The Young Kleptocrats and Panama’s election laws

José Luis Paniza, not long ago when someone might pay attention to what he said. Photo from his Twitter feed.

USMA law school student elections: competence and ethics not required

by Eric Jackson

There are allegations from the losing INNOVA slate that the November elections for the 2021 school year’s USMA law school students’ elections were stolen. Might just be just a coming generation’s version of the endless rabiblanco squabble, but for a few salient facts.

José Luis Paniza, the former president of ADEUSMA — the University of Santa Maria La Antigua Law Students Association — has admitted a role in the falsification of the elections.

It wasn’t the university or the law faculty that blew the whistle, but rather the company that ran the online election, Election Runner, whose online program caught the irregularities that indicated election fraud. Specifically mentioned was identity theft to cast votes in favor of one slate. It appears that the emails of law students were obtained from the university’s student directory and the dates of birth were found on Facebook. But if a couple of people appearing to be the same try to vote, or if a number of votes appear to be cast from a single computer, then the platform will take notice. And if some identity thief has voted in one’s name, the platform will not allow that person to vote. One student who was blocked from voting complained to start the inquiry.

The cheating was for the purpose of electing the ACTUA slate, whose nominee for president was Ana Gabriela Bravo. Also implicated in the affair were the outgoing ADEUSMA president, Javier Núñez, and the slate’s VP candidate José Barrios. By several sources, these four were all involved in a scheme directed from an apartment in the former Trump Ocean Club in Punta Pacifica.

Other members of the ACTUA slate, Emperatriz Ibarra, Angel Garay, Giovanna Alfanno and Alexandra Rueda, said in an open letter to USMA’s director of student life Ángela Rodríguez that they had no knowledge of or participation in the scheme. None of these people have been accused.

There are familiar names involved at various angles of this story. USMA, the Catholic university in an overall undistinguished Panamanian higher education field, is where rich or politically connected families often send their kids to study. This role has been enhanced by greater US student visa difficulties in Trump times.

Javier Núñez? Two members of his family are on the payroll of PRD legislator Crispiano Adames.

José Luis Paniza? Student leader of the Independent Movement (MOVIN) that’s popularly identified with Panama’s reputedly richest family, the Mottas, and with a number of prominent media figures. He was, until the scandal, coordinator of the Citizens Forum for Election Reforms. That’s a part of the Electoral Reform Commission that’s officially recognized by the Electoral Tribunal. The commission helped to write proposed election law changes that will be soon be taken up for consideration by a National Assembly committee. Go looking through the ranks of the Panamanian judiciary and diplomatic corps and the Paniza surname comes up.

Rather immediately the dean of the law school, former attorney general, legislator and presidential candidate Ana Matilde Gómez, insisted that Paniza be removed from his electoral reform roles. The head of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Committee stepped in to replace Paniza on the forum, which then named another young member of a politically connected family, marketing consultant Freddy Pitti.

The PRD , most particularly its neofascist element, has been vilifying MOVIN for a solid year and a half. With all other political parties in disarray and the Panamanian habit of denying an incumbent party a consecutive term in the presidency, the independents are now seen as a threat. Paniza is just more grist for that mill, but none of the journalists identified with the movement are rising to his defense or that or any of the other three implicated law students.

USMA is being circumspect, admitting that there is a corruption complaint but limiting its comments pursuant to set procedures to investigate student misconduct. There probably will be something on the order of a proper investigation.

(We have a public confession of one of the four students who are implicated. The other three are guarding their silence, as is their right. Which has something to do with why USMA isn’t making much comment about the scandal. People who are suspected may actually be innocent.)

(Are there allusions to family ties here? They become relevant because of the sort of closed society we have here. The Electoral Tribunal would certainly never want to hear from a guy named Jackson. But there is no indication that other members of the families of these young people who are in trouble did anything wrong.)

In a normal country a student gets kicked out of school for such dishonesty. In a normal country a scandal like this can block a graduate’s application for a license to practice law. The norm in Panama, especially if the family or political connections are right, is that these things are not a problem. Let’s see if they are for these law students.



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