The PRD’s not so happy holiday season

Nito’s Cabinet Council in a special online meeting to extend a state of emergency through the end of May. What’s the sudden crisis? They say it’s about the drought, which is not actually so sudden. It’s wrangling between a PRD president and a PRD-dominated legislature during a special session about the 2024 government budget, against a backdrop of public discontent. An impasse prompted the president and cabinet to issue a decree to mollify the legislators, who want more campaign season pork ahead of the May 5 election. Photo by the Presidencia.  

Nito’s emergency decree: it’s a crisis of sorts
but not particularly the one that they claim

by Eric Jackson

Christmas is over. The politicians have passed out the hams and turkeys and household appliances. Shouldn’t THAT keep the voters happy now, and for the next several months?

A shaky partial truce

Not really. These holidays came as something of a truce on the last of November’s patriotic days, so that people could celebrate Panamanian Mothers Day, Christmas and the New Year – and do some shopping and holiday travel ahead of these days of – after a long and furious national strike. However, if the strikers were willing to take their half a loaf for now, take down the barricades and go back to work, the people against whom they were striking – the mining company, the PRD political machine, a number of the business leaders – were itching to renew the fight.

Indigenous grievances and protests continued in the Tierras Altas area of Chiriqui, as did demands for prosecution, calls for vigilante violence and general rumblings of racism from some of those who put themselves forward as business and political leaders.

On the Costa Abajo of Colon, leaders of the fishers’ protest flotilla were slapped with an array of criminal charges. To hear it from the government and company one might get the suggestion that they were the modern-day equivalent of Henry Morgan’s goons. The counterpoint is a tale of hardscrabble working people defending their fishing areas from mine runoff pollution.

The mine in Donoso kept operating, or trying to operate, despite the unanimous court ruling that it was all illegal that had been announced to the nation on the anniversary of Panama’s independence from Spain in 1821. The pretense was that there was a decades-long cleaning job ahead and that the company had to keep operating in order to carry this out, as if they had the contract to do that. So anti-mining activists kept up blockades by roads and sea, the PRD’s national ombudsman made inflammatory accusations against the protesters – for example alleging that the protesters were armed, the evidence of which he did not produce – and many a scientific and reasonable argument about how long and complex a job such recovery from the environmental damage would be, were proffered. That is “reasonable” unless one got to the underlying presumption that First Quantum is the company to do that work.

That situation with the mine came to a head on Christmas Eve, when the lights went out, off and on, in many parts of the country. There were allegations and denials, but what happened was that the mining company shut off its coal-powered electric plant and started to take electricity from the national grid, which created an overload that blew out part of the nation’s power line distribution facility back in Panama City. The company said it was the fishers keeping coal carriers from docking at the mine to bring fuel to the plant. SENAN, the National Aeronaval Service, fired some warning shots at the protest boats.

The ETESA state power grid company issued a statement about how the mine in Donoso had nothing to do with it, that it was a blowout in an array of transformers back in the capital. But La Estrella, generally favorable to the PRD, cited an anonymous source at the ETESA power dispatch center said that the mine hooking into the grid was precisely what caused the outages.

It wasn’t just about the mine…

The strike wasn’t just about the copper mine, but about a series of grievances that the PRD clumsily linked in order to make promises and point fingers. Is the national economy a mess? Well, so it was said, with a renewed mine contract the government would be able to meet its obligations to the retirees, to the public health care system, to the public schools. It would be able to finish stalled major public works like the new Children’s Hospital. And, and….

Take into account the long and sordid history of both the copper mine and the original concession from which its claims derived and it would be unbusinesslike to count on unhatched chickens like that. But also take into account the vast political patronage spending binge of this government, on top of the budget hits from COVID and the inflation generated by the Ukraine War, and it adds up to a near doubling of the national debt since Nito Cortizo took office in the middle of 2019.

The international bond rating companies sure have noticed, and their grades and warnings have in turn generated international pressures for Panama to do something about an out-of-whack budget.

Not that global lenders were the only ones. The teachers, dump truck drivers et al went out on strike in the middle of 2022, and certain promises were made to the teachers and their unions. A year later and the Ministry of Education had not only not been allocated the promised percentage of the national budget for the public schools, but again many of the teachers had for months been accumulating arrears in their salary payments. Within the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca, broken promises about road improvements and bridge construction crossing rivers on ziplines or by wading to get to the schools has taken the lives of teachers as well as students.

