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Politicians, family secure Panameñista Party for the president

The new Panameñista leaders. Photo from Popi Varela’s Twitter Feed.

If all you see is a family affair,
you miss part of the story

by Eric Jackson

President Varela’s brother, legislator José Luis “Popi” Varela, has been elected as president of the Panameñista Party. Many observers are taking that as a sign of concentrated presidential power, some as the emergence of “Varelismo” that overshadows the “Arnulfismo” of the party that Arnulfo Arias founded, which traces roots farther back to the Accion Comunal movement of the 1920s. There are certainly large grains of truth to each of those propositions, probably more to the former.

Barely commented upon, and surely connected to the things that most reporters and pundits noticed, was who was and who was not in the lineup for the photographers after the party’s 1701 elected delegates voted on October 2 for the next generation of party leadership. There is an overlap among Panama’s business and political elites — the Varelas, for example, are wealthy scions of the Hermanos Varela liquor distilling fortune of Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano fame — and although the Panameñista Party does have a strong following among the poor those from the lower end of the economic scale were not in the picture. However, this iteration of Panameñista leadership concentrated control of the party in the hands of politicians at the expense of business leaders.

The last time that the party elected leaders Juan Carlos Varela was party president and Alberto Vallarino was first vice president. After the former took office as the president of Panama in 2014 he stepped out of his party post but Vallarino, one of Panama’s richest men and a nephew of Arnulfo Arias, did not step in as acting president. That distinction went to Ramón Fonseca, attorney and one of the two main partners in the infamous Mossack Fonseca law firm. Fonseca also took on the role of minister without portfolio in the current administration. Serving under Varela there were also a number of less prominent Mossacks and Fonsecas in the government.

Then came the Panama Papers revelations and the administration’s generally ham-handed response, which after a few weeks of evasion, denial and still ongoing protests of innocence included the exit of the Fonsecas and Mossacks from appointed government posts. Vallarino has had a less notorious public profile, but if one wants to get into how his fortune was enhanced there are plenty of examples of special tax breaks, questionable court decisions and other government favors along the way.

Ramón Fonseca Mora and Alberto Mora Clement are not in the new lineup of party leaders, and nobody of similar stripes came in to take their places. The new Panameñista leadership is almost entirely composed of politicians, with a few trusted activists who don’t currently hold any office in the mix. José Luis Varela is a member of the National Assembly. The new first VP, José Isabel Blandón, is the mayor of Panama City. Second vice president is Housing Minister Mario Etchelecu. Legislator Adolfo ‘Beby’ Valderrama is secretary general. Treasurer Carlos Duboys is the Varela administration’s wonk who measures how well the government is progressing toward accomplishing its stated goals. Party ethics and discipline chief Alcibiades Vasquez is Varela’s minister of social development.

So what might this tell us about “Varelismo?” Mainly that the president’s style is normally a cautious one, that while Panama is under fierce international criticism as a tax haven and money laundering center — which one would barely know if Panama’s corporate mainstream media were his or her only source of information — Varela is trying to reduce his political risks and put the party in the hands of people who are both less likely to be personally criticized abroad and are more astute about how things look in the political world. Critics will pan it as an aspect of Varela’s alleged “tortuguismo” — moving at a turtle’s pace. It might be seen in historical perspective as Varela’s tendency to bend with international political winds, something that Arnulfo Arias never did and which contributed to his several overthrows by military coups détat.

Other distinctions can be drawn between Juan Carlos Varela and Arnulfo Arias. Unlike the latter, Varela’s not an overt racist. If there is something to “Varelismo” it’s a centrist mix of conservative and progressive stands on different issues, a propensity to avoid confrontations if possible and a mixture of Latin American identity with deference to globalization on the terms set by multinational corporations. As the mid-point in this administration approaches, it appears that the Panameñistas are on course to maintain the post-invasion political norm and, like all incumbent parties, lose the next elections. If something dramatic that breaks this cycle happens, perhaps then it will be a better time to talk about Varelismo.


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La Sociedad Civil Ngäbe-Buglé de Panamá, Caminata 12 de Octubre 2016

La destrucción de Kiad no era el inicio de la violencia ni el fin de la resistencia. Foto por Chiriquí Natural.

Caminata Indígena 12 de Octubre

por la Sociedad Civil Ngäbe-Buglé de Panamá

Al conmemorarse 524 años de agresión, genocidio y saqueo de un pueblo noble que lo recibieron como hermano en este continente ya habitado por orden del creador del cielo y la tierra, Dios Todopoderoso.

La Sociedad Civil Ngäbe-Buglé de Panamá invita a todos los pueblos originarios de la nación, organizaciones en general y pueblos panameños a una caminata el dia Miercoles 12 de Octubre desde las 9:00 am, partiendo desde Parque Urraca frente al hotel Miramar Intercontinetal hasta llegar a la Nunciatura Católica ubicado en Paitilla.



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The Panama News blog links, October 3, 2016


The Panama News blog links

Washington Post, Stunning photos of the PanCanal expansion

Hellenic Shipping News, New locks pompt new look for old equipment

The San Diego Union-Tribune, Bethancourt might be pitcher/catcher/outfielder

EcoTV, Gómez llama a jugadores para el amistoso de Panamá ante México

Baseball America, MLB moves Venezuelan Showcase tryouts to Panama

Mongabay, Program aims at Panamanian indigenous women’s food concerns

Telemetro, Britton: el fracaso de la educación panameña

PanARMENIAN.Net, Panama Papers leak dents new Panama incorporations

Reuters, Panamá registraría caída de hasta 20% en apertura de las SA

La Estrella, Préstamos nuevos al sector construcción cayeron 10.7%

Reuters, US Treasury steps up hunt for real estate money launderers

Dawn, Contract expiration ends US authority over Internet IP addresses

Apex Tribune, The death of the last Rabb’s Tree Frog

STRI, 26 jaguars killed in Panama so far this year

NBC, Are satellites the next cybersecurity battleground?

