Volume 18, Number 8
October 31, 2012
Back to what passes for normal
The USA prepares to vote --- in some places is already voting, and if you are a US citizen living in Panama you should have already voted but if you haven't, depending on the state where you vote there still may be time --- and Panama gets ready for its season of patriotic parades. But down here the mood is not festive.
In the wake of this latest crisis people are abandoning the Martinelli team, Colon is mourning its dead and the public discourse is almost unimaginably vile. The basic problem of a guy who gets dangerously manic, controls all of the strings of political power and seems to have nobody in his entourage who will tell him when to stop remains and there will surely be new crises.
Tearing up a street with a big saw. Photo by Kermit Nourse
Maybe the least of it
Political scientists are educated to think in abstractions, principles and structures of doing things. Those are important. They are so important that the sleaziest of politicians seek to limit that sort of thinking because it gets in the way of their appeals to base emotions, behaviors and prejudices. It's harder to go vote buying among an electorate that's well educated in civics.
However, those whom the voters send to City Hall soon learn that concerns about democratic institutions and procedures drive very few passions compared to concerns about the garbage getting picked up.
Panama's democratic institutions are under concerted attack by crude and sneering people. However, the streets being torn up and the traffic jams resulting from that are a more immediate annoyance for most people. Streets being blocked off, water and electricity that keep going out and a general rise in the stress level of daily life are hurting this government more than all of the scandals.
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This time of the year The Panama News traditionally asks for donations from the readers. We have been online only since early 2001, having started as a hard copy tabloid in late 1994. And, come to think about it, we also have memories of fundraising in the fall of 2004 and the fall of 2008. Asking for donations in the autumn of a US presidential election year is difficult. Campaigns suck up so much of the money to be donated to causes at such times, and this year's election is far and away the most expensive US election ever. The alternative media in the States, big and small, are having the same sorts of trouble mobilizing the financial support of readers that we are.
However, we still have needs and we still have more than 30,000 people reading The Panama News, both this website and the associated Facebook page. It's kind of a ragtag operation, it's hated by bigots and demagogues and those who think that science is an evil conspiracy, but it persists. Our contributors include writers and photographers who have won some prestigious awards, and scholars and artists of international repute.
Among the put downs we have received during this campaign season, a few really stand out and qualify as badges of honor.
There is this Tea Party lady, one of those unreconstructed Zonians, whose husband died some years back and who drips scorn on everyone who gets government benefits --- except that the Social Security survivor's benefits she gets are somehow different. She believes in the Birther conspiracy and says that she has been unemployed or underemployed for 14 years and it's Barack Obama's fault. And she complains about this reporter's use of difficult words, specifically mentioning "vilify."
Another guy with similar politics uses the military slogan "Keep It Simple, Stupid" and considers it elitist to write for anyone with more than a fifth grade education. We do occasionally post or link to academic or technical writing, and our different contributors have their different styles, but we don't dumb down. Those who are learning --- some who use The Panama News to learn English, others who use our Spanish-language sections to learn Spanish, youngsters in school and expatriate retirees looking to learn something of this country that's new to them --- we seek to enlighten, not talk down to.
Is there room for an intelligent publication for Panama's long established English-speaking minority, and for people all around the world with ties to Panama? There seems to be. But we only get by with help from our friends.
We ask for two sorts of things:
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It's early yet, but not THAT early. Plans for big events during the dry season --- Panama's peak tourism season --- are well underway. Some of you folks in colder latitudes should be thinking about travel plans.
The Panama Jazz Festival will be January 14-19, with Herbie Hancock and the Wayne Shorter Quartet as the headline acts. There is, however, the near certainty that some kid of whom you have never heard will walk onto the stage and make people rave.
Then there is the smaller festival in the more beautiful setting, which also includes the blues: the Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival. This will take place between February 28 through March 31 and one of the acts will be Chicago bluesman Tail Dragger:
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Panama is getting some attention in the world of archaeology these days, even if our government would just as soon abolish the study of history and privatize all of our antiquities. Julia Mayo, born to Spanish parents in Colon and educated at the Complutense in Madrid, has been digging around the El Caño site in Cocle and made some discoveries that set certain social contexts for Panama and the surrounding region some 1,300 years ago.
She has found the remains and grave goods of nobility, it seems. As in, mummies wearing necklaces of gold and human teeth. Scientists and archaeology buffs are duly impressed, but maybe this find could be the inspiration for a new cultural genre, the Panamanian horror movie. A mummy that was so mean in his lifetime that he decorated himself with other people's teeth could be the character who replaces the Tulivieja in Panamanian kids' nightmares.
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Another colonense has done something noteworthy of late. Colon swimmer César Barría, who is 29 years old and whose right leg is amputated at the knee, swam the 20-kilometer Santa Barbara Channel in California in a record time of 7:45:44. However, he was wearing a wetsuit so his time is not formally recognized as a record even though it's the fastest time ever for a person with his disability. The record books can say what they will but Panama recognizes him as an amazing athlete.
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Years ago in US education, there was a theory that some secular liberals talked about and thus became the target of criticism from conservatives, especially the religious right. They actually didn't tend to be as ridiculous as the term they embraced, "value free."
At the time on one of my favorite Detroit rock stations there were these radio comedians, one of whom had been recently divorced. They lampooned both the concept of value free education and the single parents' group Parents Without Partners with periodic episodes recounting the experiences of the fictional group whose meetings the divorced guy said he attended, Parents Without Morals.
It was hilarious, but then consider what Panama's president said at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. His references to education were a prelude to an appeal to censor the Internet for the alleged benefit of kids and while he did not use the language of "value free" education, he did opine that the best thing is "an education that is divorced from politics, passions and paradigms."
