Many of you already know that I’ve endorsed a candidate, Tim Canova, who is challenging the former head of the Democratic Party Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida.
This race is very important for Our Revolution because if we can win this tough fight in Florida, it will send a clear message about the power of our grassroots movement that will send shockwaves through the political and media establishments. The latest poll shows us within reach.
July 31 Poll Debbie Wasserman Schultz: 46% Tim Canova: 38% Undecided: 16%
This is going to be close.
Much like in our campaign for president, Tim started off as a major underdog in this race, battling a well-known and well-established person who was the chairwoman of the Democratic Party.
He is running a tough campaign on the kind of progressive platform we need to see in this country: opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, backing free tuition at public colleges and universities, reforming a corrupt campaign finance system and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Tim is on the side of working people and that’s why we need to help him win.
The recent emails leaked from Democratic Party staff showed that under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC staff were not exactly fair and even-minded during the presidential primary. What was revealed wasn’t much of a shock to us, because we knew all along that the establishment wasn’t on our side.
But now that Debbie Wasserman Schultz has resigned we have the opportunity to transform the Democratic Party and open up its doors to working people and young people — people who want real change. Democrats must make it crystal clear that their party is prepared to take on Wall Street and the powerful corporate interests whose greed is doing so much harm to our country. We must stand with Americans who are working longer hours for lower wages, the uninsured, students leaving school deeply in debt and all those worried about climate change.
I believe Tim Canova is the kind of candidate whose policies will move the Democratic Party and our country in that direction. Electing Tim will send a strong message to the Democratic establishment about what this party should stand for. That’s why I’m asking you today to help send him to Congress.
This race has been an uphill battle from the very beginning, but the latest poll has us very close. I am confident we can win this fight with your support.
Thank you for being a part of Our Revolution.
To donate money to Tim Canova’s campaign click here
To donate your labor to Tim Canova’s campaign click here
Is US politics getting back to a “The Russians are coming” discourse? If so, does it make any sense at all?
Russians tend not to think like Americans on some key issues, but then a big part of the difference was accentuated in the 20th century by Americans who trace ancestral roots back to the Russian Empire, albeit that they were not ethnic Russians as such.
Geography and history shape the Russian outlook on government. From a Western viewpoint, invading Russia has been the height of folly. Hitler learned it the hard way. So did Napoleon. So did the Teutonic Knights. Each in their turn beat the hell out of the Russians — at first. And what was left of Russia retreated, then retreated some more, and then winter set in and the invaders had impossibly long supply lines to protect. On its western end Russia has no natural boundaries that can be usefully fortified. Its protective barrier is vast open spaces, which throughout its history it has tried to push ever westward via conquests or the establishment of vassal states, protectorates or lesser allies along its periphery.
If you are a Finn, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Czech or a Ukrainian, you are likely to be less sympathetic to Russian concerns about being naturally defenseless on the western side. Get into the extra added complications of church and state, and how Russia relates to its ethnic minorities, and you will begin to understand the mass exodus to America of Jews living in areas under Russian control or domination in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among this part of the Jewish diaspora were the theater people who by and large founded Hollywood. It’s not just that the Jewish film moguls, screenwriters, directors and actors embraced an American culture that was already anti-authoritarian. (That goes back to the resentments that led the pilgrims to flee the Church of England and later the 13 colonies to resent impositions like the Navigation Acts and the Stamp Tax.) The abuses of the czars, and then of the commissars, and the pogroms that the Russian state would neither prevent nor suppress and occasionally provoked, were part of the collective ethnic memory that went into the foundations of Hollywood culture.
Looking toward the east and south, Russians have another set of fears. They conquered places with some formidable natural barriers — mountains, deserts and the vast expanse of Siberia — but a lot of the Muslim peoples whom they conquered or dominated have long resented the Russians and have periodically risen in rebellion. Before those conquests and the establishment of Cossack settlements to defend them, part of Russia’s formative experience was a quite brutal conquest from the east, by the Mongols.
From the Russian perspective, to have a weak leader is to invite invasions and encourage revolts on the periphery, leading to death and suffering on a massive scale for ordinary Russians. After Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin presided over the loss of an empire and a consequent decline in the average life span of Russians — particularly the men — former KGB man Vladimir Putin looked and acted the part of a strong leader regardless of how strong a hand he actually held. Russians have appreciated that. Putin’s actions are at least partly explained by his political need to look strong. It’s a hard act to keep up these days because Russia has an economy mostly based on resource extraction — oil, gas, metals, timber and so on — at a time when commodity prices are down and countries that rely on such sources of income are hurting.
Are the Western powers going to install a regime subservient to them in the Ukraine, some 350 miles by a highway with no natural choke point from Moscow? Russians expect and demand their leader to take a hard line about that. Put nukes in Estonia, some 85 miles from Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg? Expect Russians, including Putin, to go ballistic about that idea.
What really happened in the last Cold War with greater Russia, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact dependencies? Vast amounts of money and many human lives were expended in proxy wars which the USA and the USSR respectively lost, in Vietnam and then in Afghanistan. Then there was this insanely expensive nuclear weapons race. The Russian economic engine blew up first. Look at it as two teenagers drag racing daddy’s Lada against the other daddy’s Ford. But the Ford engine hasn’t been running very well since then either.
It’s a reasonable US military policy to be ready to fight anyone if the need arises. It’s not a reasonable US policy to pick a fight with the Russians by provoking them along their borders.
Do American voters face a policy choice between neoconservative belligerence toward Russia and a blowhard who has been known to hang out with Russian mobsters and who now — whether seriously or in jest — invites Putin to wage computer warfare against his election opponent? If Russia indeed cares to tip the balance, what is Putin to do?
