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Kiriakou, My brush with Elon Musk

Elon Musk. Photo by Dan Taylor.

When I accidentally asked the Thomas Edison of our time what he did for a living, he lit up like a Christmas tree

My brush with Elon Musk

by John Kiriakou — OtherWords

About five years ago, a close friend of mine and I had an idea for a television news program. As luck would have it, my friend had gone to high school with a guy who, at the time, just happened to be the president of NBC. We arranged to have drinks at a fancy hotel bar in Washington, just the three of us, to talk about the idea.

That day, Mr. NBC called to say he was bringing a friend along. No problem, I said. The more the merrier.

When the four of us sat down together and ordered beers, I turned to the tag-along. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Elon,” he said. I answered: “Nice to meet you. What do you do for a living, Elon?” He lit up like a Christmas tree.

“I have a passion for technology,” he said, his hands gesticulating wildly. “I created this company. Maybe you heard of it? It’s called Paypal. And I sold it for, like, a billion dollars. Then I took the money and created another company called Tesla.”

“Oh my God,” I interrupted. “Are you Elon Musk?”

He was. I was so clueless that I’d asked the Thomas Edison of our time what he did for a living.

Of course I knew who Elon Musk was. He was the guy who created Paypal. He was the genius behind the electric carmaker Tesla and its long-life battery, which is on the road to disrupting the entire auto industry. He was the visionary behind SpaceX and the 600 mph “hyperloop” service that he says will whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes by 2025.

Musk did most of the talking that night. He talked about entrepreneurship, he talked about technology, and he talked about alternative energy sources, including wind and solar energy. I agreed with most of what I heard, although I think he’s dead wrong about nuclear power being a “clean” fuel.

Musk said several other things that I can’t forget.

First, he said that the United States is falling behind other industrialized countries because we neglect our infrastructure. Building and repairing roads, bridges, and hospitals shouldn’t be controversial or political. It ought to be something we all agree we need. This country should have the best roads, bridges, and hospitals in the world. And we don’t.

Second, he said that our universities should be incubators to the greatest cutting-edge technologies in the world. But colleges and universities have become so expensive that many potential students just can’t afford higher education. As a result, we’re denying ourselves some of the best minds the country has to offer.

And third, he said that the United States is behind the curve — and the rest of the Western world — when it comes to tapping the full potential of solar and wind power. We’ve made a lot of headway since that chance meeting I had five years ago. But if you look at how much renewable energy we’re generating on a per capita basis, it could take us years to catch up to the Germans or the Scandinavians. Even the Greeks are ahead of us on solar power.

I listened, enthralled. I should have gone home, logged onto my brokerage account, and bought as many shares of Tesla as I could afford. I didn’t, though. My loss.

My friend and I never pitched our TV news show either. But we got a first-hand lesson in entrepreneurship from the man who’s arguably the country’s greatest living entrepreneur.

When it comes to our infrastructure, student debt, and alternative energy, our politicians could stand to get a lesson, too.


OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s also a former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


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Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Panama meets on Saturday

Effects of climate change AND the Citizens’ Climate Lobby ae both active in Panama. Photo by SINAPROC.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Monthly Meeting

Saturday September 12 , 1 – 3 p.m.

Universidad Interamericana de Panama on Via Brasil

We will have light snacks.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby is building the political will for a stable climate, by empowering individuals to have breakthroughs in their personal and political power.

It’s an amazing, inspiring group to be connected with, working on something so dreadful and still having fun while doing it.  The opportunities for personal growth are huge, and the chance to have a real impact on the future our planet is moving.

Those interested should call 6704-2456, email cclpanamacity@gmail.com, or just show up.

This Panama chapter is focused on work within Panama, but expats from other countries will find it easy to connect with chapters at home and participate remotely.  We will facilitate that.  It’s a great way to stay connected.

www.citizensclimatelobby.org is the website.


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Democrats Abroad meet and greet on Saturday, in Ancon and online

Democrats Abroad will send a delegation to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, with the shares of delegates among the candidates based on the results of the March 1-8 DA global primary.

Democrats Abroad meet and greet

with information on registration and voting in the 2016 US elections

Saturday, September 12 at 1 p.m.

at the Country Store and Restaurant in Ancon

and online from wherever else you might be

To get to the Country Store and Restaurant

On foot and navigating by landmark in the Panamanian fashion

If you climb the stairs to the front door of the Balboa Union Church, turn around and look down the hill you just climbed, across the street at the end of the side street where the Banistmo is located, you will be looking right at the Country Store and Restaurant.

If you will be driving to get there:

From the Bridge of the Americas take the Albrook exit. You will go under the bridge. Continue to the traffic light — the Arnulfo Arias Monument will be in your left as you get to the light. Turn left at that T, immediatelygettting into the right lane. At the traffic light Banistmo will be to your right. Turn right at that light, and the Country Store will be immediately in front of you.

From the city center go toward the bridge. Just past Mi Pueblito get in the right turn lane and take a right turn just before the pedestrian overpass. Follow this street to the second traffic light (they are very close), turn right in front of the bank and the restaurant will be straight ahead.

