August 20, 2014

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 August 10, 2014


Artisans Fair WRAt the National Artisans Fair. Photo by Wendy Reaman

The way it’s done in the Interior

At this year’s National Artisans Fair, the preponderance of “cultura típica” — the cholo culture of the Interior — was striking. It wasn’t that the indigenous, Afro-Panamanian and other strains of our culture were missing, but statistics released by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry say that the amount of business done was way up, there were more people exhibiting than in years past and the cultural heartland of the central provinces from whence President Varela hails were at a glance at least the spiritual origin of most of the growth. We are a country of many cultural influences and should celebrate and build upon that, but the exuberant rebound of polleras, cumbia, tambores, bollos and all the rest of those Interior traditions befits the moment, serves the country and presents a pretty face to foreign visitors.

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Mercedes Araúz de Grimaldo, the former suplente to the notoriously corrupt Attorney General José Antonio Sossa, says that the CEMIS case was all a smokescreen to avoid an investigation of the bribery of PRD legislators to gain approval of Mireya Moscoso’s high court nominees, Winston Spadafora and Alberto Cigarruista. Perhaps it was. But it may not have been a smokescreen composed entirely of lies, and I don’t see where Mercedes or her erstwhile boss did anything useful about the bribery allegations over the high court nominations.

After all of these years the Supreme Court threw out the CEMIS charges against Martín Torrijos, who was secretary general of the PRD at the time of the events that are said to have been engineered with bribes. The reason was not that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing, but that as to Torrijos the statute of limitations had run out, and because by the time that the investigation pointed at him — in 2010 during the Martinelli administation — Torrijos was protected by parliamentary immunity as a member of the Central American Parliament and the Martinelistas did not bother to go through the procedures to lift that immunity before beginning criminal proceedings. It was a 7-2 decision, with five different concurring opinions in support of the action and with four of the nine votes cast not by regular high court magistrates but by their suplentes.

I have heard many versions of the CEMIS story, some by people in positions to know but none of these people without personal stakes in the outcome. This is what I believe to be true:

Back in 2002 the Multimodal Industrial and Services Center (CEMIS), a project to expand, unify and take various advantages of a potential freight transportation link among Colon’s airport in France Field, the Colon Free Zone and the Panama Canal Railway, made intrinsic economic sense for Colon and the nation, with various environmental drawbacks for anyone who cared to object on those grounds or extra costs for those who would have supported the project with proper environmental mitigation. It was an idea mainly coming from a young businessman who was quite familiar with that aspect of Colon, not the pipe dream of anyone in then-President Mireya Moscoso’s inner circle or on her roster of favored families.

I believe — but can’t prove — that Moscoso’s faction in the legislature, whether or not Mireya was personally involved, shook down the CEMIS promoters for payoffs to get the thing approved. But the thing was, they didn’t have the votes to do that. Then, as far as I can tell, when the PRD opposition found out about the scam — whether or not Torrijos was personally involved — THEY shook down the CEMIS promoters for payoffs of equal size. With legislators on both sides of the aisle either paid or promised to be paid (I think the former), the contract for the project was approved. In the end, the project never happened as such and that’s a long and related but tangential story.

Mireya must have been alarmed at the turn of events because she had a couple of pending nominations by which which her appointees would have gained a working majority on the high court. Most probably bribes were paid to get the PRD votes needed to approve Cigarruista and Spadafora, who then joined an institutional milieu in which bribery was — and still is — a general practice.To the PRD’s credit in my way of thinking, those who sold out on these nominations were shunned by that party afterward.

So what do we learn from all of this? Actually, given that it is likely that next year we will see that start of a process to write a new constitution for Panama, a number of important things:

1. The concept of suplentes (alternates) ought to be banished from the Panamanian political system. That high court magistrates and legislators use stand-ins to cast controversial votes — more often than not it’s better characterized as doing dirty work — is institutionalized political wimpishness. Wimps should be scorned and cast out of this country’s public institutions, not protected by the constitution. The cost of maintaining suplentes is an unwarranted wimp subsidy.

2. We need to have the constitutional possibility of recall of public officials by elections called by submission of citizen petitions. Mireya’s upper hand in the legislature, and Martinelli’s vile collection of turncoats from other parties that ultimately became a majority in the National Assembly, would have been quite ephemeral had the possibility of recalls been present.

3. We need to have the constitutional possibility of initiative and referendum by citizen petitions. Initiative is the proposal of a law, referendum is the repeal of a law, and the latter is more important. An offended citizenry needs a more immediate way of short-circuiting obnoxious political maneuvers.