The choice for the Russian leader is not obvious. Half of Hillary Clinton’s party is in the antiwar camp and will not readily accept a new military adventure. Half of Donald Trump’s party is appalled at the potential effect of his wild foreign policy pronouncements, one of which appears to be a retreat from Western guarantees of the Baltic states’ independence from Russia.
Sure, Putin might like an apparent rusophile in the White House, except that this particular one would be dangerously unpredictable. Having dealt with Napoleon and then Hitler, Russians tend to be particularly wary of maniac adversaries. (They had Ivan the Terrible and the non-Russian Josef Stalin, but generally draw different conclusions about those guys than Americans do.)
Rivals, allies or ever-changing mixes of both — those are all basic US-Russian paradigms with which both countries can live as the need arises. The ruin of both is avoided only if ways are found to limit the mutual damage that can be done by hostilities getting out of hand. In the worst case scenarios the costs of failure are expressed in terms of body counts but it would be foolhardy to discount the economic disasters that can happen without a shot being fired.
The people of the respective countries are not going to agree on things like the practical definitions of freedom, strength and safety. But there is a shared interest in having leaders who understand the math of decisions made or not made. A failed relationship between two major powers is not something that can be easily walked away from, like, say, from a bankrupt casino.
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After a month of internal bickering, the Panameñista Party caucus in the National Assembly decided to make deputy Jorge Ivan Arrocha head of the Budget Committee, the most sought-after post in a legislature that’s set up by the constitution as a political patronage sop to the political caste in a system dominated by a strong national executive. (Back when the constitution was written, that centralized executive power was held by the top military commander, but since the 1989 invasion it’s the president.) In a fragmented and realigned legislature wherein most of the deputies of the two largest party caucuses, the PRD and Cambio Democratico, have thumbed their noses at their respective party bosses, the ruling alliance among Panameñistas, PRD dissidents and CD dissidents assigned the chair of that committee to President Varela’s party, the Panameñistas. Up stepped Panameñista legislator Carlos Santana — almost a caricature of the grasping machine politician with a hyperdeveloped sense of entitlement — who cited a succession deal from last year’s version of the alliance, by which he would be the next chair of that committee. But the thing is, his fellow party members in the legislature despise the guy, and they voted to choose Miguel Salas instead.
With loud protests about betrayal, Santana vowed to take the decision to the assembly’s floor, where the Panameñistas’ decision might get overruled by deputies from both within and outside of the ruling alliance. (What better way to make some mischief if you’re loyal to PRD president Benicio Robinson or exiled CD owner Ricardo Martinelli and thus cut out of influence, than to disrupt the other faction’s control of the Budget Committee?)
Further secret meetings were held, the Panameñistas came up with Arrocha as a third choice and on August 8 National Assembly president Rubén De León swore in the new Budget Committee for a legislative session that began on July 1.
What a mess, you might observe? More than a week into August, and 10 of the legislature’s 15 committees are yet to be installed and functioning. That’s one-tenth of the middle year of Varela’s term with the National Assembly in self-paralysis.
Is this to be Panama’s moment to bask in the sun of worldwide acclaim for the opening of the larger new locks? The Panama Canal Authority’s hired PR hands and the sycophants of the rabiblanco press — whose bosses’ banks, construction companies, PR firms and so on, as well as the media businesses for which they work, have made a lot of money off of the expansion — have been dutifully pumping up that narrative. But there were at least three accidents in the first 55 transits by the bigger ships and notwithstanding efforts to define that problem away, the ACP narrative is ever less accepted by the world press.
Those looking on from afar, however, generally don’t catch the real mess in the ACP: as a business the Panama Canal is hurting. Thus it’s looking to develop new revenue streams, and that has economic interests both within and outside of the organization at war with one another.
Is the ACP going into the ports business? So they say, and steps along that way are well advanced. In the proposed Corozal and Diablo port plan’s earlier iterations, everything was set for a managed bidding process that would give the private concession for that to the Motta family. Resistance was raised in the legislature and elsewhere in Panamanian society, so as the process continued into prior qualifications to submit bids the Mottas were eliminated from consideration. Panama Ports, which has the adjacent Port of Balboa concession, still doesn’t like it. Nor does the Panama Maritime Authority, into whose bailiwick ports traditionally fall. Nor do the canal pilots, who think that a port in the planned place would pose a navigation hazard.
So can the ACP board just brush off those objections and proceed? Not quite. See, the plans for the new port include a sewage treatment facility to serve the ships that call there. It’s the environmentally responsible feature for a major seaport to have in this day and age. The thing is, one of Ricardo Martinelli’s appointees to the ACP board — the overall qualities of whom is another whole set of issues — is Lourdes Castillo. So what, other than being a Martinelli loyalist, was her qualification for the board? Her company does the garbage collection and sewage removal for Panama Ports. As in, she considers herself entitled, if not to get the sewage contract outright, for her company to be allowed to bid on it. As in, no sewage treatment as an integral part of the new port. With some help from colleagues she shut down the board meeting about the bid specifications over that issue.
The National Assembly and the Panama Canal Authority board don’t register on too many screens outside of Panama. But the Panama Papers did, and although the rush of headlines is over it still does. Yes, the Brits are rid of the Prime Minister whose family fortune was in part the product of his father’s tax evasion via a shell game set up by Mossack Fonseca, and the UK parliamentary commission that was set up to look into that and related questions in the wake of the data dump of the law firm’s files appears to be something of a dead letter. Yes, Vladimir Putin brushed aside embarrassments about people close to him — and is now going after lesser Russians who were named. Maltese and Pakistani leaders are still being questioned and calling for an end to the questions. HSBC may have warned that legal consequences from the revelations may yet affect its bottom line, but there were signs that the whole thing was about to blow over.
