Jaime Vargas, a PRD rookie, to preside over this legislature in its last year

Outgoing National Assembly president Crispiano Adames swears in his successor, Jaime Edgardo Vargas Centella (PRD – Darien), who had been chosen at an earlier PRD meeting but on the assembly floor was nominated by deputy Cenobia Vargas. National Assemly photo.

What’s sustainable and what isn’t? The PRD and its allies go for the obscure

by Eric Jackson

Panama has an unpopular legislature and a government that isn’t well liked. Fault lines are running through all of the traditional parties. The epidemic brought hardship, following on a weak economy before the virus hit us, and the economy suffered in ways that we haven’t seen since the days of pre-invasion Noriega times sanctions. There are figures from the past looking to come back and for those with short memories, or flexible comparative standards they may be attractive. None of the figures of the present have generated an impressive groundswell of enthusiastic support. Politicians who look forward to extended careers at it are rightfully worried.

So, what to do for the last year of a despised legislature’s term? Don’t go for “I know THAT politician” but for “Who’s THAT?”

They chose a rookie, if you can call a deputy four years into his first term of office that. They chose a man who represents a geographical circuit that has dominated international headlines about Panama, but who hasn’t appeared in any of those stories. They chose somebody who, on behalf of the Cortizo administration, introduced painful and controversial legislation not of his authorship, the COVID state of emergency law that came with the lockdowns and other restrictions. They chose somebody who in four years has not introduced any proposal that he wrote before his colleagues.

Fiery speeches? People throwing things at each other? Epithets or accusations about this or that sort of citizen or foreigner? None of that stuff from Jaime Vargas. He served quietly, and sat on the Credentials Committee that not only reviews presidential nominations, but also sits as preliminary judges for ethical charges against many a public official. It has been nearly silent on that latter front these past four years, and perhaps Vargas has as his excuse that the Supreme Court, not the Credentials Committee, hears charges against legislators.

Yes, there were legislators who screeched about undocumented migrants streaming across the border. Not Jaime Vargas, although his circuit in the northern part of Darien which includes Pinogana district and the Cemaco portion of the Embera-Wounaan Comarca, was the main point of entry.

Colombian gangsters running most of the illegal border crossings, all sorts of drug, weapons and hot money trafficking, local Panamanian residents robbing and raping migrants, fellow deputies in questionable relationships with organized crime? Jaime Vargas was not one of those guys calling for a heavy hand against crime, at least not out loud. We really don’t know what he may have said in private to those commanding the men and women in uniforms with guns.

So will Jaime Vargas quietly do things about these situations? Or will he just go along? We shall see.

The last year before an election is smash and grab time, as politicians and their political retainers are uncertain of whether they will be on the gravy train the following year. The National Assembly, with no objections hear from Vargas, has been busy appropriating money for hack jobs and the representantes and diputados who control them. It worked less than spectacularly well in the PRD primary, in which many party members cast spoiled ballots and others voted out several incumbents. They have a guy with a fake smile, maladroit gestures and no particular record of accomplishment in public office as their 2024 standard bearer, and no matter how much money is spent or what is said, the PRD is expected to be voted out. Including by not only rand-and-file members, but also a number of the party’s elected officials.

So choose the cypher, who hasn’t made anyone particularly mad at him, and who in his own circuit has managed some racial and ethnic divides that could go seriously wrong, and have gone wrong in the past. But Vargas, the Afro-Panamanian deputy with the indigenous suplente, quietly manages these things.

Let’s see how — or if — the quiet man from Darien manages the year with the frantic public sector scrambles. Perhaps he will put out a quiet warning.

But who supported him? Who will serve alongside him in the leadership team? Undistinguished PRD deputy Ricardo Torres as the assembly’s first vice president and loud religious fanatic Corina Cano as the second VP. She’s MOLIRENA, in a way the wooden stake through the heart of the old Liberal tradition of advocating secular government. Also backing Vargas were the Martinelista deputies, formally part of the Cambio Democratico caucus, and the others from MOLIRENA. Much of the PRD caucus was annoyed enough to boycott or abstain in the party meeting when Vargas was chosen, but other than for a few absences or abstentions they were all on board. Vargas got 51 of the 71 deputies’ votes, as against seven for Rómulo Roux’s man Rony Araúz, five for independent Juan Diego Vásquez and seven abstentions.

The big surprise was that CD deputy Genesís Arjona went with Roux’s candidate, breaking with Ábrego’s faction that would like to run with Ricardo Martinelli and not joining the alliance of convenience with the PRD. That’s probably based on the growing perception that Martinelli’s ship is sinking and he won’t even be on the ballot next year.


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