From Albrook or Clayton follow signs to Puente de las Americas. You will pass the Port of Balboa. At the port entrance you will turn left at the light, continue past Balboa Theater on your right, past two traffic lights. At third light you will see Balboa Union Church on your right and Banistmo on you left. Turn at that light, past the bank on your left. Country Store will be ahead of you.

How to log on to participate in the meeting online

Democrats Abroad – DA WebExHost invites you to attend this online meeting.

* Topic: DA Panama, Sat, 9/12 1 p.m. Panama time
* Date: Saturday, September 12, 2015
* Time: 1:00 pm, Panama time (GMT-05:00)
* Meeting Number: 730 136 767
* Meeting Password: dapa

To join the online meeting:

1.) Select this direct link to the meeting :

(or you can find your meeting on the WebEx Calendar at:

2.) Enter your name,  with your Country Code and email address. Note: If you don’t know the code, just write your country and/or the group you represent. (This is not required to log onto the meeting)

3.) Enter the meeting password: dapa

4.) Click “Join.”

5.) When the WebEx Meeting Center application opens, _select the button that says “Call Using Computer”_ (in the Audio Conference pop-up box, under Use Computer for Audio), and you will be able to hear the call conversation.

6.) Please remember to always MUTE your microphone (use the Red Mute Mic button next to your name in the Participants List on the right side of the screen). This will make the audio much clearer for everyone on the call.


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Harrington, The Panama Canal and international media


The scant coverage of PanCanal woes in international media

by Kevin Harrington-Shelton

It is hardly surprising that the Panama Canal expansion´s travails have received scant coverage in international media: from its onset it has been shrouded in secrecy. And this has damaged both Panama’s democracy and its sustainable economic development.

The canal is one of the few things in Panama which does not defy logic. Working with — rather than against — nature, tropical rainfall is gathered into a man made lake in the highlands, and then eased downward onto either ocean by gravity, carrying with it the oceangoing vessels. Its expansion follows the same logic — for larger ships. 

The cause of Its travails lies elsewhere. The current canal (begun in 1904) was financed by the US Federal Treasury. In 1881 the (failed) French effort had relied on private shareholders. The expansion (2006) is to be financed by shippers using the international public utility, rather than opting for widespread ownership giving Panamanian investors a stake in their country´s future (in the manner Egypt financed its own expansion in the Suez canal). To a man, Panamanian politicians preferred to retain their short leash on the pork barrel. But, as the $5 billion expansion here was intended to kickstart some $60 billion in public works abroad (as major ports improved existing facilities to handle the wider and longer ships for which the expansion was designed), its international media profile has been kept intentionally low.

Perceived corruption has hampered the expansion from day one. The 2009 international public tender was a fracas, with disparities so huge as to inferr that it was hardly at arm’s length. The executed contracts have never been made public, despite repeated freedom of information requests. As The Economist reported, Bechtel, one of the losers, suggested the winning consortium’s bid would barely cover the costs of the cement involved. This proved prescient, as cement quality did indeed pose technical problems from commencement of works (2010), and last week social media carried photos of widespread leakage in concrete poured into semi-completed locks. None of which were reported in the local press.

Succesive governments since 2006 have flounted the rule of law, disregarding extant legislation which calls for mandatory progress reports to Parliament every six months. And, despite his repeated claims to a transparency patently lacking during former President Ricardo Martinelli’ s allegedly-corrupt administration, no such reports have been rendered since President Juan Carlos Varela took office on 1 July 2014 (see WikiLeaks).

With grass root reactions to governmental corruption a sign of our times, the mounting erosion in president Varela’s credibility bodes ill for Panama.


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Crunch time for Panamanian justice

De León
Supreme Court magistrate Hernán De León, whose move to reject criminal charges against Ricardo Martinelli in the Financial Pacific affair failed to get any support from his colleagues. Photo by the Supreme Court.

Four simultaneous situations may hold the keys to whether the public desire for accountability for crimes in high places is satisfied or thwarted

Crunch time for Panamanian justice

by Eric Jackson

September 9 brought us a Supreme Court plenary session at which the investigation against Ricardo Martinelli for the broadest, deepest and most serious of the 12 cases pending against him, the Financial Pacific investigation, might be thrown out but instead was put off for a rearrangement of the file. Thanks mainly to coverage in La Prensa, that’s the situation that has been getting the most attention.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly’s Credentials Committee is about to take up criminal complaints against magistrates of the high court, several of whom face multiple possible charges. In the legislature’s Budget Committee, there’s money for a Disney parade in Panama City but a proposed cut in the Electoral Tribunal’s fiscal 2016 budget that would hamper investigations of things still pending from the 2014 elections and rule out a constitutional reform process being put before the voters. And then, awaiting strokes of the presidential pen to approve or veto all or parts of it, there is Bill 214 that was sent to the legislature to reduce the impunity of public officials but amended to greatly increase it. Also in the Supreme Court there is a ruling pending on a motion to throw out the special short time limits on investigations of politicians, which might be resolved in a narrow technical way or might lead to a sweeping constitutional rejection of special privileges and immunities for the politician caste.

