Volume 18, Number 1
March 6, 2012
Blocking the highway over broken promises about mines and dams.
Photo by AEVE
Before breaking for Carnival, an offensive question...
Is it OK?
What are the limits to the rights of a majority in a democracy?
Let me put it in a way that at my old Sunday school, at the Margarita Union Church, we were taught was offensive: members of the Motta family have things that we don't have, like controlling interests in COPA Airlines, the TVN broadcast network and other properties --- so should we covet those things? Plus, their ancestry is Jewish and most Panamanians are not of that extraction --- so is it OK to hold a democratic referendum where Panamanians vote on whether to take the Mottas' property?
What about siezing the property of all Jews, or all businesses or farms owned by those of Chinese ancestry? What about dispossessing all those descended from Sephardic Jews, Arabs, Asians, Africans and people from those West Indian islands where the main language is not Spanish? Would it be OK to have a referendum about disenfranchising and dispossessing all of them? They're not the majority, so shouldn't the majority rule on this?
I say it's not OK, and those of you who know Panamanian history will realize that not all of the examples given above have been merely hypothetical. Fundamental freedoms are not subject to democratic repeal. Freedom of speech means that a majority does not get to silence somebody with different beliefs. The right to privacy in one's communications means that the party that won the election does not get to tap into and record the phone calls of members of the party that lost and put them up on YouTube for propaganda purposes.
And Ricardo Martinelli's idea that Panama should have a referendum on whether the Ngabe and Bugle people should be dispossessed of their lands and waters for hydroelectric dams --- which by the way his relatives the Virzis would partly own --- is as offensive as holding a referendum to dispossess the Chinese, the Americans or anyone else in this country.
(It's true that I don't believe that markets are the solution to all of our problems or worship at the altar of private property, but I don't see where my economic philosophy conflicts with the 10th Commandment. Nor did the ancient Jews see any great conflict between that commandment and the periodic redistribution of wealth. Just because I don't believe that someone richer than I am ought to have the right to buy our government or is inherently a better person than someone of lesser means doesn't mean that I covet his or her possessions.)
The notion of a referendum, especially one with unequally funded campaigns, the object of which is to strip the rural poor of a certain ethnic minority group of their property, offends me. However, I must admit that even as repugnant as such an effort is to me, there is a certain temptation to allow Ricardo Martinelli to call such a vote, because it is very likely that he would be soundly defeated and his administration would be crippled for the rest of its days.
* * *
That said, Carnival draws nigh. The 2014 election campaign is already underway, so there will be politicians passing out their wares, but ignore that rudeness. It's party time:
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Much of this issue's culture section covers the Panama Jazz Festival, big parts of which I did not attend this year. I find that trying to attend and cover the whole thing is impossible for one person to do, and attempting to come close to doing that is both exhausting and detrimental do quality work. Maybe next year there will be reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the next big event for Panamanian and international jazz fans approaches, the Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival. There will be smaller crowds and a far more spectacular scenic backdrop for this event. For those who don't know Panama, it's not near the canal. However, when you look around you on the slopes of Volcan Baru you probably won't miss the famous waterway.
* * *
The year's first mango dropped off of the tree the other day. We are actually having a rather normal dry season in Panama Oeste, but the early mango is one more sign that our climate is changing.
Just in time? The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has broken ground for an impressive expansion of its facilities, a new campus in Gamboa. The Smithsonian is a US government institution, but STRI is a world-leading international group of scientists, one that has had a lot of continuity over a century of the Smithsonian's work in Panama but one that's also forever changing, with scientists coming and going.
The Panamanian government was represented at the ceremony by an acting vice minister, which is a sign that this administration does not fully value some of the things that are important for national development. The far more apparent sign of this problem is the sorry state of Panamanian education. However, the infrastructure is being built to make little Panama as much a scientific power as it is a boxing power. The society has to just realize what might be and make good use of the physical and human resources that are here.
* * *
Carnival is all sorts of things, but in Panama City one of the traditions is banned this year. No meat on a stick. Some vague health reason that didn't exist before is being cited now.
For the food aspect of Carnival, go to the Antillean Fair at ATLAPA on Saturday or Sunday and check out all of the West Indian fare, along with the music, dancers, sales stands and other attractions.
