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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 154 | Mayo 1994
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Panama

What Will the Winner Win?

Who will be the next president? More challenging and productive is this other question: what will the new president do to develop the country with justice and without corruption?

Ricardo G. Montenegro

As May 8, election day, draws near, the parties and coalitions in Panama's presidential race are pulling out all the campaign stops. In this last lap all are competing to be the most effective, decorum be hanged. Radio and television have been inundated with such aggressive spots financed by what are being called civic political committees that a broad debate has emerged about the acceptable limits of campaigning.

Some favor that the truth be told, "even if it hurts." Others, fearing a wave of political violence, argue that it should be said "responsibly." Still others criticize only the fact that the committees financing this propaganda are not legally registered entities clearly identified within the political scene.

The incumbent Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has been charged with harassing a Christian Democratic caravan, and the "Arnulfistas" have warned that they will "defend" themselves if the PRD does the same to them. The Justice and Peace Commission, created by the Catholic church to oversee compliance with the electoral ethical pact signed by all parties in 1993, appears powerless to do anything about what is happening.

The Front Runners

Voters appear to be finally shaking off their ambivalence. The latest polls show an increasing polarization between the two front runners: Ernesto Pérez Balladares, candidate of the "Pueblo Unido" coalition put together by the PRD, and former Comptroller General Rubén Darío Carles, of the "Cambio 94" alliance.

Samuel Lewis Galindo, candidate of the "Concertación Nacional" alliance, admitted that the various platforms show few substantial differences with respect to their economic proposals. The main divergences are found in the ethical orientations of the candidates' speeches regarding poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption. A poll released by Dichter & Neira on March 25 showed these to be the four issues in order of priority in response to the question: "Among the following issues, which is the most important one for the next government to solve?"

A Hot Potato

Independent of the candidates' level of commitment to their campaign promises, the winner will inherit a critical socioeconomic situation a real hot potato. With a Gross Domestic Product that reached nearly US$1.87 billion in 1990, and a per capita GDP of $773, Panama boasts of having one of the highest economic growth rates in all of Latin America. But this is clouded by the fact than an estimated 65% of the Panamanian population is living at poverty level, 44% of them in conditions of extreme poverty.

The poorest 20% of the population receives only 2.84% of the country's total income, while the wealthiest 20% ends up with 49.36%. This puts Panama in second place among the Latin American countries with the most unequal income distribution.

In 1993, 54% of Panama's 2.53 million inhabitants were living in urban areas, 76% of them in the capital. This extreme urbanization is due to the economy's historic orientation toward the service sector, which has generated over 70% of the national GDP in recent years. The absence of serious urbanization policies accentuates this problem. The national housing deficit, for example, is estimated at some 200,000 units.

The problems are different, though no less serious, in the countryside. An estimated six of every ten rural families are poor, 10% more than in the urban areas. The reasons for this are multiple: the government's evident unwillingness to provide incentives to the agricultural sector, high production costs, land hoarding, the freeing up of prices for agricultural goods and the policies of the National Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and the National Agrarian Reform Institute, which not only do not effectively support the work of small producers, but actually hamper it. Peasant youth who want to improve their lot dream of doing it in Panama City. So they migrate.

The monthly minimum wage decreed in 1993 is $200 in the capital and $150 in the rest of the country. But the cost of the basic family market basket in May 1992 was $220. Basic goods and services are calculated at $426, with a clear tendency to go on rising. Unemployment levels have reached 20%, according to the government itself, but the real figure appears to be much higher.

Insecurity Growing

This economic situation has alarming social consequences. Crime has increased so much that public safety is one of the central issues on the electoral agenda. The jails are full, the penitentiary system is inadequate and accusations of human rights violations abound. High rates of juvenile delinquency, drug use and traffic, illegal possession of weapons and holdups are making the country increasingly unsafe.

The judicial system is demonstrably inefficient. The public security forces have such limited resources that they find it hard to carry out their functions. The Judicial Technical Police have been involved in various scandals for excessive use of force and even killings. Private security agencies have sprung up like mushrooms in recent years, but few have well trained personnel, which occasionally results in regrettable accidents.

Corruption on the Rise

Poverty is not the only element that encourages violence by those on the bottom. Governmental corruption has surpassed even the most minimum tolerance levels. The Panamanian state makes virtually no investment if those responsible for giving the go ahead are not paid off. Businesses now calculate bribes as a requisite part of the cost of submitting a bid.

Drug traffic the official justification for the US invasion in 1989 has actually increased. High level government officials are often accused of participating in drug sales and money laundering.