In the Supreme Court

After a two-month delay, the nine-member plenum of the Supreme Court met on September 9 to consider whether to accept the complaint against Ricardo Martinelli in the Financial Pacific case. This file was forwarded to the court by the Securities Market Superintendency (SMV) when in the course of investigating other people it found evidence of insider trading and money laundering by the former president. As Martinelli is a member of the Central American Parliament, the high court rather than ordinary prosecutors and lower courts is vested with jurisdiction over criminal complaints against him.

But magistrate Hernán De León, to whom the matter of whether to accept the case was assigned, argued that the matter should not be accepted because the file was sent by the SMV, which can only impose administrative sanctions. If the other magistrates — actually, six magistrates and two alternates who are in acting capacities after the removals of Alejandro Moncada Luna and Víctor Benavides for corruption, and in this actual session four magistrates and five suplentes — had given De León the five votes he needed to prevail on that, it would have suggested the dismissal of other matters referred to the courts by the Comptroller General and the Tax Tribunal.

But De León, who was appointed to the high court by Ricardo Martinelli, could find no support for rejecting this high-profile case. Instead the magistrates eventually came to a unanimous agreement to rearrange the file — and there is other material from the regular prosecutors and possibly other sources that might be added — and bring it back to be accepted for formal investigation as reformulated.

In and of itself the Financial Pacific case is the deepest, broadest and most serious of the ongoing Martinelli scandals. It’s the most serious because it probably involves a murder, the November 2012 disappearance of SMV senior analyst Vernon Ramos, who was investigating allegations that Ricardo Martinelli had used an account named High Spirit to conduct insider trades in shares of Petaquilla Minerals, the Canadian parent company of the Petaquilla gold mine. No body has been found and identified as the missing analyst, although one corpse was found in Colon and rejected by the medical inspector as that of Vernon Ramos without any DNA samples having been taken or tested. La Prensa cartoonist Víctor Ramos, Vernon’s brother, says that he has his doubts about that finding.

A basic rule of Panamanian securities law is that a brokerage account may only be in the name of one natural or juridical person and nobody else can put money into it, take money out of it or conduct transactions through it. In two accounts attributed to the former president, High Spirit and JAL Offshore, a rogue’s gallery of figures from other Martinelli scandals, generally through companies, moved money in and out, with the money for and proceeds of insider stock transactions treated as unspecified account credits or debits or misrepresented as other things. Martinelli’s brother-in-law Aaron “Ronny” Mizrachi, a key figure in the purchase of spy equipment illegally used by Martinelli to eavesdrop upon and harass opposition political figures and media people, was one of these. Former Vice President and ex-banker Felipe “Pipo” Virzi, who bribed now imprisoned former magistrate Alejandro Moncada Luna and used his former bank, Banco Universal, as something of a clearinghouse for bribery and kickback schemes, was another. Cristóbal Salerno, who has admitted to paying kickbacks in the Cobranzas del Istmo privatized tax collection scheme, was another player in Martinelli’s Financial Pacific accounts.Seven other individuals have been named in these transactions, including both of the former president’s sons and former La Prensa director Juan Luis Correa.

Martinelli had moved former Banco Universal loan officer Ignacio Fábrega over to the SMV to essentially serve as an informant about confidential regulatory matters related Financial Pacific. He has pleaded guilty, been sentenced to prison and turned state’s evidence in the case. He joins Mayte Pellegrini, another former Financial Pacific employee who was charged with embezzlement and jailed during the Martinelli years and who remains under house arrest but has never been brought to trial, as a star witness in the case. The brokerage house was started by West Valdés and Iván Clare, two friends of Martinelli’s sons without experience in financial services, and essentially run a an international money laundering scheme for all manner of criminals, including sticky fingered politicians from several countries. Records weren’t kept in any regular order, and notwithstanding that no clients complained, SMV auditors found a $12 million shortage according to such books as there were. That’s when Vernon Ramos got onto the case, and was soon thereafter removed by his disappearance. The insider trading scheme that he was investigating was canceled by Alejandro Moncada Luna, who as presiding high court magistrate at the time corruptly — against the plain letter of the law — ruled that insider trading in shares not traded on Panama’s Bolsa de Valores — as shares in the Canadian company Petaquilla Minerals were not — is not a crime in Panama.

(Article 249 of the Penal Code provides that “whoever for his or her own benefit or that of a third person uses or improperly divulges privileged information, obtained through a privileged relationship, with respect to securities registered with the National Securities Commission [now the SMV] or securities that are traded on an organized market, in a way that causes damages, will punished with six to eight years in prison.” Even were it held that insider trading on a foreign organized market is not a crime in Panama, any dealings with the proceeds of such foreign criminal activity amounts to the crime of money laundering in Panama.)

