Traditional machine politics: Carlos’s crew

In one way or another, it’s happening across much of the country. Wherever there is a PRD or allied representante, there is money available for local works. For places with opposition local officials, not so much. The next rounds of question are on what and how honestly it gets spent. Then there are questions of quality and wise discretion. “Pave the road going through El Bajito” has been a long-running demand. “Drain The Swamp” is a gringo slogan of the MAGA kind. Pouring concrete for drainage under a newly improved old street. Photo by Eric Jackson.

Public works for all to see

by Eric Jackson

Whether he was born with the right to carry the Panamanian cedula that he has, who is this gringo to complain about Panama’s constitution? It was drawn up by elected representantes — members of municipal and provincial councils who have some more administrative and asset distribution roles than what you might expect in other countries — back during dictatorship days in 1972. It was done at the behest of military strongman Omar Torrijos to humor the Washington politicians, really. The goal was to decolonize Panama — put the old Canal Zone and the canal itself into Panamanian hands — and “tinhorn dictator” was not the face that Torrijos needed to show the world in general or the USA in particular. Torrijos and Boris Martínez led a 1968 coup to oust a guy whom Washington did not particularly like — he WAS, after all, one of Hitler’s friends in the 1930s and early 40s. Then these two men had their falling out and Torrijos, with the assistance of the Guardia Nacional G2 intelligence chief Manuel Antonio Noriega (to whom Torrijos sometimes referred as “my gangster,” needed to show the Americans some sort of democratic reform to get new arrangements that would abolish the hated Hay – Bunau-Varilla Treaty that had created the Canal Zone back in Teddy Roosevelt days.

Having overthrown the elected president 11 days into his term, and dissolved the legislature, Torrijos left much that was local government in place. So to draft a new constitution he assembled the representantes elected in 1968 and they drew up this document. They gave themselves supremacy over the alcaldes in municipal government. They set up a political spoils system wherein those politicians who played along with the game would get a cut of the political patronage action. It phased in over a dozen years and is the system under which Panama lives to this day.

Carlos Fernández, a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) that Torrijos founded, is our veteran representante here in Juan Diaz de Anton, in Cocle province. I moved here about a decade ago and my first impression was not a good one. In 2015 the water went out in our neighborhood for eight months, during which he did not show his face.

But hey, I was a young city council member and I made young politician errors. I learned from and corrected things as best I could see how. Politicians growing wiser in office is a common thing and ought to be the expected thing. Egos of people who believe overblown campaign hype or the words of flatterers can get in the way, but still I would not expect the venerable Joe Biden to repeat some of his rookie senator errors.

Via this awful PRD government money has come this neighborhood’s way. Carlos Fernández has not been good about formally consulting with anybody, but the unpaved road has on occasion brought protesters out to block the highway and rightly or wrongly has been blamed for the police not coming through this neighborhood to suppress the maleantes as much as residents think that they should. He may have skipped the formal hearings with proper notice to all affected, but Fernández did respond to public demand otherwise expressed. So we get this road improvement project.

WHAT?!?!? We are warned about the danger of deviationists in the neighborhood? Actually, it was a warning to make a slight detour around some hazardous work along the road’s shoulder.

I’m not a civil engineer. Not sure if the representante is educated as such either. But both of us know that a standard bane of Panamanian roadwork is insufficient to non-existent drainage. And both of us ought to know that one of the deadlier driving hazards in the unshielded abutment into what a vehicle might crash. I have this third concern that I share with dogs and birds, but I am not sure with the representante: conserving the neighborhood’s little wetland.

A drain was already there and it’s being improved. Perhaps too much, so that it drains away and eliminates a place in which dogs and birds love to splash and around which adds to the biodiversity of the flora. So, what to do if such wetland conservation is not in the plan? Just a retrofit, a low berm in front of the drain, over which the water must pour to get into the tube that crosses under the road. As in a mini-dam of rocks, mud and water vegetation, a relatively cheap and easy addition.

Good translators are hard to come by, and this inspector relies much more on his sense of smell than on sharp eyes. But surely he knows what’s at stake and would insist on certain standards.

The outward signs are that Fernández is on his way to re-election, but those can deceive. His signs and PRD flags are everywhere. Sometimes, however, it looks like he has a lot more to show than he has people to show it. Like four flags and a sign at a house, instead of single flags and a sign at four different houses. And at the top of the ticket his party has this ridiculous presidential candidate who may have negative coat tails. This year there are also an unusual number of houses flying flags of parties that are not allied with each other, which suggests more than the usual ticket-splitting — which I estimate may help the representante keep his job.

The student of history and urban policy will know, or will soon learn, of the machine pol who “seen my opportunities and took ’em.” But the water is on and every day, up the road, you see men working on an addition to the water tower. The roadwork is ongoing and there for all to see — even if on my usual daily round I will head to bus stop and see guys from Carlos’s crew napping in the shade of a tree. Somebody might get irate, but I’m a working man whose writing station is not air conditioned — as in well aware that to get the best outdoor work in the tropics it’s best to let the crew rest while the sun is directly overhead. The meanest of plantation culture actually isn’t the way to get the most productivity. 

Everyone else in the neighborhood can see what I can see, interpreting it as they will. I see a traditional politician running a traditional campaign that seems to be on track.


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