To add insult, there are the scandals about nepotism and political patronage trumping need and merit in the government’s IFARHU scholarship programs. It’s not the bright and needy who get money to study abroad, but the kids of politicians and other well-connected families. And if you’re a smart kid and diligent student without the right surname? The money likely won’t get around to you and you might hook up with Sal De Las Redes, the young people’s movement that burst onto the national scene as part of the strike movement.

So, the strike’s over, time to get back to the books and cherish high school memories of an interrupted year? Consider the graduation ceremony at the Instituto Nacional, the flagship of public high schools for the honors students, in their times people like legally educated entertainer Rubén Blades and before that military strongman-to-be Manuel Antonio Noriega. At this year’s graduation then sent PRD legislator Héctor Brands to address the seniors there and he was not well received: 

“Traitor!” “Country-seller!” All the boos, and disapproving whistles. And these are the honor students.

So, maybe if they sent in a higher-ranking public official? Like, at another high school, the minister of education? This is the response that SHE got:

In Panamanian politics, the norm is that in the absence of fraud the incumbent president’s party gets thrown out of office in the next elections. Especially so as to the succession at the presidential palace. The 18-year-olds who will be voting for the first time appear to be ready to follow the norms of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations this coming May.

Different math divides the president and his party’s National Assembly caucus

Laurentino Cortizo can’t run for a consecutive term and his apparently doomed vice president and 2024 PRD presidential standard bearer has been all but silent. Emerging from stone silence during the strike, VP Gaby Carrizo spoke to carefully screened PRD loyalists and blamed his and the country’s woes on the commie radicals and the wealthy elite. Is that any way for the nominee of Panama’s affiliate of the Socialist International to speak?

(For historical perspective you might look up the nasty things that Lenin had to say about the Socialist International – “agents of the bourgeoisie” and such – and you may want to take notice of more recent arguments within parties that call themselves socialist or social democratic over the late 20th century advent of “globalization” on multinational corporate terms.)

However, if Gaby Carrizo is a likely loser in May and has been acting the part, there are PRD members in the legislature who have other ideas. Most notably, PRD party president, Bocas del Toro deputy and head of the National Assembly’s budget committee Benicio Robinson. The legislators, mayors and representantes are figuring that if there is enough pork in their barrels to distribute among their constituents, Gaby’s bid for the presidency may go down in flames but they may keep their present offices.

The PRD primaries, in which several incumbents went down to defeat, might suggest the frailty of those hopes, but it is said that all politics are local. And old-fashioned vote-buying machine politics? It has worked in many places at many times.

That sort of stuff always draws criticism. This year, listening to, watching and reading stuff by or directed to the new generation of voters, the elder critics may have reason to hope for a defeat of machine politics.

A more recent version of an old message, directed against an old habit. What’s to make voters think – both in their cerebral thoughts and in their deepest emotions – differently this time? For one thing, the message coincides with the tides of history – the presidential alternation cycle, the legal woes of the main PRD opponent who preaches the culture of vote buying (former president Ricardo Martinelli), and notwithstanding the schools’ gutting of civics teaching during the generation-long dictatorship and since, many of the brighter kids having learned their civics on the barricades listening to the skeptical about the old games striking teachers and construction workers or logging onto the social media and hearing political patronage denigrated by environmentalist leaders who also used to be elected officials. The 18-year-olds are a voting bloc with a different education this time.

Back in 1972, the dictatorship promulgated our present constitution by an implicit promise that those who went along with the army officers’ scheme would get some of the benefits that had been cut off by the 1968 coup d’etat. When it gradually phased in to have the first presidential election under that system in 1984, fraud was needed to ensure the “victory” of General Noriega’s man, banker Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino, who in any case turned out to be a disposable puppet who was discarded for seeking an actual investigation of the torture / murder / mutilation of Dr. Hugo Spadafora. In 1989 conditions for fraud just weren’t there – swarms of soldiers were sent in to cast illegal ballots at voting mesas, and when they opened the ballot boxes they found that the troops had voted for the opposition. Noriega’s Electoral Tribunal was ordered to nullify the elections, which they did, but that decision got overturned less than eight months later in the December 1989 US invasion. But it wasn’t as if that brutally shocking experience did all that much to alter the culture. Instead a bunch of upscale operatives flew back from exile with the notion that “It’s OUR TURN to steal!” at the top of their minds.

Polls suggest that the old-style parties have the upper hand this year, but when Panamanians are afraid or embarrassed pollsters often have difficulty getting their true sentiments out of them. Plus the polling doesn’t tend to reach many down-ballot races and the pollsters don’t much go into remote areas like the notoriously swing-voting Ngabe-Bugle Comarca.

