Jun 27, 2012

Panama Politics are a Pain

Recently I commented on a post written by Lee Zeltzer in his Boquete-based blog.  Lee was writing about incidences of political unrest that erupted in Panama City during National Assembly sessions.  If you were to watch TV footage of the incident, what you would see are suited politicians getting physical with each other, pushing, shoving, posturing. One man even wielded a police baton at his colleague(s).  In addition to that,  demonstrators tore down plastic partitions when the public observation area was closed off.  Riot police were involved in controlling the situation.  The session eventually was postponed a day or two.

In Lee's last post regarding "Political Unrest in Panama", he danced around the issue of an increasingly apparent political animosity toward current Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli.  What Lee basically said about the political unrest was that there are pros and cons to the activities of the current administration, and  there are allegations of corruption, but the most glaring problem is the national cost for the numerous infrastructure projects the Martinelli administration has implemented, and that “someone” has to pay for it.
After reading the article,  I decided to play devil’s advocate. I typed off a comment that if I were in a position to vote in the 2014 election, that I would vote for the current Panamanian Vice President, Juan Carlos Varela,  [an outspoken opponent of the current President].  I liked the way Varela responded publically during the indigenous mining protests, and in general I like his political presence from interviews I’ve watched on TV.  He is the leader of the Panamenista political party and not a member of President Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico party.    And he was instrumental in the formation, on June 15th,  of the Front for Democracy, which is a coalition of Panama’s three other political parties.
The Front for Democracy was formed  to show opposition to the current administration’s actions pertaining to approval of bills allowing for the sale of government shares in electric and telecommunications utilities, and for extension of the Supreme Court from 9 to 12 members via creation of a Fifth Chamber.  (The law regarding establishment of the Fifth Chamber was conceived during the administration of a prior president, then later repealed by his successor.  The current political administration was trying to revive the Fifth Chamber and President Martinelli actually named three judges and alternates to this entity.  Apparently their function was to deal with analysis and interpretation of constitutionality matters.)

Vice President Varela commented on the union of the three opposition parties to form the Front for Democracy, stating  that "Democracy belongs to three million Panamanians, not to political parties…. the Fifth Chamber is the beginning of disrespect for democracy."   Other criticisms by other party leaders expressed that the President and his government  "is destroying the country's institutions, acting against the law; they are trying to give continuity to his government to continue in a dance of millions and extract  [the state] resources for their own interest. “   The opinion was that Ricardo Martinelli wants to build the Fifth Chamber as a structure of constitutional interpretation and analysis and do it in his own way for his party’s future electoral intentions.  Other comments included the belief that in addition to destroying institutions the government is auctioning off the national heritage, by selling the shares of the telephone and electricity companies, and the lands of the Colon Free Zone. "What is happening is that it seems they want to buy the goods of the Panamanian state cheaply.”  On the issue of appointment of judges of the Fifth Chamber, the leader of the Popular Party said the president is making an institution as he sees fit because he wants to open a path in his project to remain in power. "What is at stake is whether there will be elections, if there will be democracy, if there will be freedom of expression.”   The Panamanian  people were urged  “to defend our liberties from a person who was elected democratically but does not govern democratically."

I'm getting off subject, but thought the background info might be helpful….In any event, I impulsively posted my comment re: Varela  on Lee's blog to see what others would think or say about this particular politician who I sort of favor. 

A Panamanian responded to say he was undecided, but essentially believed most Panamanians vote not so much in favor of one party or politician as they vote against a particular party or politician.  His comments suggested that Panamanians often became disenchanted with the party in power and tended to vote to replace that party in subsequent elections.
The rest of the comments were from expats who very nastily and closed-mindedly told me I was inappropriate in expressing a political opinion and that I was NOT to get involved.    Expats are advised not to engage in political demonstrations or become active in grassroots movements.  I believe this is appropriate and good advice.  However, I think a lot of people are going overboard when they believe it is not okay to become informed of local issues or engage in political discussions with Panamanian nationals.   If the tables were turned, how silly would it sound to tell a US resident alien or foreign student or tourist that they are NOT to engage in political discussions or form a personal opinion regarding our government and / or an upcoming election?  When that becomes the rule, then democracy has definitely been disrespected. 

Below is a link to a Wall Street Journal article regarding the current situation in Panama.  A local expat, who is well-informed regarding Panama politics and very sympathetic to the current President and his administration, criticized the article as biased and misleading.  But despite his knowledge base, I frequently find myself at odds with his opinions.  I thought the Wall Street Journal article was informative.  There is also a video interview with the author on the same web page.  Ms. O'Grady's comments during the interview do seem a bit alarmist, though.

Below is a link to Don Winner's rebuttal of Ms. O'Grady's article. His bias is apparent. He strongly leans to the right in almost all his opinions,  and I'm told has a background in Air Force Intelligence.  This man is a strong proponent of open pit mining in Panama, which I have a rough time accepting.  But he does give a strong argument in favor of the current administration and feels the Wall Street Journal author didn't do adequate research before writing the article. He presents a different perspective.

Since I’ve been coming to Panama, I’ve seen the cost of living jump exponentially, and the public be taxed more and more to pay for infrastructure projects that are of questionable need.  I’ve seen little compassion for the environment.  I've been told of blatant attempts to seize control of lands and resources for sale to foreign corporate interests with little recompense to the Panamanian people.  Whether this is true and /or characteristic only of the current administration is something I have no way of knowing.  I only know the change has been very dramatic.   And interestingly enough, the President  renegged on the establishment of the Fifth Chamber.  The sale of government lands and shares of public utilities has also been halted.  The President reportedly has decided to cancel government subsidies for electricity,  and Panamanians are being warned their bills will increase and probably double in the coming months.

Truth be told, it’s really hard to determine truth from political propaganda in Panama, and I’m honestly glad I don’t have the added responsibility of voting in this country’s next election.  I just hope all ends well for this country that I have grown to love.