Business Insider, Google saves journalist hit by “record” cyber-attack

BBC, Medicine Nobel for cell recycling work

Video, Wall collapses at Costa del Este highrise construction site

InSight Crime, Panama requests Martinelli’s extradition

Kyiv Post, Former Ukrainian official makes bail in Panama

Diplomatic Intelligence, EU Lib Dems seek Panama Papers whistleblower protection

EFE, EEUU anticipa “decisiones difíciles” en Colombia

El País, El renacer de Álvaro Uribe

Video, FARC women and the challenges of a peace that hasn’t quite come

WOLA, Peace is still possible in Colombia

Piri, Shocking Colombian vote

Jung, On the ground with USAID in Honduras

Boff, The coups of 1964 and 2016: by the same class

ICIJ, Trump’s Iranian bank tenants

Russell, Dakota Access Pipeline: Legal encounters of the third kind

Jacobin, Chelsea Manning’s integrity

Weisbrot, Is Human Rights Watch too closely aligned with US foreign policy?

Barnes & Noble Reads, 11 books that were banned for ridiculous reasons

Fischer, The West on the brink

Stiglitz & Pieth, The real scandal behind the Panama Papers

Simpson, Cuando “La Percepción” ataca

Beluche: Donald Trump, el Martinelli yanqui

Flores, La necesaria transformación universitaria


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Bernal, Required reading to understand the Panama Papers


Shiver me tmbers

Treasure Islands

by Miguel Antonio Bernal V.

Just six months ago the Panama Papers, just six months ago, shook countless governments and rulers, media, financial centers and banks from east to west and north to south, with the exception of Panama. That’s not to mention the citizen reactions in several countries, where important figures were exposed unseated.

The Panamanian government has managed to cover with a blanket of protection and concealment — larger than the ridiculous pink tarp on El Valle’s India Dormida — the irreparable damage that their complicity in this matter has meant to our people.

A recent article by Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Pieth comes back to expose the Varela administration and its double standard on the subject of the Panama Papers.

It thus makes it worthwhile, for its importance and relevance, to read what Nicholas Shaxson offers us in his book, Las Islas del Tesoso: los paraísos fiscales y los hombres que se robaron el mundo (Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Económica 2013) — find its original English version here. It’s a rich investigation of why tax havens are not only found in the heart of the global economy, but also the most important reasons why poor people and poor countries remain poor.

The 500 pages of this book forthrightly show us that this extraterritorial system of tax havens concentrates the ties between the criminal underworld and the financial elite, and links the senior leaders of diplomatic and intelligence services with multinational firms. It’s the way power operates today, and it has concentrated wealth and power in the rich more strongly than any other historical event. However, its effects have been almost invisible.

In Panama, where media manipulation has kept people from knowing what has happened and why there are tax havens, this is required reading.

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Se mataron a jaguares



En Panamá han muerto 26 jaguares en lo que va del año

por STRI, fotos por la Fundación Yaguará Panamá

En el XX Congreso de la Sociedad Mesoamericana para la Biología y la Conservación que se llevó a cabo recientemente en Belice, Ricardo Moreno, investigador asociado en el Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales (STRI) en Panamá y director de la Fundación Yaguará Panamá, informó que el número de jaguares que han matado en Panamá va en aumento.

“Tenemos evidencia de que se mataron un mínimo de 230 jaguares en Panamá entre 1989 y el 2014”, comentó Moreno. “Tenemos razones para pensar que el número real puede ser de dos o tres veces mayor. En el 2015 mataron a 23 jaguares. En el 2016, hasta septiembre, hay reportes de 26.”.

Moreno y sus colegas reunieron los informes de estas muertes entre una amplia gama de personas, desde guías turísticos a ganaderos. La mayoría de los casos eran en represalia por la depredación de ganado vacuno, ovejas y perros.

En la reunión, los investigadores evaluaron el estado de conservación de los animales desde México hasta Panamá y la salud de los bosques en el Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano que se extiende a lo largo de la costa atlántica de América Central.

Moreno compartió los resultados recopilados durante los inventarios con cámaras-trampa que se llevaron a cabo desde el 2005 hasta el 2014 por un equipo dirigido por Ninon Meyer, en ese entonces estudiante de doctorado con Patrick Jansen, científico de STRI y profesor de la Universidad de Wageningen, en 15 parques nacionales y en fragmentos de bosque en ambos lados del Canal de Panamá. Los investigadores se preguntaron hasta qué punto los bosques que aún quedan puedan apoyar la diversidad de vida silvestre.

“Sabemos por el trabajo reciente de los geólogos y paleontólogos en el Smithsonian que el puente terrestre que conecta a Panamá con América del Norte y del Sur se formó hace 2.8 millones de años”, comentó Moreno. “La conexión se interrumpió hace 100 años por la construcción del Canal de Panamá. El desarrollo continuo y la deforestación de Panamá Central está interrumpiendo el flujo de los animales y sus genes, de modo que ahora el jaguar es considerado una especie en peligro de extinción”.