Ignacio Fábrega, on some points corroborating what Mayte Pellegrini had earlier said and apparently also backed by paper and money trails that have been discovered, said that Moncada Luna’s ruling gave Valdés and Clare time to sell the brokerage house. The buyers, however, were not investigated as would ordinarily be the case in an intervened brokerage. They were in form a Brazilian group called Banvalores composed of Mendo Sampaio, Carlos Osorio y Josué Absalón Chávez. However, Fábrega said that in reality these were front men and that the true buyers were Brazilians Mario Sampó and Mendo Sampaio, the Colombian-Panamanian former Tourism Minister Salomón Shamah and Ricardo Martinelli, the two Brazlians putting up $4 million each and the two Panamanians $3 million apiece. Mario Sampó would never have passed muster before any credible investigation — at the time he was facing a number of criminal charges for such things as running an unlicensed bank and had dozens of civil lawsuits pending against him. Martinelli and Shamah would not want their interests known at the very least for how bad it would look, and if the allegation that Shamah put up $3 million is true he would probably be vulnerable to charges of inexplicable accumulation of wealth while holding public office. (Martinelli denies that he had a stake in Financial Pacific.)

Fábrega claimed in open court that SMV chiefs Alejandro Abood and Juan Manuel Martans knew all this about Financial Pacific and its behind-the-scenes second set of owners, and that he was constantly reporting to Martinelli and Shamah about investigations.

So how deep does the Financial Pacific situation go, and how broad of a stream of corruption does it represent in the Panamanian financial system? That’s a set of rude and interesting questions, about which rumors abound. Who else participated in the insider trading? Do the scandals have anything to do with Bolsa de Valores founder Roberto Brenes’s announcement that he is leaving that institution? Above all, what happened to Vernon Ramos?

The backdrop and basis for rude questions includes two discomforting facts. First, since long before the days of Ricardo Martinelli the Panamanian justice system has treated frauds big and small in which foreigners are the victims as laughing matters. Second, the Bolsa de Valores has never operated like a normal securities market — it rarely enforces its own disclosure rules and there isn’t much relationship between prices and values.

Is the Financial Pacific scandal but a symbol of a much more widespread malady in Panamanian society and its public and financial institutions? If that’s the case, wouldn’t dominant elites perceive a vital interest in keeping inquiries from becoming more generalized?

In any case, it’s but one of a dozen criminal complaints that have been filed against Martinelli. In one of them, the matter of overpriced no-bid contracts with kickbacks for dried foods for school lunch programs, prosecuting magistrate Oydén Ortega has filed a constitutional challenge to the special short time limits on investigations of politicians and that’s probably the next big Supreme Court ruling to come down with respect to Mr. Martinelli.

In the National Assembly

On July 1 an alliance between Democratic Revolutionary Party president Benicio Robinson and Cambio Democratico founder and boss Ricardo Martinelli had as one of its principal aims the takeover of the Credentials Committee that hears judicial matters, so that all proceedings against people from the Martinelli camp would be shelved and instead an attempt would be made to impeach President Varela. It caused major revolts in both the PRD and CD ranks that left Robinson and the Martinelista loyalists stripped of influence and patronage. But now we are about to see how the strange coalition of members of five parties plus the legislature’s lone independent is going to run the Credentials Committee.

There are pending criminal complaints against all members of the high court, with many magistrates facing multiple accusations. Some are at first glance frivolous or at least legally deficient, but a bunch are not. In the coming weeks the committee will be reviewing these, one by one. We have already had two high court magistrates impeached — one was convicted and the other resigned and still faces charges before the ordinary courts. We may see more forced off of the bench.

Meanwhile, the president has not filled the two vacancies. At the end of the year more terms will expire, so he may have enough magistrate and alternate appointments to make a pork barrel deal that satisfies enough legislators to get his nominees ratified.

Since the 2014 elections old non-aggression pacts have broken down. The old unstated rule that legislators don’t impeach magistrates and magistrates don’t impeach legislators is suspended if not shattered forever. The old deal where parties would alternate in office and refrain from investigating one another was broken by Ricardo Martinelli, who ineptly went after a lot of people from Martín Torrijos’s PRD administration, but on the other hand used investigations to blackmail a lot of politicians from other parties into switching to the Martinelli camp. But now half of the legislature’s CD caucus is in the anti-Martinelli coalition and it does complicate calculations.

Bill 214

The Varela cabinet sent legislation to the National Assembly intending to repeal Martinelli administration changes that shortened statutes of limitations and periods to complete investigations when elected officials are involved. It was amended and passed such that it would make it harder to hold anyone in the legislative, executive or judicial branches of government accountable for any crime. The law awaits Varela’s signature or veto.

There is a “line item” partial veto option available to Varela under the Panamanian system of government. PRD legislator Pedro Miguel González, one of the anti-Robinson rebels, warns that in case of a veto he thinks that a two-thirds super-majority may be obtained to override it. But the legislature’s action is unpopular and any veto override vote would be, both among the deputies and in the public at large, quite acrimonious.

