Volume 18, Number 2
April 13, 2012
Scene from Ricardo Martinelli's birthday party. The president isn't Mexican, but his cousin Ramón, the former treasurer of the ruling Cambio Democratico party, does live in Mexico. Photo by Kermit Nourse
Silly season, and it's not just the hats
Not everything that's silly is
funny. A lot of ridiculous things are being said and done of late, and
that goes along with human nature and creates jobs for comedians and
pundits. At The Panama News we have intersecting silly
seasons. There is an ongoing multifaceted national crisis in Panama and
it's a US presidential election year. The usual hustlers and wannabe Glenn Becks
and Ann Coulters have been making unusual efforts to discredit, shut
down or otherwise silence The Panama News and yours truly. "Why don't
you just take it on the chin?" asks one British twit who does not wish
Of course, people from Colon like
me, and old hippies like me, do tend to learn early on how to take a
punch and continue. But in the local tradition of folks like Panama Al
Brown and Pelenchin Caballero we tend to resist in most pugnacious
fashion. Defamation (some
of it post-dated and incredibly foolish),
vitriol, moves to censor, misrepresentations of what I write, attack
websites, the endlessly repeated generic and never specified
that what appears in The Panama News is lies --- these things will draw
a response. There are no free licks for these people. It's silly of
them to think that there would be.
But there is a climate of fear in
Panama, and this has over the past year affected the ad sales that are
the main source of sustenance for this community news project. Other
small media are hurting too, some of them taking less of a hit but
suffering more because the people involved have more expensive "needs."
We need help to continue and
improve. At the moment we need to get José
Ponce a new camera, need more money for travel expenses around Panama,
need to fix one of my computers and need to prevent José and myself
from having to live on the street. Neither of us makes one tenth of one
what Duke Iñaki stole from a Spanish charity and
Panamanian dummy corporations.
* * *
Before we get to the larger national crisis of the moment, let's start thinking Panamanian, tuning up our cultural sensibilities with some musica tipica from Samy and Sandra Sandoval:
* * *
As these words were written, there is a firestorm of criticism directed at the Martinelli administration over a crisis in law enforcement. A day before these words were written the president announced that in the wake of Security Minister José Raúl Mulino's resignation he would not be getting rid of a police chief whose act of insubordination was a specific violation of Panama's constitution, but just shifting people around. With all of the criticism the foreign minister now suggests that Martinelli may back down on these moves.
With respect to
swap of jobs between Gustavo Pérez
and Julio Moltó --- whom he said would be the new National Security
Council director and
National Police chief respectively --- I again find myself joining a
lot of friends in criticizing what is being done with the police
force, but with slightly different reasons.
At the end of the
dictatorship it was thought that having a civilian National Police
director was needed because the police and military ranks inherited
from Noriega were so thoroughly corrupted that it wasn't a good idea
to promote new leaders from within the force. There followed a
succession of lawyers as police chiefs.
One of the checks on police misconduct
Judicial Technical Police (PTJ), part of the Public Ministry rather
the Ministry of Government and Justice that included the National
Police, who could conduct independent investigations of allegations
against cops. However, at the end of the Torrijos administration and
the beginning of the Martienlli administration the PTJ was merged into
the National Police and turned into the DIJ, and thus lost its
For a number of reasons the post-dictatorship arrangement didn't work so well, but three of the worst problems were bribery and infiltration of all law enforcement, judicial and prosecutorial institutions by organized crime; subversion of all of these institutions' independence by politicians seeking to assert control on the one hand and people within the institutions seeking impunity for wrongdoing on the other; and demoralized cops. Making all of this impossibly worse was the fools' mission "War on Drugs" that successive governments have accepted from the United States and all of the silly sleeping with the enemy situations in which the DEA and other American forces have consequently found themselves in their delusional crusade.