Moreno especula que la continua expansión de la agricultura y de nuevos proyectos de desarrollo urbano, además del desarrollo de la minería y las represas están limitando las poblaciones de jaguares a áreas escarpadas y montañosas. Un aumento en el consumo humano de las principales especies de presa los jaguares también exacerba la depredación de animales domésticos por parte del jaguar.

Los participantes en un seminario sobre la situación actual del pecarí de labios blancos (Tayassu pecari) reportaron la disminución de poblaciones de pecaríes en toda la región y la falta de conectividad entre áreas boscosas necesaria para la reproducción de poblaciones sanas.

El pecarí de labios blancos, único de los trópicos americanos, vive en enormes grupos de 10 a 300 individuos y juegan un papel importante como arquitectos de las comunidades forestales, estructurando el bosque mediante la dispersión de semillas de árboles y el pisoteo de las plantas. Los grupos indígenas siempre han cazado pecaríes, pero con el avance continuo de las fronteras agrícolas, los ranchos ganaderos, nuevas carreteras y proyectos de desarrollo a gran escala en toda la región, esta especie está en peligro de extinción. Los pecaríes son una de las especies principales en la dieta del jaguar, y cuando los cazadores persiguen los pecaríes, a menudo también matan a los jaguares.

El pecarí de labios blancos, el jaguar (Panthera onca) y el tapir (Tapirus bairdii) son indicadores de ambientes tropicales sanos. Estas tres especies han desaparecido en áreas importantes de la sección panameña del Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano.

El Istmo de Panamá ya ha perdido más de la mitad de su bosque. Los autores del estudio con cámaras-trampa informaron que a pesar del hecho de que más del 22 por ciento de la superficie terrestre de Panamá se encuentra bajo alguna forma de protección, varios parques nacionales no están apoyando el número esperado de animales.

Los proyectos de restauración forestal, tales como el Proyecto de Agua Salud dirigido por el científico de STRI, Jefferson Hall, muestran que es posible recrear el hábitat del jaguar en la región. Moreno y Meyer, en un artículo publicado en el boletín de la Unión Internacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza “Noticias del gato,” hacen un llamado a tomar las siguientes medidas para salvar a los jaguares restantes:

  • La educación, especialmente en las zonas donde el número de muertes de jaguares es alto.

  • Los programas de extensión para los ganaderos que han experimentado la depredación por jaguares.

  • Los incentivos económicos para las comunidades rurales cercanas al hábitat del jaguar. En una comunidad, los residentes han vencido las pérdidas debidas a la depredación por medio de la venta de huellas de jaguar en moldes de yeso.

  • La creación de alianzas multi-institucionales para unir a las instituciones gubernamentales y no gubernamentales p ara intervenir en áreas clave.

“La educación es clave, ya que todos merecemos entender lo que está sucediendo en nuestro planeta y en nuestros países”, comentó Moreno. “Pero la educación lleva años y los jaguares y pecaríes no les quedan años”.

“Esperamos que nuestra excelente presentación de informes científicos sobre la situación de estos animales en la región se considere relevante”, comentó Moreno. “Hemos escrito planes de acción. Tenemos los conocimientos necesarios para reorientar la política con el fin de conservar a los jaguares, pecaríes y los bosques en toda la región. En Panamá, la Fundación Yaguará Panamá cuenta con el apoyo del Ministerio de Ambiente. La conservación del jaguar tomará dedicación por parte de los gobiernos, las ONG y las personas apasionadas unidas para conservar nuestro patrimonio natural, que no tiene fronteras”.

El Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales, en ciudad de Panamá, Panamá, es una unidad de la Institución Smithsonian. El Instituto promueve la comprensión de la naturaleza tropical y su importancia para el bienestar de la humanidad; capacita estudiantes para llevar a cabo investigaciones en los trópicos; y fomenta la conservación mediante la concienciación pública sobre la belleza e importancia de los ecosistemas tropicales.

white lipped peccaries
Los puercos de monte — Tayassu pecari — forman una parte muy importante de la cadena alimenticia de los jaguares.


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Editorial: It has to be Hillary


in drag

Hillary Clinton: a choice that matters, and to which there is no viable alternative

For the first time in its 126-year history, the Arizona Republic has endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate. For the first time in its 34-year history, USA Today has made an endorsement of sorts — a negative one, with a positive nod toward no candidate but a plea not to vote for Donald Trump. “Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks the temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its presidents,” the USA Today editors concluded.

The corporate liberals who run The New York Times and the neocons who dominate the Washington Post have been savaging Trump for some time, as could have been expected. Many Republican national security policy makers have also raised an alarm about the man.

