Aug 14, 2014

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Panama Canal

Photo from internet, wikipedia.es

Tomorrow Panama celebrates the 100th anniversity of the Panama Canal.  I just finished watching a documentary about the canal on the national television channel and have to sincerely admire Panama and its people for what they went through during 96 years of US foreign occupation of the canal zone.  I get my hackles up whenever some arrogant, conservative expat mouths off that “Carter should have never given away the canal.”  But this documentary, through no overt intention of its own, intensified the sentiment.  I’ve always believed Carter did the right thing.  The canal wasn't really ours to keep or give away.  Panama has always been the landlord.  We may have improved the property value and negotiated some unfair advantages, but that didn’t mean we owned it.  We leached plenty of profit from the canal over the time we rigidly controlled it. 

My recent research revealed that the US paid Panama 10 million dollars for permission to construct the canal in 1903, plus it paid Panama $250,000 annually in rent from then on.  How magnaminous!  The average toll for ONE cargo ship to pass through the canal is that amount.

While the US occupied the canal zone, it brought along segregationist, imperialist, colonialist attitudes to a host country and civilization that never differentiated people according to skin color or origin.   Having lived in the deep south as a child, I still remember the segregationist signs on water fountains and bathroom doors that delineated “colored” and “white”.   I think this has stuck so vividly in my mind because in my childish innocence, I chose to drink out of a “colored” fountain once, expecting the water to come out red, or blue, or purple.  I was sorely disappointed when it was just regular water, and even more dismayed and puzzled when my mother explained to me that white people drank out of one, and colored people out of the other.  Even at that tender age it seemed wrong to me.

Tonight’s documentary on TVN 2 showed photos of life in the early canal zone, and these exact same water fountains were seen in some of the shots. An elderly Panamanian man who grew up in the canal zone recounted how, as a child, there were separate housing tracts for “colored people” and for “whites”.  He said the houses for the white people had nicer yards and landscaping.  One time he ran across the street to pick a mango from a tree along the side of a public road in the common area.  He was acosted by a military policeman and told to get back to his own neighborhood.  He could never understand why, as a Panamanian in his own country, he couldn’t pick a mango off a tree on the side of the road. The documentary also talked of how, by order of US President Taft, over 20,000 Panamanians in numerous aldeas and villages along the route of the canal were summarily stripped of their lands and left to their own devices to find new living arrangements.  They were simply told to move.  Numerous villages were then flooded and submerged to create Lago Gatun, a 33 kilometer man-made lake that is considered the world’s largest.  Gatun Lake provides the water required to fill the canal locks and move the huge ocean liners through the canal.

The 1964 riots and subsequent bloodshed caused when Panamanian university students insisted a Panamanian flag be flown alongside a US one in the canal zone, as stated in one of the canal treaties,  was briefly mentioned in tonight's documentary.  The resultant deaths that occurred at the hands of US troops brought about significant strains in foreign relations between the two countries and was the impetus for the 1977 Neutrality Treaty signing by then-presidents Torrijos and Carter.  

Panama has done well since assuming control of the canal 14 years ago.  By the end of 2015, there will be an additional set of locks as part of the canal expansion.   Government education programs have been implemented to teach the population regarding conservation of the river basins and watershed areas feeding the three lakes that supply water to the canal.  As one environmental scientist expressed,  ‘It’s no longer just about running a canal zone.  It’s about incorporating a nation and caring for the Chagres River and the tributaries that fill the lakes. It’s about involving everyone for the good of the country and its people.'

I just have to say I’m exceptionally proud to be living here in Panama and sharing the joy this country feels at celebrating the 100-year anniversary of one of the world’s seven wonders, the Panama Canal.

Aug 13, 2014

Still Impressed with President Varela

I continue to watch the local news every night anticipating some kind of announcement that will raise red flags and destroy my infatuation  for the new president and his cabinet.  It hasn't yet happened.  I remain favorably impressed. 

Beginning with the most trivial observations...He, his wife, his support staff, and his new cabinet know how to dress commensurate with their professional stations. It's nice to see Panama's commander in chief dressed to convey that he respects his position and demands the same deference in return.  Golf shirts, guayaberas and rumpled sports jerseys are passe.  Suits and crisply starched white shirts are in.  

The President's calm, reserved, straightforward, and compassionate demeanor with the press is reassuring.  Educated, intelligent, well-thought responses to impromptu questions from reporters are much appreciated.  Recent TV interviews with both Vice President, Isabel St. Malo, and Minister of Economy and Finances, Dulcido de la Guardia, also reveal a professional quality that is very encouraging.  

But appearance isn't everything, one would be apt to say, and I don't disagree. What I especially like about what I'm observing is the openness and honesty displayed by all members of this administration regarding issues the public should know about.  No flippant responses saying nothing.  No empty promises or thinly veiled threats.  Widespread public education regarding issues that are both concerning and commendable about Panama's social, cultural, and financial matrix.  And a seemingly genuine devotion to improving the quality of life for the average Panamanian.  Social reforms, affordable housing, cleaning up the ghettos, focus on converting gang members to productive citizens through occupational rehabilitation and amnesty for surrendered firearms, increased subsidies for retirees with no social security benefits, increases in general scholarship funding for all school children, etc.  A democrat's dream! 

