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Bolivian Independence Day in Panama

Panma., like Bolivia, is one of the Bolivarian Republics -- the countries that became independent from Spain as part of the movement led by Simón Bolívar -- so the expected place to celebrate the anniversary of Bolivia's August 6, 1825 declaration of independence is Plaza Bolivar in the Casco Viejo, with wreaths to be laid at the monument to the Great Liberator.
Panama, like Bolivia, is one of the Bolivarian Republics — the six countries that became independent from Spain as part of the movement led by Simón Bolívar — so the place to celebrate the anniversary of Bolivia’s August 6, 1825 declaration of independence was Plaza Bolivar in the Casco Viejo, with wreaths laid at the monument to the Great Liberator.

Bolivian Independence Day in Panama

photos by José F. Ponce

We don’t get Bolivian ships coming through the Panama Canal. Bolivia has been landlocked since losing its access to the sea in the 19th century War of the Pacific and its relations with Chile in particular have been tense ever since. There are Panamanians who support Bolivia’s cause about this, the case is before the World Court and we may yet live to see a Bolivian container ship in the locks.

Rich in minerals but repeatedly looted for that reason, Bolivia has been one of the poorest countries in the Americas. These days things are looking up. President Evo Morales, the first indigenous head of state in the overwhelmingly indigenous country, is now into his third term and there is no allegation of fraud or coercion in his election. He brought those who speak Aymara as a first language like he does, others whose native tongue is Quechua and those who speak Spanish first, highlanders and lowlanders, into a new constitutional deal that renamed the country The Plurinational State of Bolivia, and has overseen some good times in which poverty has gone way down.

There have been ups and downs — lowland secessionists who wanted to take the parts of the country with the oil and gas out of Bolivia, people who objected to a road project through a wilderness area and those who don’t think that the lithium deposits in their region should belong to the whole nation have in their turns been quite assertive — and allegations that the United States was trying to meddle in these disputes and with Bolivian laws about coca have strained relations with the Americans. Morales’s party took some setbacks in recent local elections and he attributed the result to corruption among his followers and instead of throwing a fit he vowed to do something about that. Bolivia’s economy is better than that of its neighbors and with the world’s biggest lithium deposits that will be much in demand for electric car batteries the future is looking positive.

Here in the Casco Viejo members of Panama’s small Bolivian community, diplomats, Panamanian friends of Bolivia, kids from the Escuela Republica de Bolivia and the Escuela Simon Bolivar across the street from the plaza gathered to honor our fellow republic. Dignitaries spoke and a National Police band played. Bolívar’s dream lives.






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Corcione defies prosecutors, envelopes the ACP in a cloud of corruption

Don Corcione
Nicolás Iván Corcione Pérez Balladares, construction executive and Panama Canal Authority board of directors member who allegedly coordinated a bribery, kickback and money laundering scheme for contracts for the construction and renovation of Panama’s courts. The scheme was said to have been orchestrated by now imprisoned former Supreme Court president Alejandro Moncada Luna and some of the money trail led through a maze of companies, the owner of one of which has testified that a sum of $600,000 was divided between Corcione’s company, which got $200,000 and another company owned by Martinelli insiders Alejandro Moncada Luna, Felipe Virzi and Ricky Calvo, into the Banco Universal account of which was deposited $400,000.

Nicolás Corcione skips a deposition with the prosecutor as his lawyer asserts that as a member of the Panama Canal Authority board of directors Corcione is immune from dealing with prosecutors and the regular court system

ACP board member seeks to
be untouchable for bribery

by Eric Jackson

This is how it works, or at least how embattled Panama Canal Authority board of directors member Nicolás Corcione and his lawyers want it to work:

  • An investigation has begun, in which Corcione’s name has come up both as the coordinator of a bribery – kickback – money laundering scheme and as a recepient of $200,000 for playing that role. Prosecutors took a closer look at Corcione and called him in for questioning under oath — an indagatoria, one of the depositions that are central to Panamanian criminal proceedings.
  • As the investigation began, Corcione left the country and via his lawyers begged off on the indagatoria until he came back. The interrogation was rescheduled for August 5, but on that day he didn’t show up and his lawyer asserted that under the Judicial Code and the Constitution, prosecutors and ordinary court have no jurisdiction over him, that only the Supreme Court can investigate, prosecute and try him.
  • It is one of the rules of Panamanian criminal procedure that if a criminal investigation is begun by a prosecutor who has no constitutional jurisdiction, everything about that investigation is null and void and no new investigation about the same matter may be opened, at any level.
  • Since the law that created the Panama Canal Authority provides that members of the board of directors may only be removed for cause, and since any criminal proceedings against Corcione would be barred, he would keep his position on the ACP board.

Neat trick, isn’t it?

Except that Title XIV of Panama’s Constitution, the part about the Panama Canal, doesn’t directly say what Corcione and his lawyers claim that it says. Article 318 provides that:

The administration of the Panama Canal Authority shall be run by a board of directors composed by 11 directors, appointed in this way:
1. A director designated by the president of the republic, who will preside over the board of directors and shall have the condition of state mininster for canal affairs…

The other members of the board of directors are not given the status of ministers. Then when you go to Article 40 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — which was in force before the Panama Canal Authority was created — it provides that the Supreme Court’s Criminal Bench shall hear cases involving vice ministers, prosecutors, appeals court judges, top police officers, diplomats and a variety of other officials, including “the directors and managers of autonomous and semi-autonomous entities and those who work in whatever other post with authority and jurisdiction in all of the territory of the republic….” A government minister is a member of the executive branch with authority and jurisdiction. A member of an authority’s board occupies a post in a collegial policy-making body, but has no authority in an individual capacity to issue orders to those who work for the authority.