The music will come in many genres and the different Carnival locales will each have their distinct flavors. Prominent in all of this, as Panamanian as garlic and culantro, will be the sound of cumbia:
* * *
There have been reports of an attempt by Anonymous to hack the websites of various mining companies and government agencies. The claims made in the name of Anonymous are, well ... anonymous. They are claims that can't really be taken as reliable by any careful news organization. It might be a ruse by government agent provocateurs, or by some teenage lone actor using the name Anonymous but connected to nothing. That's one of the constant problems with this sort of underground activity. The bigger problem is deciding whether we want to make electronic warfare the rule of engagement for all sides, because what goes around comes around.
The Panama News has from time to time been the specific target of electronic attacks, occasionally of a serious nature but not yet anything catastrophic. Plus, we have had the experience of losing hard drives to the generally propagated malware that has affected so many others as well. We try to keep up our guard, but of course this requires getting new and more powerful computers from time to time.
All of this leads this editor to despise those who vandalize websites and spread viruses and worms around the Internet. It's not a matter of my liking all of the victims of these sorts of things. I dislike most of the institutions that Anonymous dislikes.
I am also led to understand the need for the Pentagon's cyber-command, even as I fear what it might do and even as I find proposed US legislation about Internet piracy to be extreme and annoying.
Here in Panama,
government breaks all manner of laws to interfere with people's
electronic communications, sometimes bragging about it and sometimes
lying about it. When hackers mess with the government's websites,
it's karma --- but it's also a threat to all online businesses, all
online media and such free dicourse as this society has anymore.
something by Ruben Blades that this amazing band from Colon, the C3
String Quartet, played at the Jazz Festival, characterizing it as
"Panamanian." The leader of that band, Joshue Ashby, corrected me:
Instead of Panamanian music, we did Afro-Cuban and Salsa music by a Panamanian composer, Rubén Blades, Cuban Moisés Simons and Venezuelan Oscar D'León.
I stand corrected and remain deeply impressed by their performance.
Of course, we are The Crossroads of The World not just for container ships, but also for many cultural currents. We can, and people do, argue about what is "Panamanian" even as we recognize the many non-Panamanian influences at work on the isthmus. On Carnival stages there will be plenty of music whose roots trace back to the Dominican Republic, including the bachata that started in Santo Domingo and came of age in the Dominican community of New York. It's very popular in Panama. Let's hear from one of its maximum exponents, Romeo Santos:
* * *
In the United States, women's health has become a political issue in both the social and political senses in this presidential election year. There is an attempt to hit hot-button emotional issues that may make sense in narrow contexts but are absolutely self-destructive to those who press them in society at large. Then, when the associated economic factors are closely examined, things get really weird.
The Catholic bishops and the Republican religious right launched a political offensive against President Obama, insisting that his health care programs require Catholic employers to provide health insurance that covers birth control services to which they object. So the president backs down and allows that if they find an insurance company whose plan does not cover contraception and employees are informed that they won't have this coverage, he's willing to allow that. That's not enough, though: the bishops and the Republican Party want all birth control services excluded from all insurance, if not banned altogether.
The problems with that?
Outside of the formal partisan scrimmage and in the realm of corporate philanthropy, the religious right opened another front. Through sympathizers within and pressure from without, they got Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the most prominent US charitable organization that has embraced the pink ribbon symbol of the fight against breast cancer, to cancel its subsidies for cancer screening tests at Planned Parenthood.
Now if you are seriously anti-abortion or anti-contraception --- like many Americans but unlike the majority of the US electorate --- you will have reason to object to Planned Parenthood. If you are like former Susan G. Komen vice president Karen Handel, who ran as a Republican for governor of Georgia by brandishing an assault rifle and railing against Planned Parenthood, you will find yourself possessed of passions that most of your fellow citizens don't share. If you are a woman and think that way, you will find yourself in an even smaller minority among the female population than within society at large.
A private charitable organization has a right to decide which grants it will make, and the donors to that organization also have the right to stop contributing in the event that they are annoyed. Susan G. Komen annoyed its donor base and many of the people within the organization, and quickly suffered losses from which it is unlikely to recover. Handel was forced out, but the damage was done.
However, the damage does not stop with this organization. The entire world of corporate charity is under question. People are questioning the notion that "to be competitive" charities "must" pay executive salaries comparable to the bloated pay that US private sector executives get. In practice it means that the president of Susan G. Komen makes more than the president of the United States.
