Editorial: Sunday’s elections


From such negative premises, where to go?

Can Panama sort out a national mess on Sunday? The country needs to do that. Easier said than done. Unbridled corruption has had a very long run.

The first Panamanian president elected after the 1989 US invasion got his American visa revoked after he left office. Uncle Sam would never say why, but thanks to Julian Assange we learned that it was, as many suspected, his alleged involvement in the human trafficking of Chinese citizens via Panama into the United States. Ever administration since then has been worse than that.

There was the tight circle of grasping families that was the Moscoso regime. Martín Torrijos brought us assaults on democracy and the public coffers, mass poisoning at government hands and the advent of the Odebrecht epoch.

Ricardo Martinelli was a crime wave and deserves to stay in prison for the rest of his days — the eavesdropping and theft of eavesdropping equipment were only some of his lesser crimes. The rigged-bid or no-bid public works contracts with kickbacks continued to be major features of the Varela years, with Odebrecht scandals all across the region but in Panama a pretense that nothing was ever amiss.

Juan Carlos Varela, not a vicious character like Martinelli, still drove the country into terribly excessive debt, and on the side his erstwhile chief of staff headed the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandals that fairly or unfairly have led to this country’s further political and financial marginalization.

So now what do we do?

First, a bloodbath in the universally corrupt National Assembly. They had their “governance pact” and then a couple of semi-coalitions after that, with the legislature held together by lots of money for the deputies to hire relatives, pay their private companies’ employees or just pocket. Are these people going to demand their day in court? SUNDAY IS THEIR DAY IN COURT. They should be grateful that the end of political careers will be the worst immediate result.

But who and what will replace them? Let’s concentrate on what.

We have a strong presidential system and seven candidates for the job of president. One of these is a radical labor leader who rails against the current economic system — yet who is wise enough at its ways and weaknesses to deliver enough to his union’s members that notwithstanding any political or philosophical differences he’s the one they want negotiating with their boss. 

Other than that we have lawyers of various description, and people coming from or beholden to agriculture, industry, real estate, construction and finance sectors. If you are to say that all six other than the labor leader are rich and running to serve the rich, you would both grasp an essential truth and ignore important distinctions. A built fortune, or an inherited one? A fortune made on producing things of value, or one made on shifting money around? A fortune based on ties with the government, or raised in the private sector without public assets? A fortune based on theft? A fortune based on services that bring international condemnation onto Panama? An environmentally unsustainable fortune?

Look at the nation’s needs.

There is an urgent need to throw the construction industry out of political power here. The Odebrecht and Blue Apple scandals stand for the proposition of overpriced public works contracts with kickbacks going to politicians being the customary norm. The country is deeply in debt and can’t afford five more years of that. Then, instead of a proper national fisheries policy, there has been the large scale dispossession of beach communities, with the construction of largely unoccupied beach condos which criminals from around the world might buy and report as the source of fabulous rents as a way of laundering ill-gotten fortunes. There is an awful lot of that in the city as well. Deforestation, the misappropriation of public lands and irresponsible practices that interfere with drains and watersheds are also among the construction industry’s frequent abuses. And then there are real estate agents, banks and lawyers, in addition to all of the public officials corrupted to look the other way taking cuts of the action. And how shall we characterize the role of construction workers, and their union, and its leader?

There is an urgent need to reform the legal system and legal profession. Watching Ricardo Martinelli and his squadrons of lawyers delaying and perverting justice has been an everyday subject in the news during this campaign. And we have his party protesting any and every loss, turning everything into a sophomoric question of procedure rather that a matter of truth and justice. Panama has too many lawyers, who take too much out of society, and who can’t be disbarred in even the most egregious cases. Our courts tend to run on bribery and influence. Class prejudice is pervasive in the Panamanian justice system in all branches and at all levels.

There is an urgent need to put Panama back to work in industry and agriculture, producing things. But of course there is this embrace of “market solutions” to everything — which holds that Panama must import, not produce, because in every instance some multinational corporation demands that it be so.

The country has spent more than a billion dollars on a Colon city center development, neglecting the realities of climate change that have that area ever more frequently flooded. And on the campaign trail some politicians are promising a water plant here or there without acknowledging that the old water sources are being depleted. Climate change deniers need to be removed from public decision-making.