In the case of the toxic cough syrup mixed and distributed by the Social Security Fund, several members of that institution’s board were charged with a crime for alleged negligent oversight. They never allocated the funds out of the budget they got from the legislature for an adequate medicine testing system, but it was found by the ordinary courts that those facts did not support a conviction for hundreds of counts of negligent homicide. The case was prosecuted by the regular prosecutors at tried by a regular judge and the matter of only the Supreme Court’s Penal Bench having jurisdiction was never raised. Precedent doesn’t mean much in Panama’s legal system, but the weight of legal opinion here is that for purposes of Article 40 of the Code of Criminal Procedure “director” means the person with top administrative powers and not a member of a board of directors who has no executive duties. Constitutional law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal opines that the only one on the ACP board who has “authority and jurisdiction” is the minister of canal affairs.

In the years since the provisions found in Article 40 have been in effect, it would have been wiser in the drafting of laws creating state entities to use a word other than “director” for members of those institutions’ boards. Careless legal drafting, like falsified academic credentials, is one of the hallmarks of Panama’s political class. Sometimes confusion is actually what is intended.

The Panama Canal Authority has had problems with the canal expansion and may have more. It took a lowball bid from a consortium that includes a construction company owned for the then administrator’s family and is facing major money disputes that are in litigation or arbitration with that consortium. The authority is planning to expand into ports, oil pipeline and fossil fuel power plant businesses and some of the objections suggest conflicts of interest. A board packed with people from industries that have pecuniary interests in the canal and with old-school politicians does not escape critical mention. But polls indicate that most Panamanians give the ACP the benefit of the doubt.

Will that benefit of the doubt survive if the ACP board includes one of Martinelli’s insiders, an executive in an industry that would be favored if the ACP’s controversial plans to expand into other businesses proceed, about whom there is probable cause to investigate whether he’s a big-time crook but has gamed the system to block any investigation and to remain on the board?

Corcione may not get away with his legal ploy, but Bernal thinks that it will at least delay the proceedings against him. Other legal scholars have also opined in statements to other media that what Corcione is trying to do is legally flawed.

Bernal suggests a quicker way than endless litigation for the ACO to free itself from this Gordian Knot. “Corcione’s colleagues should vote to remove him from the board.” Can they do that? One might imply it from the powers enumerated in the Constitution, but unlike the power to remove the adminstrator it’s not something that’s explicitly granted. But the ACP board does have the power to set regulations in order to improve the authority’s functions and generally exercise all canal-related functions under the laws of Panama. So wouldn’t that give them to power to remove Corcione?

Think about it. If his colleagues kicked him out, Corcione might scream and yell and sue. To quickly set aside the action he’s have to file an ammparo de garantias with the Supreme Court, which would have to hold a summary hearing to decide if his case has enough merit to stay any action against him. But then he’d be rolling the dice with magistrates who are surely embarrassed by a corrupt scheme involving their institution, when he is alleged to have been a central player in that scheme. It would look terrible and could provoke a constitutional crisis if they ruled in favor of Corcione.

Other balls may be played in other courts. Attorney General Kenia Porcell could just order her prosecutors to proceed against Corcione as if he were a two-bit gangster from the slums, sending the police out to arrest him and bring him in for an indagatoria, at the end of which he would be ordered jailed pending trial as a scofflaw and flight risk charged with a serious crime.

The problem remains, for now. The Panama Canal Authority is under a cloud, with what appears to be a notorious scandal in its midst. The aura of patriotic pride in a canal taken over from the Americans and apparently well run and moving in a new direction may not shine so well through that sort of a cloud.


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The Panama News blog links, August 6, 2015



TPN workspace
From a lookout at the foot of the foothills, on the outer edge of the inner boonies….

The Panama News blog links, August 6, 2015

Video, Danilo Pérez et al – Patria

Hellenic Shipping News, ACP issues draft restriction warning

BBC, Egypt launches expanded Suez Canal

La Nación, Empresa china busca cambiar ruta de canal en Nicaragua

Greaney, Corruption in Panama: swindled children and a project never built

Blades, Sobre el Instituto Nacional

Gandásegui, La ciencia es un arma para la transformación

CONCACAF, Arabe Unido tops Montego Bay United

Video, Guatemala en Costa del Este – Skateboarding Panama

EFE, Desigualdad de género roba a Panamá

PanAm Post, Panama lifts ban on gun imports

EFE, Varela: gobierno panameño respeta libertad de expresión

EFE, SIP preocupada por anteproyecto de ley sobre periodísmo en Panamá

Democracy Now!, The Mexico City journalist assassination

WOLA, Mexico must investigate the murders of journalists from Veracruz

AP, Arrest made over Mexican photojournalist’s murder

Goodman, Why major polls show Sanders challenging Clinton and the GOP

Video, Richard Rothstein on how government created US ghettos

STRATFOR, Turkey’s border strategy

ANSA, Pope says remarried Catholics should not be treated as excommunicated

MexicoBlog, Acapulco vacation: sun, sex, slaughter and social disaster

Video, Bizarre foods in Panama

OFRANEH, Derechos de indígenas o la “seguridad jurídica” para empresarios

PR, Agribotix to open agro-drone business here

Reuters, Panama moves to cancel $125 million Finmeccanica contract

PR, Starbucks comes to Panama

Reuters, El primer crédito para Odebrecht desde la detención de su presidente

Bloomberg, Mottas trying to get their money out of Venezuela


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Bendib, Which came first?


Hillary or Bernie?

OtherWords cc

¿Wappin? Can you relate?

Gato Barbieri
Gato Barbieri, playing a cover of a Carlos Santana tune here….

Your VJ showing his age and preferences

¿Wappin? Can you relate?

Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs – Woolly Bully
Lila Downs & Juanés – La Patria Madrina
The Rivingtons – Papa Oom Mow Mow
Ritchie Valens – La Bamba
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – Oo Baby Baby
Rosie & the Originals – Angel Baby
Santana & Romeo Santos – Margarita
Freddy Fender – Wasted Days and Wasted Nights
Frank Zappa – Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder
El Tri – Triste Cancion De Amor
Alejandra Guzmán – Mi Peor Error
Zoé – No Me Destruyas
Gato Barbieri – Europa
Jerry Garcia – Ruben & Cherise
The Very Best of Dick Dale


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How do we want to count it? Is it four, or five, Martinelli cases in the high court?

That was then
That was then. Jonathan Farrar is no longer ambassador and Ricardo Martinelli is no longer president, and two questions loom: How long will the United States care to harbor Martinelli? and Does Varela really want to bring him back to face justice here? Archive photo by the US Embassy

Panamanian prosecutors give files about their investigation of the tax privatization scheme to the Supreme Court and the Attorney General forwards files from the Italian courts to the magistrates

Four now, or is it five?

by Eric Jackson

Ricardo Martinelli is sending out increasingly strident Twitter tweets from his Miami refuge, to a decreasing band of followers. Due to internal Cambio Democratico elections, he briefly had immunity from prosecution as party leader but the Electoral Tribunal has stripped that away. The cases already accepted by the high court for investigation are on hold for a moment as the magistrates consider a constitutional challenge to a law that Martinelli had passed to shorten the time to investigate criminal activity by politicians. If that law is upheld, look for some quick summary trials and Martinelli complaints about rushed justice. If it is overturned look for complex investigations of extensive criminal enterprises, leading to longer trials on charges with many counts.

The latest file sent by Panamanian investigators to the Supreme Court was sent to the magistrates by Fourth Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Ruth Morcillo. It’s about corruption in the Cobranzas del Istmo tax collection privatization scheme, for which former national revenue director Luis Cucalón is in jail and businessman Cristóbal Salerno is under house arrest. Salerno testified that he had delivered suitcases full of between $400,000 and $600,000 in cash to Ricardo Martinelli every two or three months, and that he had given Martinelli a check for $900,000 made out in the name of a company linked to the ex-president. Morcillo still has jurisdiction over Cucalón, Salerno and several other suspects but as a member of the Central American Parliament Martinelli can only be investigated and possibly tried and sentenced by the Supreme Court.

Arriving at the Supreme Court a few days earlier were case files from Italy in which former political operative Valter Lavitola was convicted for extortion and kickback schemes involving Martinelli. It will be some time before the magistrates even consider whether to open a formal investigation, as the files are in Italian and must be translated to Spanish. Revelations of documents in those files from years ago indicated schemes for Martinelli or his party’s campaign slush funds to receive money from Italian contractors, and of a partially successful shakedown of Italian construction company Impregilo. However, as Martinelli was not a defendant in those cases some material about his real or alleged conduct may not have made it into the trial courts’ files. So do we count that as a Martinelli investigation?

Cases already accepted and under formal investigation — but stalled by the constitutional motion — are about kickbacks in the purchase of food for school lunch programs and illegal electronic espionage. Particularly in the latter case, investigations are proceeding against other defendants and turning up information that will probably figure in the Supreme Court cases against Martinelli.

A third case that will be formally opened shortly has to do with hundreds of unconstitutional pardons issued by Martinelli. Under Panama’s constitution, sentences may be commuted for just about any crime for which there has been a conviction and sentence, but pardons are only allowed for “political crimes.” It might be interesting to hear Martinelli’s arguments that police killing innocent young fishermen and and then planting a firearm in their boat to plead self-defense is a political crime. Many of the pardons, however, were for public officials who stole public funds for use in the Cambio Democratico campaign. Between President Varela’s decrees and Supreme Court decisions, some 355 of Martinelli’s pardons have been revoked.

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Now there’s a tested vaccine for Ebola

The Ebola virus under an electron microscope. Photo by the US National Institutes for Health
The Ebola virus under an electron microscope. Photo by the US National Institutes for Health

Research by the Public Health Agency of Canada developed the vaccine, many others have worked to test it and develop strategies to use it

The world is on the verge of an effective Ebola vaccine

by the World Health Organization

Results from an interim analysis of the Guinea Phase III efficacy vaccine trial show that VSV-EBOV (Merck, Sharp & Dohme) is highly effective against Ebola. The independent body of international experts — the data and safety monitoring board — that conducted the review, advised that the trial should continue. Preliminary results from analyses of these interim data were published on July 31 in the British journal The Lancet.

“This is an extremely promising development,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “The credit goes to the Guinean government, the people living in the communities and our partners in this project. An effective vaccine will be another very important tool for both current and future Ebola outbreaks.”

While the vaccine up to now shows 100 percent efficacy in individuals, more conclusive evidence is needed on its capacity to protect populations through what is called “herd immunity.” To that end, the Guinean national regulatory authority and ethics review committee have approved continuation of the trial.

“This is Guinea’s gift to West Africa and the world,” said Dr. Sakoba Keita, Guinea’s national coordinator for the Ebola response. “The thousands of volunteers from Conakry and other areas of Lower Guinea, but also the many Guinean doctors, data managers and community mobilizers have contributed to finding a line of defense against a terrible disease.”

“The “ring” vaccination method adopted for the vaccine trial is based on the smallpox eradication strategy,” said John-Arne Røttingen, Director of the Division of Infectious Disease Control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and Chair of the Study Steering Group. “The premise is that by vaccinating all people who have come into contact with an infected person you create a protective “ring” and stop the virus from spreading further. This strategy has helped us to follow the dispersed epidemic in Guinea, and will provide a way to continue this as a public health intervention in trial mode.”