So should that be a sign that those of us who were skeptical about NATO support for Portuguese colonialism between the bloc’s foundation and the mid-1970s and look askance at the alliance’s moves up to the post-Soviet Russian borders ought to take a fresh look at Trump, who vows to end the “attack on one is an attack on all” principle of that Cold War institution? Were he a pacifist or an isolationist, it would be a different set of calculations. Trump would go around the world attacking other countries with the rest of the world standing back appalled — the lack of solidarity and empathy cuts both ways and in a belligerent person or nation the pariah status that such an attitude creates is particularly dangerous. Antiwar voters who fear that Hillary Clinton may be an incurable warmonger have nothing to gain from the Trump alternative and everything to lose by casting a protest vote for a third-party candidate and passively letting Trump into the White House with a narrow plurality. Abolishing, abandoning or altering NATO might be reasonable propositions to consider, in consultation with the other members. Turning US foreign policy into a shakedown racket, whether to make Eurpeans pay the bloated Pentagon budget or to make the Mexicans pay for a pharaonic and futile wall would be a catastrophe. You see, some alternatives to a widely and reasonably despised established order would be changes for the much worse.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein deserve a respectful hearing and after their campaigns are footnotes in history Americans would be well served if some of their better ideas are picked up and championed by mainstream politicians. Johnson, a former governor, is not nearly so clueless as his widely publicized senior moments of memory loss make him appear to be. Stein, who has never held public office, might serve herself and her movement well by getting elected to a public office that’s realistically within her reach. But notice that Johnson’s and Stein’s respective weaknesses show up in more virulent form in Donald Trump. Stein doesn’t know the ropes from personal experience, but she has a sober and realistic view of how the US government works and some proposals to change some of that. Trump seems to think that he can snap his fingers and things will be done, but acting out such a fantasy would lead to a constitutional crisis in short order. Johnson has spells of being at a loss to identify names and places, while Trump’s convenient “memory lapses” are nothing of the sort, but rather crude attempts to deceive.

Thus so many Americans who may dislike the woman, or who might find her pleasant enough even as they reject her ideas, are left with one viable option, Hillary Clinton for president. With Clinton, the solace for those who have this or that objection isn’t just that Trump would be worse. It’s that some semblance of a rational public discourse would continue, in which well meaning people could affect the course of events and build movements for their various causes during a Clinton administration. Under a Trump administration such folks would be on the run from a lynch mob.

The choice that Americans face at the top of the ticket — including US citizens living abroad, who have the right to vote and should use it — may not be the happiest one for everybody. But from Bernie Sanders to George H. W. Bush there is an emerging consensus. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate for US president who might win and who can actually do the job.


Bear in mind…

What hurts and discourages is to be ignored.

Clara González de Behringer

The revolution wasn’t great for what we did, but more for what we didn’t undo.

Pepe Figueres

The art of winning is learned in defeat.

Simón Bolívar

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¿Wappin? It’s a genre bending Caribbean night

Yomira John.

Caribbean night, in several genres

Séptima Raiz – De frente con Jah

The Mighty Sparrow – Only A Fool

Nina Simone – Obeah Woman

Lord Cobra – Racombey

Sinéad O’Connor – Vampire

Rita Marley – Harambee

Chubby Checker – Limbo Rock

Binghiman & the Natives – Mal Trago

Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer – Redemption Song

Lord Kitty – Neighbor Neighbor

Trouble Gyal Riddim – Aisha Davis, RR & Marcy Chin

Kafu Banton & Almirante – Ella

Alika & Mad Professor – The Nyabinghy Chant

Yomira John – Mama Congo

Aswad – Distant Thunder Hammersmith 1988

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MOVADUP, Las promesas del nuevo rector

hold the pompous "Magnífico" -- he's the people's choice
Eduardo Castro Flores, el rector electo de la Universidad de Panamá. Foto de su página de Facebook.

Las promesas del nuevo rector

por el Movimiento de Adecentamiento de la Universidad de Panamá (MOVADUP)

El próximo 1º de octubre de 2016 se inicia la nueva administración de la Universidad de Panamá (UP).

El Dr. Eduardo Flores, rector electo el pasado 29 de junio, se comprometió a promover un “nuevo modelo de gestión académica y administrativa” que sustituyese al modelo “centralista, personalista, politizado, inflexible e ineficiente”, así como “cerrarle las puertas a toda forma de clientelismo, corrupción y autoritarismo” (Eduardo Flores. Propuesta: Agenda Estratégica de Renovación Universitaria Rector 2016-2012, p. 16).

El Movimiento de Adecentamiento de la Universidad de Panamá (MOVADUP), sin ataduras clientelistas con la nueva administración, y con la independencia que lo caracteriza, le indica públicamente al nuevo Rector que estará vigilante del cumplimiento de sus promesas de campaña, en especial la de hacer realidad un nuevo modelo “descentralizado, horizontal, colectivo, eficiente, democrático, transparente y con rendición social de cuentas”.

La crisis estructural de la UP

Al MOVADUP no deja de preocuparle la existencia de una normativa y una praxis política universitaria que legitiman y reproducen la centralización del poder, el clientelismo y los gravísimos riesgos de corrupción administrativa. Estas fallas estructurales han promovido la impunidad, la cual ha contado por muchos años con padrinos y encubridores en todos los órganos del Estado, en donde se destacan, recientemente, el contralor de la República, Federico Humbert, y la procuradora general de la Nación, Kenia Porcell, quienes tendrán que enfrentar las consecuencias legales y morales que acarrea proteger la delincuencia.

Reiteramos el compromiso esbozado en nuestro Pronunciamiento del 10 de agosto de 2016, de seguir luchando por la recuperación de todas las tierras y bienes ilegalmente enajenados; por la certeza del procesamiento y sanción de todos los que han abusado de su autoridad; la exigencia a la nueva administración de que, como primer y fundamental acto contra el clientelismo, el Rector y los vicerrectores se rebajen el salario y que ya no exista ningún sobresueldo por jefatura, únicamente la descarga horaria; en fin, del ejercicio de todas las acciones jurídicas y políticas para el logro de un real adecentamiento de la Universidad de Panamá.

