News and Editorial, The first debate

El debate en español / The debate in Spanish

The first presidential debate – substance and style

If substance is your concern, you may want to go to the official Electoral Tribunal video, and turn off the comment track on the above video. Or then again, you may not. It’s mostly Torrijos call center trolls, with some Roux people jumping in to deny the former president a complete monopoly. The tribunal has problems with directly sharing their YouTube feed with small media, so above we link to the Eco TV version.

You may, however, take social media trolling as a substantive issue, or of several troubling matters of public discourse in our times. Vacuous “influencers” and vicious trolls – matters of style, perhaps, except in the many cases over the years when they have been paid for out of public funds. Whatever the source of funding, one side shouting down the others is unhealthy public discourse. Plus we need to notice that, while The Panama News still continues on its website and social media feeds, we do get subjected to various tech company exclusions and shadow bans, which in turn tend to be urged upon them by SOMEBODY. Far more egregiously, as this campaign started the websites of FOCO Panama, Bayano Digital and Radio Temblor went down. Those with the resources of a government or a large corporation or a major political party might have been able to do that. Few others would. And then, the present PRD government and a united local banking industry have joined forces to freeze the funds of the militant SUNTRACS construction workers’ union, in effect limiting their participation in the discussions leading up to the May 5 election.

Powerful forces would shift discussion about what is or is not free about this election season’s discourse – neither Ricardo Martinelli nor his chosen running mate were there. Except that on TVN and Telemetro they were, through paid ads. Does it strike you as terribly unfair that the incarcerated bosses of criminal gangs that prowl the streets of Curundu a few blocks away didn’t get into the Fine Arts Campus dome for the debate? Or maybe you think that a fugitive from a long prison sentence, now holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy, is owed more slack than a more plebeian crime lord? We can get into a genuine philosophical, hard-nosed political and constitutional law argument about whether it’s proper to disqualify a candidate for a criminal conviction. Perhaps the Northern Irish Troubles would still be an ongoing shooting war were IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, doing 14 years in Long Kesh on an illegal weapons charge, had not been elected to the British Parliament. Save that for another time, if we get to hammering out the details of a new constitution. Martinelli is out, even if several iterations of Martinelismo are on the ballot. It’s just the way it is.

Maribel Gordón, the economics professor, studies from her notes before the debate. Nobody can legitimately call her unprepared, but one insolent caricaturist styled her as a sloth, doing the suggestive body shame and making fun of her slow-spoken style of presentation. From a photo by @Edescarriada, taken from Twitter / X.


This was a televised event in which style counts for more than substance in many a vidiotic mind. Cartoonists are busy.

You want a fast-talking corporate lawyer, quick with the sharp and twisting barbs, who compared Martín Torrijos’s post-presidential life outside of the limelight to that of a high school dropout who neither works nor studies? That’s Rómulo Roux for you.

You want the screechy demagogue, stuck in that mode for so long that her voice was hoarse during the debate? That was Zulay Rodríquez.

Melitón Arrocha is a minor candidate with an ear for the ironic, who heard the humor when the guy with the goofy smile, Gaby Carrizo, compared the state of public safety in Panama with the situations in France and Canada and made light of it. It probably boosted his low single-digit standing.

Ricardo Lombana came across as a man who is angry about the way things are. In many times, places and political cultures, the flash of anger is a disqualifier with many voters. Those who like or at least accept the status quo will consider it a dangerous mindset. But this was a day after three people were slain in an attempted robbery of a government lottery agency, with the vice president making absurd comparisons about our crime situation here. This is an election campaign in the shadow of a public uprising in part sparked by an extortion threat of retirees not getting their pensions if an unconstitutional mining colony contract did not get upheld. It may just be that Panama is in an angry mood and that Lombana fits in with that.

Calm, slow-talking, well thought out, getting to the roots of things with conclusions that will be alarming to those with certain vested interests? That’s Maribel Gordón, the radical professor for president.

lawyer puncture
A fellow lawyer’s response to Gaby Carrizo’s debate performance.