Then came a preliminary report from an all-star international commission that Varela appointed with the scandal was in full scream, and it wasn’t what the president wanted to see and certainly not what the corporate lawyers and financial services people in his entourage wanted the Panamanian people and the world press to see. The president moved to suppress that preliminary word, and notified the committee that their eventual findings might or might not be published, according to political expediency. The commission’s American chair, Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, resigned along with the seven-member panel’s Swiss expert, former OECD anti-bribery task force leader Mark Pieth. The resignations were accompanied by a statement about lack of transparency and the world press did take notice, even as pundits of the rabiblanco media muttered about foreigners manipulating Panama, or being disloyal to their generous boss, or displaying bad manners. Varela, his social class and their caste of mouthpieces appear not to understand that world-class experts with earned reputations need not check their ethics and opinions at the door as their domestic servants are expected to do.
It’s a gaffe that will accelerate international moves against banking and corporate secrecy, in Panama especially but elsewhere as well. Most inconveniently for Varela, that tangle disrupted the plan just as he was getting into trade war mode.
Trade war? Panama’s going to war with anybody, in any fashion, over any matter?
Panama has this trade dispute with Colombia over duties that the latter imposes on textiles and shoes coming through the Colon Free Zone. Mainly it’s about Colombia trying to develop its own apparel industries without competition from cheap Asian good that in this region typically pass through the duty-free import/export zone in Colon. Because of the economic weakness of its traditional customers — particularly the Venezuelans — the Free Zone is seriously hurting these days, and the extra hit of Colombian trade measures aggravates the situation. The dispute has been running for some years, with Bogota insisting that it’s about the money laundering that goes on via the Free Zone and represents a big loss to Colombian tax collectors. The World Trade Organization ruled in Panama’s favor earlier this year, but Colombia isn’t budging. Instead, the Colombians are putting off implementation of a previously agreed bilateral free trade deal and using their influence to keep Panama out of the regional Pacific Alliance trade pact.
The argument with Colombia is atop a growing pile of present or contemplated trade measures that discriminate against Panama, almost all of them said to be due to money laundering, tax evasion and other undesired phenomena arising from Panamanian banking and corporate secrecy laws. Much of the Panama Papers scandal was about a Panama-based law firm setting up financial shell games played in other jurisdictions. That may be conveniently ignored by the British, whose crown dependencies account for several of those “other” places, and by the politicians of other rich countries’ whose financial backers are the sorts of people who comprise the tax havens’ customer bases. The hypocrisy of it may be protested by Mossack Fonseca, which was caught working with some particularly ugly criminals as well as the more genteel international jet set tax cheats. The Varela administration ignored all that and talks about enforcement of previously existing international agreements, and not only in terms of special duties on goods coming from those places, costlier visas for people of those nationalities and bans on certain foreign companies seeking Panamanian government contracts. One of the threats is to bar the passage through Panama of cargoes or persons associated with a nation that imposes financial sanctions on Panama.
As in, we were hearing bluster about highly self-destructive things that Panama might do if other countries don’t leave folks like the Mossacks and the Fonsecas alone when the Stiglitz and Pieth resignations put Panama back into world headlines. You won’t read it that way in La Prensa or see Alvaro Alvarado put it that way on TV, so maybe the incongruity will fly over the Panamanian electorate’s head for now. It will be interesting to see whether it affects Varela’s short-term standing in opinion polls. But if the president is serious about picking any substantial trade war with anybody, that’s a strategy with a low probability of success and a high risk of public indignation in the event of a loss.
Ah, but all news is not negative for Varela. He went to Poland for the Catholic Church’s biennial World Youth Day, lobbying European governments about trade matters while he was on their continent. There is little published word about his talks with government leaders, but Varela did come back with a papal commitment to hold the 2019 World Youth Day here. But where in Panama? The church has yet to say, but if tales of one venue in Anton are accurate, that would be yet another rekindled international controversy.
Varela’s malaise is often portrayed by his critics as tortuguismo, a turtle-like pace at everything that he does. It’s probably more accurately perceived as extreme caution about stepping on long-established prerogatives and ways of doing things among Panama’s economic elites. It sometimes saps his popularity with the general public, and sometimes gets him stalled in squabbles among the lesser figures of the political caste. Most recently, however, it’s making Panama look ridiculous to the rest of the world. Is it a matter of the outside world misunderstanding about the ways that things have always been done here? More likely it’s a rather accurate understanding, coupled with a growing insistence that Panama can’t go on this way.
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Professor Mark Pieth, who these days teaches at the University of Basel and once headed the OECD’s working group on bribery in international transactions, is a well known authority on white collar crime that crosses borders. He was among those hired by the Varela administration to be part of a “transparency commission” to study and report about the Panama Papers revelations and their significance. He and former Nobel economics prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, another high profile member of that commission, resigned after the Panamanian government delayed — perhaps forever — publication of a preliminary report and backtracked on its commitment to publish its final report.
The Panama News reached Pieth by email, with three brief but broad questions about the Swiss model that was in part as a banking center for the world’s major criminals, allegations of manipulation that are being aired in Panama’s rabiblanco media and the future of countries which base much of their economies on being financial havens for tax evaders or other sorts of criminals. The following was his reply:
Dear Mr Jackson,
Thank you for your pertinent questions.
To take your first and last question together: in fact, the reaction of official Panama to the data-publication reminded me very much of the attitude of Swiss bankers to foreign critique: denial.
It is correct that the opacity and abuses by the company services industry are not a Panamanian speciality. This is a worldwide problem. All the more it is difficult to understand why the Panamanian Government panicked when they realized that the international experts they had called were going to address the issue from a broader perspective.
