After plowing through numerous videos of interviews with diverse VIPs in Panama’s sociopolitical scene, I finally happened upon one televised interview that actually gave information instead of slanted political rhetoric aimed solely at discrediting President Martinelli and his cabinet. Listening to political opportunists take advantage of the current crisis in order to further their own image and agenda sits poorly with me.
The interview I’m referring to is one with Roberto Troncoso, the president of the Panamanian Association of Business Executives. He, too, has his own spin on things, but it was one that provided some answers.
The existing law regarding the Colon Free Zone was enacted in the 1940’s and Colon's leaders were aware that it was up for revision. According to Mr. Troncoso, the announcement that there was a leadership consensus regarding Law 72 is misleading. He said there was a consensus regarding revising the law, but the topic of the sale of public lands in the free zone was a surprise that rose at the very last moment. (???????)
The interviewer interrupted to mention that the sale of the public lands in the free zone was the topic of public interest and protest regarding Law 72. Mr. Troncoso reported that the purchase of these lands was a minimal issue to business leaders, and no one actually was motivated to make purchases at this time. [no surprise there…] But apparently, Law 72 has many other articles and provisions that they object to. He explained there were provisions giving “super powers” to the manager. These included authority to unilaterally impose fines of up to $ 250,000 on business owners. Requests for appeals or reconsideration then had to go through this same manager. He called the provisions “divisive and a violation of the right to due process, bordering on unconstitutionality”.
Mr. Troncoso advised that the Colon Free Trade Zone was perhaps the only one in the world that wasn’t privatized. The interviewer asked if it wouldn’t be good for a businessman to buy his own land, which could later be mortgaged to purchase inventory, build structures, or provide financial liquidity. Mr. Troncoso replied that land never devaluates. The dollar could, but land doesn’t. The sale of the government land, in his view, amounted to “Bread for today, hunger for tomorrow”.
The current Colon Free Zone operation provides 170 million dollars, or 8% to Panama’s GNP. Not all of this income is from rents, however. Of this total amount, the city of Colon receives $ 320,000 annually. The Cambio Democratico party’s plan, that includes sale of the public lands, is proposed to raise $1000 million dollars, generating an annual income to Panama of $ 100 million. $33 million of that annual income is what is proposed annually for Colon. (Mr. Troncoso referred to that amount as “crumbs”.) Following the public outcry, however, President Martinelli tweeted from Japan that he was willing to increase payment to 100% of rents for Colon, and repeal the sale of lands if the populace was against selling.
Mr. Troncoso expressed that reforms are needed, and that the right plan could be good for Colon. But, he said, the President’s acquiescences came eight days after the onset of the protests and 4 deaths later. Presently people are upset, angry, and extremely distrustful of President Martinelli and his administration. As with all other public and business figures, Mr. Troncoso also supports repeal of the law. [no surprise there, either].
This was also expressed in another interview I watched with Balbina Herrera, ex-presidential candidate for the PRD party, who stated it thusly. “The country is like a woman who’s faced with a request for divorce. Her husband is telling her he’ll give her the car, the house, and other possessions, but she just wants him to get out and go away.”
Mr. Troncoso also raised the question as to why Law 72 and the promise of planned improvements for Colon are two separate entities. Why, he asked, couldn’t the plan for Colon’s improvements be written into the law? He stated that, to the best of his knowledge, there was no master plan regarding improvements for Colon and that there has been a long-standing issue of neglect for Colon involving prior administrations for many years past. The population of Colon, he stated, is decreasing and not increasing, and there is a dire need to rescue the city. He alluded to the restructuring of the rental arrangements and percentages.
Just as I thought----it’s all going to boil down to negotiation. Repeal the law as it now stands, draft another, drop the unpopular articles and provisions here, increase payments there, grease a few palms, and deceive the populace into thinking they won their social struggle. I’m okay with that, provided the violence, vandalism, road closures and deaths stop.