or he knew had few powers but some nice perks gets compelled to switch parties, should anyone feel bad about it?

Don't pay undue attention to personas, and don't believe in the discredited parties. But do understand the structure of what is going on: a deal that the dictatorship offered to civilians to give itself a window dressing opposition that made ineffective speeches in the legislature and cut ribbons on community projects has been abrogated, and it's being replaced with an arrangement even more totalitarian than the dictatorship's.

By cutting off possibilities for citizen participation in public affairs and democratic avenues toward change, Martinelli may be rigging things to prolong his or his party's stay in power. However, far more effectively than promoting that desired goal of his, he's putting a pressure cooker lid on a shoddy Super 99 pan of simmering discontent, setting the country up for some sort of explosion.

So do we want a return to General Torrijos's deal? Should we demand the restoration of circuit funds and the representantes' public spending powers? Is it a good idea to restore the disciplinary authority of the political parties?

Actually, we should put all that stuff behind us. The dictatorship made a cynical deal, and an ever more corrupt series of civilian governments has revoked it. Now the citizens must find a way to revoke Martinelli's structural changes to the government and hold him accountable for what he has done. But to do that there will need to be a new constitution, a clean sweep of all branches of government, and a transformed political culture. Those are all dangerous things, but we are being left with ever less choice. Continuing as we have been is not really a viable option.








Also in this section:

Editorials: Lunatic land grab, and US war powers
APEDE, The Torre Financiera
Baucus, The US-Panama Free Trade Agreement
AFL-CIO, US-Panama FTA not the answer to the jobs crisis
Arghiris, Defending the Tabasara River
Bernal, The "dialogue" about freedom of expression
Smyth, Oakland journalist's murderers convicted
Amnesty International, Bahraini woman gets a year in prison for reading a poem
Toensing, Washington still hasn't learned about brutal and repressive governments
Acosta, Funes's broken promises
Boff, Sustainability: adjective or noun?
Burggraf, Peru and genetically modified crops
Via Campesina, Against rich nations' food grabs
Greenpeace, Italy says yes to a nuclear-free future
Birns & Soltis, Brazil vs. the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Hightower, The GOP's Medicare lies
MacAuley, Blowing the whistle
Jackson, Martinelli violates the dictatorship's guarantee
Sirias, Goodbye to teaching (for now)
Letters to the editor



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