Going back to the Swiss experience: Switzerland has realized that there is no chance of survival for a financial center without adopting, implementing and above all applying international standards on preventing tax evasion, money laundering and the like. So the rules have been adopted, and they will be implemented. Instead of living off bank secrecy the Swiss banks are in the process of changing their business model. Likewise Panama would be well advised to develop a new role in the world of business.
On manipulation: Well I think the whole action was quite unprofessional by Government: You don’t ask internationally renowned experts to advise, parade them to the media in order to tell them what to write and that you might keep their report confidential.
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The subject of Panama’s city dogs is inseparably linked to the country’s transformation over the last half of the 20th century from a mostly rural society to a mostly urban one. The process is continuing, not only with the population growth of the Panama City metro area that’s now home to most of the nation’s population but also with the more recent urbanization of what were sleepy little provincial towns and with the growth of bedroom communities mostly to the west of the capital and the canal, a short drive to and from the city center.
Panama City, founded as such by Pedrarias the Cruel on August 15, 1519, is said to be the first European city on the Pacific Ocean. It was laid out in neat blocks according to orders sent by the Spanish crown. Really, the city is a lot older than that. Just how much older, archaeologists are still finding out, but it’s at least 1,000 years old. When Pedrarias’s advance men got there they found an indigenous settlement whose inhabitants lived mainly by fishing but one of whose industries was goldsmithing. The city the Spanish conquistadores founded on that site was destroyed in 1671 when it was attacked by the extreme Protestant bigot and Welsh privateer Sir Henry Morgan — later Lord Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. It was one of the last battles of the Wars of the Reformation but the fighting for the city lasted only a few hours. Historians argue about who set the fire that destroyed a city that at the time was still rebuilding from an earthquake a few years before. Most likely it was the Spaniards conducting the scorched earth strategy that they had followed starting when news came of Morgan’s seizure of Fort San Lorenzo on the Atlantic Side 10 days earlier. Most city residents fled before Morgan and his men got there, taking most of their portable valuables with them.
(Imagine if you were Jewish in that time and place, something that was then illegal in the Spanish Empire. It could get you haled before the court of the Holy Inquisition in Cartagena, which, however, saved most of its efforts and ferocity for the suppression of African religions among the slaves. There certainly were Crypto-Jews — those who outwardly professed to be Catholics but secretly maintained their Jewish religion and heritage — in Panama. However, because Judaism was a crime written records and reliable histories were not kept. The legend is that the Jews of Panama La Vieja had no intention of coming into harm’s way in the course of what in addition to an act of plunder by pirates acting under British royal charter was a holy war between Protestants and Catholics. Thus, it is said, they fled largely by sea, and largely to Las Tablas. The name means “the boards” in Spanish, from the wood scavenged for building materials from the ships by which people fled the doomed Panama City to a new home on the Azuero Peninsula. Legend has it that the seat of Chiriqui Province at the western end of the country, David, was also founded by Crypto-Jews.)
In any case, the “original” Panama City, built largely by black slaves according to plans drawn largely by Italian architects, was abandoned in favor of a more easily defended peninsula several miles to the west. The second center of Panama City is now known as the Casco Viejo, in the capital’s corregimiento of San Felipe. The area has been the seat of church and state ever since. The role has changed over time, from when Panama was a province of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, then when it became a department of an independent and chaotically centrifugal Colombia, and all through its more than a century as an independent republic. Nowadays the Supreme Court and National Assembly meet elsewhere in the capital and the Catholic archdiocese has also moved its offices, but the presidential palace, many government offices and several important Catholic churches are still in the Casco Viejo.
Panama La Vieja? It’s now a national monument and park, but before it became that people gradually moved back in and in some cases made their houses out of bricks and stones from the old ruins. Eventually the urban sprawl reached from the second city center some 10 miles down the coast to the original Spanish city, then farther east and then inland to the northeast. The removal of residents from the monument area was the occasion for payoffs and coercion but the rest of the neighborhood, Panama Viejo, lives on as a low-rise working class district these days. When people have their little yards fenced, it’s actually one of the better places in the capital to be a dog.
The Casco Viejo? In its early years it was a white enclave behind a tall wall and a moat. (The moat is gone, but a small part of the old wall still exists near the neighborhood’s Parque Herrera.) At night after the drawbridge went up the only black people welcome were domestic servants. The area was ravaged by a series of 18th century fires, while beyond the walls in Santa Ana and La Cienaga the city slowly began to grow outward again after its refoundation. Much of the post-fire reconstruction of the Casco Viejo — some of which has been left in ruins to this day — was done with ironwork and architecture akin to and in some cases imported from the French Quarter of New Orleans. Buses are prohibited and the narrow brick streets are not amenable to speeding cars, and meanwhile there has been much gentrification in the 21st century Casco Viejo. All in all, it’s an upscale and pleasant place to be a dog, except that homeless dogs are not tolerated in the neighborhood to the extent that the many feral cats are.
Panama City as a whole? Take it as just within the limits of the municipality proper or as a larger metro area — however you want to define it. In any case the urban area encompasses a varied expanse of industrial areas — predominantly transportation or commercial in a country that manufactures relatively little — mixed in with residential and business districts. The former Canal Zone areas were planned, but otherwise Panama City has historically had little zoning. There are also farms and jungle areas within the capital district and in the metro area beyond. It creates many different ecological and social niches for dogs to occupy.
