Mad scramble as the cycle’s last year is about to start

Yanibel Ábrego. Asamblea Nacional photo by Simon Martínez.

It started early, but peak smash and grab season is about to officially commence

by Eric Jackson

Every five years there is one day when a new president is sworn in, and on that same day the National Assembly elects its officers for the coming year and begins to haggle over committee assignments and political patronage. At the start of the five-year cycle there begins a process of mass firings at all levels of government, to make way for a new set of party activists, relatives, friends and mistresses to take those spots on the payroll.

With the legislative bodies, principally in the National Assembly but also mirrored in the municipal councils, the game of musical chairs is an annual event, even if the elections are every five year at the same time that presidents are selected. July 1 is the start of a legislative session, which the president kicks off with a speech at the Justo Arosemena Legislative Palace before the dignitaries of church and state. Then comes the election of the legislature’s officers for the year.

It appears that Cambio Democratico deputy Yanibel Ábrego will continue as the National Assembly’s president. She’s a flagrant sticky fingers, first elected in 2009 as an independent but quickly throwing in her lot with Ricardo Martinelli. She was not paid in pieces of silver, just allowed to buy a large tract of public beachfront land for a few pennies per square meter. She has since used her job to acquire other wealth unavailable to you, me or someone without such political clout. By and large her colleagues look up to her for that.

However, even though the party-controlled Electoral Tribunal has in effect banned public opinion polls, it’s a safe bet that most Panamanians do not admire Yanibel. With an election coming in 10 month’s time, that may well mean a massive turnover in the legislature’s membership, with the exit of incumbents and their families, friends, lackeys and lovers hitting the pavement along with them. For many, it’s steal now while possible because a year from now they will not have a job.

There are some folks — activists for various causes, a few public officials, factions of media people — working overtime at trying to ensure such an exodus.

Comptroller General Federico Humbert, having previously suspended “Planilla 80,” the patronage plums budget for each deputy, is now filing criminal complaints over things he found in his audit of that, which was cut short by Yanibel Ábrego — but not short enough. Cambio Democratico deputy Aris De Icaza is accused of cashing checks from that payroll that were made out to other people, then depositing the cash in his personal account. The charges against him would have to be heard by the Supreme Court but it is alleged that there were several accomplices — bank tellers, legislative employees and so on — who were accomplices. The complaints about those latter folks have been filed with the anti-corruption prosecutors of the Public Ministry. Humbert says that more such charges are coming.

Meanwhile, transparency czarina Angélica Maytín is pressing charges against Ábrego herself, for persistently refusing to hand over information that’s supposed to be open to the public under Panama’s transparency laws. The data withheld by Yanibel are about the same matter, the people, institutions and causes on the legislature’s dole.

Down at the local level, the mayor of Arraijan, Pedro Sánchez Moró, has along with his human resources director been handed a seven-year prison term. Sánchez, a member of the PRD, owns the Santa Gema Football Club, which has been seeking a promotion to Panamanian soccer’s upper division. In order to do this the mayor put several of the players and coaches on the city’s payroll for no-show “jobs.”

(Raids on the public treasury to subsidize professional sports teams? Let no gringo to be heard denigrating Panama for this practice, unless she or he also acknowledges the vast scale on which this tends to be done in the United States.)

Across the country on another local level, Chiquita is complaining that the mayor of Changuinola, Estella Stephenson, also PRD, has sold and registered land titles to private parties over various properties that are part of the state concession for Chiquita’s banana plantation concession, after which these properties were quickly resold to allege third party “bona fide purchasers.” There are land grabs underway all across Panama, including in the rural Cocle neighborhood where this reporter lives. The dictatorship’s constitution under which Panama still endures forbids the dispossession of those holding such ill-gotten properties.

With all this as a backdrop, the PRD’s National Executive Committee agreed — with some opposition — to a legislative alliance with Cambio Democratico which will leave Yanibel Ábrego in the president’s chair. They probably have the votes to make it happen, even with some PRD dissent and Cambio Democratico disintegrating and losing members to new small parties.

That also begins a brawl for committee assignments and patronage, sometimes pitting members of the same party against each other. The presidency of and seats on the Budget Committee are, as always, hotly contested. The PRD’s Benicio Robinson and Rubén De León are seeking to chair that committee. The Credentials Committee, which might impeach President Varela or one or more Supreme Court magistrates for sundry causes including defense of the National Assembly gravy train, is also a much-prized plum.

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