Jackson: The presidential race, Ruben’s take and my take on his take

Really, Rubén Blades, a University of Panama and Harvard educated lawyer, who worked as a bank lawyer before becoming a famous entertainer, ought to know better than this one. First, does he suggest that rich people don’t get into corruption? Or that there are no weel-paid entertainers or athletes in tax or other money trouble with the law? But then, wearing his lawyer ethics hat a few years back Blades was highly critical of The Panama Papers leak and that some European authorities paid for copies of the data for their own tax investigations. Blades well knows that Ricardo Lombana is an attorney. Is he demanding to know who Lombana’s clients are, and on which matters he works for them? As in lawyer-client privilege does not apply when it comes to his own political curiosity?

Plenty of opportunity to differ before we must decide

by Eric Jackson

It looked at one point as if Rubén Blades was on Team Lombana and encouraging a gang of down-ballot independents to run with him. Then he said not necessarily so.

Blades has a good reputation as a former government minister, a stellar reputation as a singer, composer and actor, and not a particularly significant record as a party leader or candidate. He might truthfully say disparaging things about this writer’s records as an activist and public official and at other undertakings in life, too. The point here is neither bragging rights nor mudslinging. It’s to understand some of the dynamics of an unfolding election race.

On his website, Rubén Blades wrote:

“…None of the candidates for the presidency have presented any proposal indicating how they suggest dismantling the present administrative scheme, a system and paradigm that sustains, feeds and immunizes official and private corruption, a state of affairs that includes the institution of political patronage and the complicity of citizens in maintaining the traditional party system. …”

“I consider the candidates Martinelli, Carrizo, Arrocha, Zulay and Gordón eliminated from possibility.

I see the choice between Lombana, Torrijos and Roux….”

Me? I concur in part, dissent in part and laugh at the instant and probably inevitable Twitter / X troll’s attack on Rómulo Roux on the basis that Blades considers Roux viable.

The campaign-season slop-slingers need to hire pseudonymous Internet jerks with better arguments than ‘everyone knows that this guy is a m#@$%& /f&%)%¿ and anyone said guy endorses is thus obviously an awful choice’ sorts of thinking. For one thing, a lot of Panamanians don’t necessarily place great value on Rubén Blades’s political advice but revere him as not only an important cultural hero but as the guy who made salsa at its best by infusing Afro-Cuban musical styles with lyrics about social phenomena that matter.

I think that Blades and I agree that Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal belongs in prison, not in the presidential palace again. Is there a similarly mixed sense of the ridiculous and the insulting that we get when we consider José Gabriel Carrizo Jaen as a presidential candidate? Whether or not that is so, we both reject the guy.

Ricardo Martinelli is very much a possibility if he is not kicked off of the ballot over his more than 10-year prison sentence for laundering the proceeds of public corruption in order to buy himself a newspaper chain.

Gaby Carrizo? God help us. But the miracle endorsement for that guy would not come from that high, but from an in-everybody’s-face set of maneuvers by actual people who do not particularly wish Panama well. Except, of course, there is this malady wherein many a public official presumes his or her own interests are one and the same as those of The People. In any case, because Nito Cortizo has taken time off for health care on a few occasions, Panama has seen Gaby as acting president. Quite the man of inaction. Quite the master of the maladroit gesture. The late great Cuban-American cartoonist Don Martin would have had fun with this guy.

Zulay Rodríguez Lu? About her value I think Rubén and I would concur. Perhaps he is more put off by her screechy style than I am, and less put off by the bigotry and xenophobia of what she says than I am. I don’t know. He has been hassled before for non-Panamanians in his bands and that may play large in his take on the lady’s opposition to anything appearing foreign to her in our culture. 

The thing is, very much like Donald Trump, Martinelli is running on a platform of revenge against all who opposed him and dictatorial impunity for himself. Throw him out of the race and Zulay attracts some of the voters who are impressed by Martinelli’s stuff. Ricky’s an amazingly selfish guy, power-mad to perfect the despotism of his 2009-2014 administration. Zulay is more in the classic fascist mold. Zulay Rodríguez, like Ricardo Martinelli, has a real if outside chance and it’s an equally frightening prospect for Panama. Not only stormtrooper policies on the ground here, but also crippling international sanctions akin to those of Noriega times.

Arrocha? What passes for an aristocratic surname here, if there are people impressed by that, but there isn’t and won’t be any groundswell of support that will put him in the presidential chair. Maybe Rubén has another reason to rule him out.

Blades rules corporate lawyer Rómulo Roux in. Is that because he sees possible electability? That I can understand. Not that I can relate. Does Rubén, the former bank lawyer, see something positive about the guy? That he’s not Ricardo Martinelli or Zulay Rodríguez, may, in the final days of a race that polarizes down to two, make the man from Morgan & Morgan look good by comparison.

I am not, and never have been, a Panameñista. My parents knew Arnulfo Arias and dismissed him as one of Hitler’s friends. The Mireya Moscoso crowd was disgraceful and Juan Carlos Varela’s place among the Odebrecht defendants seems appropriate to me. But I do like Roux’s running mate, former Panama City mayor José Isabel Blandón.

Blades counts out economist Maribel Gordón as a possibility. Does he just mean that she’s most unlikely to be elected? He’s probably right about that. Is it because she’s a woman of the left, part of the brain trust for the left end of the Panamanian labor movement? Call her a communist and she probably would not deny it, but paint her as some sort of Stalinist tyrant and you’d get the color wrong. Maribel has, contrary to Rubén’s allegation, laid out a specific program of what she intends to do. It sets her apart from the others and I for the most part like it. But she will in all likelihood be an also-ran.

That leaves Ricardo Lombana as a possibility for Blades, and for me, too. He’s got a fellow Colonense, a Chamber of Commerce guy, Michael Chen, for a running mate. I used to work with his American wife.

An old democratic socialist like me, accepting a ticket with a former head of Colon’s Chamber of Commerce on it? Well, Lombana, Chen, Blades and I all agree that the political patronage and vote buying framework of Panamanian politics has to go, that our post-invasion system is bankrupt. The Republic of Panama, in financial terms, approaches that status too. We need a new constitution and one that whether CoNEP or SUNTRACS get their people elected, they can run the government with neither bloodbaths nor widespread corruption. There is something structurally wrong, the mining colony fiasco was a salient example, and to me non-recognition of this problem or unwillingness to face it is a disqualifier.

Which is not to say that we can elect the right person, fingers can be snapped and everything that’s not right can be instantly corrected. But we do need a president, and new batches of legislators and local officials, who recognize that there is a problem.

Will Lombana’s recent prostate cancer diagnosis torpedo his chances. Yes, we have been living with a president who is living with another sort of cancer, but let’s not compare Ricardo Alberto Lombana González with the current president. Different men, arising from different social forces and political organizations, who will face different challenges. And the present one has a ridiculous vice president while Lombana would have a serious one.


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