May 7, 2014

Proclamation of Juan Carlos Varela as President of Panama

Photo from Telemetro Noticias website

Just finished watching the official acknowledgement of Juan Carlos Varela as President and Isabel Saint Malo as Vice President of the republic of Panama.  It was an interesting event.  The procedure requires official documents from both individuals be submitted to the Tribunal Electoral. These documents are then approved and authenticated publicly, and the winning candidates are presented with certificates acknowledging their designation as President and Vice President elect of Panama.  

Prior to the official handing over of the certifications, the president of the Electoral Tribunal, Erasmo Pinilla, gave a lengthy speech in which he was scathingly subjective about the significance of the Varela win and his personal  impressions of the current administration.  I enjoyed it for its shock value as much as anything else.  

President Ricardo Martinelli chose not to be present for the event, and after hearing the speech delivered by Mr. Pinilla, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward him and happy he didn't attend what would have been a humiliating experience. The contrast between how this type of event would transpire in the US was eye-opening.  What most struck me from the onset was how no one acknowledged any of President Martinelli's accomplishments, and how he was publicly vilified.   I admit I have not been staunchly in favor of the current president or what has been publicized about his administration, however the man did accomplish a good deal in his five year term and, in my humble opinion, should be given credit for the positive things he accomplished for the country.  Not a positive word was uttered for him or his service to Panama.  Perhaps this will happen later, at the inauguration on July 1st.  I certainly hope so, because President Martinelli worked five years for Panama without taking any salary, and all the while bearing a good deal of criticism and bad press. In only five years the country has a light rail system, new hospitals and dialysis centers, improved roads, a four lane highway from David to Boquete, a public bus transportation system, an official taxi service system,  the Cinta Costera in it's three phases, an additional international airport in Rio Hato, and multiple other improvements. Perhaps he ran roughshod over governmental institutions to accomplish his goals, and perhaps he lacked political correctness in his dealings with government functionaries, but nevertheless his accomplishments stand for themselves and he deserves some credit and acknowledgment for them, in my humble opinion.  

Despite Mr. Varela's  declarations of commitment to public service and overt manifestations of humility, this President Elect shows little compassion for the man who chose him as a running mate five years ago and who handled  vice-presidential responsibilities as well when Mr. Varela dropped out 26 months into the term due to a falling out between the two men.  Mr. Varela continued to receive his salary as Vice President for the rest of the five-year term despite his absence from the position.  (In his defense, he dedicated the salary to an underprivileged school.) Details to what and why it happened are sparse, but each side has made allusions open to diverse speculation.  

As I've previously said, I'm glad I couldn't vote in the election.  I'm glad I am just an observer, and have the luxury of questioning everything.  I would have voted for Varela had I been able to do so, but as things begin to unfold, I'm seeing subtleties I previously didn't and am wondering what they mean and just how significant they could be.

Tonight Mr. Varela gave a great speech in which he promised governmental integrity, dedication to social inequality, a focus on improving the quality of life for all Panamanians, commitment to financial transparency and the strengthening of democracy in this country.  What was there not to like?   

He ended his speech with a not-so-subtle jab at President Martinelli's absence, remarking that in 2019 he, Juan Carlos Varela,  expected to be at the proclamation of the next President Elect, proud of his accomplishments, proud to show his face, and contentedly turning over a better, stronger democracy to his successor.  

Panama Has a New President


The above photos were copied from BBC News and TVN-2 Panama websites to show candiate Juan Carlos Varela, who won Panama's presidential election on May 4, 2014 with 39% of the popular vote.  He won over candidates Jose Domingo Arias (Cambio Democratico) and Juan Carlos Navarro  (PRD).  

Since the announcement of his victory, Mr. Varela has been quite strong in his comments on how the government he leads will differ from that of the current administration.  I liked what he said during his campaign, and still find most of his remarks palatable.  I was secretly hoping he would win the election.
However, I spent the evening watching the election results at the home of Panamanian friends who either supported Jose Domingo Arias outright, or who voted for him as the least of of three evils. All were very outspoken about Mr. Varela.   Several in the group of 14 individuals said they didn't trust him and considered him the worst choice of the three major candidates.  They believe they know something I don't.

I watched current President Ricardo Martinelli when he appeared at the Cambio Democratico headquarters following announcement of a Varela victory, and was reminded of a comment he once made about a year ago on the national TV channel that "Varela isn't what he appears to be."  I simply don't know enough to venture any guesses.  Had I been able to vote, Juan Carlos Varela would have received my vote.  I suppose the old adage,  time will tell,  works here.   

So far, the President Elect has stated that he will work for Panama, and that he is interested in putting party preferences aside and improving the quality of life for all Panamanians. He has said no one should fear a loss of their employment or business as a result of  political party affiliations, and he makes no demands that people consider changing their allegiances. He has promised that the first thing he will do, the same afternoon he takes office, is sign a document freezing the prices of 22 Panamanian food staples  (known as the Canasta Basica).  These price freezes will affect meat, dairy, vegetables, rice, legumes, and other staples. The freeze will allegedly save each family a cost of $58 per month for basic food items. It may not seem like much, but to many families who subsist on around $500 monthly income or less, this is a big deal. Economists and business leaders all say this is a dangerous move to make, and caution the public to consider the measure temporary---a short range plan while implementing more realistic long term measures to improve internal agricultural production.  They also maintain the prices will not decrease, but instead will simply stabilize for the time being. The President Elect has stated that his government will immediately change from a business-centered approach to a public service one and it's focus will be to serve the people of Panama and improve their lives.  He promised during his campaign to bring water to all homes and to implement bilingual education in all schools.  After securing the election one day ago, he called for the resignations of the current government comptroller, the attorney general, and  the public prosecutor, whose administrations have been questioned by diverse sectors. He went as far as to say "they shouldn't be in office on July 1st" when he assumes power.  He suggests opening a re-investigation of alleged corruption charges against the incumbent President.  