The largest of the elephants in the room is perhaps for another debate. Panama is deeply in debt and the resources to make good on whatever major campaign promise are unlikely to be there unless something else is to be sacrificed, ultimately at somebody’s expense. View the recycled old promises in that light. The corporate mainstream media may tend to cast that genre of campaign talk in “We’ve heard THAT before” incredulity, but they tend not to bring up the matter of the national public debt. Wouldn’t want to shock the shareholders with data that leads to a conclusion that they might actually have to pay some more taxes.

Also in the invisible elephant herd is a public disconnection with old road maps, agreements, reports or sets of data. People are not ready to believe. Explain the essence and some might be convinced, but make the point by reference and it goes in one ear and out the other. The “I know something that you don’t know” pitch has long ago lost its mystique.

On the first specific issue of the night, public safety? GENERALLY the candidates were talking more cops on the street, more people in prison, more distractions for bored adolescent boys who would otherwise be getting into trouble. With funds from where they mostly didn’t say.

There were some salient deviations, though:

  • Independent Melitón Arrocha called attention to abominable prison conditions, which tend to be ignored by people who have been indoctrinated with this “lock them up and throw away the key” thinking.
  • Martín Torrijos mentioned that white collar criminals also need to be suppressed – which may not sit well with Zulay Rodríguez, who is resigning from her seat in the National Assembly so as to prolong the process of a criminal investigation against her for supposedly stealing from one of her law practice clients.
  • Gaby Carrizo mentioned domestic violence, but put it entirely in the context of being a “women’s issue” rather than a mostly male disorder that gets passed down from generation to generation of learned behavior.
  • Maribel Gordón called out the miserable unreality of all the old proffered solutions: “The solution is not to turn Panama into a prison. We are the third country with the largest population in prisons in Latin America as a percentage of the population. We double the number of police officers per person compared to developed countries.” The economist added that “communities were abandoned because public safety was turned into a business. We propose to build peace through prevention.”

On the subject of sustainable development, most of the candidates promised this or that water project, some of them paid homage to the trees and wetlands in general and Carrizo made reference to the dump at Cerro Patacon, a problem that the administration in which he serves has not really addressed. It was left to Gordón to raise the subject of the copper mine, of which she was an outspoken opponent.

When the subject of the Social Security Fund came up, Lombana brought up the ill fated mining colony proposal: “You don’t need a mine to guarantee decent retirement pensions.” Which put him at odds with stands taken during last year’s strike by vice president and mining exec’s son Gaby Carrizo. Martín Torrijos boasted of his experience with the changes to the fund during his administration. He should have shut up about that. Melitón Arrocha was even worse, claiming that the fund’s problems can’t be solved. Gordón, Lombana and Rodríguez all called for a return to some sort of solidary system rather that one of individual accounts.

Education? Another junior elephant wandering the room, out of sight, was the 2022 teachers’ strike over many of their members being months behind in being paid, and after that strike was sort of settled, the problem returned and the teachers walked out again last year. It looms worse for Carrizo, as his daughter’s father-in-law was the terrorist who gunned down a teachers’ union activist and a teacher’s husband on the highway in Chame.

There were all the usual promises and analyses, one point made by Zulay being that we really ought to have longer school days. (Just because she gamed the system to get a government subsidy for her daughter’s college education in the USA doesn’t make her wrong about everything educational.) Roux referred to old documents and new plans of his, which surely flew over many people’s heads. “30 years of dialogue and we are worse,” Lombana complained, blaming much of the problem on political patronage within the Ministry of Education. Gordón complained that notwithstanding any talks, education is for markets rather than improving the knowledge and skills of all who study here. Going after Gaby Carrizo and the PRD in general, she said that “Your government crashed the star of education.”

And so it went, from the banal to the profound. There will be more such events. Imperfect as they may be, better than selling votes for bags of groceries.

Panamanians have choices in these difficult times. Let’s hope for informed and wise ones.


The Way
Lao Tzu (Laozi) statue in Quanzhou. Photo by kattebelletje.

To have little is to possess.
To have plenty is to be perplexed.

Lao Tzu

Bear in mind…

The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own character.

Isabelle Eberhardt

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.

James Joyce

I give myself, sometimes, admirable advice, but I am incapable of taking it.

Mary Montagu


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