The Electoral Tribunal budget

Come the end of the year there will be a vacancy to fill on the Electoral Tribunal, as Erasmo Pinilla’s term is ending and he says that he doesn’t want another one. Already people are jockeying for that nomination, among them magistrate Harley Mitchell, will be leaving the Supreme Court as Pinilla is leaving the Electoral Tribunal.

The tribunal’s work is partially crippled by a sneering Martinelista crook, Eduardo Peñaloza, as Electoral Prosecutor. Criminal charges against him are on the back burner at the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over malfeasance in office and other complaints against him.

Meanwhile, Varela had promised that a constitutional convention would be convened by now, with elections of delegates to such a body. However, he has backtracked, claiming that the time is not right. The proposed 2016 fiscal year budget, for the 12 months starting on October 1, does not have money in it for elections of people to draft a new constitution.

So where are we at?

There are no mobs out in the street howling for politicians to go to the guillotine. Demonstrations of the “stop persecuting Ricardo Martinelli” variety draw negligible crowds. The man is hated and has lost control of his own party.

What’s missing at the moment is an alternative to what we have that has captured the public imagination. Surely what has happened with Bill 214 has weakened the political parties and any argument in favor of leaving constitutional reform to the seasoned professionals. But most of those who are most fervent for change are talking about procedure — whether or not delegates to a constituent assembly should take over the powers of the branches of government while they deliberate — rather than the specific changes they want in the way that we govern ourselves.

The political situation is not volatile. People are not passionate about Varela. Most Panamanians like him, even many who find him a bit plodding or even downright boring. The situation leaves room, however, for a charismatic leader or a popular movement — perhaps driven by dramatic unforeseen events — to arise and take hold across the country. None of those are visible on the horizon.


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The Panama News blog links, September 8, 2015

Core samples: concrete from the old locks on the left and the new locks on the right.

The Panama News blog links, September 8, 2015

Video, The Beachers – One More Chance

Port Strategy, Cracking down on canal concerns

ANP, GUPC aún evalúa causas de filtraciones en el Canal de Panamá

World Maritime News, ACP awaits GUPC report on lock leak

El Economista, Los analistas desconfían del plan estratégico de Sacyr

Video, Proyecto Canal de Panamá y conflicto con Sacyr

Global Construction Review, Scientist defends Nicaragua canal impact study

Loy, Broader American interests in the Arctic seem in deep-freeze

AMP, Inicia operaciones el Puerto Internacional de Punta Rincón en Colón

Blades, Comentarios sobre Panamá y el turismo en 2015

Xinhua, Panama’s Chinese community commemorates China’s victory over Japan

The Telegraph, “I lost everything in Panama”

Video, Panama 1 – Venezuela 0 soccer friendly highlights

Vavel, Canada Cruises Past Panama In FIBA Americas

Video, Laura Carlsen on US-Mexico relations

Amnesty International, Experts blast official Mexican Ayotzinapa theory

Mongabay, UN data suggest slowdown in forest loss

Mongabay, Climate change causing big shifts in tropical forests

Stiglitz, Fed up with the Fed

Galbraith, The poisoned chalice

STRATFOR, Britain’s status as a trading nation ties it to Europe

Gessen, How Putin controls the Internet and popular opinion in Russia

AFP, Panamá está dispuesto a recibir refugiados sirios

Video, “The Syrians need help now. Just stop the war.”

Daily Pakistan, Mujica opens his home to 100 Syrian refugee kids

La Nación: Liderado por Mujica, el Frente Amplio echa sombra sobre Tabaré

Eyes on Trade, Uruguay abandons TiSA negotiations

Zibechi, The United States wins in Brazil

Pitts, The future of Brazil’s left turn

Washington Examiner, The surveillance state on display in Colombia

Colombia Reports, US embassy urged Clinton to hold back on praising Uribe

Inside Costa Rica, Suspect in American’s slaying may have fled to Panama

Video, Universitarios afectados por expropiación de instalaciones


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Jackson: Refugees, border crises and Panama

border 2
Colombians leaving Venezuela. Photo by Jorge Williams.

Panama also has human smugglers, economic migrants and war refugees arriving — and some of them dying in the attempt — and we share some of the problems that Venezuela has with Colombia and vice versa

Strip away the prejudice and emotion
and there’s still something there

by Eric Jackson

Are you moved by screechy ultra-right propaganda coming from the north? Breitbart’s headline goes “More Than 700 African Illegals Allowed To Travel Through Panama En Route To US This Year.” It’s for US domestic consumption, but Latin Americans should be concerned.

Yes, we do have human smugglers and they do take people without visas from African and Asian countries on circuitous routes that run through Panama with the ultimate aim of getting into the United States. A lot of them come from war-torn Somalia. Some come from oppressive Eritrea. We get people from Bangladesh and Nepal. The route these days comes by sea to South America, by land across the Darien Gap along the Colombian-Panamanian border, then off to other places along the way. We have not seen horrifying photos in part because the area has been turned into a war zone in which reporters who are not embedded in government forces are treated as enemies, but people die along this route, lost in the jungle or drowned in quick-rising rivers and streams.