Contra el clientelismo y la corrupción

El MOVADUP censura con firmeza cómo la componenda clientelar se ha manifestado en diversos nombramientos que ha realizado el nuevo rector, por lo que le advierte que en ningún momento la facultad legal para efectuarlos debe interpretarse como una licencia para soslayar la obligación de designar personas que cuenten con la debida preparación, experiencia, desempeño eficiente, trato humano, iniciativa y, sobre todo, la ruptura con el clientelismo y corrupción que caracterizó a la pasada administración.

Igualmente, haciendo eco del clamor de la sociedad panameña que aspira a una Universidad decente y democrática, exigimos que, desde el primer día de gestión, la próxima administración tome acciones inequívocas para que se haga justicia a todos aquellos docentes, administrativos y estudiantes que fueron víctimas de persecución política amañada e ilegal hasta el último día de la pasada administración, y sean reintegrados a sus respectivas cátedras, posiciones o aulas universitarias, así como se realicen actos oficiales de desagravio público. Igualmente, demandamos que quienes hayan sido nombrados como docentes o funcionarios sin cumplir los requisitos legales, sean, a su vez, desalojados de las cátedras y cargos a los que han accedido espuriamente, merced a la arbitrariedad de la administración saliente.

El compromiso del MOVADUP

MOVADUP reitera a la comunidad nacional, y con particular énfasis al nuevo rector, nuestra permanente actividad comprometida con el adecentamiento y la transformación de la UP para que sea un centro de educación superior que goce de respeto y se sacuda las taras que hoy lo caracterizan. Estamos convencidos de que ello exige la participación de los más amplios sectores de la sociedad panameña, única fórmula para encontrar soluciones a la grave crisis que enfrenta. Emprender el cambio en la Casa de Méndez Pereira y el resto de las universidades públicas, con un análisis serio de los cambios por introducir, no puede enclaustrarse en sus estamentos internos. Se requerirá de mucha fortaleza ética y moral, y de mucho acompañamiento de los sectores más honestos y consecuentes de la familia universitaria y de la comunidad nacional para superar los graves problemas de la UP y apuntalarla como centro científico y humanístico de alta calidad y como referente crítico de la vida nacional, de carácter popular y al servicio del pueblo panameño.




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An impressive new lab in Gamboa

STRI Gamboa lab
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s new Gamboa lab, some 150 meters from the canal on one side and abutting Parque Nacional Soberania on the other. The building may become an icon of local architecture as much as a famous research center. Photo by STRI.

STRI’s new rainforest digs and a bit of context

photos and story by Eric Jackson

“Where do you find the laboratory?” The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) gave a numerical answer to its rhetorical question in the handout to reporters who were already there: “9.11°, -79.70°” Those are coordinates of latitude and longitude — not rocket science, but an opening reminder that to cover this internationally renowned scientific organization very well one needs to bring a bit of prior knowledge and be ready to look things up.

Those content with rewriting the press release and getting a picture of the dignitaries cutting the ribbon got what they needed, but as it turned out nobody in the local press corps was that shallow. There were plenty of things to impress the dozens of people in attendance, each possessed of a different perspective.

The building itself is revolutionary, even with its adaptations of features already well known in isthmian architecture. Big windows, shady overhangs and LED lighting add up to energy savings, both for lighting and for cooling. The shaded balconies all around, which shelter the ground level, are a feature that we see as part of the French Caribbean architecture that used to be predominant and is still found in Colon’s city center and of which examples can be found in the capital and elsewhere in Panama. That large grassy ramp in the foreground is a huge water tank that is meant to ensure that the plants and animals in the lab will not die of thirst in an El Niño drought or a prolonged IDAAN outage. The lines, angles, shade and spaces for sunlight will provide material for photo artists for a long time to come.

There are three stories. On the ground floor are the animal behavior labs, the insect breeding area, the sound room and the animal maintenance facility. The second floor is dedicated to microbiology. The third floor is used to study forest ecology and the effects of climate on plant life and evolution. About a half dozen of the institute’s 40 staff scientists will have their main labs or offices in the building but they will be at the head of a small army of visiting scientists, research fellows and students.

The building cost about $20 million, mostly raised with a grant from the US Congress. The project also received funding from private donors. It was designed by KlingStubbins and CAISA, both subsidiaries of the US-based Jacobs architecture, civil engineering and design firm.

STRI lab 2
Between the big windows and the LED lighting, this corner of the lab’s second floor is brightly lit using relatively little electricity. Here scientists held forth on the relationships among strangler figs, wasps and bats, wherein certain species of lianas — woody vines — of the ficus family are pollinated by wasps, whose eggs and larvae than infest the fruit that grow on these vines, which gradually entangle and kill trees in the forest. Bats eat the fruit and their droppings spread the seeds. So what if climate change causes the wasps to go extinct or evolves them into something other than the organisms with a special relationship with this species of ficus? How might that affect the health of tropical forests?

Several species of context

A Smithsonian building spree against a backdrop of rising irrationalism in the USA: Does this lab’s mission include investigation into to climate change and evolution? Polls indicate that about one-quarter of American adults believe that evolution doesn’t really happen. In a statistical tie in the race for November’s US elections there is a presidential candidate who calls global warming a Chinese hoax aimed at destroying the American economy. All sorts of long discredited racial theories and negative stereotypes about other people’s cultures and religions are in vogue. The politics of the endlessly repeated lie — a technique invented by the US advertising industry, then perfected in it most pernicious political application by the Nazis — thrives not only in Internet memes but also in candidates’ stump speeches. All of this creates doubts about the future and funding of the Smithsonian Institution, a US government agency and famous polymath academic organization.

