President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, on the right, doing photo ops and announcements with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Irving, Texas. Photo by the Presidencia.
Business explorations, advances — and a Big Oil paramilitary import?
by Eric Jackson
Who has access, what quality of access is it, and what tough questions get avoided? These are major issues for Panamanian journalism during the Cortizo administration, the most insulated one since dictatorship times.
So, with the Panamanian economy in shards and no hiding that fact, we got economic policy statements from abroad, where the local reporters tend to know zip about Panama and the serious Panamanian reporters aren’t along for the ride. Just in time to avoid answering questions about a Venezuelan-owned and Florida-based mercenary firm hiring mostly Colombian paramilitary terrorists who assassinated the president of Haiti, and routed some of the apparent coordinators of the attack through Panama before the deed. Where was Migracion? How come the Vene and Colombian baiting legislators had nothing to say?
Ah, well. This was a five-day business trip to Dallas, Austin and Houston. If the speculation about a major purpose of it all was to attend Panama’s opening Gold Gup game against Qatar — in which the Marea Roja came from behind to rescue a 3-all tie — there were no photos or published reports of Panama’s president or members of his entourage attending, although they were in Houston for the storm-delayed event.
There were the usual mundane things. Cattleman Nito plugging Panamanian beef exports to the USA (in TEXAS?). Promotions for new airline routes — freight between Panama and Dallas and cheap passenger service by Southwest Airlines, which efforts seem to be undercut by the Biden State Department’s advice not to travel to Panama, due to a couple of places with a lot of drug smuggling and the ongoing COVID epidemic. Building shipping ties, at least symbolically, with a visit to the Port of Houston. Advocating for Panamanian farm produce in US grocery stores.
From Texas, there were two important business stories, plus while the president was away a couple more announcements here.
On the domestic front, there was the announcement of a 20-member squad that includes a couple of key PRD veterans of the negotiations for the Panama Canal Treaties — Adolfo Ahumada and Nils Castro — to renegotiate the copper mining concession with Canada-based multinational First Quantum. There was also a low key backtracking on plans to cut people off of food assistance. (There are still cuts in effect or about to come down, but not as drastic as those that were described earlier.)
From Texas, there was an announcement of a plan to invest $250 million in Millicom’s Tigo cellular communications network. Some remote areas, including in some of the indigenous comarcas, will get hooked up, it was announced. Which will and which won’t? That they don’t say. The plan is to create a “Hub Fintech” mainly oriented toward financial transactions on computer and cell phones, not only in Panama but throughout the region.
When the old state-owned INTEL phone company was privatized, one of the provisions in the cell phone concessions was for full national coverage. That has never happened and the Panamanian government has never insisted. Meanwhile those concessions were sold and resold several times. The breached full coverage promise caused significant damage to Panamanian tourism seven years back when two Dutchwomen, lost in a national park, tried to call for help and could not connect. Pieces of their remains — and their cell phones — were found sometime later.
Millicom, based in Luxembourg for tax avoidance purposes, concentrates on Latin American telecom markets. When it bought out Spanish-based Telefonica’s operations in Panama — you might more popularly state that as Tigo buying out Movistar — the press releases talked about plans to expand the network here. Thus we really don’t know how new the news announced in Texas actually was.
The Big Announcement — a memorandum of understanding with Energy Transfer for a “Trans-Panama Gateway Pipeline”
2016: Energy Transfer Partners’ hired paramilitary goons attack protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline with dogs and pepper spray.
The memorandum announced on the first day of Nito’s visit to Texas was to “study the viability of a joint Trans-Panama Gateway oil pipeline project.” The Presidencia described its partner in the “non-binding” transaction as “one of the largest and most diversified fuel transportation companies in the United States with more than 90,000 miles of pipelines and associated infrastructure in 38 states and Canada.” They didn’t mention that Energy Transfer Partners, a limited partnership whose members include Sunoco, is a company that hires its own private army and espionage apparatus, Nor that the company routinely evades providing information to government regulators, as recently shown by a lawsuit against the State of Pennsylvania alleging that providing details of the project would allow “criminals or terrorists” to rupture the pipe and cause spills. In their press releases and in reports obtained by anti-pipeline activists, Energy Transfer’s agents use words like “jihadists” to describe those opposed to their projects, and make spurious claims that they are dealing with the Black Panther Party, Black Lives Matter and other vilified groups. The company’s paramlitaries have infiltrated protester camps, churches, environmentalist groups and antiwar organizations.
Panama has a long, off-and-on and steadfastly denied relationship with paramilitary groups from other countries, particularly Colombia. It may be why the coordinators for the Colombian hit squad that killed Haitian president Jovenel Moïse had no problem passing through Panama en route to the assassination. So, with an Energy Transfer pipeline here, would be get the private army, too?
Those may be the more lurid but less fundamental questions.
First of all, what is the real long-term outlook for the use of petroleum as fuel? Its replacement by electric cars and renewable power generation would surely end neither oil nor fuel production, as those are raw materials for strong and light materials like graphite that would be come mainstays in such products as more energy efficient cars. But there would be little use for fuel pipelines for that. More likely, the places where manufacturing would move closer to where the raw materials are. The bottom line appears to be yet another Panamanian administration making plans based on the denial of climate change and the economic transformations that will come in its wake.
Then we might ask about prior oil pipelines across Panama, and why those have become dead letters rather than critical and constantly used infrastructures. The old pipeline alongside the canal did give up the Pipeline Road that’s prized by birders, but for its intended purpose was expensive to maintain and a constant hazard to Gatun Lake, its wildlife and those who drink from it. The Chiriqui – Bocas pipeline exists and is 40 percent owned by the Panamanian government but as a practical matter was an ephemeral product of of US public policy and law, wherein Alaska oil was reserved for the United States instead being more cheaply exported to Asia. That US legislation was amended in 1996 and caused a seven-year shutdown of the pipeline here. It was revived and expanded, but because of maintenance and environmental problems — think of the road from Chiriqui to Chiriqui Grande and imagine it being a pipeline and you would not be very far off — it has never been a very important factor in international oil transportation. The bottom line there is that pipelines have not proven to be compellingly profitable businesses here.
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