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Volume 17, Number 13
December 31, 2011
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news

Also in this section:
Martinelli tries to weather scandals and avoid cabinet changes
Election law changes, another stab at the Mining Code in January
"Conejando" in Panama: what big ears Colombia's exiled spy chief has
Main canal expansion contractor barely staves off bankruptcy --- for now
Noriega settles in at El Renacer, legal skirmishing begins
Martinelli gets his solid Supreme Court majority
Residents and interns on strike at David hospital
Vaclav Havel’s human rights legacy
The failure of the Durban climate talks
The ECB's high wire act
The Internet and Latin America: cyber-security issues
The China - Latin America summit in Lima
South America consolidates its role as an emerging power
South America and Cold War II
When Italian waste companies come here, red flags should pop up

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's Twitter tweets are now a national joke.
Photo by Eric Jackson

Martinelli, beset by multiple scandals, lashes out but lands few blows

Push comes to shove

by Eric Jackson

The fundamental problem is that the government leadership has the habit of lying.... Result: the government has achieved something very difficult --- it has zero credibility....

Unforgivable, Mr. President, are the multi-million-dollar commissions, the extras for billionaires, theft via the titling of lands in Paitilla and Juan Hombron; the asphalt business; equipment rentals; the sand pits; the technology businesses; the concessions in Tocumen; the consulates; visas for seafarers; the first job program; the nutritional biscuits; invitations to tender and direct purchases; addenda to road and hospital contracts... and a long etcetera.
Bobby Eisenmann's December 16 column

We expect that [Eisenmann] will appear before the legal authorities and present his proofs. If he does not support his grave accusations with proofs, the government will civilly sue the businessman Ithiel Roberto Eisenmann.
Threat on the Presidencia's website

The president's holiday offensive against the press et al

December 27 was an interesting day for Panamanian politics wonks. On that day former National Land Titling Authority (ANATI) director Annabelle Villamonte was in jail (she since got out on bail, after a two-week detention) on various charges related to the titling to some 54 hectares of mostly mangrove swamps in favor of front companies for the Papadimitriu family's business group, whose representative in the Chamber of Commerce is Demetrio (Jimmy) Papadimitriu, the Minister of the Presidency who is the boss of the ANATI director.

Five days earlier, tax auditors for the General Income Office (DGI) told former La Prensa publisher I. Roberto (Bobby) Eisenmann that after seven months of audits (and documentation that the government "lost"), they had made an unwritten determination that Desarrollo Golf Coronado SA, a company of which Eisenmann is legal representative and reputedly the largest but not the only shareholder, owes $1.5 million in taxes. They said that if Eisenmann does not personally pay that amount forthwith they will seize the hotel, golf course and other assets in Coronado.

But Eisenmann waited until the day after Christmas to go public and declare that the company doesn't owe one cent in taxes and that the bill and threat are all about President Martinelli lashing out at those who criticize him in the news media.

The day after that, on the 27th, the Presidencia issued a statement confirming that their problem really is about what Eisenmann wrote in a December 16 column. To pile on, that day Ricardo Martinelli let loose another of his celebrated Twitter tweets, wherein he threatened the Museum of Biodiversity project, of which Eisenmann is one of the leaders and which also has the support of many of Panama's richest families, most notably the Mottas and the Kardonskys. The nation's Comptroller General --- the former in-house accountant for Martinelli's private businesses, Gioconda Torres de Bianchini --- approves and signs every check that's issued by the overwhelmingly private-funded Fundacion Amador that is building that museum. The president's son is on the board of directors. But despite all of that, Martinelli sent out a Twitter message declaring that "Soon we shall see the beauties of a very expensive museum where some supposed notables misappropriated state resources."

Martinelli has been notoriously feuding with the Mottas for quite some time, and successive governments have tried to muscle in on the Museum of Biodiversity to turn it into a political patronage fiefdom. But note the scattergun nature of this particular political attack on Bobby Eisenmann: a cursory look at its board of directors and assembly members reveals a breathtaking list of Panama's business, opinion and cultural leaders whom the president is willing to harm in order to get at Eisenmann. The unofficial connection embodied in the presence of Ira Rubinoff, the director emeritus of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and former acting science director for the Smithsonian Institution in particular means that Martinelli is picking a fight with that US governmental institution in order to attack Eisenmann.



So, does Bobby Eisenmann's company owe unpaid taxes? It would be common enough for a rabiblanco business. From a special dispensation to solve Coronado's water shortage problems years ago through Eisenmann's oft-criticized relationships with most of the post-dictatorship governments --- Toro Pérez Balladares and Ricardo Martinelli being the presidents with whom he never got along --- the former La Prensa publisher and Coronado developer can't be entirely above suspicion of getting things that other folks don't. But notice that the Martinelistas don't point to any of that to accuse him of being a bad guy with a long history. No, DGI director Luis Cucalón, on behalf of the Martinelistas, invoked Manuel Antonio Noriega's fraudulent tax claim of the 80s, which the ex-dictator never proved. (Noriega exiled Eisenmann from Panama anyway and sent his thugs --- some of them now part of the Martinelli entourage --- to destroy La Prensa's offices and printing press.)

