Editorials: Varela’s crackdown; and Russian bots?


La Migra

A weak president’s facile immigration crackdown

Panamanian immigration law is a disorderly mess that Ricardo Martinelli’s ill-intended changes made worse. Panama’s immigration bureaucracy is one of the more sordid parts of a generally corrupt government. Driven by the collapse of the oil economy, climate change and political and economic upheavals, human migration is a growing and disruptive force in much of the world. Of course Panama is unable to go on as before.

The problem is that Panamanian immigration policy is forever a reaction to this or that problem of the moment, forever structured for the benefit of lawyers and corrupt public officials, forever driven by base passions and never based on a solid plan of where Panama and its economy want to go. It’s worse when the president is unpopular and on the downward slide of the second half of an administration, in which lots of money gets typically spent in futile efforts to return a ruling party to office in the next elections.

Are there scandals about foreign influence? A Brazilian-based multinational corporation has bribed many leading figures of every major Panamanian political party, but the president isn’t strong enough to take a stand against that. The nation’s legal profession, rather than zealously defending a just society for the people who live here, is mainly oriented toward helping rich foreigners evade their country’s taxes — and it doesn’t help that the president’s right-hand man was one of the most notorious offenders. We still have a racist immigration regime, which keeps us from building a high-tech industry based in large part on becoming the land of opportunity for well educated Asians who have little chance to get ahead where they are. The North American who has stolen a lot of money from whence she or he came and seeks to continue a crime wave from this isthmus has a much easier time getting into Panama and staying than does the North American of modest means and working age who has skills that this country badly needs.

And so it is that a weakened President Varela caves to pressure from xenophobic demagogues, takes the course of least resistance and attacks the easy targets. Never mind that the immigrant who runs the arepa stand or juggles at the traffic light not only doesn’t take anybody’s job but actually adds to Panama’s economy and culture. Never mind that the immigrant who has been allowed to continue the border-hopping permanent tourist may own a home, have family responsibilities and play important roles in community projects. Without consideration of equities or the wealth of communities, these people have become the scapegoats for a broken system.

Rational immigration reform presupposes leaders who will slap down ugly hatreds and uphold the national interest. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

Panamanian history tells us that we are about to see the looting of properties owned by those who are being kicked out. Perhaps the ethnic communities whose members are being dispossessed can thwart the hoodlums — who will surely include lawyers and public officials — by creating trusts to preserve the assets of those whom Varela is foolishly running out of Panama.



Russian bots?

For many years, The Panama News has had to deal with the consequences of online crime while not understanding very much about it. Often the editor could see some of the effect without knowing much about the why and how. Back in 2006 it was observed on the front page of The Panama News:

Some of you had trouble connecting to this website in September, as on a few occasions I did as well. My web server told me of several attempts to hack into the website, some of which got so far as to put things on the index page. Security measures have been upgraded. On one night I got a series of some 3,000 computer generated spam emails to my yahoo.com email box — they were a pain to clean out, but it’s a large box so it was not shut down. My other email box … was repeatedly shut down by email bombs with large attachments, emails asking me to confirm subscriptions to “Belarus Babes” and other such things that someone signed me up for and more “ordinary” spam bundles.

One curious feature of those attacks on The Panama News email boxes was that much of the spam was in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Several months later this reporter went to Parque Omar to observe and interview some folks from a local chapter of Falun Gong who would regularly gather there for exercise, meditation and discussions about the state of humanity. At the time went without notice, but the resulting article was widely copied. Later that year a bot coming from China got into The Panama News website and, without registering a single visit, ran up huge amounts of bandwidth to the exent that the website was shut down. It was the first time this reporter had heard about a bot, a bit of computer code that adds function much as if it were somebody with permission to do so reprogramming the website. This one was easily traced back to China, but as was explained at the time, it could have been sent by anyone from anywhere and just routed through someone or something in China.

Only years later was it discovered that by far the most-read article ever published by The Panama News was that little Falun Gong piece. But upon further inspection, there was no spike in unique visitors at the time, just tens of thousands of connections through London and Prague to the article. As in, a swarm of bots hurling that article in circuitous fashion at and most likely through, past or over China’s Internet firewall. So was the bot attack that shut down The Panama News for a few days the work of the Chinese government? Or was it an indignant Chinese citizen striking back at a medium in Panama that gave scandalous coverage to what he or she thought to be an evil anti-Chinese cult?

As things were explained, the good reasons for the Pentagon establishing a cyber command made ever more sense — as did the reasons to fear such a thing.

Now it turns out that there is a big political controversy in the United States, with charges of “treason” being inappropriately hurled about, that’s about Russian bots. People who hacked into the Democratic Party’s emails and databases used a Cyrillic keyboard and some known Russian software code to do what they did. Now The Guardian tells us that the ultra-right data operators of the Brexit and Trump campaigns used Russian-made bots for three nefarious political purposes:

  • They scour the social media to see what people say they like, identifying their personal hot-button issues and the lies that they are ready to accept without much question, so that personally-tailored propaganda pitches can be made to these millions of individuals;
  • Every time some bit of information — often of the whole cloth fake news — that’s derogatory to a person whose character these alt-right operators seek to assassinate appears in the social media, it gets promoted and geometrically propagated with a great many “likes” and “shares” that are not by real people but by bot-created pages; and
  • Bots are used to fake the popularity of preposterous positions so as to give them higher rankings by the Google algorithms, such that, for example, what the creepy little underground of Nazi Holocaust deniers publish is treated as more legitimate that the accurate story about the millions of people who were systematically murdered by the Third Reich.

So how bad of a threat are bots to modern democracies? Perhaps only to the extent that those democracies don’t properly teach civics in their schools. But perhaps they swung the 2016 US presidential election.

So does this all mean that we should follow the neocons — who helped to lead us to a disastrous war for a lie in Iraq — into Cold War II against the Russians?

Consider that the code identified in the reports so far about the DNC hack is several years old and can be bought from ordinary criminal hackers, whether or not that code was originally created for the Kremlin. And consider that Russian mafia families are involved in a wide range of computer crimes and vice, from ripoff forex sites to online pornography to the commandeering of websites and email boxes to create email spam lists to sell on the black market or to distribute spam for things like fake viagra pills.

Putin’s rise to power can in some ways be seen as atop the shoulders of factions of the Russian underworld against other Russian gangsters. Trump has long had associations with Russian mobsters, and his international fundraising spam to wildly inappropriate recipients last summer reeks of the use of a spam list purchased from the underworld.

There are some legitimate things to investigate, but those politicians and wannabe White House advisers who pretend that the world political situation is like the US-Soviet rivalry circa 1955 just prove how unfit they are by doing that.

Russian bots? They are out there and defenses must be interposed and forever improved. A simple open-and-shut case to assign blame and obtain convictions is probably not possible by way of any honest proceedings. But the truth is coming out, and if we don’t get hysterical and don’t let demagogues interpret it for us, it will go a long way toward keeping us free.


Bear in mind…


Of course the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you — if you don’t play, you can’t win.
Robert Heinlein


To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given the chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy. As everyone else, I love to dunk my crust in it. But alone, it is not a diet designed to keep body and soul together.
Bette Davis


You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think.
Grace Lee Boggs


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