There came a time in the Torrijos administration when someone got the idea that a police officer should become the police chief, and a law was passed providing that if that were to be the case, someone would have to be elevated to that post from among a small group of commissioners. However, the president could still appoint a civilian, including a former cop. The former police or military figures appointed by Torrijos and Martinelli have all come from sordid pasts in the dictatorship. So I joined with my friends in protesting the appointments of those folks, but I actually like the idea of the chief coming from the ranks of experienced police officers.
Panama's cops have under bad leadership been given such bad habits as "social prophilaxis" roundups, but even if they were deficient in modern technological capacities and prevented by politics from dealing with most white collar crime they actually are and have been pretty good at catching the right guys for stickups, family and neighborhood assaults and the other violent crimes that ordinary people who are not gangsters worry about. Police work is a dangerous profession that burns people out, and to which too many unethical people and sycophants have been attracted. Despite that there is a vast pool of honorable and clever police officers from which a good command structure can be recruited.
Police work can never pay enough to compete with the blandishments of organized crime and the solution to that is to end the War on Drugs and treat addiction as primarily a social and medical problem rather than a law enforcement matter. Getting that losing effort out of the way, police should be paid reasonably well but with a benefits package that takes into account the damaging nature of that job. Right now there are education benefits, and part of the deal should be that work on the police force can be also compensated by an education at any institution anywhere in the world in any subject, with the expectation that many of those who do acquire new skills will leave the force and take their educations into other lines of work. And these people would also form a pool from which police specialists and administrators could be promoted. The officer who got a Harvard MBA as a National Police benefit and then went to work at a bank or in the Colon Free Zone might come back to the force to head a sophisticated financial crimes unit. The cop who became a teacher might come back to command the juvenile unit. The police lieutenant who became administrator of a large public institution might jump ahead of the commissioners to become the new police chief. And prosecutors would have to improve their skills to do battle with all the smart cops who became defense attorneys.
that's the way I think that it ought to be. But the way it is, from
the outside looking in, there appear to be disciplinary problems and
discontent within the National Police. And Martinelli wants to put
his computer nerd, a voyeur who wiretaps the president's political
foes so that edited recordings can be used for corny political attack
videos, in charge of the police? For the first time, we get a
National Police director who both has never patrolled a beat and is
not a lawyer? That's insane.
Not all mistakes are born of insanity,
nor do all mistakes turn out badly. Erika Ender has a song about making
a good mistake:
Also on the cultural front, it's time for another little season of theatrical improvisation, with the Improv8 group that Danielle Miles organizes and leads. Because it's improvisation every night's show is different. It's not everybody's cup of tea, as some people desperately need an organized plot and others believe that a theater audience should watch and never participate. But if you get into zany humor, pratfalls and other sight gags, clever rejoinders and weirdness from the audience, this series of shows is for you.
* * *
What is especially interesting about this, however, is the combination of a busy year at the Ancon Theater and a demographic shift that has been ongoing in the English-speaking community for some years now leading to the show going on the road to other venues. One is in the Casco Viejo, and the other in Coronado.
As something of an urban policy wonk, I have mixed feelings about Panama's suburbanization, but in La Chorrera and in Coronado, you can see it unfolding. People commuting in and out of a crazy city from more sedate suburbs is a bad plan just for reasons of energy policy. However, professionals who have long maintained cottages and condos at the beach for weekends and holidays moving their families and their jobs out to the beach is a slightly different matter. They're building an international school in Coronado now, and Gorgona also has a bilingual school. San Fernando Hospital has a clinic in Coronado, and there are ever more private doctors, dentists and pharmacists practicing in the area. People who can "commute" by Internet are finding it possible to do at the beach. The commercial development of Coronado is sufficiently vast that few people in that part of Panama Oeste need to go into the city to shop anymore. A tipping point has been reached. The upscale parts of the beach communities are no longer just for retirees.
Given this now rapid suburbanization of Panama, it makes perfect sense for Improv8 to play in Coronado.
