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Volume 17, Number 12
December 6, 2011
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Also in this section:
Finmeccanica scam unravels on Italian end, Martinelli and Varela accuse each other
Test case in El Bebedero: Martinelistas flout election laws in a by-election
Guatemalan archbishop's intervention doesn't sway Italian energy company
President puts on a water show at a plant that has never worked right
"Intermediary" skimmed Panama's Italian radar, helicopter mapping contracts
FARC, Bogota's mayor offer their country different visions
The president struts his stuff at the Bomberos' Torchlight Parade
Martinelli names his high court replacements for Cigarruista and Spadafora
UNDP/OAS report: Our Democracy in Latin America (a long PDF file)
Wendy Reaman's scenes from a rained-upon Thousand Pollera Parade in Las Tablas
Italy investigates suspect Panama deals
Former political prisoner says Martinelli personally participated in his torture
Italian photographer catches up with Lavitola in Panama
Martinelli's contrived women's dignity protest breaks up in confusion
Floods and landslides cut off the city of Colon
PRD activist, radio journalist slain in Penonome, government employee held

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page


Martinelli sent in SPI presidential guards to evict IDAAN workers from the Chilibre water plant for his propaganda show with specially selected obsequious reporters. Photo by the Presidencia

The president's deceptive talking points, blaming of others for his own policy failures

About Panama City's water supply problems

by Eric Jackson

On November 22, after confliicting advice from health and water utility officials, Ricardo Martinelli got on his helicopter --- not the spiffy new Italian one, which hasn't yet arrived, but the VIP chopper that he's about to trade in for the one that Lavitola sold him --- and flew out to the Chilibre water plant. Prior to his arrival, heavily armed black garbed presidential guards with their faces concealed deployed to the facility and kicked the workers out. By land, officials from the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and specially chosen reporters who could be counted upon not to ask him any actual questions were there to greet him for a pubicity event.

>Martinelli announced that the workers at the plant had caused the crisis by failing to follow the instructions of the company that built the thing (Biwater International), that the waterworks employees were being replaced, and the ACP would now be in charge of the plant. He announced that IDAAN water and sewer utility director Abdiel Cano was fired and demanded the resignations of the entire IDAAN board of directors. Thus, the image of a decisive man of action for Martinelista propagandists to convey.

But almost all of it was a lie, and some of the rest of it was an attempt at an illegal power grab. For example:
  • The Chilibre water plant, ordered during the Moscoso administration, built during the Torrijos administration and by the terms of the contract supposed to supply 250 million gallons of potable water per day, was never formally accepted from Biwater by the Torrijos administration because it never worked properly. In October of 2009 the Martinelli administration formally accepted the plant, even though it still did not function as specified. The plant has never produced more than 200 million gallons of water per day, and according to the Panamanian Society of Engineers and Architects (SPIA) the problem is a series of fundamental design flaws.

  • No Panamanian government has ever based its decisions on the scientific consensus that the planet's climate is changing. Scientists' predictions of unusual local weather in many places fell upon deaf ears. It was never mandated that public infrastructures must be designed to withstand unpredictable weather phenomena. Martinelli, the darling of Fox News and the Miami Cuban exile movement, has bought into the US Republican attack on science, which holds that climate change is a fraud. In December of 2010 the odds caught up with Panama and the Chilibre water plant, in the form of unprecedented flooding and landslides in the upper Chagres River watershed that sent unexpectedly muddy water into the Chilibre waterworks. Normally the way that a water plant is protected against such things is the construction of adequate catch basins into which water is piped from the surface water source, so that if the water at the intake has too much silt, there is a backup supply in the basins to run the plant until the silt load goes down, and moreover, muddy water can be put into the basins and left a little while so that suspended particles can settle out before water is piped from the basins into the plant. However, the Chilibre waterworks were built on the presumption that conditions in its water source would be the same as they had always been. The plant was overwhelmed in December of 2010 because it was not designed to withstand silt intrusion of the magnitude that came to pass.

  • The announcement that the ACP would be put in charge of the waterworks was used and deceptive. In fact, the ACP had been put in charge back in December of 2010, and they were in charge at all times during November's water problems.

  • The IDAAN workers of the Torrijos years learned how to get the most they could out of a defective Chilibre plant by trial and error, with techniques that often had very little to do with what Biwater's operating manual said had to be done. This sort of operational tinkering is ordinary in many industries in which people have to use equipment that doesn't work right.