Attempts at political and corporate manipulation are an old story for the Smithsonian. Perhaps these have been more successful with respect to history and the arts. STRI draws its staff, research fellows and visiting scientists from about 55 countries and among them there are certain common attitudes that resist manipulation. Were some anti-scientific mandate to come from on high to the world class scientists who work at STRI, it’s probable that there would be a mass exodus to other institutions and other countries where scientific methods get more respect.

The national institution went through great turmoil in 2006 and 2007, mainly over scandals that arose from the importation of corporate values and habits at the end of the 20th century. But one of the signal events in the Smithsonian’s troubles was a 2006 National Museum of Natural History exhibit on the Arctic. At a time when oil companies were offering large donations and members of Congress were denouncing the scientific consensus about the nature and causes of climate change a fraud, on orders from above the exhibit was changed to replace references to global warming as an established fact with suggestions that this was just one possible theory. There was a rebellion among government scientists, within the Smithsonian and in other public agencies. That fed broader inquiries which ultimately brought down the Smithsonian’s top people of that time.

So why wasn’t the Smithsonian’s top officer, Secretary David J. Skorton, on hand for the laboratory’s opening? At the time Skorton was busy with the preparations for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture three days later. The lab and the museum are but two of more than a dozen new Smithsonian facilities opening in the last year of the Obama administration. Fairly or unfairly, we might look at the state of US society and infer reasons about why ribbon-cutting season for this building spurt is happening now.

Dr. Matthew C. Larsen, a geologist who had spent much of his career specializing in hydrology, at the Gamboa lab’s opening ceremony. He took over as STRI director in August of 2014 after an interregnum prompted by a scandal, the details of which have never been made public. Also at the ceremony were the long-time director, now emeritus and staff scientist, Ira Rubinoff, and the acting director who took over on an interim basis after Rubinoff’s successor was ousted, evolutionary biologist William Wcislo, who remains with STRI as a staff scientist.

A new facility as a symbol of a new era at STRI: One day in the fall of 2013, this reporter was told by several secondary sources at STRI, a management detail sent from Washington barged into the office of then STRI director Eldredge “Biff” Bermingham, seized his computer, obliged him to hand over his Smithsonian ID and set of keys to STRI facilities and permanently banished him from the institute. Since that firing STRI has pretty much made Bermingham a non-person. Any mention that Bermingham ever existed has been erased from the STRI website. He is the only former director who was never given emeritus status.

Why did this happen? The people who know do not get into the details other than to say that there was a conflict of interest. A couple of coincidences may suggest a reason of sorts, but may just be coincidences. Shortly before his ouster Bermingham proudly announced to this reporter that he was the owner of a penthouse in the San Carlos beach development of Vista Mar, a Shahani brothers project that was at the time in search of controversial environmental permits for the diversion of the Rio Teta to water their golf course and the construction of a marina that destroyed a lobster niche off of Playa Ensenada. Bermingham’s ouster also came at a time when the US government began to make public statements suggesting that it did not approve of Ricardo Martinelli’s moves to neuter the Electoral Tribunal and otherwise clear the way for a stolen 2014 election which would leave him in control of the country through proxies.

Whatever it was, the apparent consensus within STRI was that the institute needed to be rid of Bermingham but that whatever the offense was it did not warrant his being drummed out of the scientific community and left unable to work and support his family. He is now the chief science officer at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami.

The washing of STRI’s dirty laundry is not this reporter’s purpose, but it’s important to note that while conditions in the society and government of the United States are hazardous to the mission of the Smithsonian Institution as a whole, Panamanian society and government also set ethical traps, not necessarily the same ones, for STRI. Here corporate and banking secrecy set the stage for opaque deals in both the private and public sectors and generally hinder accountability for any wrongdoing. Here we have one of the world’s very worst educational systems. People at the top of society — including at the flagship national university — flaunt falsified academic credentials. Getting to the top is generally a matter of family ties rather than ability. It’s rare for anyone to get kicked out of a profession for misconduct. By and large there is no conflict of interest law here. In court cases the concealment or destruction of relevant documents gives rise to no presumption that the party who concealed or destroyed them did so because that evidence would be adverse to his or her interests. Here there is no real penalty for filing a fraudulent environmental impact statement.

The governments that such social conditions create treat expert opinions as commodities to be purchased and experts whose word can’t be bought as defective. It’s always a potential problem for STRI, a US government institution operating by leave of Panamanian authorities.

Panama’s “atomic bomb” might be to kick the Smithsonian out of the country altogether, but STRI depends on all sorts of cooperation on many levels and lesser things could be denied or delayed. Visas for foreign scientists — not just American ones — or permits to collect fauna or flora in protected areas could be denied. Panama could prevent STRI archaeological digs, or deny scientists protection from huaqueros who would vandalize and loot their work. The institute, or more likely those who work for it, could be shaken down in myriad ways.

Panamanian politics have surely affected STRI’s work, but it’s more complicated than just intimidation. In 2006 the Panama Canal Authority and Martín Torrijos administration claimed a STRI endorsement for the “Yes” side in the canal expansion referendum, something that would be terribly inappropriate for a US government agency to issue. STRI in fact made no such endorsement but neither did the institute dispute the claim. But there are Panamanians who work at STRI, who do take sides in Panama’s national debates and some did in that referendum.