There are or can be problems with with education that's laced with partisan indoctrination. However, an education "divorced from politics" is one in which civics is not taught, in which kids are not taught that to sell their vote is to sell their country and that's a bad thing.
Teaching kids to control their passions and understand that everyone else does not share them is an important part of education. Teachers without passion turning out kids without passion is a recipe for a boring, mercenary society which has no defenders.
An education without paradigms is one in which kids in this country grow up barely understanding that they are Panamanian, knowing little of this country's history and cultures and being unable to distinguish between the symbols of this nation and imported generic corporate logos. It's the education that someone who replaces our traditional bus art with the banal Metro Bus logo and calls it progress foists on Panama's kids.
And censoring the Internet to protect kids? Consider the source. This is a guy who hangs out with pedophiles.
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In this terrible time to be raising funds for anything, let me still mention, and give you a link to, a most worthy cause: buying the footage needed from the Major League Baseball bureaucracy to complete a documentary movie about Panamanian baseball. If you might be interested in helping Eric Soussanin with this project, click here.
* * *This is the most eventful Theatre Guild season in many years and the next play will be Rabbit Hole, showing October 11 - 13 and 18 - 20 at the little wooden theater near the DIJ and Ministerio Publico, across the pedestrian bridge from the farmers' market.
Andres Clemente, "the voice of Danny" and Melanie Gilpin Lee, part of the cast for the upcoming production of Rabbit Hole, a Pulitzer-winning play about a family recovering from a tragedy.
In recent years both our English and Spanish theater scenes have been enriched by an influx of Venezuelans and one of them, Ines Azpurua, makes her Theatre Guild directing debut with this production.
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What is it with Americans these days? And a month before we get to that question, we may want to look to our southeast and ask what it is with Venezuelans these days. My opinions on these are highly partisan, but in neither case uncritical. And although I am not a prophet and the polls at the moment are kind of the opposite of what I expect, I think that it will be a close election in Venezuela and not so close in the United States. The Venezuelan result will come first and unfortunately might become an issue in the US election.
The choice that the Venes make is not the business of Americans, or of Panamanians. Considering what he and his followers allege Hugo Chávez to be, Ricardo Martinelli's self-proclaimed status as "the Anti-Chávez" ought to be frightening. He calls the Venezuelan president a heavy-handed left-wing tyrant, and he wants to be a right-wing mirror image. Washington's bipartisan apoplexy about Chávez is just bizarre. If one draws the US lot line somewhere south of Tierra del Fuego Venezuela would be part of "the back yard," but the line properly belongs on the Rio Grande and the president of Venezuela is at most a sometimes annoyingly noisy neighbor rather than any sort of existential threat.
The polls showing Chávez with a double-digit lead are misleading. Hardly any Venezuelan is undecided about the man. But a leaked memo suggests that Capriles would bring back highly unpopular policies of yesteryear and that has caused splits in his own coalition and tended to unify a Bolivarian camp that has reason to be critical of its leader.
I could imagine Chávez winning a narrow victory, Capriles alleging fraud even if there was none, and Romney baiting Obama about being a wimp for not invading Venezuela. I could also imagine Capriles winning a narrow victory and those on the losing side getting militant about ensuring that his tenure is brief and unhappy.
Momentum could shift due to debates or events, but I expect that Barack Obama will be re-elected by a bigger margin than the one by which he won in 2008. I hope that he carries both houses of Congress and a bunch of statehouses and legislatures with him.
This year's choice in the United States holds the possibility of being what political scientists call a "re-aligning election." As in, the end of a right-wing period that began with Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy of 1968, with Republicans setting the agenda and Democratic interludes in the White House being rather conservative ones. But the right has overplayed its hand and aligned itself against the interests of the nation. If Romney goes down to defeat the extremists in the party will say that it's because he's a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and move the party and its already delusional pitch to the American people even farther from reality. The Grand Old Party could wander in the political wilderness for a generation, or go the way of the Whigs. That would leave great issues that must be decided to be fought over within the Democratic Party.
* * *The legislature has passed a package of draconian intellectual property laws that will be political issues for years to come, most prominently as they will affect the prices of medicines and the sorts of foods and chemicals that will be be used in our agriculture and eaten by Panamanians. For the most part these laws were treaty obligations under the "free trade" pact with the United States that Panama unwisely negotiated and ratified.
A small and belated protest against the new copyright law. Photo by Isabella Galvez Peñafiel
The copyright law, however, went much fartther than treaty commitments and has been set up as a potential bludgeon against opposition media and small media in general. Totally abused, it could be pressed into service to close websites and radio stations that criticize the goverment. If abused the way that Hollywood and recording industry corporations would like to see it abused, the cultural works to which we have access would be much reduced and confined to "commercially viable" playlists. The draconian penalties and totalitarian procedures seem to have been inserted as a means by which public officials can extort payoffs.
Copyright is not a one-sided question. There are conflicting legitimate interests to balance. But this law is a corporate and government bludgeon, not a shield for creative people.
There were folks, including yours truly, who warned of bad things to happen on the copyright and patent fronts if "free trade" went through. But how did even worse things get slipped into the law without the opposition in the legislature opposing? Why the silence of the labor movement that opposed "free trade" in the first place? Why, once the alarm was sounded, did the FRENADESO folks who claim to be the "true opposition" maintain their silence?
Getting into those hard questions in a realistic way should lead a lot of people to healthier approaches to the alliances that Panama must have to get past this sordid period in our national life.
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Finally, at the risk of the government taking the stand that embedding things from YouTube is cause for a website's supression, I leave you with some Panamanian music about what people have to put up with because of the politicians. I think that it has some more universal relevance.
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