The Guinea vaccination trial began in affected communities on March 23, 2015 to evaluate the efficacy, effectiveness and safety of a single dose of the vaccine VSV-EBOV by using a ring vaccination strategy. To date, over 4,000 close contacts of almost 100 Ebola patients, including family members, neighbors, and co-workers, have voluntarily participated in the trial.

The trial stopped randomization on July 26 to allow for all people at risk to receive the vaccine immediately, and to minimize the time necessary to gather more conclusive evidence needed for eventual licensure of the product. Until now, 50 percent of the rings were vaccinated three weeks after the identification of an infected patient to provide a term of comparison with rings that were vaccinated immediately. This now stops. In addition, the trial will now include 13 to 17-year-old and possibly 6 to 12-year-old children on the basis of new evidence of the vaccine’s safety.

“In parallel with the ring vaccination we are also conducting a trial of the same vaccine on frontline workers,” said Bertrand Draguez, Medical Director at Médecins sans Frontières. “These people have worked tirelessly and put their lives at risk every day to take care of sick people. If the vaccine is effective, then we are already protecting them from the virus. With such high efficacy, all affected countries should immediately start and multiply ring vaccinations to break chains of transmission and vaccinate all frontline workers to protect them.”

The trial is being implemented by the Guinean authorities, WHO, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, with support from a broad partnership of international and national organizations.

“This is a remarkable result which shows the power of equitable international partnerships and flexibility,” said Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the funders of the trial. “This partnership also shows that such critical work is possible in the midst of a terrible epidemic. It should change how the world responds to such emerging infectious disease threats. We, and all our partners, remain fully committed to giving the world a safe and effective vaccine. ”

“This record-breaking work marks a turning point in the history of health R&D,” said Assistant Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny, who leads the Ebola Research and Development effort at WHO. “We now know that the urgency of saving lives can accelerate R&D. We will harness this positive experience to develop a global R&D preparedness framework so that if another major disease outbreak ever happens again, for any disease, the world can act quickly and efficiently to develop and use medical tools and prevent a large-scale tragedy.”

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Los vecinos y el puerto Diablo-Corozal

APC ports
Que la ACP quiere hacer

Puerto Diablo y Corozal

Vecinos de áreas revertidas exigen transparencia a la ACP

por Olmedo Beluche

Invitados por la compañera Rocío de Carnheiro, presidenta de la Asociación de Vecinos Residentes de Altos de Diablo, el sábado 1 de agosto acudimos al auditorio Ascanio Arosemena, del Colegio de Balboa, a la reunión que esa comunidad tenía con técnicos y directivos de la Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) para que explicaran el impacto sobre su comunidad del proyectado Puerto de Corozal. El asunto preocupa y se evidencia en la asistencia de casi cien personas del área, acompañadas de algunos observadores solidarios invitados, como en nuestro caso.

Lo primero que se evidenció en la reunión es la falta de democracia y consulta con que funciona la ACP, la cual lanza este proyecto de desarrollo económico sin tomar en cuenta a las personas cuyas viviendas se verán afectadas por el proyecto, tal y como ha sucedido en otros lugares, como Barro Blanco, etc., por lo cual las comunidades en todo el país han salido ha exigir sus derechos frente a proyectos hidroeléctricos o mineros con que lucrarán terceros a costa de la gente que vive en la zona.

La primera y reiterada exigencia que hicieron los residentes de Diablo fue que se hicieran públicos los estudios de impacto ambiental del proyectado Puerto de Corozal, los cuales se mantienen bajo secreto absoluto. Secretismo que es contradictorio con la legislación que exige la consulta y participación de la comunidad.

Según explicaron los técnicos de la ACP, el Puerto de Corozal será una mega estructura en la que atracarán buques postpanamax a depositar contenedores para ser transportados por ferrocarril a través del Istmo. Completadas las dos fases tendrán cerca de 2000 metros de “frente de mar”, que en realidad serán frente de cauce del canal, pues su ubicación estará al norte del actual puerto de Balboa, entre el hangar de botes de Diablo y las instalaciones de la ACP de Corozal, frente a la comunidad de Cárdenas.

La principal queja de los residentes de Diablo es que ya han sido afectados por la expansión del puerto de Balboa, el cual incluso les ha robado el acceso a su comunidad, y ahora quedarían emparedados entre los dos megapuertos, con todo lo que ello implica en cuanto a polución, ruido, etc.

Algunos ingenieros y arquitectos presentes señalaron que la ubicación del puerto era inconveniente no solo para las comunidades aledañas, sino para el propio tráfico por el canal, ya que la dársena del puerto de Corozal, es decir, el área donde los buques serán maniobrados para atracarlos, está dentro del cauce del canal, justo donde confluyen el acceso a la esclusa de Miraflores y la entrada a la nueva esclusa ampliada del Pacífico.

Los residentes denunciaron que durante muchos años se promocionó, e incluso se hicieron estudios, para construir este segundo puerto del Pacífico, no en Corozal, sino en Farfán – Palo Seco, que está en el margen occidental del canal, y fuera del cauce. Señalaron además que oscuros intereses han llevado a la ACP a desechar ese proyecto a favor de Corozal.

En los corrillos algunos recordaban que los dueños taiwaneses de la concesión del puerto de Balboa, temiendo la competencia, se opusieron al Puerto en Farfán. Otros, “off ther record”, hablaban de que aparentemente figuras poderosas, como el político y banquero Alberto Vallarino, habían comprado varias de las hectáreas del área de Corozal. Los funcionarios de la ACP despacharon rápidamente el tema alegando que el puerto en Farfán había sido proyectado para construirlo con el material excavado en las nuevas esclusas, y que como se dispuso otro uso al mismo, automáticamente se descartaba esa ubicación.

