Politicians, family secure Panameñista Party for the president

The new Panameñista leaders. Photo from Popi Varela’s Twitter Feed.

If all you see is a family affair,
you miss part of the story

by Eric Jackson

President Varela’s brother, legislator José Luis “Popi” Varela, has been elected as president of the Panameñista Party. Many observers are taking that as a sign of concentrated presidential power, some as the emergence of “Varelismo” that overshadows the “Arnulfismo” of the party that Arnulfo Arias founded, which traces roots farther back to the Accion Comunal movement of the 1920s. There are certainly large grains of truth to each of those propositions, probably more to the former.

Barely commented upon, and surely connected to the things that most reporters and pundits noticed, was who was and who was not in the lineup for the photographers after the party’s 1701 elected delegates voted on October 2 for the next generation of party leadership. There is an overlap among Panama’s business and political elites — the Varelas, for example, are wealthy scions of the Hermanos Varela liquor distilling fortune of Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano fame — and although the Panameñista Party does have a strong following among the poor those from the lower end of the economic scale were not in the picture. However, this iteration of Panameñista leadership concentrated control of the party in the hands of politicians at the expense of business leaders.

The last time that the party elected leaders Juan Carlos Varela was party president and Alberto Vallarino was first vice president. After the former took office as the president of Panama in 2014 he stepped out of his party post but Vallarino, one of Panama’s richest men and a nephew of Arnulfo Arias, did not step in as acting president. That distinction went to Ramón Fonseca, attorney and one of the two main partners in the infamous Mossack Fonseca law firm. Fonseca also took on the role of minister without portfolio in the current administration. Serving under Varela there were also a number of less prominent Mossacks and Fonsecas in the government.

Then came the Panama Papers revelations and the administration’s generally ham-handed response, which after a few weeks of evasion, denial and still ongoing protests of innocence included the exit of the Fonsecas and Mossacks from appointed government posts. Vallarino has had a less notorious public profile, but if one wants to get into how his fortune was enhanced there are plenty of examples of special tax breaks, questionable court decisions and other government favors along the way.

Ramón Fonseca Mora and Alberto Mora Clement are not in the new lineup of party leaders, and nobody of similar stripes came in to take their places. The new Panameñista leadership is almost entirely composed of politicians, with a few trusted activists who don’t currently hold any office in the mix. José Luis Varela is a member of the National Assembly. The new first VP, José Isabel Blandón, is the mayor of Panama City. Second vice president is Housing Minister Mario Etchelecu. Legislator Adolfo ‘Beby’ Valderrama is secretary general. Treasurer Carlos Duboys is the Varela administration’s wonk who measures how well the government is progressing toward accomplishing its stated goals. Party ethics and discipline chief Alcibiades Vasquez is Varela’s minister of social development.

So what might this tell us about “Varelismo?” Mainly that the president’s style is normally a cautious one, that while Panama is under fierce international criticism as a tax haven and money laundering center — which one would barely know if Panama’s corporate mainstream media were his or her only source of information — Varela is trying to reduce his political risks and put the party in the hands of people who are both less likely to be personally criticized abroad and are more astute about how things look in the political world. Critics will pan it as an aspect of Varela’s alleged “tortuguismo” — moving at a turtle’s pace. It might be seen in historical perspective as Varela’s tendency to bend with international political winds, something that Arnulfo Arias never did and which contributed to his several overthrows by military coups détat.

Other distinctions can be drawn between Juan Carlos Varela and Arnulfo Arias. Unlike the latter, Varela’s not an overt racist. If there is something to “Varelismo” it’s a centrist mix of conservative and progressive stands on different issues, a propensity to avoid confrontations if possible and a mixture of Latin American identity with deference to globalization on the terms set by multinational corporations. As the mid-point in this administration approaches, it appears that the Panameñistas are on course to maintain the post-invasion political norm and, like all incumbent parties, lose the next elections. If something dramatic that breaks this cycle happens, perhaps then it will be a better time to talk about Varelismo.


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