* * *The rule of law, were it to work far more perfectly here, would still work differently from how things are supposed to work in the jurisdictions that use the Anglo-American Common Law system. The Common Law started when William the Conqueror merged Norman law --- itself an amalgam of Viking, Medieval French and Catholic Church law --- with the Germanic tribal Anglo-Saxon law. It it "casuistic," in that history and precedent mean an awful lot, with the precedents of earlier court decisions in many instances counting for more than the black letters of laws and constitutions because those decisions interpret what the laws and constitutions mean and those interpretations tend to become binding legal principles.
Panama has the Civil Code system, which is descended from Roman Law through the Napoleonic Code. When it works properly, the letter of the laws and constitution is the most important thing, whereas the precedents of previous cases don't mean very much. There are maxims about how laws are interpreted and modified, and these tend to be written down in codes.
In a sense, what happens in Panamanian cases is of less durable consequence, because mistakes don't become binding precedents for later cases. And of course, in any legal system what a prosecutor decides is considered far less authoritative than what a judge does. Still, what prosecutors decide to do or not to do can have far-reaching consequences, both for how Panama runs its affairs and for how other countries look at and deal with Panama.
In the past few days there have been two decisions by prosecutors that are likely to have far-reaching consequences, notwithstanding the weak role of precedent in Panama's legal system.
In one ongoing case, the Electoral Prosecutor declared that even if government funds were used to buy the election of a representante in Tonosi, that would not change the result. Over the years election results have been overturned for just that reason. What we have is a brazenly partisan decision in favor of a style of vote-buying politics that was old when Roman politicians campaigned with bread and circuses. It's an open declaration that the Martinelistas, who are running very low in the polls, intend to buy or steal the next election notwithstanding any laws, and that the Electoral Prosecutor will invent things to further that purpose as needed.
In the other case, the anti-drug prosecutor's office said that it would not investigate the Panama end of a notorious case of public corruption in Spain, wherein a member of the royal family stole and then laundered his looted funds through Panamanian corporations, ultimately putting the money in his Swiss bank account. The prosecutor held that because Spain did not ask for assistance, because the money laundering did not adversely affect Panama's economy, and because in Spain they call the crime that the duke committed something different from what it is called here, there will be no investigation of the breaking of Panamanian money laundering laws. It's flunk out of first year law school reasoning, and to the extent that his expresses Panama's attitude toward the laundering of the proceeds of public corruption here, it will ultimately lead to financial sanctions being imposed against Panama.
* * *
The world of Panamanian music also includes a vibrant classical scene, with its orchestral, operatic and chamber music aspects. Check out Moises Castillo, a Panamanian male soprano, singing an aria by Verdi:
These are tough times for two protagonists in a celebrated exchange of words, and I think that those who celebrate either man's troubles are misguided.
* * *
Recall that at the closing session of a 2007 Ibero-American summit in Chile, Hugo Chávez called former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar a "fascist." The man who beat Aznar, now former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zaptero, called on Chávez to show a bit more respect, whereupon the Venezuelan president interrupted Zapatero, at which point King Juan Carlos of Spain intervened and said to Chávez "Why don't you just shut up?" and angrily walked out of the session. For many in the US corporate mainstream press and various other foes of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution the king's rebuke was something to cheer and magnify. For many Chavistas it was proof of the king's malevolent nature.
The reality of it was that Aznar had led his country into war with Iraq over a lie concocted in the United States and failed to prepare Spain for the likely consequences. The most noteworthy of these was a multiple bomb attack by jihadis on Madrid's subway system a few days before a Spanish general election. A lot of people were killed and Aznar lied about the nature of the attacks and who was responsible, but the lie was exposed and the voters ended Aznar's political career.
One bit of Venezuelan foreign policy that did not start with Chávez is the defense of fellow oil exporting nations. The notion that the United States or European nations can invade an oil producing country and gain control of its resources is one that will set the Venezuelan president off, no matter how obnoxious the government that the invaders seek to topple.