4. We are going to have a “parallel” constituent assembly rather than an “originating” one, which leaves the possibilities of corrupted powers that be interfering in the process of reorganizing the way that Panamanians conduct our public business. That should not, however, allow them to block changes to the way that we select supreme court magistrates or to stop a transitory provision of a new constitution that removes the entire existing membership of the court at or shortly after the moment that such a new constitution is approved. We really do need to be done with the whole lot of them at once.

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What IS it with this Mickey Mouse culture that afflicts the wealthier strata of Panamanian society? So now the proposal is to build a theme park somewhere near Volcan Baru — “like Disney World” — and put in a cable car to the top of the mountain. The proposal, not yet specified, also comes with the revival of a Panama City theme park idea — let’s hope not another suggestion for the top of Ancon Hill. Coming from the new head of the Panama Tourism Authority, hotelier Jesús Sierra, count that as possibly the first really bad idea of the Varela administration.

It’s better if we divide the question. The theme parks should be rejected out of hand and perhaps Sierra should be made to sit in a corner wearing Mouseketeer ears for bringing up that subject. The cable car idea should be considered on its merits and demerits. The environmental and economic consequences of such a thing would vary with the route — cable cars tend to scare wildlife in forest canopies over which they pass and you wouldn’t want people throwing trash out of windows into neighborhoods and the national park below, but on the other hand a cable car from downtown Boquete to the top of the mountain and back would make that small town a bit more attractive to visitors and many of the residents. It would take some serious study, and not of the “we’re doing this and buying a study to say that it’s OK” variety.

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Panama City Mayor José Isabel Blandón has apologized to the Chinese community for his party’s historical persecution of that part of the Panamanian nation. Those policies were long ago, but anti-Chinese racism is still very much alive in Panama so it’s not just a meaningless gesture.

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People from around the world are making their ways to this country for the Panama Canal’s centennial. Among them are a lot of reporters, the better of whom avoid minders from any part of the government. The Panama Canal Authority has been notorious for that, but we have yet to see whether Juan Carlos Varela will play those sorts of information control games. Among them will also be some Zonians who have not been here for many years, some of them old classmates of mine. The smarter ones will not spend too much time getting all weepy for a Canal Zone that’s long gone, but instead get to see and know what Panama is today and fall in love with something or someone that they never knew before. History was one of my undergraduate majors and I do believe that it’s important, but most important of all in that it informs the here and now.

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There is a brief window of time — probably no more than four months — to buy the two-bedroom house in the Interior from whence The Panama News comes your way at a quite reasonable price. There are advantages and disadvantages, chief among the latter the less than optimal rural Internet service, topping the list of the former the indoor space to have a worthy office and space for visiting journalists and journalism students.

Then there is the outdoor space, on which I am planting things that I hope I will be around to harvest. The Panama News has long been produced on a shoestring budget, one of the aspects of which is my ability to grow and put up food. The sale of a few ads, a lot of donated labor and in-kind contributions of all sorts, and reader donations of money also keep The Panama News coming your way. I will need to raise a lot of money (for me, but less than the price of most new cars in the scheme of things) to establish the place where I now am as a stable work environment for the foreseeable future.

Donations of money are always appreciated. But notice the photo at the top of this page, by a volunteer, and many other photos and columns by other volunteers. Plus so many of the other publications’ articles and graphics that I post on our TPN Blog page were pointed out to me by readers. I am the one full-time guy, but The Panama News is actually a team effort.

(Some contributions I peruse with great interest, but don’t publish. For example, that lewd poem somebody sent me the other day….)

One of the reasons why I am looking for physical stability is to have the foundation to recruit and groom a successor generation to carry on this and friendly Spanish-language alternative publications. This volunteer approach to non-oligarchic, non-commercial media is said to be alien to Panamanian culture, but I see the example of the mural painters of El Kolectivo as similar in spirit but working in a different medium as well as a different language. Plus, the priority in the search for younger people to carry on ought to be with respect to the Spanish-language pages. La Estrella and El Panama America started out as English-language papers and if in that sense The Panama News follows down that road, worse things can happen.

Are English-language media inherently unprofitable in Panama? Could be, but then a good news medium is more of a cause than a business anyway. Translations of articles pirated from the Spanish-language corporate mainstream or thinly disguised ad copy with little else account for most of the “competition” and if they are the ways to wealth and prestige — which I seriously doubt — they are also incredibly boring and insulting to the intelligent reader. The Panama News approaches its 20th birthday because there are enough readers out there who want better than that.

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Finally, let me leave you with some recent música típica, a cumbia thing by Vladimir Atencio:


Eric Jackson
the editor



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