In the exchange of newspaper and television blasts between Eisenmann and Martinelli on December 27, a few things stand out as emblems of what's happening with respect to the government's relations with the press these days:
  • Martinelli no longer answers questions from reporters. He makes pronouncements via cryptic Twitter messages or through proxies.

  • The Martinelli administration no longer allows reporters who ask intelligent questions to its press conferences. The Martinelista threats of a lawsuit if Eisenmann doesn't present proofs of all the government's scandals to prosecutors were delivered by the sordid Panameñista turncoat Luis Eduardo Camacho --- and there was nobody on hand who challenged the flagrant disregard for a number of laws inherent in the Martinelli operations against Eisenmann. These include undocumented oral tax demands; an unlawful procedure of making a tax demand from an individual when it's the corporation that's accused; the illegal threat to sequester property without any sort of court procedure; and the extraordinary claim that one who makes reference in a newspaper column to legal controversies that are matters of public record and in several instances the subjects of ongoing criminal proceedings must present proofs to prosecutors or be held to have committed libel. Access to the government is now the exclusive preserve of the most irresponsible and obsequious lapdogs in the press corps.

  • PRD secretary general Mitchell Doens produced what he claimed were copies of nine-month-old emails wherein Ricardo Martinelli purportedly instructed the DGI to pursue Eisenmann, and the Martinelista necro-porn tabloid La Critica dismissed them with the argument that "however, there is as difference in the time that Doens adduces, as the start of the audit --- according to the revelations of DGI director Luis Cucalón --- was seven months ago instead of the nine that the PRD member alleges." There was no denial about the emails' authenticity, only an inconsequential quibbling about the date which presupposes a government that acts quickly and efficiently as "proof" that something that happened with a two-month delay could not have happened.

The DGI's audit of the companies with which Eisenmann has a connection is not, as the Martinelli regime claims, a general policy of auditing all businesses. Such a process is not in fact underway, which is why business leaders have been quick to accuse the president of picking on his critics. Previously hassled by the DGI were boxing show host and social commentator Juan Carlos Tapia and radio show owner Guillermo Antonio Adames, both critics of the current administration. Penonome radio station owner and radio show host Darío Fernández Jaén, also a critic of the administration, was gunned down by a hit man on November 6, and afterwards Martinelli said that it was about what he said and that he knows who ordered the hit. There has been no arrest of any intellectual author, and video evidence appears to indicate that the alleged gunman was wrongfully accused.



December 28, Martinelli sends in the riot squad and comes up with a remarkable theory

The more wimpish of the turncoat elected officials from other political parties who have switched to Martinelli's Cambio Democratico were blackmailed by the president's cutoff of government funding from the corregimientos, districts or circuits which elected them as representantes, mayors or legislators respectively. Others were blackmailable by sterner stuff, like their drug cartel ties, and some were bribed. But those who have held out have seen their constituencies starved, and on December 28 they gathered in Divisa to protest the cutoff in the way that Panamanians usually do: by blocking the Pan-American Highway.

The etiquette about this is that the cops come, and the senior officer tells the protesters to disperse. Any rough stuff starts after such an order is given and defied. In this instance the police just moved in and attacked. There were a few arrests and a few injuries. Public reaction to the event was mixed, but the weight of public opinion appears to be that whether or not the opposition politicians were being obnoxious by blocking the road, they should not have been provoked to such an extreme in the first place. The transfugas --- turncoats from other parties who have joined Martinelli's Cambio Democratico --- are after all the most hated political figures in Panama, with polls showing that nearly 90 percent of Panamanians condemn them and the political opportunism for which they stand.

The Martinelli administration knew better than to try to contrast the transfugas' alleged good citizenship with the protesting mayors' and representantes' alleged thuggish behavior. That would be a political nonstarter.

So the next day the government announced a reorganization and issued a denial that there had been discrimination in funding, which nobody believes. The Martinelista party line is that funds were being distributed --- conveniently just to government supporters --- when last June some unspecified "irregularities" were found, and rather than any abuses being specifically addressed, the disbursements were stopped. Uh huh.

The day after that, the Ministry of Economy and Finance issued a curious statement --- which lacked the imprimatur of the Panagringo minister, Frank De Lima Gercich --- accusing Vice President Juan Carlos Varela of causing the problem.

Say what? The unsigned communiqué alleged that Varela created the Social Development Program (PRODESO) and in so doing left it without any oversight controls.

Well, that's a convenient theory --- except that PRODESO was just the latest in a line of programs that have been in effect for more than 30 years, by which local officials get money from the national government to spend on projects in their constituencies; except that PRODESO and its predecessors have always been run by the Ministry of Economy and Finance (or its precursor, the Ministry of Treasury and Finance); except that Varela never had anything to do with that ministry; except that PRODESO's creation was approved by the entire Martinelli cabinet, then the National Assembly and finally signed into law by President Martinelli, and afterwards monitored by Martinelli's personal accountant, Gioconda Torres de Bianchi.