When they fall into the hands of authorities here, whether or not they are fleeing from war zones, they don’t want to apply for asylum as refugees here and the Panamanian government seems to accept that as something of a blessing. They are treated as people in transit without proper papers who must leave Panama. The costs of deportation proceedings involving countries with which we in many cases have no diplomatic ties, flying these people from here back to places from whence they came (and with which we have no direct air connections) and incarcerating these people in the meantime are avoided. Panama is spending as little as possible on soothing the bogeyman fears on which Donald Trump is riding toward the Republican nomination and the US ultra-right is unhappy about that.

Since they are headed toward the USA and they are not wanted there, it seems likely that someone from the American Embassy here would be asking about them and it’s reasonable to expect that the Varela administration shares what information it has. But an international coast guard effort to keep the smugglers from getting people within walking distance of Panama? The resources that might reasonably be directed toward that purpose are instead used by Washington, Panama and most of our neighbors for the totally failed US “War on Drugs.”

The war in Syria has turned international migration into sensational headlines, but it is a global set of problems of which Panama has its share. It’s more than one problem but there are those who want to lump the bona fide war refugees — who have certain rights and protections under international law — under a general heading of migrants, whom they consider undesirable per se. There is a whole US vocabulary of hate phrases about “illegal aliens,” “anchor babies” and so on. These buzz words move the emotions of few Panamanians but it seems to be part of the Republican agenda to force their fears and phobias upon us.

Closer to home, two fellow Bolivarian republics are having problems with one another along their common border. Venezuela has closed part of its border with Colombia and kicked hundreds of Colombians out of the country. More hundreds of Colombians who were not ordered out have left due to fear, disgust or other reasons. The war of words between the presidents of the two countries has become quite strident at times. To hear the Venezuelan side of it, the issues are smuggling and subversion. The Colombian president, who well represents the attitudes of most of the people whom he serves when it comes to this matter, says that Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela and not Colombia. They each have a good point, and Panama ought to understand.

Venezuela is into a legislative election season and looming over everything is something that the government can’t control and if the opposition came to power they couldn’t either. The country’s economy is almost entirely based on oil and gas exports and the prices of these commodities have fallen through the floor. They may never again approach what they were. It’s not President Maduro’s fault but it happened on his shift.

Both major factions of a divided right-wing opposition are — again — in explicit and implicit ways calling for foreign intervention so that they can come to power. There is nothing new about that. Part of the opposition is and has long been interested in sabotaging the national economy to drive the Chavistas out of power. A dozen years ago the tactic was to shut down the oil industry with a strike, lockouts and even tanker mutinies. Encouraging capital flight, and the exodus of multinational companies, has also been part of the economic destabilization strategy.

The Chavista government has responded with severe currency controls and other measures that it might say have avoided mass starvation, but on balance they have made the situation worse. We can see the results here in Panama. The hundreds of millions of dollars that Venezuela owes to Copa Airlines hurts our economy. So do the billions in long-delayed payments — not to speak of lost sales — in Venezuelan dealings with Colon Free Zone businesses. The troubled Venezuelan economy does not affect the whole world as it affects us, but Colombian companies, and those of other countries in the region, have also been left holding the bag in dealings with the Venes.

Almost all of the Venezuelans who have moved here and who vote in Venezuela’a legislative elections will support the opposition. Few of them, however, made their moves as part of a political strategy to oust the leftist government. We can argue about how much choice the Chavistas have had, but a big part of Venezuela’s malady has been the government’s cure and a lot of people have responded to that medicine by leaving.

Controls often have a tendency to create black markets. Make it illegal to export money and smugglers will offer their services to get around the law. Create severe enough shortages of goods that people want — whether they are intended or not — and again smugglers will find a niche in which to operate. Haven’t we learned at least that much from the “War on Drugs?” And then Venezuela’s currency exchange controls have created a thriving black market in dollars, which in turn has driven a boom in money laundering via real estate here in Panama. Hustlers grown rich from the black market currency exchange in Caracas buy condos offices which remain empty here, but they report large rental incomes in Panama to justify wealth actually accumulated in Venezuela.

So Maduro closed down border crossings where smuggling had been particularly rampant and expelled hundreds of Colombians for contraband activities. This has created extra problems on both sides of the border, and not just for those expelled. For example, there are parts of Colombia whose stores had customarily been supplied from across the now closed Venezuelan border crossings. Then there are Colombians who study at Venezuelan universities. It’s a mess.

And who are the contrabanders whom Maduro has thrown out? Some come from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary death squads, now formally demobilized but in many cases atomized but still operational as criminal gangs. This was a criminal element to begin with, which is why they were hired for paramilitary thuggery. Now some of them, in tandem with elements of Colombia’s political far right and media oligarchs, are aligned with that part of the Venezuelan ultra-right that intends to come to power by whatever means it can.