That choice, in which most of the Panamanian electorate abstained, presented a complex set of technical, scientific, economic and political issues. Part of the “Yes” campaign’s pitch was based in climate change denial. They denied that Arctic ice would melt so as to create navigable routes that would compete with the Panama Canal. Biff Bermingham claimed to this reporter that concerns about the new locks’ water saving basins increasing the salinity of Gatun Lake and endangering much of Panama’s drinking water supply were misplaced because a hydrologist’s recent research had shown that the constant inflows of fresh water from the watershed would flush the salt out of the lake. But he would provide no citation to anything published on this matter, and the recent El Niño drought perhaps calls into question predictions of this sort. The ACP was yet worse. Their own studies said that the salinity issue needed more research, but the ACP claimed that the study had been superseded by newer work, yet then and to this day they have refused to specify which new research, by whom.

A basis for mistrust of the ACP’s scientific claims was laid early in the campaign by their misrepresentation in Spanish of an American archaeologist’s study that was published in English. When that scientist objected, he was told that strings would be pulled so that he would never again work in Panama. That sort of thing would be the stuff of public protests by scientists if done in the United States, but STRI folks kept their silence about it. Perhaps Bermingham’s claim that Panama was offering STRI a hydrology institute enhanced the effect.

This reporter, who is not a scientist but draws on experiences in the USA as a local elected official, a building code appeals board member and a lawyer who dealt with road construction contractors and the games that they play, was born in Panama and does not make the pretense of not having opinions on things. STRI anthropologist and Galeta Point lab director Stanley Heckadon is also a Panamanian citizen, has advised or served governments — he played a key role in General Omar Torrijos’s decision to create a series of national parks in the canal watershed rather than turning those areas over to developers who wanted them — and in the course of the campaign this reporter and Heckadon had a back-and-forth exchange about potential salt intrusion into Gatun Lake. Heckadon cited no undisclosed studies and made no projections about what the watershed’s future rainfall would be. Having previously studied and documented the increasing pollution of the canal’s lakes, his argument was that the metro area should not be taking its water supply from the lake anyway. As it turned out, at a cost of more than $1 billion and with many problems along the way, the main water intake was moved upstream to Madden Lake. We might now argue about whether and to what extent the cost of the canal expansion was improperly compartmentalized and thus deceptively understated to the voters, but that’s off the side of a side issue. In a season of specious claims Heckadon made an honest argument.

As it turned out the canal expansion digging led to important scientific discoveries. STRI paleontologists led by one of the stars of the profession, Colombian scientist Carlos Jaramillo, made important fossil discoveries that went a long way toward resolving an old argument of just when the Isthmus of Panama closed the gap between the oceans.

There is still some finishing work to be done on the canal expansion and perhaps there will be more important fossil finds. The technical and economic issues are unfolding and political consequences may follow. But a chapter in Panama’s history, and also in STRI’s, is coming to a close. The new lab, and the new STRI administration, coincide with the changed situations and are likely to become symbols of them.

How different is Panamanian political culture and what changes would there be in its relationship to STRI? That’s hard to say. Panama’s official delegation at the lab’s opening was led by Environment Minister Mirei Endara, who seemed quite pleased. “This facility will strengthen the capacities of our community of scientists,” she said. But perhaps more important than the minister to STRI folks working in Gamboa was the presence of quite a few members of the Environmental Police unit. This is the scientists’ line of defense against being mugged in the wood or having their rainforest experiments vandalized.

roof one
Appropriate technology for rain running off off of a rainforest roof: for starters there are no downtake tubes to get clogged with leaves or other debris.


roof 2
Stainless rain chains slow and direct the runoff from a tropical cloudburst so that it does not erode the spot below.


roof 3
There is no standard ditch to send the rushing water elsewhere to erode or flood. This drain filters and collects the runoff.

Is this lab, along with other new Smithsonian projects, a break from a corporate model that prevails across much of US public higher education and a lot of the nonprofit sector? It has been heard so many times before. To grow and thrive, this public or private nonprofit outfit needs to be “monetized.” The money-making functions need to be grown and spun off beyond the constraints of public policy or a charitable tax status. Millionaire, billionaire and large corporate donors must be attracted. To do this sharp operators from the world of business — especially from the financial sectors — are the ideal leaders. To work well with such donors, these executives must receive salaries and benefit packages that allow them to fit seamlessly into the same social circles. From small public universities to great national institutions, this sort of thinking has prevailed in American society for more than a generation. The Rector Magnifico was just a crummy Panamanian imitation.

And so it was that in 1999 the Smithsonian Institution, guided by regents and staff who thought that way, spun off money making functions as the privatized Smithsonian Business Ventures. Then they set up an appointment process that brought banker Lawrence M. Small, previously of Fannie Mae, Citibank, as the institution’s 11th secretary, which is the title of the Smithsonian’s top executive.

Rather immediately Small ran into resistance from scientists when he moved to close unprofitable research activities, such as what is now the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. Then he was convicted of violating international and federal law by possessing without a permit an Amazonian artifact containing the feathers of an endangered bird. He got in trouble with scientists again over censorship of frank discussion of global warming. In the end, in 2006 and 2007, Small was run out of office over tawdry financial abuses, including fraudulent housing allowance claims, his wife’s unofficial trip to Cambodia on the Smithsonian dime, sweetheart television deals with the Showtime Networks, $90 grand in overstated expenses, and… we probably don’t know the extent of it. Against the orders of the Smithsonian’s top lawyer, records were destroyed.