Does higher executive pay really mean that charities are more effective at what they do? Actually, it usually means that they are just the domains of wealthy socialites, the wives of powerful male politicians, and former female politicians (like former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel) who served corporate interests while in office. It sometimes turns out that the noblesse oblige of the one percent accrues largely to the benefit of that rarified crowd.
Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure spends less than 12 percent on overhead, which is reasonably low. When one figures that the groups to which it gives grants also have overhead, the percentage of the funds that it raises that actually get spent on its works becomes harder to calculate.
What has happened is that part of the "collateral damage" of the religious right's brief capture of Susan G. Komen is that the organization has been dragged into the crossfire of the class conflict of which the Occupy movement has become a symbol. It is not an enviable place for any "non-controversial" charity to be.
In these hard
not good for people to lose sympathy for charity in
general. In a crisis people need to lend each other a helping hand
and the propensity for Americans to do so is one of the key survival
mechanisms of US society.
In the recent dispute over mines and hydroelectric dams that would affect Ngabe or Bugle communities, one known fact and some allegations indicate that there is a problem with discipline in the police force.
If the intention was to have a massacre in the suppression of the road blockades, there would have been one. There wasn't. The orders MUST have been not to shoot to kill. The guy we KNOW to have violated that was not just some beat cop, he was a major, one of the top dozen or so police officers in the country.
If that 16-year-old in Las Lomas was killed by a cop --- and the word "if" still appears to be justified --- it would have been a nearly point-blank shotgun blast, and very likely against orders.
Another of the guys shot with a bullet --- in the leg --- said it was fired from a helicopter. I am not exactly sure how that works but I suspect that a shot from a helicopter would have been fired by another officer, if it's true that a shot was fired from a chopper.
Then there is the allegation of a girl being raped by a cop, which is being investigated by the police --- who despite nasty things that one might truthfully say about the force, do not tend to tolerate such things among their ranks.
There are also reports of disappearances, which we all should hope were just people who got separated from family and friends in the turmoil and confusion and who will show up again shortly.
So how widespread and how serious is the indiscipline in the
ranks of the National Police? Any breach of discipline in this sort of
situation is serious, but farther along on that continuum is when the
police not only disobey civilian authorities but step in and overthrow
them. It has happened several times in Panamanian history. The coup
talk coming in the statements of top Cambio Democratico politicians, in
some of the party's "anonymous" propaganda videos and on the
pro-Martinelli radio stations may reflect an actual fear of a police
The frequency with which we
change front pages has moved to about once a month in the past year or
so, and this time the mining and dams crisis set things back an
additional week and one-half or so. During this time I was posting all
day every day, in Spanish and English, on the Facebook page
that is an extension of The Panama News. I know that there are people
who for their various reasons don't like Facebook, but it does provide
a backup in case of electronic attacks on the website and is convenient
for discussions more intelligent than 140-character Twitter messages.
The Panama News is one person
working full-time, a couple of other people putting in a lot of time,
and a lot of people submitting articles, photos and videos, or
doing this or that task, on a very part-time basis. We have not had a
payroll as such in more than a decade and nobody makes anything near
the amount of money that one would have to make to pay income taxes or
file returns in Panama. We are at once a community media project and a
ragtag informal micro-enterprise. This publication would not exist
without a lot of help, generally in small amounts, from a lot of
Consider the alternative: in the
recent crisis the government was repeatedly caught in the crudest lies.
We were among the media who called them on these. Most English-language
websites maintained their silence. One ran racist caricatures of the
protesters and published every single lie about them coming from the
government and its supporters as if it were the truth. For the
English-speaking community, The Panama News was the place to go
for honest reporting. Okke Ornstein and his partly satirical Bananama Republic also did an honorable job. There were us, there were those cowed into
silence, and there was this ultra-right-wing fantasy site.
* * *
Let us close out this Carnival edition of The Panama News with a different version of the best-known Romulo Castro song:
PS: People who are on The Panama News email list are notified as new articles are uploaded onto this website, as the production cycle bears an ever more tenuous relationship to the stated dates of any particular issue. People on this list started getting links to articles in this issue more than a week before this front page was uploaded. Send me an email asking to subscribe if you want to get on the email list.
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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