And don’t we know something about that paramilitary and ex-paramilitary Colombian social element here in Panama? People in every country with a border on Colombia do. As in heavily armed and militarily organized gangsters like the Urabistas. As in purchasers of political influence like the cartels who worked through David Murcia Guzmán. As in gunrunners turned real estate scam artists. As in a vast set of money laundering operations that has bought up enough of the Panamanian economy that we face a threat of our business culture being paramilitarized. Is Maduro exaggerating this sort of threat to his country? Perhaps. But he is not making it up.

President Varela is trying to mediate this dispute and he has faced a lot of criticism about the way he’s doing it from rabiblancos who have a sense of solidarity with Venezuela’s traditional oligarchs. Panama has refused to formally take sides and helped to block the OAS from intervening in the matter.

In the first instance Varela has maintained the neutrality that a credible mediator must have. In the second instance he has kept Canadian and US electoral politics from aggravating the dispute, as an OAS intervention would surely do. Does the conservative Mr. Harper, who is trailing the democratic socialist Mr. Mulcair, want to bash Venezuela to prove to Canadian voters that they would be foolish to vote for the left opposition on October 19? Do American demagogues want to appeal to the base instincts of voters who couldn’t find either country on a map by calling for drastic measures on behalf of Colombia against Venezuela? Keeping the OAS out of it reduces the opportunities for North American mischief in a South American affair.

Whether or not Varela ends up being able to play a useful role in resolving our neighbors’ dispute, and whether or not the wave of African and Asian migrants coming through here ebbs, Panama really does need an intelligent discussion about migration. The crude xenophobic vitriol coming from the likes of PRD legislator Zulay Rodríguez is not such a discussion. Neither would any conversation based on imported hatreds qualify. But climate change is real and increasing, such that dried-up farming regions and flooded-out islands and coasts are likely to drive migrations and provoke wars here and there all over the world. The conflicts that have always been with us and always will be are just gravy. Panama needs to be prepared for all of that, both as a nation and as a member of the international community.


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Beluche, Los colombianos son responsables

En la frontera cerrada entre Venevuela y Colombia, en Tachira. Foto del gobierno venezolano.

El gobierno colombiano es el principal responsable de la crisis fronteriza

por Olmedo Beluche

1. La crisis entre Venezuela y Colombia, producida a partir del cierre de la frontera común, especialmente entre los estados de Táchira y Cúcuta, y la deportación de cerca de mil personas por parte del gobierno venezolano, tiene un responsable principal: el gobierno oligárquico de Colombia, en las personas del ex presidente Álvaro Uribe y el presidente Juan M. Santos; al margen de que sea cuestionable el método como el gobierno de Nicolás Maduro procedió a la deportación de centenares de personas acusadas de contrabando.

2. Es incuestionable que Venezuela, como país soberano, puede disponer los medios necesarios para garantizar la seguridad y el orden en su territorio y en sus fronteras, especialmente frente a grupos delictivos y paramilitares extranjeros.

3. El gobierno venezolano ha probado con datos precisos la operación masiva de contrabando de combustibles y alimentos que se hacía en la frontera señalada, así como la actitud hostil del gobierno colombiano al permitir una ventanilla del Banco de la República utilizada para blanqueo de capitales y acciones especulativas contra la moneada venezolana. Por ejemplo: a Colombia entran ilegalmente de Venezuela un millón de galones de gasolina por día, comprados en ese país a 200 bolívares el galón (la más barata del mundo) y revendidos al otro lado a 4 ó 5 mil bolívares. Es un negocio tan grande como el narcotráfico. Otro ejemplo: el desabastecimiento de alimentos en el departamento de Cúcuta a raíz del cierre de la frontera, lo que prueba que el estado colombiano había renunciado a su responsabilidad económica para con sus compatriotas dejando que el aprovisionamiento se resolviera con el contrabando proveniente de Venezuela, cuyo gobierno vende la comida a precios subsidiados a su pueblo.

4. Tanto el Sr. Uribe, como el presidente Santos, pretenden erigirse como supuestos defensores de colombianos humildes expulsados de Venezuela, cuando ellos con su política genocida, sus acciones paramilitares apoyadas por altos mandos del ejército colombiano, su despojo de tierras a humildes campesinos, con sus “falsos positivos”, son los responsables de cerca de 7 millones de desplazados y refugiados dentro y fuera de su territorio.

5. La culpa de la diáspora que ha llevado a millones de colombianos a huir a los países vecinos, como Venezuela o Panamá, y a otros lejanos, es de la burguesía colombiana y sus gobiernos, entre ellos los de Uribe y Santos, que, desde hace 50 años, libra una guerra civil no declarada contra los más pobres hijos de Colombia. Guerra en la que han muerto centenares de miles de civiles inocentes y han sido despojados violentamente de sus tierras millones de campesinos. En la violencia contra el pueblo colombiano han actuado de manera cómplice: gobiernos liberales y conservadores que expresan los intereses de la oligarquía colombiana, los mandos del ejército, los narcotraficantes y los paramilitares. Por eso son importantes las negociaciones de paz en La Habana entre ese gobierno y las FARC.