Lo que resulta claro es que la construcción del puerto en Farfán – Palo Seco, que sería mejor por no ser un área residencial, estar fuera del cauce del canal y no tener ningún proyecto planificado ahí hasta ahora, sí requeriría una mayor inversión, siendo la principal la construcción de una línea férrea, ya sea a través de todo el Istmo hasta el Atlántico, bordeando el cauce occidental del canal, o hasta algún punto donde, a través de un puente confluyera con el ferrocarril que usa ahora el puerto de Balboa.

La construcción del puerto en Corozal se ahorraría esa inversión, pues quedaría junto a la vieja línea férrea, a costa de las comunidades de Diablo y Cárdenas. Inclusive los residentes preguntaron a los representantes de la ACP, por qué estaba dragando junto a la zona donde quedaría el puerto de Corozal, si era para beneficiar a los futuros concesionarios de esas instalaciones.

Por cierto que, otro asunto que gravita en torno a la ACP, es que de acuerdo al título constitucional de 1994, y a ley orgánica, parece que la Junta Directiva puede otorgar en concesión este tipo de proyectos sin pasar por todos los requisitos de licitación y transparencia que se exige al resto del Estado panameño. Lo cual se suma a lo que se ha venido denunciando desde hace años: desaparecido el control norteamericano sobre el canal, se ha creado en sustitución una “zonita del canal” en la que los directivos de la ACP actúan “como si fueran soberanos” y estuvieran al margen del resto del país.

En conclusión, nos parece evidente que la ciudadanía conciente, las organizaciones populares, los grupos ambientalistas, debemos acompañar y apoyar a los residentes de las comunidades de Diablo y Cárdenas en esta lucha, con el mismo ahínco con que hemos apoyado la lucha contra la hidroeléctrica de Barro Blanco, pues se trata de la misma lucha: exigir que las comunidades sean partícipes y verdaderamente consultadas frente a todo proyecto económico que directamente les afecte. En eso consiste la democracia, ¿verdad?

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The Panama News blog links, August 4, 2015

Dule Arts Festival
Dule means pertaining to the Guna, but not all the artists at the Dule Arts Festival will be Guna.

Eric Jackson’s links to other people’s work

The Panama News blog links

“Blog,” which derives from “web log,” has come to mean many things. Two of the nastiest are as a euphemism by corporate media management when they move journalists from the payroll to piecework and as an epithet to denigrate the small online media and those who work in them. But although the new front page and sections as such are not yet up, The Panama News will have a Blog section, which gets back to the more original meaning of a log of noteworthy things appearing on the Internet. But you know what? Eric Jackson won’t be the only person collecting and posting links in this section. Maybe YOU might be one of the people who will selecting links to post in the Blogs section. Send us an email if you are interested.

Video: Erika Ender – El lugar que me vio nacer
STRI, Star gazing from the sea floor
The Straits Times, Charges over financing of Chong Chon Gang
PR, Copa now serving Villahermosa
The New York Times, The Casco Viejo cleans up
Baker: Bernie Sanders, open borders and a serious route to global equality
Reich, The revolt against the ruling class
Buruma, Clowns on the campaign trail
ADITAL, Ramonet sobre la izquierda vesus el golpe mediático
Gandásegui, The re-encounter between Washington and Havana
AFP, Polémico proyecto de ley de prensa en Panamá
Wallach, Yet another ‘final’ TPP ministerial and again no deal
Ghosh, Taking stock in China
Video, Puerto Rico defaults on bond payment
Foust, The Puerto Rican debt crisis
DPA, Martinelli podrá ser sometido a juicio tras perder inmunidad
EFE, “Puro teatro” lucha de Panamá contra la corrupción
Simpson, ¿Por qué no arreglamos a Panamá?
Video, Bio-prospecting in Panama
Chavkin, Costa Rica’s new strategy against kidney disease
AFP, Usuarios de internet se duplican en América Latina
TeleAnalysis, Alcatel-Lucent completes Pacific Carribean Undersea cable
ANP, Regulador de seguros pedirá un aumento de capital a las aseguradoras
ADITAL, Violencia paramilitar en Colombia dificulta el proceso de paz
Seattle Weekly, Hiroshima’s Hell 70 years later
Video: Rubén Blades on Fear The Walking Dead

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Trump’s questionable Latin American crowd

Salo, Kahfif and the Trumps
Salomón Shamah, Roger Khafif, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump. At the time the photo was taken Shamah was tourism minister, but do the connections go back to an earlier time? Various associations, direct and indirect, raise that question. And what did former US ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson say about Shamah? He’s “suspected of links to drug traffickers” and those suspicions were such that Shamah, even when he held a high post in the Panamanian government, has been denied a visa to enter or travel through the United States. Some of the specific suspicions about Shamah in turn point to some unsavory ties in common with Khafif, who is the main developer and owner of the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City. Photo by the Tourism Ministry

Donald Trump, whose mother and paternal grandparents were immigrants, rails against both legal and illegal Latin American immigrants, which has deeply offended Latin Americans. But it’s not as if The Trump Organization hasn’t done business in Latin America.

The Donald’s Latin American business associates

by Eric Jackson
Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.
Donald Trump, about Jeb Bush’s Mexican-born wife


They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.
Donald Trump, about Mexicans


If he ever got elected you would have people flowing across the border.
Donald Trump, about Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants


Is Donald Trump’s business operation mobbed up?

Is that an unfair question? Perhaps it is, suggesting guilt by association as it does. However, when somebody runs for president of the United States, those with whom she or he associates and does business reasonably do become matters of public interest.