At the meeting in Chile Hugo Chávez was out of order and was disrespecting a socialist prime minister and former conservative prime minister of Spain, and the king broke with staid diplomatic protocols to express his annoyance. If the truth is to be told it was not the best moment for either man.
King Juan Carlos was groomed by the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to be an authoritarian monarch. One might call him some sort of fascist, except that he oversaw Spain's imperfect but substantial transition to democracy and when actual fascists tried to stage a coup he stepped forward to lead his nation in rejecting that attempt.
Hugo Chávez is and was the elected president of Venezuela, and won a referendum that would allow him to be re-elected against an opposition that made the king's remark a centerpiece of its campaign. The opposition blundered because the king's annoyance of the moment was not Spain's endorsement of the Venezuelan right and because any Latin American politician with any sense ought to know that the endorsement of a foreign power is not helpful in an election campaign.
So now the president of Venezuela turns out to have a more aggressive and life-threatening cancer than had been previously announced and there are cheers coming from certain people, which are especially audible in and around right-wing exile circles in Miami. Chávez's opponent in this year's election is very carefully wishing the president a full and speedy recovery, something that some of his dumber supporters don't understand.
Meanwhile in Spain, the economy is a mess, all of the traditional politicians are discredited --- with Zapatero having having been forced out and the socialists getting more of the blame than the conservatives at the moment --- and the royal family is in crisis because the king's son-in-law turns out to be a crook. There are Spaniards who don't like the idea of a monarchy, constitutional or otherwise. But only the stupidest fringe is criticizing the king. King Juan Carlos is not a partisan figure, and in the league of European monarchs he costs his country's taxpayers less than any of his colleagues cost their countries. He is a symbol of the Spanish nation, and it was his patriotism rather than his politics that prompted his exchange with Chávez. Only fools attribute the actions of somebody who married one of his daughters to him.
* * *
The ladies of Soloy opine and give directions. Photo by Lana Vick
I have been a protagonist in an argument in one of the online forums about the wisdom of foreigners joining a group that warns indigenous protesters that their activities will not be tolerated, and that rebuilds and guards a police station that was torn down by an angry mob after police opened fire on people who were blocking the highways. I know that there is a certain amount of annoyance that I would think so, but to join a movement opposed to indigenous protests looks very much to me like the early 60s in the southern United States when many white people thought it somehow sensible to add their endorsement to White Citizens Council warnings that civil rights demonstrations would not be tolerated.
Most Panamanians and most foreigners living here find road blockages annoying, but much of the anti-indigenous agitation is overtly racist. The despicable Vallarino family and their taunts that the protesters are drunks and drug addicts are Martinelli's problem. Don Winner's constant lurid false reports and pervasive put-downs are, given the true readership numbers on his website and in his email groups, actually much more his problem than the gringo community's. However, the government-fed perception that foreigners oppose their indigenous neighbors' property rights can be dangerous to all Americans living in Panama.
Far more common among the put-downs than that extremist racial stuff is the denigration of Cacique General Silvia Carrera, a farmer and craftswoman without much formal education who rose to prominence from the movement against dams and strip mines in the comarca. She calls herself "la Cacique General," which is her proper title, but the most hostile of the corporate mainstream media persists in calling her "la cacica," which means the cacique's wife. The constant insinuation is that this woman can't be competent and the important thing to know is which men are pulling her puppet strings.
Actually, Silvia Carrera has proven to be a skilled negotiator with the government, and in the context of the always fractious politics of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca she has stood as a unifying force and moved adroitly around those who would pick faction fights with her. She will make her mistakes and have her ups and downs as a political leader, but she's a folk hero to many Panamanians. Compare her to the miserable collection of individuals who comprise mainstream Panama's political class and you will understand why the establishment and its acolytes are afraid of her and trying so hard to diminish her stature.
* * *
Finally, is it the product of a strange Atlantic side upbringing that I eagerly await rainy season? It's hot and windy out there, like we're on another continent:
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