All this creates tremendous insecurity about the criteria for distributing and utilizing the resources the country will receive with the staged dismantling of the US military bases located along the edge of the Panama Canal, as well as the valuable non military areas that have been reverting to the country since 1980.

Given the visible deterioration of the installations already returned, and the imminent handing over of the newer and more costly ones, the government created the Authority of the Interoceanic Region (ARI) in 1993. The ARI is defined as an "autonomous and apolitical" entity responsible for administering, maintaining and distributing the goods already returned and those that will revert to the Panamanian state between now and the year 2000. The total value of these properties is estimated at more than $30 billion, not including the value of the canal itself or of the installations along this interoceanic waterway.

Government Not Responsive In the last few years, Panamanians' frustration, distrust and anger with such an adverse situation has sparked a resurgence of social movements that are trying to win back some of what has been lost. This mobilization has had two different moments. The first was in reaction to the government's slow or nonexistent response to the socioeconomic problems generated by the US invasion. This was followed by a reaction to the hard hitting new economic adjustment measures.

The government's disinterest in seeking solutions to the grassroots demands has been a constant. It has responded only with arrogance, intransigence and, not infrequently, force. Two typical proponents of this attitude have been Minister of Education Marcos Alarcón, and Rubén Darío Carles, one of the leading presidential candidates.

What happened in Felipillo, a marginal neighborhood in the capital, demonstrates the current government's ongoing social insensitivity even now, during the campaign. In mid March a group of Felipillo residents peacefully protesting the lack of public services, particularly drinking water, was violently repressed by the police. Although one person was killed and several others injured, authorities stated categorically that there had been no victims.

No Political Leadership

Notwithstanding the effervescence of these social movements, their lack of clear political orientation has kept them from reaching the organizational levels necessary to frame their win back demands around longer term objectives. This lack of definition has turned their actions into cranky flare ups whose strength dissipates any time some solution is found to their immediate problems.

Panamanians have still not acquired genuine class consciousness. Worse yet, the organizations that want to help build a new society know this, but do little to try to change it. They criticize the social movements' failures, but should also accept their share of responsibility for the numerous defeats and errors of a people who, all alone, has shown the pluck and dignity to fight for what it considers to be its rights.

To Vote Or Not to Vote?

Panamanians were initially apathetic toward the electoral process, already generally frustrated by the realization that the alliance that had offered them an alternative to the dictatorship imposed by General Noriega was not essentially different from that regime. The first polls, done a year ago, indicated that a high percentage of individuals had decided not to vote.

Today that figure, as well as the percentage of undecided, has shrunk. In response to the question, "What level of certainty do you have that you will vote in the 1994 presidential elections" in Dichter & Neira's seventh and most recent poll, 87.7% said they were sure they would vote, and another 4.6% said they probably would do so. Of the 9.6% remaining, 3.1% were sure they would not vote, 2.1% said they probably would not and 4% were unsure or did not know.

These percentages are greater among those that such polls usually do not reach. For example, indigenous and peasant organizations representing some 20% of the population eligible to vote declared a month before the elections that their "party" would be abstention. "Our decision is neither crazy nor capricious," they explained in a communiqué reaffirming their non recognition of the current electoral process. "We say this because we know that a bad democracy cannot bear good offspring."

What Does Participation Mean?

The reason for the shift in the polls is largely due to an enormous and expensive publicity campaign underway since 1993, insisting that people's participation consists of casting their vote at the polls. Realizing that there is a lack of volunteers, the campaign is now also calling on citizens to participate by signing up to oversee the polling tables.

The costs of this campaign have been partly defrayed with funds from the US Agency for International Development and the European Community, which have suddenly shown interest in "promoting spaces for the participation of the citizenry in the country's democratic processes." But the participation they promote obviously does not challenge the traditional concept of democracy.

Panamanians will participate, but they will not choose from among the best. As is often heard, they will elect the lesser evil. In the same poll, 82% responded negatively to the question, "Do you have a political affiliation?" The act of voting appears unlinked to any determined political project.

Despite what the polls say, all the candidates have declared that they will sweep the elections because "the people know that I am the only who can get Panama out of the enormous and dark hole in which it has been imprisoned for the last 25 [or 5] years..." This frequently repeated statement varies only with regard to the number of years, depending on the opinion of the candidate or party saying it at any moment.

Who will the next President be? It is idle to speculate, since we will have the definitive answer so soon. More challenging, and more productive, is to think about what this new President will do to implement an integral development program that satisfies the expectations of a people that at least participated by casting its votes.

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