This evening I listened to discussions regarding concerns over the looming budget deficicits and anticipated electric rate increases due to decreased governmental subsidies.  As was brought to the public's attention last month, Panama's proposed electricity budget was 165 million, when the actual needs are around 500 million.   People have been told their bills would go up and there's been an aggressive campaign to educate the public regarding energy conservation, as well. An announcement of the changes and how they will impact the average household is anxiously awaited, but tonight the populace was advised it would be another 2-3 months before announcement, as the administration continues to study the issue in depth to arrive at the most reasonable and tolerable solution for everyone.   

Even more concerning, however, was the declaration by the Minister of Economy and Finances, Sr. De la Guardia, that the legal budget for the country for the entire year of 2014 was 1330 million balboas, and in the first trimester, ending on June 30, the country had already exhausted funds totaling 1500 million balboas.  This was due, he elaborated, to the prior administration's inflated reporting that overestimated state income and omitted significant recurrent expenses, among other things. When asked by the reporter how this was going to be dealt with, and how increased social subsidies and reforms were going to be financed in light of the apparent crisis, he responded that plans were being drawn up regarding the sale of certain government real estate holdings and suspension of credit as first line actions, followed by a taking the matter to the national assembly for consideration of a change in the law, if need be, to address the issues and outstanding debt. Not being even-moderately well versed on economic themes, I can't delve further into that matter, but merely wanted to compliment the current administration for informing the populace of the matters at hand. 

In contrast to this attitude of openness, Frank de Lima, the former Minister of Economy and Finances under President Martinelli, quickly spoke out against Sr. De la Guardia, calling him irresponsible for making the matter public. He emphasized that the Ministry of Economy and Finances is a technical entity whose function is to guarantee compliance with Panama's law of Social Fiscal Responsibility, and that the Martinelli administration, in it's five years of governance did comply with the limits of the law, despite the budget deficits. He made a point of saying that Sr. De la Guardia, as vice-minister in 2012, entered into that year's budget proposal, a 400 million balboa income estimate that wasn't reached, and yet they still complied with the limits of the law.  He went on to say that Sr. De la Guardia should concern himself more with generating and increasing employment, something he claims the Martinelli administration addressed and which is now showing a decline. My understanding of this issue, however, is that Panama has a very good employment rate, and in fact, has to import workers from other countries for the canal expansion and other projects due to the lack of local workers. 

There has been much criticism of the prior administration's practices regarding financial matters. One high-profile example entails the distribution and utilization of government funds in excess of an authorized 110 thousand balboas to leaders of small rural provinces. The amounts distributed to 150 of these "directivas" amounted to millions of dollars per province, and the application of these government funds toward community improvements aren't readily apparent. Sr. De la Guardia mentioned a through audit of these cases will be implemented and the outcome of that audit made public.  

Aug 2, 2014

30 Days in Office



Today marks the one-month point for President Juan Carlos Varela's time in office.  He is facing a lot of challenges, but continues to push his agenda of transparency in government and responsiveness to social issues.  

His administration swiftly responded to a temporary water crisis caused by contamination of the Rio Villa in Herrera province.  An ethanol processing plant established during Ricardo Martinelli's administration has been charged for the contamination.  Forty times the acceptable concentration of Atrazina, a pesticide, as well as  by-products related to the ethanol production process were found in the river. An environmental spill had been reported, and apparently the Atrazina contamination was an incidental finding when water sampling was employed to address the spill.  

The Varela administration has also announced it will be closely monitoring incomes generated outside Panama by the foreign consuls and will be implementing financial measures to close legal loopholes allowing millions of dollars to go unreported by the consuls and uncollected by the Panamanian state.

Reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars in funding issued by the prior administration to indigent rural communities is also slated for investigation. Financial records show distribution of funds to the localities, yet no community improvements nor justification for distributed funds are evident.  

On the day Juan Carlos Varela was inaugurated as President, exactly a month ago,  former President Ricardo Martinelli was in Guatemala being sworn in as a delegate to Parlacen, the Central American Parliament he called a den of thieves while campaigning for election 5 years ago. In August of 2009, President Martinelli withdrew Panama from the organization. His July 1, 2014 swearing in as a delegate was done surrepticiously during a time when the organization is normally in recess.  A special session without agenda was announced to members two days prior to the event, without press release, and the required quorum of 7 of 12 board members wasn't established. Parliamentary delegates from Panama who are members of the PRD and Panamenista parties are trying to have the ex-president's membership status and accompanying diplomatic immunity reviewed and possibly revoked.  Following their initial protests regarding the July first swearing in, however, little more has been heard regarding the matter. 

Even prior to assuming office, President-elect Varela requested the resignation of several existing cabinet members he felt "hadn't adequately defended the country's interests" during their terms in office.   He hasn't been successful in relieving them all of their posts.  The comptroller, for example, closely aligned with ex-president Martinelli, has refused to leave until her official term ends on December 31st of this year. 

President Varela's administration continues to face public transportation nightmares that have been omnipresent since dispelling the Diablos Rojos and implementing a municipal bus system in Panama City five years ago.  Another social headache has been the horrendous garbage situation in the Panama City barrios.  Varela's administration has aggressively tackled that problem by resuming control of garbage collection from private enterprise and assigning public officials to oversee the management.   There has also been a lot of press coverage regarding sorely needed renovations of public school buildings, that for a long time have been deteriorating and creating significant health and allergy problems for  young students. 

I see many positives.  It should be interesting to watch as time progresses and situations continue to unfold...