All of this sets fine with me, but then suddenly, I feel a bit  unsettled with Mr. Varela's position regarding Venezuela.  President Nicholas Maduro, apparently an old friend, was one of the first international leaders to congratulate Mr. Varela on his win, and the President Elect has invited the Venezuelan dictator to attend his inauguration in Panama on July 1st.  Apparently their friendly relationship developed while both served as Chancellors for their respective countries during prior administrations.  Mr. Varela claims he is able to speak directly and truthfully with President Maduro and will send an emissary to that country shortly to evaluate what is going on there.  He says he will maintain Panama's position regarding social peace, human rights and liberty of expression, but Mr. Varela does seek to restore diplomatic relationships with this country, following Maduro's severence of ties due to Panama's condemnation of human rights abuses that came to light in February of this year. Varela also expressed agreement earlier this year that Cuba possibly be allowed to participate in some continental forums, such as the Cumbre de las Americas.  

And so things are getting interesting.  The Cambio Democratico's candidate did not win office this term [in my opinion] due to popular concern that President Ricardo Martinelli was overstepping his boundaries and trying to maintain control over the country in direct defiance of Constitutional policies regarding successive presidential terms.  The fear was he could turn himself into a benevolent dictator and run the country through a puppet candidate and his wife in a Vice Presidential role.  People feared allowing the Cambio Democratico party to remain in power an additional term was dangerous to their democracy.  

Candidate Varela maintained a healthy silence regarding the political unrest in Venezuela. President Martinelli was the only Latin American president to condemn Maduro's actions regarding the political demonstrations in Venezuela.   It cost Panama diplomatic relations with Venezuela, but showed a strong stand in favor of human rights, which is quite admirable.    So now, in the course of three months, Venezuela's president may be coming to Panama to celebrate the inauguration of this country's newest president.  

Ricardo Martinelli is reported to have said in response to hearing the news of Varela's victory,  " I know the candidate, and really, may God help us!"   I was watching on TV when he said, that in light of Varela's success in the election, he would change his plans about enjoying life and instead dedicate himself to opposition work.  

As crazy as it sounds, I find this somewhat comforting. Perhaps it will provide a good set of checks and balances, as long as projects can be completed and things can still get done. I'm becoming intrigued.

May 2, 2014

Election Fever---2 days and Counting

Following the Panama Presidential election activities has been interesting and enlightening. Can't wait to find out who will be elected.  According to all polls and publications, the three major candidates are running neck and neck,  and this is promised to be the closest election in Panama's history.  

As an expat, I am not allowed to vote, and I'm also cautioned against campaigning for, or openly expressing support for any particular party or candidate.  Does this mean I can't have an opinion? Hardly!  But in my own self-interest, I've chosen not to elaborate further.  Truth be told, I'm actually relieved that I can't vote in the election, because choosing a candidate would be a stressful decision for me.  

The campaign, like most US campaigns, has been fraught with mud-slinging. Panamanians I've spoken with have expressed revulsion at the tone of this campaign, stating it has been the dirtiest in their history.  I wouldn't know, but it doesn't seem any worse than what we see in the good old USA each election term. 

Today was the closure of the CD (Cambio Democratico) campaign, and I watched candidate Jose Domingo Arias' speech.  I have to say he made me like him.  He has charisma.  I found myself sold on the causes and projects he touted, despite deep concerns about the way the CD party has conducted business these past 5 years.  I also have worries regarding the veracity of his promises, as I would with any politician's pre-election promises.   Despite the likeability factor, and the fact that Mr. Arias is an economist with a stateside college education,  I worry a good deal about what will develop with Panamanian democracy should he win the election. As I see it, things could go either way depending upon this candidate's personal character and the amount of influence he actually will have within his own democratic party.  

Given that, I also have concerns regarding the other two leading candidates---one for the alleged financial scandals that shadow him and fears about his integrity being any greater than those of prior candidates (its hard to discern fact from negative propaganda) and the other for his party's clouded political history.    I'm glad to say voting in this election is one decision I won't have to make.  

For those who can read and understand Spanish, I offer the following two links which I think provide interesting and introspective information on two current topics about Panama.  The first is a post made by Ruben Blades, Panamanian ex-presidential candidate, Panamanian ex-Minister of Tourism, and world-renown musician and songwriter.  He writes about the upcoming elections and discusses his concerns about politicians and politics in Panama.

The second is a video documentary about the controversial Cinta Costera III, and is designed to focus the viewer's attention on the ecological, emotional, social, and historical fallout to the areas affected by its construction.  I found myself sympathetic to the lament, but swayed as well by what could be seen as a clean -up and improvement to the way things have been.  The film created a lot of ambivalence for me.

I started this post two days prior to election, but now it's less than 48 hours away. It will be intriguing to see what the outcome is, and how Panama's history and democracy will be affected in the not-so-distant future. Will it revert to a benevolent dictatorship?  Will it become a democracy for the rich with an incapacity to handle the enormous debt that has been generated in the last 5 years?  Will it revert back to a third world state and mentality with renewed social programs but little progress? Or will there be an outcome unlike any of the above?    I could be completely off base in all my lay theories and thoughts, but the winning candidate in this election could be significantly more important than in some prior elections, and I could be making some personal decisions about my permanency in Panama based on the outcome.