6. Toda la maniobra de presentar al gobierno de Venezuela como responsable de la crisis fronteriza sólo es posible por la falsificación diaria y constante de los hechos por parte de los grandes medios de comunicación, en particular CNN y NTN, que magnifican el número de los expulsados y no presentan toda la verdad de los hechos.

7. Llama la atención que, en Panamá, los mismos sectores chauvinistas y xenófobos que hace pocos meses tenían una campaña contra la migración colombiana y exigían deportaciones, sean los que ahora se “rasgan las vestiduras” haciéndole coro a Uribe y Santos y denostando contra Venezuela.

8. Evidentemente dicha actividad masiva de contrabando y especulación no podría llevarse a cabo exclusivamente por personas y organizaciones de origen colombiano sin la complicidad activa de empresarios y autoridades venezolanas. Lo que sucede en la frontera colombo-venezolana es apenas una fracción del masivo sabotaje que recibe la economía y el pueblo de Venezuela de su propia burguesía, mediante la que fuga capitales a países como Panamá, que desabastece y acapara alimentos y productos básicos. La situación de fondo no cambiará hasta que se ponga coto y castigue a los saboteadores venezolanos.

9. Si bien es legítimo criticar el procedimiento seguido por las autoridades venezolanas para la deportación de cerca de mil personas vinculadas a actividades ilícitas en la frontera de Táchira, hay que señalar que éstas apenas constituyen una pequeñísima fracción, muy específica, de los cinco millones y medio (5.5 millones) de personas de origen colombiano que viven en Venezuela, en pleno ejercicio de sus derechos civiles, gracias a la Revolución Bolivariana y al presidente Hugo Chávez, que les facilitó los medios legales para establecerse en ese país. Lo que da cuenta de que no existe como política de estado ninguna persecución chauvinista contra los “colombianos” en Venezuela.

10. Pero es conveniente llamar la atención a las autoridades venezolanas para que analicen mejor los procedimientos y eviten acciones punitivas generalizadas, especialmente frente a gente pobre que hace lo que pueda por sobrevivir, pues algunos medios no ayudan al fin último que se propuso el Libertador Simón Bolívar, la unidad latinoamericana y, por el contrario confunden a quienes simpatizan con el Proceso Bolivariano y fortalecen a genocidas como Uribe y Santos.

Panamá, a los doscientos años de la Carta de Jamaica, 6 de septiembre de 2015.


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Our September fundraiser is underway…

It’s nothing too fancy, but it takes money, volunteer labor of many descriptions and in-kind donations like that of the computer you see here and of the camera with which it was taken to produce The Panama News.

Lend a hand for the cause, however you can

It’s September, one of the two special fundraising months. For about $500 a month I can keep a roof over a place to put out The Panama News, pay the electric and Internet bills and keep myself and the animals fed. That leaves me without bus fare to get to things to photograph and report on, no money to support José Ponce’s work, nothing to keep the computers and cameras up to date, no budget for computer programs for The Panama News, zero for clothing, dental care, new glasses or any emergency that comes up. Donate generously if you can.

I take it, however, that few if any readers of The Panama News have money trees from which they can pick a pint, peck or bushel of bills to send me. Ah, well. But The Panama News also gets by with many other sorts of help from our friends, and the series of hacker attacks that culminated in a long outage of our website also did much damage to our volunteer networks. We are in a rebuilding phase both with the website design and with our networking. We need reporters, photographers, columnists, translators, feature writers and people sending us all sorts of news tips to do a better job of covering Panama. The Wappin Radio Show should not be the only music feature in our culture section — we need other people with different tastes to liven up the mix. Our corrections crew needs to be livened up. There are editing and website and graphics design tasks that need to be done. We are increasingly bilingual and the Spanish side especially needs development. If you want to volunteer your time and labor, send us an email.

If you want to donate money by Western Union, MoneyGram or check

The recent change of PayPal addresses is creating a temporary but real cash flow issue, so other ways of assisting The Panama News would be especially helpful at this time. Anything sent by wire via Western Union or MoneyGram must go to “Eric Lea Jackson Malo,” which is the name on the editor’s cedula. The companies won’t transfer the money if it is made out any other way. We do, of course, need to know the name of the sender and the routing number, so do send us an email at fund4thepanamanews@gmail.com with this information when you do send money this way. The Panama News, being unincorporated, does not have a bank account or a mailbox in its name. If you want to donate by check send us an email so that it can be arranged.

We also exist on donations of materials

Most of our photos were taken with donated cameras, these words were written on donated computer and our work often enough involves phone calls on donated cell phone minutes or working into the wee hours while slugging down donated coffee. The Panama News may be a ragtag micro-enterprise, but it has lasted all these years because it’s a community effort. For in-kind donations of materials, contact us at thepanamanews@gmail.com to make arrangements.


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The Panama News blog links, September 5, 2015

His name was Aylan Kurdi. The home town his family fled, Kobane in northern Syria, had been turned into a war zone. Photo distributed by Reuters.

The Panama News blog links, September 5, 2015

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