With Donald Trump, the question becomes all the more reasonable because it has been asked before and the answers have raised concern. In the current contest for the Republican presidential nomination, the question becomes relevant because Donald Trump has made sweeping broad-brush characterizations of Latin Americans and meanwhile he and his network of companies do and have done business in Latin America. Does he say those things about Latin Americans because a pollster has told him that this is what he needs to say to mobilize ultra-right support in his bid for the presidency, or because it reflects what he has noticed about people with whom he and his businesses have dealt? Trump has, after all, been involved in some noteworthy real estate ventures in Panama and Mexico, and his Miss Universe pageants do seem to show a certain preference for light-skinned Latin American women. If Trump appeals to those Americans whose stereotype of Latin Americans is that the men are all gangsters and the women are all whores, does he make that pitch as a matter of sincere personal belief based upon his own experiences?

Take a poll in Panama about who is the sleaziest Panamanian of us all, and a top contender would be one Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal, now living in Miami as Panama’s legal system pursues several criminal investigations against him. Has Donald Trump said anything about this Latin American immigrant on the campaign trail? Not a peep. But it’s not as if Trump doesn’t know the man. Their photos together are all over the Internet.

But all along, hasn’t Trump made the distinction between rich criminals and poor ones?

Take Atlantic City as an example. Trump bought the land on which the Trump Plaza casino was built from Philadelphia hit man Salvatore Testa, the son of the one-time boss of the Philadelphia mafia, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa. A New Jersey crime commission report adds that two mafia-owned construction companies were used in the construction of the Trump Plaza.

Or what about New York City, where it’s hard to do construction without running into the mafia in one way or another? In Manhattan the concrete work for the Trump Tower was done by S&A, a company controlled by the Gambino family’s Paul Castellano and the Genovese family’s Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.

But if Trump has an issue with Mexican gangsters, might that have to do with a failed Trump project near Tijuana? The Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico was to be a luxury resort and condo complex. The project, about 10 miles from the US border and bearing the Trump name and images, was heavily marketed to upscale baby boomers in Southern California.

Dozens of people paid hefty pre-construction deposits, more than $30 million worth, for their Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico condos — and nothing was ever built. Trump took his name off the project and the promoter who was left told the depositors that due to the 2008 Wall Street collapse he couldn’t get the financing he needed. Some of the money was returned, but some $22 million was “missing,” apparently spent on other things.

So had Trump been burned in Mexico by a partnership with a Mexican crook? Actually, no. The main promoter of the Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico project was Los Angeles-based developer Jason Grosfeld. Trump more or less disavowed any connection with the project or its failure, pleading to The Los Angeles Times that his only tie was that Grosfeld had paid a licensing fee to use the Trump name and image. But 190 depositors sued both Grosfeld and Trump in a US federal district court and in 2012 out-of-court settlements were reached with both Grosfeld’s and Trump’s companies in which both paid out millions..

Will The Donald be answering questions about the Tijuana venture on the campaign trail? Probably not. Since the settlement The Trump Organization has declined comment on the matter, claiming that a confidentiality agreement that was part of the settlement prevents any public statements about the matter.

And was the falling out between Grosfeld and Trump over the Tijuana fiasco all that bitter? Apparently not. At least it didn’t take the Trump name off of another Grosfeld project, the Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk in Hawaii. There has been a lawsuit over deposits there, too, but the thing was built. It seems that most of the deposit disputes were not between the Grosfeld’s company and people who had put money down with the intention of living in the condo tower, but with speculators hoping to flip units. The project was announced in 2006 and finished in 2009, with the US financial and real estate crash coming in between. Some of the would-be flippers argued that since Trump and his companies had no ownership stake in the project there was a risk that the name could be taken off of it at any time, impairing the value of the property on which they had paid deposits. Others claimed that their contracts provided that if they pulled out before closing and the units they had committed to buy were sold for more than they had agreed to pay, they would get their deposits back.

Also announced in 2006 — when Panama City’s later to burst luxury condo bubble was still inflating — was the Trump Ocean Club. All along it was known that the primary developer was Roger Khafif, nor was there ever any secret that its condos were primarily being marketed to wealthy American baby boomers. But the project was announced in Trump’s offices in New York, the name was and is on the project and there were no disclaimers about the Trump name contained in the promotional materials. Indeed, Donald Trump and his three children who work for the family business made repeated promotional appearances for the project in Panama.

So who, really, is Roger Khafif? By all accounts as a developer he operates through a network of companies he calls the K Group. Bloomberg identified his higher education with the Southern Institute of Technology (in New Zealand) and summarized his background in this way:

Mr. Roger Khafif serves as the President of Newland International Properties, Corp. Mr. Khafif also serves as President of K Group developers, one of the strategic partners of Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower. Mr. Khafif is a partner in 2 companies located in the Colon free zone: Kedco Fashion Corp. and Rafkas Imp/Exp. From 1978 to 1981, Mr. Khafif worked as textile engineer in one of the main textile mills of Guatemala. He serves as the Chairman of Newland.

So did Khafif make a fortune as a Colon Free Zone merchant, as the platform for a career as a developer? Some very well connected Free Zone people whom The Panama News asked did not know of Khafif in any role at the duty-free import/export zone.

Looking online, one finds Khafif variously described as Colombian, Panamanian and as a Florida developer. Try to find an online K Group, Newland or Khafif mention in connection with a real estate development in Florida or Colombia, however, and one comes up with a blank. In Panama, K Group comes up with references to the Coronado Country Club Resort and to a development called Emerald Bay on Isla Contadora.

Coronado Country Club Resort does exist — but the actual country club, as in the place with the golf course, is the much more established Coronado Beach and Golf Resort, an Eisenmann family venture that has no Khafif or K Group connection. Khafif is also not known as a man about town in the Coronado community.

Emerald Bay? One finds resorts of that name in the Bahamas and a number of other places, none apparently connected to Khafif. You find a dissolved Panamanian corporation called Emerald Bay Inc in Panama’s Registro Publico. The Registro does have company called Emerald Bay Development Inc, an Emerald Bay Associates Inc, all with with no apparent Khafif connection. (Under Panama’s corporate secrecy laws, however, the owners or managers of a company do not necessarily show up in public records.) There is an Emerald Bay SA, a property of developer Herman Bern. There are references to an exclusive and remote place on Isla Contadora in the Perlas Islands called Emerald Bay, said to be only reachable by private plane or yacht — but you won’t find photos, reviews or booking information about it online.