Martinelli brings his Italian hoodlum friends to Panama: the scandal that's not going away
Photo by the Presidencia


A desperate and paralyzed administration

Back in September of 2010, Bobby Eisenmann took a stab at prophecy. This was after Martinelli's estrangement from the US Embassy had become public knowledge; after the arrest of former Cambio Democratico party treasurer and presidential cousin Ramón Martinelli in Mexico on money laundering charges and the subsequent "computer failure" at the Registro Publico during the course of which the records of the many companies at which Ramón's drug gang was involved were erased; after the pattern of bribery and blackmail to induce defections from other parties was set; and after all of the legal norms of public contracting had been abandoned. By then, it was abundantly clear that Martinelli's emotional shifts were not under control, and that if he had advisors to help him with this, he wasn't paying attention to them. Eisenmann said that Martinelli could change his ways,

or opt for continued provocation, the daily somersault, the endless gaffes, the thuggery, which guarantees the impossibility of the alliance's future re-election --- and once the term ends, the predictable flight abroad of Ricardo Martinelli and his close collaborators.

But Eisenman may have been too generous in his predictions. Martinelli may have an INTERPOL warrant in an Italian corruption case blocking his exit by the time that he's ready to go. Our president, a dual Italian-Panamanian citizen, along with his key ministers, has been caught in multiple scandals. One of them involves false billings in a contract with an Italian state-controlled company for the purposes of creating a slush fund for bribes. Martinelli may well be able to control all legal processes in Panama, but Italian prosecutors are unimpressed and whether or not they personally charge Martinelli they are likely to mortally embarrass him in 2012.

But that probably makes it even more imperative for Martinelli to cling to power here, where his situation is so desperate that he can't expose himself to the normal press contacts that any other president in a democracy does, that he is reduced to using underlings to tell the most outlandish tales on his behalf, and that he is lashing out wildly like a beaten fighter who needs to score a lucky knockout blow. Notice as well the message in most of his scurrilous attack videos: he's using illegal wiretaps, editing them out of context and putting them on YouTube --- that's bad enough. More telling is his endless repetition of the charge that an unlikely conspiracy of people who don't much like one another are plotting his overthrow.

It's the talk of someone who has done things that would get him impeached in any normal country, and who intends to do even more outrageous things to cling to power. To that extent, it's a rational discourse.

But since this past May, Martinelli has been promising cabinet changes, then declaring that there would be no changes and that his cast of anti-Panamanian conspirators won't be able to force him to make changes. It hasn't just been once or twice, but a recurring cycle. Now key ministers are talking about the cabinet's "exhaustion" and the need for changes. The first to leave the cabinet and go back to his farm in Chiriqui was Minister of Agricultural Development Emilio Kieswetter. It is said by Kieswetter and the administration to be unrelated to political issues. There will probably be more cabinet changes, not because Martinelli is going to evaluate his team and move people in, out and around but because people who might have futures elsewhere are going to want to get out and salvage what they can of their ambitions.

The usual polls understate the severity of Martinelli's situation. Those pollsters who don't give people a neutral option are now finding that more people think that Martinelli is doing a poor or horrible job than think he is doing a good or excellent job. But meanwhile all polls are showing that were an election to be held now, Martinelli's party would be in third place with around 20 percent of the vote. Support for the anointed successor, Minister of Social Development Guillermo Ferrufino, may look high when people think of him as a minister but as a presidential candidate his public support is in single digits.

Then things look really dismal for Martinelli on specific issues. December polling by Dichter & Neira indicates that:
  • 68.6% say that the National Assembly doesn't act independently of the president

  • 66.5% say that the courts don't act independently of the president

  • By a 51.1% to 21.3% margin people disapprove of the Martinelista vote buying in El Bebedero

  • 70.3% believe the Martinelistas will use state funds for 2014 campaign, which would be illegal

  • 66.5% don't believe that the government respects freedom of expression

  • 73.6% believe that the radar purchase from Italy was not justified

  • 53.6% think Mulino should resign over the radar deal

  • 51.8% believe that the crime situation has become worse

It's way early for the May 2014 elections, but already it's a safe bet that Cambio Democratico is unelectable in any democratic process. However, it is also clear both that Martinelli doesn't feel bound by any of the norms of a democracy to preserve his hold on the country and that he has good reason to fear for his personal fate once he is out of office.






    

Also in this section:
Martinelli tries to weather scandals and avoid cabinet changes
Election law changes, another stab at the Mining Code in January
"Conejando" in Panama: what big ears Colombia's exiled spy chief has
Main canal expansion contractor barely staves off bankruptcy --- for now
Noriega settles in at El Renacer, legal skirmishing begins
Martinelli gets his solid Supreme Court majority
Residents and interns on strike at David hospital
Vaclav Havel’s human rights legacy
The failure of the Durban climate talks
The ECB's high wire act
The Internet and Latin America: cyber-security issues
The China - Latin America summit in Lima
South America consolidates its role as an emerging power
South America and Cold War II
When Italian waste companies come here, red flags should pop up



© 2011 by Eric Jackson
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