The long-time incumbent ward heelers will have name and face recognition and, if they are PRD or allied, will have had some government slush funds to have spread around their constituencies. Will voters distinguish the big bad party machine and their ridiculous presidential nominee from that smiling known quantity, the neighborhood’s representante? That has been the bet, with hundreds of millions of dollars having been placed on it by way of Benicio Robinson’s budget committee.

The real crises and the hedges around the bets

At a December 27 online meeting of the Cabinet Council, a decision was made to extend an about-to-expire emergency decree about the El Niño drought through May 31, after the elections. To be sure, although we have been getting some unseasonable rain, the drought is real and it’s affecting our principal industry, the Panama Canal.

It’s not that the Panama Canal Authority is going broke, or has been, anyway. The reductions in ship drafts and long waiting lines have created shortages that the ACP has exploited to expand its profits. As in auctions for ships to skip to the head of the waiting lines to transit.

The shipping world has alternatives that avoid the Panama bottleneck. They are beginning to send containers via other routes. However, the alternatives have their momentary problems. It’s December and the Arctic routes are going to be frozen shut for many months to come. Mexico’s competing land route has just opened, adding to similar US and Canadian ways to move containers overland. But by rail is not a fun option if sending computers from East Asia to North America’s Atlantic Seaboard, because each time a container full of those fragile devices get picked up or put down by a crane, and with ever bump and rattle along a railroad, comes a certain amount of breakage.

And then, the main competing route, sending the stuff in the other direction through the Suez Canal? That’s a voyage through a war zone at the moment, history’s cue for the shipping industry to suggest to Washington that solid support for whatever horrible atrocity that Israel may come up with has repercussions that are bad for world business.

All very real, but short-lived concerns. The drought is bad for canal operations, is likely to get worse before it gets much better, and despite how obnoxious all of the anti-environmental “Act Of God” routines that are sure to be invoked tend to be, it’s a phenomenon well beyond Panama’s control. Blame it on the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you must, but shippers are making adjustments and next year less cargo is likely to pass through the Panama Canal, resulting in an important revenue loss to the country.

JUST WHEN our national debt is at a record level. Just when it appears that more than 18 percent of the 2024 government budget will go toward interest payments on that debt. Just when panicky PRD legislators are demanding more to distribute from their pork barrels ahead of the May 5 elections.

The wetland in the editor’s Cocle lowlands neighborhood has gone dry. It happens. The local dogs who like to play there are not happy about it. It enables the representante to make foolish environmental decisions about drainage, which are trivial annoyances compare to the water that the gravity-fed Panama Canal needs, often-neglected drinking water issues in many parts of the country and the irrigation water demands of Panamanian agriculture. Photo by Eric Jackson.

So there is that very real drought crisis, but really, why the state of emergency? It’s not like this problem suddenly popped up on us and we hadn’t already been making adjustments.

It’s really a constitutional dodge around a political impasse.

The legislature wants more money to spend on their constituencies ahead of the elections, the president is under many pressures from many sides to bring this fiscal madness under control, Nito sent a 2024 budget to the National Assembly that was amended in unhelpful ways, various debt screws were tightened and warnings from abroad issued, so a special legislative session was called to make some needed reductions. Then the special session came to essentially the same sort of impasse between the legislative and executive branches.

But what happens under a state of emergency? The main thing is that fiscal controls are evaded, wherein due to urgent need government contracts can be made without the usual scrutiny and delays. As in Nito can tell Benicio that there won’t be another better part of a billion dollars in pre-election slush funds, but some of that stinginess will be tempered by possible “emergency contracts.”

It’s a middle ground compromise between telling the Panama Maritime Authority that the deal is definitively off with an agency that has a fleet of launches of its own renting launch services from a legislator’s cousin. It’s a silver of hope for politically connected hustlers who got their tax cuts for redundant hotel and resort projects but now want subsides on top of those. It can mean, once the Christmas soccer balls are worn out, the representante’s goons coming around with a new soccer ball to keep the boys out too much other trouble. It can mean that, even though the money to go study abroad went to a much dumber and less promising deputy’s kid, a bright young woman might be freed of some of the financial restraints that would otherwise keep her from getting a higher education here in Panama. Maybe the PRD machine doesn’t have to deliver on any of those material things, but just the hope that they might do so will keep an ever more detested party’s prospects for the next elections in the realm of going concerns. Quizás.


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