Go into upscale Panama City neighborhoods like Paitilla early in the morning and you will get a certain glimpse of the class divisions there. You will see maids walking their employers’ dogs, most of these smaller dogs, many of these purebred or allegedly so. The bigger dogs don’t tend to do so well in apartments, even the relatively more spacious ones of Paitilla. There is also a subculture among wealthier Panamanians to whom animals are status symbols — whether showy dogs or a horses — rather than symbiont members of the household or friends who demand and deserve a certain amount of personal care. Rich Panamanians include a notorious pool of suckers for unscrupulous dog breeders selling expensive puppies with falsified pedigree papers or undisclosed genetic defects.
Go out to San Miguelito, which started out as a shantytown at the intersection of the Trans-Isthmian Highway and the road to Tocumen Airport back in the 1950s and is now a city of more than 300,000 inhabitants, and you will see dogs in a different set of social relationships. In that predominantly working class area you will see far more dogs running at large than in Paitilla, some of these pathetic abandoned ones, skinny from worms and afflicted with mange or other skin maladies, some of them with collars and homes to come back to — if they manage to avoid the cars and other urban hazards. In San Miguelito many of the individual one or two-story homes will have little fenced yards patrolled by dogs, or dogs that spend part or all of their time tied or chained up outside. Miniature and pure breed dogs are less common in San Miguelito than in the capital’s upscale condos.
Panama’s capital is large if one considers that it is the governmental center of a country whose national population has only recently surpassed four million. Its formal city limits encompass more than 262 square miles of land. These days the shallowest of travel writers who come in for a few days to report for the corporate mainstream newspapers like to emphasize the skyscrapers of the city center, or perhaps the old architecture and noteworthy bars and restaurants of the Casco Viejo where in addition to the presidential palace, most famous churches, the ornate National Theater and the plaza where independence was proclaimed in 1903 are located. The more serious travel writers who spend some time getting to know Panama and its history will tell you a bit more about the city and its history. The more attuned eco-tourism writers may take you to the city’s forested parks, especially Ancon Hill during the annual Panama Audubon Society Christmas bird count that monitors the busiest of the world’s migratory flyways. But most of the capital isn’t particularly a tourist attraction.
The city is still growing, most noticeably in the reports of the international media upward in in the form of skyscrapers. However, if you are a politician who wants to be elected mayor (alcalde) of the capital or for that matter president of the republic, these days you need to pay more attention to its sprawl toward the east and northeast. That’s the direction in which the city’s demographic center is shifting and thus an increasingly important source of votes.
A series of political facts during Panama’s relatively brief history as an independent republic have shaped the direction of that growth.
The creation of the Canal Zone by the dubious Hay – Bunau-Varilla Treaty a few days after independence from Colombia created not only political facts but a crucial physical one. The construction of the Panama Canal within the generally 10-mile-wide strip that was the US-run Canal Zone placed a legal barrier, and with the canal’s completion a water barrier, that restricted the capital city’s growth to the west. The Zone’s political boundaries meant that the city center as it was at the time could not really expand toward either the west or very far due north. It had to go east along the coast and later northeast in the direction of the town of Chepo, with the Bayano region and the Darien beyond that.
In 1925 there was a great rent strike in Panama City, where the minor rentiers of a Creole aristocracy — men with illustrious and largely made-up family histories on the isthmus — had made a lot of money off of the boom in demand for housing during the canal construction era. But that time drew to a close as the canal was finished in 1914. The landlords were not content to live with the ebbs and flows of supply and demand. The tenants — many of the most militant of them foreigners — couldn’t afford to pay the high rents in a contracted post-construction economy. The struggle became quite acute and was at an impasse until the Liberal President Rodolfo Chiari asked for and received US military intervention. The strike was crushed and a lot of foreigners, particular West Indian militants — some influenced by the ideas that Marcus Garvey had developed while working as a journalist in Colon — were deported. Many Spaniards and Italians who held anarchist opinions were also expelled from the isthmus. Not everyone who was involved in the strike was kicked out. Today’s Panamanian left traces some of its most important roots to that struggle, even though for various reasons it has seen fit to forget that history. Panama’s landlords and real estate speculators won a free hand that pretty much extended unchecked until some reforms during the 1968-1989 military dictatorship imposed a few limits.
In the meantime, what were people who couldn’t pay the high rents demanded in the central city to do? The policy under successive governments was to allow, even encourage, people to occupy an unclaimed vacant lot at the city’s outskirts, put up a shanties and start to build more substantial houses to the extent that they could afford them. For roads, schools, storm drains, sewers, parks, police and fire protection and utility services it’s a horrid public policy but it became a national habit. As unclaimed land became a bit more scarce the phenomenon of mass land invasions arose, often with some local politician and even more often with someone selling building materials as the instigator.
Under military rule legislation was passed to prohibit landlords from collecting rent on condemned buildings, but also prohibiting the tenants from getting any squatters’ rights from living in such tenements. Ultimately that housing law was a boon to the arsonists that descendents of or purchasers from the shut-out landlords hired. Burn the place down and the title holder gets the lot back to sell or develop. In the meantime much of the capital’s city center was hollowed out with abandoned buildings or vacant lots while the district grew on its outskirts. Across the isthmus the square mile of the original Colon city has been similarly depopulated, with the displaced largely being moved out to housing projects along the road toward San Miguelito and Panama City.
Two US-inspired highway projects contributed mightily to the shaping of the metro area’s growth. During World War II, at first exclusively for US military use, the Trans-Isthmian Highway (Transístmica in local parlance) was built to connect Colon and Panama City. It gradually became an urban growth corridor for Panama, although the existence of the Canal Zone delayed this process in many areas along the way for several decades.