Khafif comes up as nearly a cipher, a face posed with various dignitaries and the main guy at the Trump Ocean Club to be sure. But who is he? Ah, but of course, there is the Ricardo Martinelli endorsement. The former president says that everything that Trump and Khafif touch turns to gold. You can trust what Martinelli says, can’t you?

When the Trump Ocean Club was conceived, however, Ricardo Martinelli was not president. Martín Torrijos was. If Trump had already acquired a reputation for dealings with the likes of the Genovese family, that should not have bothered Torrijos. He and the first lady, and his minister of agriculture, were using their public positions to pump a Swiss-based bogus teak plantation scheme called Prime Forestry, which also had a Genovese connection. In the present scheme of things, however, that’s not the set of ties that should concern us.

Back then Khafif had a business partner, a Brazilian named Alexandre Ventura Nogueira — Alex Ventura — and in turn Ventura and Torrijos had someone in common, a Colombian named David Murcia Guzmán. Murcia Guzmán also allegedly had a Martinelli connection, and was business partners with the two sons of then Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.

Alex Ventura, having skipped out on a million and a half dollar bail, is a fugitive from Panamanian justice, facing a five-year prison sentence that was handed down to him in a fraud case. David Murcia Guzmán, were he returned to Colombia, would have a 30-year sentence to serve for financial crimes. But he was extradited to the United States, pleaded guilty to laundering drug money for Colombian and Mexican gangsters and is in a US federal witness protection program.

Before a falling out between Khafif and Ventura and another falling out between Murcia Guzmán and the presidents of both Colombia and Panama — which were more or less simultaneous in late 2008 — Khafif and Ventura were real estate partners in The Loft One Corporation, a joint venture between Ventura’s Homes Real Estate Investment Services and Khafif’s Newland International Properties to buy and sell apartments in an upscale Panama City residential project. Ventura was a partner in Murcia Guzmán’s DMG.

David Murcia Guzmán had been selling pirated videos on the streets of Santa Marta, Colombia, but shortly after a US-backed Plan Colombia offensive on the other side of the country displaced FARC rebels from their position of being able to tax the drug trade in Putumayo department and gave that opportunity to the AUC paramilitary, the street vendor moved to Putumayo and suddenly became very wealthy and influential. The vehicle was DMG, an investment scheme that looked an awful lot like a Ponzi-style pyramid swindle. Eventually the Colombian authorities called it that, but had it been such it should have collapsed under the weight of demands from later investors. It never did. There was always a lot of cash coming in. US authorities called it a drug money laundering scheme. Various Colombian media identified Murcia Guzmán with the Valle del Norte Cartel, at the time when the erstwhile CD vendor got rich associated with the AUC. Also by that time the AUC had acquired such an odious international reputation from a string of massacres that it had been placed on the US list of terrorist organizations.

In the fall of 2008 Ventura was in addition to the Loft One business with Khafif engaged in pre-construction sales of condo units in the Trump Ocean Club. Ventura claims that he had been a guest in Donald Trump’s home, which Trump denies. Then Colombia’s Uribe administration, most probably at the behest of US authorities, came down on DMG, branding it a pyramid scheme. At the time Murcia Guzmán was in Panama, tooling around in a fleet of Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis, guarded by SPI presidential guards, escorted around customs and immigration officers at the airport by the National Assembly’s protocol staff and apparently — although all politicians involved deny it — making large and illegal campaign contributions to candidates of both Torrijos’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico party (CD). Paper trails, accounts in US Embassy cables revealed by WikiLeaks and the local gossip had both leading presidential candidates for the 2009 elections, the PRD’s Balbina Herrera and CD’s Ricardo Martinelli, on the take from Murcia Guzmán.

Who was the conduit through whom Murcia Guzmán’s money got into the 2009 Martinelli campaign? Rumor had it that it was the brother of Murcia Guzmán’s pilot. The pilot’s brother would be one Salomón Shamah, Martinelli’s tourism minister and perhaps the innermost member of the former president’s inner circle. See Mr. Shamah in the photo at the top of this story, with the younger Trumps and Roger Khafif.

When the DMG scandal broke Kahfif dropped Ventura like a hot rock, and accused the latter of swindling him out of more than $800,000 in an investment scheme related to apartments in a building that was never intended to be built. That’s the basic complaint for which Ventura was sentenced to prison and skipped the country on an appeal bond.

The situation got noticed in some of the world’s Spanish-language media at the time, most notably the Univision television network, which until a few weeks ago had the contract to broadcast Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in Spanish. The Donald’s son Eric Trump dismissed the relationship as a matter of an independent real estate agent selling units in theTrump Ocean Club: “I looked into him, having never heard the name and not being in our database, and what I found out was Mr. Ventura owns a real estate agency in Panama that has sold apartments in our building, but it’s a third party real estate agency.”

Meanwhile, Ventura defended Murcia Guzmán, appearing with two others at a press conference organized by the latter’s defense lawyer. With Ventura were a man of Belorussian origin, Alexander Altshoul, said to be like Ventura a partner in DMG, and American attorney Juliette Passer. Altshoul, according to claims asserted in a Canadian court, is a member of the Russian mob. (The court did not rule on that claim, but held that is was beside the point in the matter of a lawyer who said that he stole under duress from Altshoul.) Passer also has a Russian connection, as adviser to the Committee of Economic Development of St. Petersburg for the development of free economic zones — in the Yeltsin-era years of 1990-93 when Russia’s oligarchy and mobsters were rising in tandem and looting what was left of the fomer Soviet Union.