The government is worse than broke. With one honorable exception, nobody wants to talk about that, but it’s true. Mr. Lombana is the exception, and he mostly frames it as a moral question rather than one of survival.

The national debt, climate change, an economic philosophy that does not work — of these we have heard little on the campaign trail. The corruption that’s strangling our society some will mention, but none of the political parties now represented in the legislature can do so with any credibility.

A new constitution?

Systemic change, by way of a new constitution, presidential candidates Ricardo Lombana, Ana Matilde Gómez, José Isabel Blandón and Saúl Méndez say they support. However, all of them are at most talking about procedures rather than what sort of a new constitution they want.

Down to the wire.

Do we want to get into horse race politics, and talk about who might be elected president? By all accounts the PRD’s Nito Cortizo, mainly a cattle rancher who is also in the construction business, with a banker running mate, is the front runner. Some think that Cambio Democratico will not only avoid relegation to minor party irrelevance, but come from behind and take the presidency to put corporate lawyer and a minister in the most corrupt government we ever had, back in the president’s chair in the person of Rómulo Roux. Then there is the rising independent, riding something of  a generational surge, environmental lawyer and former diplomat Ricardo Lombana, who has a noteworthy jurist as a running mate. None of the others have even a remote chance of being elected.

There are other calculations.

There are, however, four small parties, two of which are new, and if any of them get enough votes to maintain ballot status but do not get someone elected to the legislature in his or her own race, they get a seat in the National Assembly. The extra assembly seat provision is about all votes for all positions. It’s why, for example, the leftist Broad Front for Democracy (FAD) is putting so much emphasis on the Panama City mayor’s race. There a guy who calls himself Tank of Gas is running against a guy who calls himself the Sexual Buffalo and a guy who put his sister-in-law on the legislature’s payroll at the top of the scrum. Enough protest votes for a FAD mayor, plus out in the hinterland enough for its also-ran presidential candidate, and there might be a leftist deputy systematically saying things that need to be said and so far never get said for the next five years.

If the Partido Popular gets in the legislature that way — as it has before — or the new Alianza party retains ballot status, those would be different things because those parties are political patronage businesses that don’t stand for anything. No big loss to Panama if those formations go out of business.

It would be a great victory for Panama were Cambio Democratico to disappear, but that’s not in the cards this year. The PRD, the Panameñistas and MOLIRENA are also going to be with us after the election.

If Nito Cortizo is inevitable, there are some awful things about him and his party that make the argument against voting straight ticket for his party more compelling. Our constitutional system is broken and he says it isn’t. He is against a constitutional convention to found a new system of government here. Business lobbies also oppose that and instead want to rig the current system even more in favor of the rich, by way of a series of constitutional amendments passed by the current legislature in a lame duck session and then by the incoming new legislature. If we have to accept the man as inevitable, better to return a legislature that he won’t be able to control for this or any other purpose.

What about Lombana? Independents don’t have slates. Moreover, there are many unworthy characters running as independents this year. For a legislature that might work under Lombana, first of all look for candidates who like Lombana are for a constitutional convention. Look at the person, including the crowd with whom she or he hangs out. Screen out the Martinelistas and Martinelli lite — Cambio Democratico, Alianza and Martinelistas running as independents — and look at the rest.

You get this long editorial instead of a brief slate to take into the polling place with you? Sometimes you have to think for yourself. Good luck, and let’s all figure out a way to save Panama.


badass connie

I have always hated war and am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us, and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy.

Constance Markievicz

[On May 4, 1916, Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) was sentenced to death by a military court for her role in Ireland’s Easter Rising. Her sentence commuted, on December 28, 1918 she was elected to the British House of Commons on the Sinn Fein ticket. Like Sinn Fein MPs to this day, she did not take her seat in Westminster. In 1919 she was a founding member of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. A socialist, from 1919 to 1922 she served as Ireland’s labor minister, which made her the world’s first woman to serve as a cabinet minister.]

Bear in mind…

They have not always elected the best leaders, particularly after a long period in which they have not used this facility of free election. You tend to lose the habit.

Chinua Achebe

Don’t accept rides from strange men, and remember that all men are strange.

Robin Morgan

I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Oscar Wilde


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