Then at US urging and in part under the auspices of the Organization of American States the Pan-American Highway was built, with the aim of a road that unites all of the Americas. from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Part of the job was in the former Canal Zone, the early 60s construction of the Bridge of the Americas across the Panama Canal. The last piece of this international public works project has never been completed — sensitive ecological areas, the desire of local indigenous groups to be protected from outsiders colonizing their lands and the natural jungle barrier between Panamanian cattle which don’t have hoof and mouth disease and South American cattle which do have prevented the final piercing of The Darien Gap on the Panamanian and Colombian border. But the part that has been finished stretches east beyond Panama La Vieja and Panama City’s Tocumen Airport.
In 1979, pursuant to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the Canal Zone as a formal governmental entity — or US colony if you will — ended its existence. The American military bases lingered on for another 20 years and the canal jobs and properties of the former Canal Zone only gradually passed into Panamanian hands. The usual Panamanian term for the process is reversion (reversión), a word that many of the American civilians who had made the Canal Zone their home — the Zonians — have found annoying because as they see it the assets that passed into Panamanian hands by and large were built under US auspices, the land itself was part of Colombia until the US-assisted coup that separated Panama as an independent country in November of 1903 and thus none of that “reverted” to anyone who had ever possessed it. The old Canal Zone was incorporated into the Republic of Panama, mostly to the municipal districts Panama (the capital city), Arraijan (the Pacific Side west of the canal) and Colon on the Atlantic Side.
The municipality of Panama is a strictly defined legal entity with set limits that expand with annexations and landfills. Then there is the metro area — but what IS the metro area?
Decades ago Panama City and San Miguelito expanded and ran into one another, so that although they are two distinct legal entities, the two municipalities appear to be one. From the air, the haphazard layout of the “original” San Miguelito, which has few entrances for the driver, would serve as a clue that it was a squatter development. But parts of Panama City have that origin as well. That side of the former Canal Zone south of the Chagres River and east of the canal has been divided between the two cities, what was the segregated West Indian neighborhood of Paraiso going to San Miguelito and most of the rest going to Panama City. Some of the former US military bases didn’t come under effective municipal jurisdiction until 1999. The Canal Zone, both civilian and military areas, was less densely populated and was more thoughtfully planned, and while some of those urban plans have been overtaken by subsequent developments those areas formerly colonized by the United States still have a markedly different character. Having bumped into Panama City when spreading south and east, San Miguelito has spread and continues to spread to the north, while Panama City continues to spread to the east and northeast.
One of the consequences of urban sprawl coupled with a promiscuous strain of Panamanian culture that persists in the nominally Catholic-majority country is immortalized in a 1960s calypso tune. There are certain businesses for which local politicians get hassled if there are any neighbors close enough to feel affected, and these tend to be set up beyond city limits to avoid that. Smelly establishments like slaughterhouses and loud ones like sawmills are in that category. So are the pushbuttons, walled motels elaborately designed to protect the privacy of trysting couples, sometimes youngsters who live in crowded family situations, often married people carrying on extramarital affairs. At one point a neighborhood along the Transistmica, Veranillo, lay south of San Miguelito’s residential neighborhoods and north of Panama City’s, and because of this location it was a logical place to put a noisy truck depot or a pushbutton. A number of pushbuttons were established in Veranillo and some of them still thrive, despite the neighborhood having long since been overtaken by the sprawls of both municipal districts. Thus the Panamanian English (of the West Indian flavor) song and dance craze, “Veranillo Push Push.” You can find it on YouTube.
The way that Panama City and San Miguelito have grown, they are clearly one continuous metro area. Some pollsters have historically defined the “metro area” as the combined provinces of Colon and Panama — but since that concept was adopted Panama province west of the canal has been made the separate province of Panama Oeste. Meanwhile some indigenous areas in the eastern part of Panama province have been made into the comarcas (somewhat autonomous commonwealths for Panama’s first nations, in some ways comparable to the US Indian reservations) of Madungandi and Wargandi. It might make sense to include the Panama Oeste municipalities of Arraijan — an abbreviated hispanicization of the direction “on the right-hand side” — and La Chorrera in the Panama City metro area, as these places largely serve that bedroom community function. Following the main highways or the canal from Panama City into the traditional Colon city center on the Caribbean Sea, it also makes a certain amount of sense to call that another part of the metro area. It makes less sense to use the term for those parts of Colon province that stretch along the sea in either direction from the city that was founded under the name of Aspinwall as the Panama Railroad terminus in the middle of the 19th century. We can argue about who qualifies and where the lines and distinctions of social geography ought to be drawn, but in the built-up parts of most of these areas the dogs will be fairly considered city dogs.
There are more yet if you consider dogs in the urbanizing — or suburbanizing — areas of the country’s Interior to be “city dogs.” The beach communities of Panama Oeste and Cocle provinces, along with the nearby mountain resort area of El Valle, have undergone tremendous growth spurts. Coronado in particular has mushroomed from a beach and golf course community that played to rich Panamanian retirees and Canadian expats into the commercial center for a wider area. Provincial seats that were once combinations of minor administrative centers and shopping districts for farming regions — Penonome, Las Tablas, Santiago and David — and the provincial seat of Herrera province, Chitre, which is a ceramics manufacturing center as well as the administrative center for a place that grows a lot of sugar cane and distills a lot of that product into liquor, have all grown into cities in their own rights as much of the population has moved out of farming and fishing into other economic pursuits. There are dogs in all of these places and the increased population densities and changed human economies have transformed canine lives as well. In the urbanizing and suburbanizing areas of the Interior, however, a city dog’s life is in somewhat closer to a country’s dog’s and by many measures is less extreme than life in the noisy, congested and disorderly metro area.