Small’s ability to get into so much trouble — which culminated when the US Senate froze about $17 million in appropriations and prompted his resignation in March of 2007 — was aided by broad exemptions from the application of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the Smithsonian. It’s not a simple issue. It’s easy to say that the public has a right to know how much the head of a government agency is paid, or the financial details of part of a public institution that has been spun off into a private company still controlled by that public institution. But should a Smithsonian archaeologist be obliged to tell the location and details of her ongoing dig to the huaqueros? Should a Smithsonian biologist who is not ready to publish have to turn over his preliminary research results to a rival for some prestigious professorship? Add the proprietary claims of corporations whose grants fund much of today’s scientific research and the transparency versus secrecy issues become yet more complicated.

Small, however, was in an ethical league with his fellow financial manipulators who largely brought down the US economy a year and a half later. There was a clique at the Smithsonian that went along with his secretive, sticky fingered ways. But mostly the Smithsonian culture spat that stuff out. Regents rebelled and complained to Congress. Notwithstanding FOIA exemptions, key people at the Smithsonian insisted on the retention of records. When Small fell a bunch of people went with him.

If one cares to look at the Lawrence M. Small story as a part of the larger ethical tale of the 2008 financial and real estate collapse, then the Smithsonian stands out as something of a contrast. There was more accountability at the Smithsonian.

With the exodus accompanying Small’s departure, long-time STRI director Ira Rubinoff, who had been training Biff Bermingham to take his place, left for Washington to take over as interim science director. When Small’s successor, G. Wayne Clough, stabilized things and put together a new team Rubinoff came back to Panama, now as STRI director and staff scientist. He played a role in getting the land and making the arrangements for the new Gamboa lab.

In 2014 the president of Cornell University, cardiologist and jazz musician David J. Skorton, became the Smithsonian’s 13th secretary. He, the institution and its outpost in Panama face a new generation of challenges. But some of these folks will do so in a really cool building in Gamboa.

STRI plant lab
If we are to plant trees to put the brakes on climate change, what sorts of trees, and where? And if in the new climate Panama needs to feed itself more from its orchards than from its pastures and fields of grain, which trees should we plant for that? STRI studies these sorts of things and many others in Gamboa now. The old elementary school is now used to teach sciences to university students. There are a number of field labs in the old Canal Zone townsite, and a lot of the houses are occupied by people who work at STRI.


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The Panama News blog links, September 27, 2016


The Panama News blog links

La Estrella, Los ingresos del Canal de Panamá caen 4.3% hasta julio

WorkBoat, Expanded canal and low prices boost US LNG trade

JOC, High ship use doesn’t raise trans-Pacific cargo rates

McClatchey, US State Department will believe Nicaragua Canal when it sees it

The New York Times: Where ice once crushed ships, open water beckons

KTOO, A Frenchman and his hen Monique sailed the Northwest Passage

World Policy Institute, Arctic in focus

CCTV, Feasibility study underway for China-backed railway project

Xinhua, China’s Belt and Road initiatives three years on

GB Times, China completes longest desert highway

Trade Arabia, Suez tunnels to be done in late 2018

AP, Maersk splits into two divisions

Hellenic Shipping News, Hyundai looking to buy Hanjin box ships

Bloomberg, Maersk may move to acquire Hanjin and Hyundai

SunHerald, Greg Litton on the ’89 World Series as a Giant

TVN, Buhoneros de Calidonia dudan sobre su reubicación

CBC, Canadians in Panama Papers shouldn’t expect a tax deal

BBC, European Parliament begins Panama Papers inquiry

Fresh Fruit Portal, Winds destroy banana crops in Panama

Chiriquí Natural, La inundación de mil años en Barro Blanco

Latin American Herald Tribune, Panama neglects its own house about climate change

PR, Retired US Army general to lead deployment of gene-spliced insects

Science Alert, France bans plastic cups and plates

Mongabay, New online biodiversity monitoring manual

Christian Science Monitor, Singing fish and their humming at night

Video, Curiosity never sleeps

Space.com, Signs of giant water plumes of Jupiter’s moon Europa

Center for Public Integrity, Opioids and the politics of pain

Business Insider, Google helps to save journalist from massive cyber-attack

Reuters, Probe of leaked NSA hacking tools examines operative’s ‘mistake’

Mongabay, International Criminal Court may now hear land grab and ecocide cases

Chiriquí Natural, Destituyen la cacica y rechazan acuerdo de Barro Blanco

Haiti Libre, Panama welcomes US decision to deport Haitians

US Department of Defense, SENAN officer heads multinational force aboard US ship

UN News Centre, Ban: “Colombians bidding farewell to decades of flames”

BBC, Three Catholic priests slain in Mexico in one week

Caribbean News Now!, Caribbean leaders warn of regional economic collapse

El País, La venganza de la Miss hispana a la que Trump humilló

Castsro, El privelegio de la autonomía

Simpson, ¿Xenofobia en Panamá contra venezolanos?

Financial Transparency Coalition, The Bahamas leaks

Semana, Paz en Colombia: por qué votar Sí

Isacson, Colombia’s growing coca crop

Bird, Guatemalan human rights prosecutor arrested on baseless charges

Rosnick, Latin America’s commodities bust? Not exactly

Wallerstein, Secular stagnation — or is it worse?

Frankel, Voting for a better US political system

Drew, Why is the US presidential race so close?

Barrera, La amenaza de Trump continúa

Giroux, The pathology of politics in our warfare state

Huffington Post, Pope calls yellow journalism a form of terrorism

Religion News Service, Leonard Cohen is as Jewish as it gets

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