  • Ricardo Martinelli is and long has been an extremist with respect to political patronage at IDAAN. When he served in the Moscoso administration, IDAAN was given as a fiefdom to Cambio Democratico. Ramón Martinelli, the president's cousin and then the treasurer of Cambio Democratico, was put in charge of the utility. As IDAAN director Ramón Martinelli --- who is now in prison in Mexico on charges of running a massive drug money laundering scheme that brought some $30 million of a Mexican cartel's ill-gotten proceeds into Panama every month --- instituted an illegal deduction of Cambio Democratico party dues from the utility workers' paychecks. The money went into the coffers of Ricardo Martinelli's party. Ramón Martinelli was obliged to resign. Fortunately for him, he was double-dipping as a member of the Central American Parliament and as such enjoyed parliamentary immunity from investigation and prosecution. Ricardo Martinelli was never the target of a serious investigation. In any event, IDAAN went through the usual change-of-government purges when Torrijos took the presidency from Moscoso, and again when Martinelli took over from Torrijos. But when Martinelli became president, much of the metro area was getting its water from a defective plant that had to be handled in idiosyncratic ways that were not in the Biwater instruction manual. Plus, the Martinelli business culture of bullying, browbeating authoritarianism meant that people who knew what to do were afraid to do it. Experience was essential to keep the defective plant running and Martinelli played political patronage games that threw it away.

  • Come the unusual December 2010 rains and mud started flowing into the plant. The instant that this was known, someone should have turned off  the intake valves. But the people in charge were clueless and those under them afraid to act. It was a big disaster and Martinelli brought in the ACP --- which has its own small waterworks and some experienced people. The ACP took supervisory control in December of 2010 and never relinquished it. By and large they relied upon company troubleshooters from Biwater for advice and the IDAAN work force to do the work.

  • Meanwhile, the Panama City - San Miguelito metro area has been experiencing many waterless days due to a subway system constuction job done without serious planning so as to minimize the need to cut off  water to large areas by going under or around major water mains or building water system bypasses in advance. Recall that in their defense of failed legislation to abolish environmental impact studies, the Martinelistas bragged about how they would not allow studies to delay their work on the commuter rail system.

  • The city was already in the grips of a construction-caused water shutoff  when mud started to come into the Chilibre water plant. The switch was thrown to shut down the intake. However, that turned off  the settings on the dosimeters that control the amount of chemicals added to the water to bind the suspended silt particles into larger lumps that fall to the bottom of the tanks to be removed. When the plant was turned back on, water was coming out that did not have the sediments removed --- this foul brownish stuff.

  • So Martinelli made his political move, at which the IDAAN workers' union and the SPIA scoffed because, in addition to the melodrama, his claims and assignments of blame were so far out of line with the facts. To underscore the point the IDAAN board of directors flat-out defied Martinelli's demand for their resignations. That's because under the law that created IDAAN only one board member, the representative of the Ministry of Health, is a political appointee. There are also a labor representative, a representative of the SPIA and representatives from several business sectors, all appointed by their respective constituencies. Martinelli, without any legal power to do so or attempt to pass legislation that would give him the authority, was trying to take personal control of the utility.

Where does this leave IDAAN? First understand that the Chilibre plant is the most important of its facilities, but that it's only one of about 50 of the utility's water treatment plants. Then, notice that Martinelli has cut the entire 2012 maintenance budget for all of IDAAN's water plants to $5,000. The situation has the leftist labor unions accusing the president of sabotaging IDAAN so that he can declare an "emergency" and privatize the nation's drinking water system.

Actually, Martinelli has a direct and personal pecuniary interest in such a move: he a principal owner of the Hidroelectrico La Laguna dam project in the Cañazas district of Veraguas --- whose legal representative is Labor Minister Alma Cortés. The mostly indigenous local farmers tend not to like the idea of being directly flooded off  of their land by President Martinelli's dam, nor being indirectly driven away by losing the water supplies needed for their households, their farm animals and their crops. There have been some confrontations between people in the community and Martinelli's heavy machine operators.

With the water supply privatized, Martinelli will have the contents of the reservoir behind his dam to sell. But first he'll need to get IDAAN out of the way.


A show from which reporters who ask questions were carefully excluded. Photo by the Presidencia






    

Also in this section:
Finmeccanica scam unravels on Italian end, Martinelli and Varela accuse each other
Test case in El Bebedero: Martinelistas flout election laws in a by-election
Guatemalan archbishop's intervention doesn't sway Italian energy company
President puts on a water show at a plant that has never worked right
"Intermediary" skimmed Panama's Italian radar, helicopter mapping contracts
FARC, Bogota's mayor offer their country different visions
The president struts his stuff at the Bomberos' Torchlight Parade
Martinelli names his high court replacements for Cigarruista and Spadafora
UNDP/OAS report: Our Democracy in Latin America (a long PDF file)
Wendy Reaman's scenes from a rained-upon Thousand Pollera Parade in Las Tablas
Italy investigates suspect Panama deals
Former political prisoner says Martinelli personally participated in his torture
Italian photographer catches up with Lavitola in Panama
Martinelli's contrived women's dignity protest breaks up in confusion
Floods and landslides cut off the city of Colon
PRD activist, radio journalist slain in Penonome, government employee held



© 2011 by Eric Jackson
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