Judy Meana, from her Twitter feed.
Decline and potential fall
A brief tempest – which is likely to recur in some fashion – lights the trajectory of this PRD government’s decline and fall. Panama City’s hilariously inept mayor of dubious ethics, “Tanque de Gas” Fábrega, had the municipal police keep vice mayor Judy Meana from returning to her office at City Hall following a relatively brief stint as Panama province’s appointed governor. The excuse was that the city council – the representantes when they play that role – had not authorized her return to duty. But actually they had passed a resolution doing this three days earlier, only Fábrega said that he had not received a suitably official copy.
Meana is a member of the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA), the junior partner at the national and local levels of the dominant Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) government. That alliance is crumbling. She was kicked upstairs on leave of absence to replace an apparently unsuitable first Cortizo appointee in the provincial governor’s post, both as a threat to Fábrega and, from her perspective, a respite from the ridicule that came with association with the mayor as his running mate and number two.
A provincial governor can suspend a mayor, even if the former is an appointee and the latter is elected. Had Meana done that – been allowed to do that by Cortizo, really – she would have stepped into Fábrega’s job as acting mayor. In the Panamanian political patronage system by constitutional design and ingrained culture, that means hundreds or thousands of city workers losing their hack jobs and being replaced by a new crowd of patronage seekers. As in a mini-cycle or two of the every five years dysfunction of government at most levels, another financial crisis in the time of a much greater medical, economic and moral crisis brought on by an epidemic that set in when Panama’s economy was already in deep trouble.
Why would Meana have been done a favor by moving out of her office in the municipal building and into a nicer one at the nearby Gobernacion? Fábrega was making an ass of himself about an artificial beach project in front of the Cinta Costera, and even if Meana did not openly oppose what he was doing, she avoided comment – let alone any cheerleading – about that benighted plan.
On its face Fábrega’s beach plan was founded in fraud and obnoxious public contracting games. Panama Bay is grossly polluted and will be for the duration of Fábrega’s time as mayor, but he was selling the project as a boon to real estate speculators who had bet on expensive condo and hotel towers facing the beach. As in, selling the gullible gringos (et al) beach front property on a beach where nobody can safely swim.
Plus, as anyone who watches the occasional rough seas at high tide come crashing over the sea wall on the Cinta Costera would know, elemental forces would intervene and wash away the sand. Communities here, there and everywhere with foolish local governments beholden to Chambers of Commerce or other elites populated with those with much more money than brains have learned the hard way – build or rebuild a beach by bringing in sand and the elements soon enough wash it away. But hey, the recurring need for more sand is a wonderful gig for sand miners and construction contractors while the deception lasts. There were indications that Fábrega had already chosen the contractors to receive those plums. Let us guess what THAT in turn indicated.
So, a mediocre or worse mayor who doesn’t do his homework, or who does and counts on a constituency that’s both uneducated and foolish to go along with it? Problem is, Panama’s education system is woeful but that doesn’t turn everyone who went through it into a fool. Judy took her leave and Tank of Gas couldn’t get permits, as people involved with those processes, not as well educated as would be preferred, looked at the artificial beach project and in one way or another said “That’s ridiculous.” And a humiliated mayor would now rather not want to look bad standing next to a vice mayor who did not share in his folly and disgrace.
Writ larger, the problems between the PRD and MOLIRENA exist in the national government too, which threatens effective PRD control of the National Assembly. Surely Nito could buy, bully or sweet talk some replacement allies, at least on an issue-by-issue basis. But on the epidemic and on the economy, and in the scandals afflicting his administration, Nito’s administration is drifting and slowly sinking. It really does affect Panama’s governability.
An activity that, if done right, carries a low risk of infection. Panama Tourism Authority photo.
A safe reopening for tourism
One of Panama’s worst social pathologies is and long has been the compulsion of some Panamanians to imitate the worst things about US culture and public policies.
Back in the 1920s, Panama’s racist Accion Comunal movement would gather in their imitation KKK white robes and hoods. For decades, successive Panamanian governments have signed onto the futile US “War on Drugs,” expensive mass incarceration and all. And then we have climate change denial, and refusal to accept the basic medical facts of COVID-19. These latter two attitudes should have no place in Panamanian public policy, but mainly by way of business lobbies still enamored of Donald Trump, they do creep into places where they should not be allowed.
Now we are told that the economy should just open back up as if nothing is or ever was amiss. Tourism, it is urged, will lead the way to an economic rebirth. Those in the gringo community whose ideal is a gated English-only bubble with starvation-cheap labor and no social consequences for that may be tempted to hop onto that bandwagon.
But the national government is more cautious. Yes to some sports fishing, but no to Carnival festivities. We can argue about this or that point, or comment about all of the public officials who have been caught flouting the government’s decree. It’s foolish, however, to advocate across-the-board reopening until most people here have been vaccinated. Consideration of each activity on the basis of its health risks is the way to go.
The social consequences of denial need to also be taken into account.
For the convenience of the rich, by economic coercion force unvaccinated working people to labor under unsafe conditions? You think we have a lot of labor unrest now?
Bring in international tourists, and when some of them get sick and die and it gets reported by foreign media, depend on “properly” connected – down here – “influencers” to contol the public relations disaster?
Stir up false hopes of a quick exit from our economic woes by facile promises? Then we can get into what political scientists sometimes call “the revolution of rising expectations.”
There is no easy way out for Panama, sad to say. Whatever nasty things we might truthfully say about this PRD administration, that it doesn’t swallow in one huge gulp Donald Trump’s policies and the fanatical ideologies of his entourage is something for which we should be grateful.
And what about reviving tourism? It would be better for now to create jobs by investing in tourism infrastructure. Like planting new coral reefs at sea, and new forests on the land. Like installing truly nationwide cell phone and Internet coverage. Like building some safe and scenic bicycle paths. Like improving or restoring fishing villages near the beach resorts, so that shopping on the beach for the catch of the day is one of the charms of Panama. Like expanding and re-deploying the Tourism Police as needs change, so that we don’t read about crimes against tourism in the foreign press.
There is not going to be a sudden huge influx of tourists to save Panama. We can, however, do some things to gradually lay the foundations for a better tourism economy.
Portrait by Louis Boulonger.
Behind every great fortune is a crime.
Honoré De Balzac
Bear in mind…
The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.
W. E. B. Du Bois
It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue, and the pain lessens, but is never gone.
Each time we don’t say what we wanna say, we’re dying.
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