(So might someone dismiss suggestions that Trump, indirectly and several time removed, associated with the Russian mob here? Fair enough. It might not be at all fair to mention but for Trump’s partner in New York’s Trump Soho, Russian businessman Felix H. Sater. Mr. Sater was named in a sealed US federal indictment and as an unindicted co-conspirator in other indictments as a money launderer for four different US mafia families. By several accounts Sater pleaded guilty, turned state’s evidence and got the conviction record sealed. Enough is known, and was known when Trump went into business with Sater, to set off alarm bells. But Donald Trump told The New York Times that he didn’t know about Sater’s criminal past. “We do as much of a background check as we can on the principals. I didn’t really know him very well.”)

Now that Trump is making a pitch for the white racist vote at the expense of Latinos, Latin American media are re-examining The Donald’s history in Latin America. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador recently recounted “The Trump Bubble in Colombia,” a tale of a decade of business exploration by the Trumps in that country. Describing Donald Trump as “the anti-Latino candidate,” El Espectador’s tale starts in 2005, with Khafif and Ivanka Trump in Colombia, looking to bring a Bogota company in on the Panama City project. Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. were back in 2006, discussing a possible project in Cartagena and trying to arrange a meeting with then President Uribe.

They never got their meeting with Uribe. Would an awareness of Trump’s Atlantic City and New York mob ties have scared Uribe off? Or were a younger generation’s questionable ties — the people around DMG — a warning signal? Or was it The Trump Organization’s de facto director for the Latin American region, financier Camilo Benedetti?

Benedetti worked out of New York and is the brother of now senator Armando Benedetti, who was president of Colombia’s House of Representatives when the Trumps were trying to get a meeting with Uribe. At the time Armando Benedetti was politically aligned with Uribe, but when Uribe and his successor Juan Manuel Santos parted ways Benedetti went with Santos.

In the waning days of the Uribe era, in 2009, Camilo Benedetti came under investigation for an alleged scheme to defraud the Colombian government of oil royalties. That case seems to have gone nowhere, and in 2011 Donald Trump Jr. got a meeting with now President Santos, along with both Benedettis.

But when Univision looked into the Trump and Benedetti connection, stories shifted. First it was that the Trumps didn’t know of Camilo Benedetti’s legal troubles. Then they did know, but considered it irrelevant because Benedetti was just an intermediary in the questioned transaction. Then Camilo Benedetti allegedly never had any business connection with the Trumps.

Is it a matter of Donald Trump having insulted Latin Americans, who are now ganging up on Donald Trump? It could be. However, the hard questions about Trump associating with underworld figures, in Latin America and elsewhere, have been around for years.

It’s a long road to the November 2016 US presidential elections. The conventional wisdom is that a Republican needs at least 40 percent of Hispanic voters to win the presidency. It’s not easy math because the Hispanic constituencies in the United States are by no means a fungible mass, let alone a solid voting bloc. The largest and oldest components of the Latino ethnic groups, the Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, are each subject to a different set of immigration rules, for example. There are Spanish-surnamed Americans who are entirely assimilated into the Anglo culture and speak no Spanish, but there are more than 40 million people in the United States for whom Spanish is their first language. Among Latinos here are differences of class, religion, race and political ideology.

Perhaps Mr. Trump has found a way to discard all such distinctions and ride an anti-immigrant, anti-Latino wave to the presidency. Even if he has, however, as with the aborted Tijuana adventure, Panama City’s Trump Ocean Club may cause the presidential hopeful headaches that are not “a Latino issue.” There are grievances, and most of the people who are raising them aren’t Hispanic. They tend to be white people with more money than most Americans, a demographic segment to which Republicans try to appeal.

Panamanian corporate secrecy keeps us from knowing whether the Trumps retain an ownership interest in the project here, and if so what that would be. But a group of people who put down deposits on condos there went to a federal court in Florida, complaining that they were sold a project with the Trump name and with representations that The Trump Organization would run the hotel and casino, the latter two plans having then been changed. The plaintiffs also claimed that they had been told that those who put down 30 percent of the purchase price as a deposit would get financing of the rest from The Trump Organization, and that those who had paid deposits for two units could resell one at a profit before they would be required to close on the second, and the promises were not kept.

Under US law those sound like material breaches of a contract, which would in equity at least give the depositors the right to cancel the deal and get their money back. However, the contracts specified that any dispute was to be resolved in a Panamanian court. In Panamanian law (as in the Civil Code family of legal systems generally), principles of equity as known in the Anglo-American Common Law don’t exist as such. The court in Florida dismissed the depositors’ complaint without prejudice, allowing that if it turns out that there is no semblance of justice for them in the Panamanian courts they could come back and refile their suit. The process in Panama would take years, maybe decades.

The rule was different for Mr. Khafif’s Newland International Properties, which faced default on some $220 million in bonds it floated to build the Trump Ocean Club. Khafif’s company went to a US federal court in New York and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Newland alleged that problems getting banks to finance upper end real estate led them to the bankruptcy, and the judge approved their petition.

The concerns of condo flippers who gambled and lost their deposits, or of bondholders who got wide-eyed about the Trump name and now won’t get paid back as quickly as they thought they would, probably won’t move a large portion of the US electorate. Especially so, when Trump can say that it wasn’t him but the other guy. Early polls suggest that even Trump’s own four bankruptcies don’t offend too many likely Republican primary voters.

However, the grandson of German immigrant Friedrich Drumpf and son of Scottish immigrant Mary Anne MacLeod has made complaints about immigration and stereotypes about Latinos the centerpieces of his presidential campaign. So how persuasive will he be to Republicans if it is perceived that he hooked up in a business venture with Latino characters who have underworld ties, and when things didn’t go right it was upscale white American investors who ended up with the short end of the stick?


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