A PRD president gets grief from legislators of his own party

Zulay Rodríguez gets all shrieky in the legislature as she accuses immigration director Samira Gozaine of influence trafficking. President Cortizo rejected her call to fire Gozaine, leaving open the possibility that the National Assembly might investigate and act if it chooses to do so. Graphic taken from a National Assembly video and electronically altered by Eric Jackson.

Is the PRD cracking, or is it just a few flakes?

by Eric Jackson

Will they browbeat the president into ceding his power to hire and fire?

Years ago Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo was representing the mostly rural coastal circuit of Colon in the legislature when the body took up the case of magistrate José Manuel Faúndes, who was caught red-handed in two taped telephone conversations negotiating bribes to sway cases before Panama’s high court.

It turned out that most deputies voted to impeach Faúndes, but not the required two-thirds to convict. The tapes having been broadcast for any Panamanian who cared to do so to hear, the establishment was left in a quandary. It was resolved in the first instance by the other magistrates on the suspending Faúndes from taking part in decision and then by the legislature passing a mandatory 70-year-old retirement age to oust the old crook that way.

(The latter solution was applied to other branches of government and did some lasting harm to academic standards at the University of Panama with the ouster of some distinguished professors and unseemly office politics in the scrambles for their jobs.)

Now we have a National Assembly dominated by people who have stolen public funds, most notoriously but not only from the governmental parallel organization to the Panamanian Olympic Committee popularly known as PANDEPORTES. Legislators control both the supposedly non-governmental sports federation members of the Olympic Committee and their governmental purse strings via PANDEPORTES. Now that President Cortizo has announced austerity measures, activists of his Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) may be gathering in small groups in front of the presidential palace to demand jobs, but their best hopes are with the local governments and such dependencies of the National Assembly. The remaining athletes on the PANDEPORTES payroll are thus being fired to make room for people who campaigned for members of the legislature.

For a party with roots in social reforming militarism and membership in the Socialist International but long since become a political patronage machine without any particular set of beliefs, austerity becomes an existential crisis. Especially so, with the comptroller general and anti-corruption prosecutors having come across damning evidence and enough high court vacancies to be filled that the old non-aggression pact wherein the Supreme Court does not convict deputies and the National Assembly does not convict magistrates has a doubtful future.

Cortizo, in his public statements, has been careful not to intrude upon the turf of the legislators and local officials. But he hasn’t been giving them the money they have demanded and he’s not ceding any of his turf to them.

Leave it to the woman whom Cortizo beat in the presidential primary, a legislator who has steadfastly refused to account for the $100,000 she took from PANDEPORTES for an organization and program that by all indications available to the public have existed on paper only, to lead the offensive onto Cortizo’s turf. Zulay Rodríguez, the xenophobe firebrand, has some recordings wherein Samira Gozaine, director of Migracion, PRD stalwart and member of a prominent wealthy merchant family of the PRD persuasion. Gozaine boasts of the prerogatives of her job, which were exercised to waive the paper requirements for immigration of some businessmen for whom her cousin vouched as a friend.

To Rodríguez it’s a straightforward five to eight years in prison for influence peddling. It’s to be distinguished, somehow, from the case that got Zulay thrown off the bench. In that one she waived the statutory provision of no bail for drug defendants for the benefit of some Colombian suspects whom the DEA had been trailing and who made bail and promptly disappeared.

We don’t know the particulars of the people whom Samira let in. A gang of international pedophiles? People fleeing a region where it’s just not possible to get papers in order? Was a bribe paid? Were these friends of family from a place where Panama’s traditionally racist immigration laws don’t allow immigration?

The laws, administrative rather than penal in nature, have often been waived or bent both for corrupt and innocent reasons. Panama’s historic role in world peacemaking processes has often involved the waiver or this or that immigration requirement to let another country makes its arrangements without the complicating presence of a former strongman.

But to Zulay, Samira’s a crook who must be removed. In her patented screeching way, she got up in the legislative chamber and demanded this.

And Cortizo said no. Allowing that the legislature might make some moves of its own account that would be beyond his control, he didn’t much defend Samira, nor did he talk about the particulars of the situation. He just said no.

Attendance was relatively good on this occasion. There is a big ongoing argument between the small MOVIN caucus and their colleagues from the parties about whether those deputies who are absent for a given session should get their pay docked for not being there. It seems like a good idea to the independents, but the rest think that so long as enough deputies or their suplentes show up to make a quorum there is no foul for which anyone should be penalzed. Photo by and of the Asamblea Nacional.

Will they browbeat the administration into making the foreigners pay?

Meanwhile, the xenophobe crowd in the legislature’s PRD – MOLIRENA alliance is both determined to make the foreigners pay and feuding with Panama’s richest family, the Mottas, who among other things own control of Copa Airlines and are backers of the Independent Movement (MOVIN), which has five seats in the 72-member legislature.

Iván Eskildsen, administrator of the Panama Tourism Authority, came to the legislature to report on matters in his purview, and was set upon by deputy Raúl Pineda. Pineda’s gripe? He is one of a group of 16 deputies sponsoring a proposal to tax airline passengers who just pass through Tocumen Airport without stopping here. Eskildsen has met with representatives of the Mottas’ company, Copa, but not with their faction. Pineda promises a housecleaning at the tourism authority due to Eskildsen’s lack of support for the tax proposal. But Eskildsen protested that the tax is a matter for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and thus not in his bailiwick. He pointed out that there are reasons for tourism officials to meet with the nation’s principal airline.

The former president of the National Assembly, Cambio Democratico member Yanibel Ábrego, came to her PRD colleague Pineda’s assistance. She pointed out to Copa getting gates in the airport’s new concourse, and to a US carrier getting some of the gates. Deputy Miguel Fanovich, of the PRD coalition junior partner Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA), jumped in to advocate the legislature paralyzing the tourism councils, which he said are costly and have dirtied Ekildsen’s hands.

All reason, it was more or less suggested, to treat someone who had met with the Mottas as a serious traitor.

Of course, the entire tourism industry is against that tax and against the venom that some of the legislators are spitting at foreigners in general. By all conventional measures, these are not good ways to attract tourists to visit Panama or international airlines to use Tocumen as a hub.

And 16 deputies? Less than half of the number required to pass the proposed tax. About one-third of which would be needed to convict someone from the executive or judicial branch in an impeachment trial. But enough to leave Cortizo without a majority supporting him in the legislature if they bolt.

We will know soon enough, but do not expect the president to fire Eskildsen to humor Raúl Pineda et al.


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