The "Bull" is in the Ring, Full of Promises
“Need has a hierarchy. Students, workers, small farmers and children are the hierarchy whose orders you should obey. And in Panama the principal hierarchy is held by hunger,” Omar Torrijos used to see to his people. With another style, but the same discourse, the Torrijista PRD is governing again. Will it follow through?
"I invoke the protection of God to guide my presidential administration, to help me get to the heart of the nation's problems, so that every day my identification with the hopes and needs of the poorest becomes more deeply rooted, so I am not sidetracked from the task of governing for all Panamanians." These words, a true prayer, began the first speech of Ernesto Pérez Balladares known throughout Panama as "the Bull" for his robust stature as President of Panama.
His speech was direct, clear and even well read, carefully laying out the main lines of his government. The scenario for the solemn, elegant inauguration ceremony was a convention center, rather than the Legislative Assembly, because these things matter in Panama. It was attended by five Presidents, two Vice Presidents and delegations from some 20 countries.
All in White The swearing in of the Assembly preceded the inaugural speech. All the legislators were dressed in white, inexplicably, given that white is the color of the "civilists", roundly defeated in the elections. The Assembly elected its internal leadership only from the parties making up the alliance with the government, despite all the lip service about harmony prior to the vote. In an unusual move, the legislators elected a woman, Balbina Herrera Aráuz, as president of the Assembly for the first time in this country's machista history and that with only 6 women among the total of 72 legislators.
Due to the demands and counterdemands presented, as well as the alliances forged during the nearly four months subsequent to the elections, the correlation of forces will vary a bit in the Assembly. The governing group, which previously had a relative majority, is now tied at 36 to 36, which means that consensus politics as well as pressure from both sides will take on increasingly greater relevance.
Endara's AchievementsOutgoing President Guillermo Endara, faithful to his behavior during his administration, gave his "farewell speech" without having it at hand and began it by stammering and making apologies. Both were signs of the elements that had characterized his administration a great deal of improvisation, anarchy, disorder, lack of credibility and public insecurity. His government was marked by corruption and influence peddling, a very poor public image, awful relations with the press and other groups and was tainted by the original sin of owing his administration to the US invasion of December 1989.
For two hours, Endara insisted upon what, according to him, had been his government's greatest achievement: the economy. He spoke of growth rates for the country's GDP, nothing to sniff at given the neoliberal hurricanes blustering through the region: 3.4%, 5%, 8% and 5.9% from 1990 to 1993. He underscored the fact, also very concrete and objective, that he took office in a country with a US$932 million deficit and left it with $1.681 billion in the black. He also pointed out that unemployment fell from 20% to 12.5% during his four year administration.
Endara declared that Pérez Balladares signifies the "legitimacy" of the democratic system, thus alluding to the electoral process which, though hardly flawless, was perhaps the cleanest in Panamanian history. Although there is a lot of room for improvement before we can say we are living in a true democracy, it should be recognized that the Endara government allowed or facilitated a fairly credible electoral process to take place.
The Main Enemy"The priority task is to attack poverty, and deal with the social debt," said the new President after summing up the "good things" he was inheriting from the Endara government. He emphasized the scandalous fact incredible to tourists who visit the Colón Free Zone, the Canal and the Banking Center that 50% of the population in this country lives in poverty and half of those live in extreme poverty. He also reminded people that we have one of the most unequal levels of income distribution in the entire continent. He spoke as well of the Panamanian economy's inefficiency, of extended unemployment, the huge housing deficit, the deficiencies of public education, and health services unable to meet even the minimum needs of huge sectors of the population.
Doing away with this poverty is "the Bull's" stated priority, and he announced a series of measures he plans to implement immediately. They include building rural aqueducts; installing public health projects, particularly in the poorest areas; strengthening the Social Emergency Fund with $40 million; and restructuring public services including electricity, water and telephone into corporate entities.
"A War on Crime"That was how one newspaper summed up the new President's speech. Crime was the other point he emphasized insistently and with very concrete proposals.
Anybody who has been in Panama in the last two or three years knows all too well that drugs, weapons and crime have literally taken the country by storm. Putting a real brake on this chaos in the streets is a deeply felt need, one demanded by much of society. Pérez Balladares promised to immediately adopt correctives that would help the country resolve this situation, and mentioned some of them: increase the number of police officers, disarm the civilian population, come down hard on corrupt police officers, improve legislation with respect to the police corps and most difficult of all "combat drug trafficking with due rigor and courage." That is a most difficult task indeed.
UnforgivableThat is how the new President characterized what he called "continuing to lose time" by not modernizing an educational system that leads the country's youth to frustration, is of extremely poor quality and ends up being archaic as well. He suggested that the work done along these lines be free from "both the exclusions and sectarianism" that have affected other initiatives in the past.
The new President proposed the immediate formation of a National Educational Review Council and insisted as well that the modernization of the educational system is a precondition and complement to the country's economic transformation.
Torrijos and Noriega"One single territory, one single flag" was the oft heard slogan during the Torrijos era and the fight for the Canal. Pérez Balladareas has always declared himself to be a Torrijos admirer, but it was interesting to note that this slogan has been the only public allusion Pérez has made to PRD founder Omar Torrijos. He did not even mention the general by name.
Why not? Perhaps because the new President clearly laid out his desire to put "an immediate end to the confrontations" in Panamanian society. He knows that any memory smacking of militarism could shatter the current climate. "I want to close this dark chapter of our country's political history," Pérez vehemently insisted. He called for authentic reconciliation and the need to "emphasize political and ideological tolerance, pluralism and consensus reaching as instruments of peace and jobs." But, though he did not mention Torrijos by name, he did mention his successor: "It is indispensable to finally close the unfortunate Noriega era and the inclement persecutions that followed the invasion." Concretely, he proposed a pardon to "amend injustices."
The Always ForgottenAt one point in his speech, the new President spoke of democracy, not only as a mode of organizing public life, but as "an opening to more just forms and models of economic and social development."
During his two hour speech, he proposed immediate and concrete solutions to the country's increasingly urgent problems. He spoke of the country's social debt in health care, housing and education, and mentioned changes in the agricultural sector as well. He also clearly brought up the topics of citizen security and corruption, made concrete economic proposals, and pointed to specific issues regarding the Canal and its return, always advocating national harmonization, reconciliation and consensus.
There is, however, one issue that has gone unresolved for years, though it has been quite present in the national arena. It has been the cause of multiple problems as well as the object of infinite promises, a potential source of grave conflicts for the country. Disgracefully, it was not even brought up. Pérez Balladares said not a word about the indigenous territories and necessary legal definition for them. If democracy is an opening to more just economic and social models, not mentioning this topic is very suspicious, and augurs nothing positive.
Do We Give them Time?A priest known for his prudence and good judgment said, upon hearing Pérez' speech, "Careful, Toro, you're promising too much." Too much to be true? Those of us who do eat, who have our health, a decent job and place to live could say, "Give the government a little time so it can really get underway and we'll see what happens." But half of all Panamanians, who must fight daily to survive, may be unwilling to wait even the traditional 100 days.