In Panama chaos marks the usual interfaces between machines and living things, including dogs. Unfortunately a lot of people have brought inappropriate country habits into the cities and one of these is letting their dogs run at large. The carnage on the roads is perhaps the most visible sign. Dogs are at risk running on city streets anywhere but the many aggressive Panamanian drivers are something else. Many of the drivers seem to show little regard for human lives — their own or anyone else’s — let alone for the lives of animals.
For people or anything else, safe road design is an underdeveloped set of arts and sciences in Panama. Most Panamanians ride the bus, walk, take taxis or more recently in parts of the metro area, ride the Metro trains. On the other hand, just as in the old days when riding a horse lent a certain social status — the rough equivalent of “gentleman” in Spanish is “caballero,” literally horseman — those who own cars often consider that this gives them a superior social status and property rights not only over their vehicles but over public spaces.
This writer once had the experience of appearing before a corregidora (roughly a justice of the peace, in this usage of the female persuasion) over an argument with some neighbors. These pestilential young xenophobes, beyond playing an anti-gringo card that the corregidora failed to slap down as her counterparts in most of the rest of the world would have done, actually asserted that it was their right to play with their car alarm by remotely setting it off under said author’s bedroom window at four in the morning because the car and its Viper alarm were their private property.
In a move to boost their popularity with a certain segment of the population, the nation’s discredited and disliked legislators once approved a law declaring that drivers have a right to a free parking space. The immediate context was developers of one part of the former Paitilla Airport failing to provide enough parking for the people who do business at their premises, and the developers of a shopping mall across the street deciding to charge for parking on their lots by visitors to the neighbors’ buildings. In the end the executive and judicial branches of government didn’t go along with that sweeping declaration and policy, but limits were imposed on what parking fees could be charged.
To walk down a Panama City sidewalk and have some driver come up behind, leaning on his — invariably his rather than her — horn in a demand to get off of the sidewalk so that he can drive on it is part of the urban experience in the capital. More frequently it’s a matter of having to walk on the edge of the street, braving the possibilities of maniacal drivers, because somebody has decided that it’s his or her right to park on the sidewalk.
Bottom line? Most of the nation’s traffic fatalities are pedestrians, and the dogs who are killed greatly outnumber the human victims but are nowhere officially counted.
Then there is the noise, annoying to people, worse than that for animals.
Is “urban” music a category of city noise? It can be and the genre that most often gets tagged as such is in the hip hop vein, translated into Panamanian (and Puerto Rican, “Nuyorican” and so on) as regueton. One might perhaps describe it as a Spanish-language cousin of Jamaican dance hall music, or less charitably call it hispanicized gangsta rap. It has in a few years evolved from angry and vulgar shouting over an electronic drum beat to an important national art form, with some very good artists who are anything but gangsters. Go out to such rural settings as the indigenous commonwealth of Guna Yala, and you find hip hop, sometimes in the indigenous language. You can also get blasted out by more traditionally recognized folksy music like cumbia or tamborito for that matter, or rock and roll or salsa or the very popular on the isthmus bachata, which has Dominican roots. But whatever the genre, in the city or elsewhere, such few noise laws as Panama has are seldom enforced, the concept of appropriate technology — like proper use of a volume dial — is little known, and unlike in a village where everyone knows everyone and it violates customs, manners and common sense to overly annoy those upon whom one may need to depend by blasting them out with loud music, as the population gets denser in any given part of Panama so do many people about the concept of noise. Dogs hear better than we do and if hip hop at top volume annoys some of them almost as much as a thunderstorm, setting off firecrackers, bottle rockets or other fuegos artificiales physically hurts their ears. The phenomenon of angry city neighbors bugging their corregidores, representantes and alcaldes about loud music at all hours of the day and night is a relatively new and growing phenomenon in Panama, and agitation by dog lovers to curb the fireworks for dogs’ sake lags well behind that.
It’s a different cultural mix, much more international in Panama City’s upscale neighborhoods and resort communities. Panama has ethnic communities to which a dog is an honored member of the family, others to which it might be the current incarnation of a deceased relative, and yet others to which dog meat is a delicacy to put on the dinner table. The combination of a mostly Catholic population and a pope who takes his name from the patron saint of dogs must surely be a break for a lot of Panamanian dogs. Those kindly folks who feed and give care vary widely in the resources and knowledge to go about these tasks. The place has its particularities but with respect to the treatment of dogs it’s like many others.
The extra special horror of being a homeless dog in Panama is known by concerned civic groups, which via publicity, example, the social and mass communications media and the schools are trying to counter it. The message is that real men are kind to animals, its corollary that boys who throw rocks at homeless dogs are wimps.
As with people, many individuals are kind to the homeless, most walk on by and then there are the bullies who go out of their way to be cruel. So it is with public officials as well as ordinary citizens. Compare Panama with the United States and law enforcement people can be quite rough, sometimes unreasonably so, but the Americans win hands down at extremism in that department. Get busted by the dog catcher in the USA and it’s generally a death sentence. The old “humane society” catch and “put to sleep” if not quickly adopted operation is now questioned in the USA and is a concept that horrifies most Panamanians. While over the years Panama’s police have been known to move into areas with large populations of stray dogs on missions to round up and kill those without people to take them in, recently they have worked with spay groups to neuter the homeless dogs and to try to find homes for them.
To be a street dog in urban Panama usually doesn’t mean immediate starvation. There will be a garbage bag or some discarded chicken bones to be scavenged, and somebody is likely to take pity and donate a morsel of food. But Panama is tropical and just like with people, it has an extra-large menu of maladies under the heading of pestilence. The homeless dog in Panama will have guts full of worms and other parasites and skin infested with ticks, fleas and mites, all of which are likely to have a bountiful array of pernicious microbes to pass on. Homeless dogs don’t take care of themselves as well as feral cats do. They need more care than their feline neighbors on the streets, and a bone or the remains of lunch is hardly enough.
