A day of simmering anti-corruption protests

the truth is a right
In the “civil society” protest crowd at the Iglesia del Carmen. Photo by Eric Jackson.

A day of protests

by Eric Jackson

Is President Varela weathering the storm generated by jailed lawyer Ramón Fonseca Mora’s allegation that he took money from the Brazil-based multinational construction conglomerate and criminal organization Odebrecht? On February 16 he might have looked at the situation, taken heart in the many divisions among anti-corruption protesters, and figured that the worst is over.

Perhaps, but extrinsic evidence to either corroborate or refute Fonseca’s incendiary charge is surely out there and the president will not be in full control of such evidence. Figure that anything that showed up in an electronic bank transfer, was the subject of an email or figured in a telephone conversation is in the US National Security Agency’s archives and any encryption could eventually be deciphered. Barring the possibility of some hack, whether that comes to public light is a political judgment to be made in Washington. Figure that several other lesser world powers have comparable abilities and probably have the same data. Courts and prosecutors in Brazil, probably in Switzerland and the United States, and possibly in other countries would have confessions by Odebrecht executives that would probably address the subject. And we don’t know what Panama’s Attorney General Kenia Porcell has and whether that would go beyond her office. (She has no jurisdiction to investigate the president — it would be up to the National Assembly to investigate, bring formal charges, try the case and render a verdict and any sentence were it to come to that.)

As it turned out, the labor and left groups that had attended the January 25 march called by the Committee Against Impunity — whose most noteworthy figure is Miguel Antonio Bernal — didn’t attend the second march on February 16. But meanwhile, earlier in the day a large contingent of workers from the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union swelled the ranks of an anti-corruption protest called by the leftist National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (FRENADESO), making that demonstration much the larger of the day’s marches.

Figure that Juan Carlos Varela is seriously hurt by the Odebrecht scandal, but so is most of the political caste that would judge him if an impeachment trial came to pass. The politicians’ malaise is surely simmering away and has probably reached the point where any hope of beating the odds and retaining the president’s Panameñista Party in power in the 2019 elections is gone and is seen as such by their most viable possible candidates. The discontent is unlikely to boil over without some stunning new revelation, which could be confirmation of something already part of the public discourse. But then, as now, the expected survival strategy would be to play on the divisions among those who would oust the president.

The historic divisions of the left will not be readily healed, but that’s on the margins of Panamanian political life anyway. Right now the split that’s most likely to put a damper on public discontent is a call for an international commission under effective control of Donald Trump — either by way of the Organization of American States, which the United States controls, or the United Nations, over which the United States holds veto power — as the traditional facile Panamanian response of letting the gringos solve Panama’s problems. Then there are various groups promoting their particular causes via the anti-corruption movements, the two most noteworthy being “vote for me” by whatever politicians can say truthfully or not that they are clean, and anti-foreigner agitation by xenophobic groups. In some cases the politicians and those who bash foreigners can be one and the same.

Union construction workers, who could shut down work on the projects where Odebrecht is the contractor in an instant if they wish to do so march against that employer’s corrupt dealings with politicians. Photo by SUNTRACS.


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