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There was a lot going on in Panama City on July 27, and one of those things was a gathering of people from 35 community groups to picket the mayor’s office in the Edificio Hatillo. Many were the complaints, all under the general umbrella of “urban chaos.” Rezonings sprung on neighborhoods by surprise, developers flouting existing rules, inspectors and other public officials looking the other way, Supreme Court decisions being ignored — all adding to noise, congestion, pollution, destruction of green areas, deadly hazards (in addition to the maleantes) just to walk the city’s streets and so on. So often in the public officials say that, in the face of flagrant lawbreaking, their hands are tied by the rule of law.
Yes, there is a problem of people with the wrong motives in the wrong places. Yes, there are aspects of Panamanian culture that lead to government dysfunction. Yes, there is inertia in a country that has known little more than oligarchy, dictatorship and demagoguery in its relatively brief history as an independent republic.
People know that we can do better than this. It’s some of the better educated who will say that things have always been this way and must remain so, but generally they know better and just say that to protect their own vested interest or out of sheer laziness about learning or doing anything new. The poorly educated know that something must change, although they might or might not be persuaded by some huckster to vote for the wrong solutions. It’s going to be up to the better educated and less committed to the status quo to lead Panama in the right direction. Part of that direction is a new constitution.
We need elections for a constituent assembly. The argument about an originating versus a parallel assembly is mostly a procedural distraction. The present constitution calls for a parallel assembly but once elected such a body would have broad powers. For the discredited elected officials or courts to interfere with its work would cause an immense crisis, and if the members of that body drafts a new constitution that calls for early new elections and the replacement of the entire Supreme Court there would only be the voters to effectively stop them.
Panama City’s Mayor Blandón has just jumped on the bandwagon for a constituent assembly, on which the Cambio Democratico party and its mafia don Ricardo Martinelli are riding, along with far more reputable folks like the Colegio de Abogados.
It’s important to grab our chance for a new constitution, and while the arguments ought to be mainly about the substance of what needs to be in a new constitution, there are important procedural matters. The procedural question to which we should be paying the most attention at the moment is how a constituent assembly is elected. The citizens should not accept an arrangement that leaves our fragmented and widely despised political parties in charge of the process, rules that allow candidates to buy votes by passing out cash or other valuables, or a television campaign privately financed by the rich. We need a worthy new way of making political decisions en route to a worthy new constitution, and we need a public demand for this.
Congressional hearings and voting rights in the USA
Now comes the hue and cry about the Russians hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and leaking their contents so as to affect the US election. It might be a viable GOP campaign issue but for Donald Trump being such an outspoken admirer of Vladimir Putin and old business associate of the Russian mob. And will the Democratic hierarchy, which ought to be absolutely mortified both by the contents of those emails and by the ineffective computer software and expertise that Debbie Wasserman Schultz bought from family and friends, try to twist this into a neocon “the Russians are coming” meme? That would be a foolish move on Hillary Clinton’s part.
But all that said, foreign interference in US elections is something that ought to concern all Americans, whether it’s someone manipulating public discourse by hacks and leaks or foreign corporations and oligarchs using backdoor routes to fund US attack ads. In the scheme of things, this election year and all other presidential elections this century have been affected by far worse abuses than foreign interference. The theft of the 2000 presidential election by a sordid court decision with at least two justices who should have been recused because of family conflicts of interest set the tone. There is the legalized bribery and purchase of elections since the Citizens United court decision. A plethora of vote suppression schemes, “strip and flip” tactics by which voter registration lists are tampered with to eliminate certain groups of people in the former case and electronic voting systems that leave no paper trail are hacked to alter the results in the latter, the revival of racial discrimination in voting and a new wave of discrimination by age or relationship to a university add up to the stuff of which a new Voting Rights Act ought to be fashioned. But to do something about such abuses, there must be congressional hearings to expose and debate the problems.
However, there is a problem with congressional hearings, just as there is a problem with Congress. It turns out that Republican Representative Trey Gowdy tried to influence this year’s elections by running endless Benghazi hearings at which he deliberately presented falsified “evidence.” There are not enough votes among his colleagues for even the mildest reprimand. So far this century, neither the Senate nor the House have conducted any meaningful hearing on the general problem of compromised elections. The political caste just accepts that stuff as ordinary.
The riveting drama of televised hearings has at times served the nation, although if the truth is to be fully told the two most famous of these revolved around a despicable figure who kept carefully out of the limelight. The Army McCarthy hearings had their genesis in J. Edgar Hoover’s entourage going after the US Army for drafting Roy Cohn’s boyfriend. The end result was about World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower slapping down that assault on the Army that he had served, alcoholic fanaticism in his own Republican Party and Hoover’s assertion of power over elected governments. The Watergate scandal was very real, about real abuses that manipulated American democracy, but it was also an FBI coup, wherein high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt leaked damning information that was the product of Hoover’s spying on the Nixon White House. With more complete information than we had back then, the “good old days” don’t look so good.
However, American democracy is under multiple systematic attacks and there does need to be a legislative response. The conditions for such a response can only be met by the expulsion of compromised senators and representatives, most of them Republicans, in what remains of the primary season and in the November elections. The defeat of all politicians who have played the game, or even most of them, will probably not be necessary — just enough to intimidate the others. Then there ought to be hearings to demonstrate why Americans need new voting rights legislation.
Bear in mind…
The truth is the kindest thing we can give folks in the end.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Any doctrine that will not bear investigation is not a fit tenant for the mind of an honest man.
As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
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