The Centennial Stewpot
One of Panama’s favorite songs by Rubén Blades,
which he sang before 40,000 people a few months ago,
goes something like this:
“Patria means so many beautiful things...
It’s the walls of a barrio, their dark-colored hope;
It’s what the soul holds onto when it’s far away.
It’s the martyrs who shout: Flag, flag, flag, flag!...
Patria is not defined by those who put down the people.
Patria is a sentiment, like the look on an old man’s face,
The sun of eternal spring, the laughter of a new little sister…”
Last year, Panama celebrated the centennial of its November 3, 1903, separation from Colombia with a proliferation of activities. How can we evaluate the year? Perhaps by comparing what happened and what is happening in the country to one of Panama’s most typical regional dishes: sancocho, a thick soup made with chunks of chicken, various root vegetables, cilantro and chicken broth. Looking back at the country’s situation over the past six months, it’s not too far-fetched to speak of a “centennial sancocho” that, however politically indigestible, was fed to the Panamanian people.
The main ingredient, the chicken, is politics, particularly the battle being waged by presidential candidates for the May 2004 general elections. The “sauce” that binds and spices the stew is the ever-present corruption, while the passing events are the other ingredients that get tossed into the pot to add to the overall texture.
The main ingredient: Politics and candidatesThe presidential nominees for the May 2 elections have been emerging amid a bluster of conventions, accusations and political party-hopping. On that day we will elect 78 legislators, 75 municipal mayors, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament and 619 district representatives. The latest polls (December 15, 2003, and January 19, 2004) show Martín Torrijos heading up the four presidential candidates with 49%, followed by Guillermo Endara with 30.3%. Bringing up the rear are José Miguel Alemán with 12% and Ricardo Martinelli with 5.5%, although both insist that the only poll that matters is the one on election day. They recall that President Moscoso was third in the March 1999 polls, yet won only two months later. There is, however, near total consensus that the incumbent party’s serious erosion will scuttle Alemán’s chances of victory.
Over half of the possible voters are registered in political parties, which could indicate either that there is a convinced militancy for whatever reason or that for some other equally inexplicable reason a significant number of people still endorse these parties despite their loss of prestige.
Endara: A questionable old foxIn Guillermo Endara’s favor is the fact that he was already President once (1989-95). Although doubts remain about his loftier skills, he is an “old fox” who will at least be able to anticipate the moves, betrayals and low blows that are so common in the circles of power. Also in his favor is that he began his first term with the economy suffering a 16% negative growth rate and finished it with a positive 4.5%, which was certainly an achievement. Nonetheless, the only government plan he’s presented so far consists of renegotiating the foreign debt, a proposal that some economists say has “frozen” new investments.
Going against him is the fact that he took office in the wake of the US invasion of Panama in 1989 and accepted, to some degree endorsing, that military-political operation.
Endara talks about ending corruption, but since this is a banner that even Washington is waving today, it is neither very original nor very convincing. His trump card is that he was close to four-time President Arnulfo Arias, but even that generates confusion and controversy, as the current government also evokes the figure of Arias. Endara also presents himself as heading up a government with experience, as his running mate is Guillermo Ford, also Vice President during Endara’s first term and until a year ago the current government’s ambassador in Washington.
Martín Torrijos: The most palatable Consciously or unconsciously plagiarizing Nicaragua’s current President Enrique Bolaños, Martín Torrijos, the most likely winner, chose “Sí se puede” (We can do it) as his campaign motto. And in all fairness, it must be said that he has presented the best government program so far, although just how much he would really implement is another issue altogether.
Torrijos has his downsides as well. It has never been forgotten that members of his party were high-profile politicians during the period of military governments (1968-89). And in some parts of the country, the mere mention of his last name sparks negative reactions. The unresolved scandals of the last PRD government (1995-99) also weigh like a gravestone on his campaign.
The President during that term, Ernesto Pérez Balladares, is currently accused of corruption, as is his former campaign chief, Hugo Torrijos, and several PRD legislators are involved in bribery scandals. It seems, however, that the current misgovernment weighs far more than history and people are still indicating their preference for Torrijos in the polls, a lead that has not varied for over a year. It must be recalled, however, that Torrijos was also first in the polls during the 1999 campaign, only to be finally defeated by Mireya Moscoso.
The probable also-ransThe ruling party’s candidate is its former foreign minister José Miguel Alemán. Eschewing primaries, President Moscoso handpicked him, and he was later ratified by a convention. He has no great political experience and is under the President’s shadow, which does little to help him. His greatest achievement—as he himself boasts—was to get the Miss Universe pageant held in Panama. His government program, called “Proposals for you,” includes the novelty of improving the capital’s public transportation. Otherwise, he insists that he will “finish” the social projects started by the current presidency, without letting us know exactly what those might be.
The candidate trailing in the polls, Ricardo Martinelli, is a wealthy businessman who has worked for the last two governments. He was responsible for creating and registering his party, so it is no surprise that he is also now its candidate. His slogan, “In the people’s shoes” is typical of someone looking to ingratiate himself with the populace. He insists that he will draw on his own successful experience to resolve the unemployment problem, support micro-business and go after corruption, but these are issues also found in the other candidates’ speeches.
The broth: spiced with immunityOne of the national issues that daily insults the population’s intelligence and offends its conscience is the widespread corruption. All candidates are pledging to fight it, but none are very clear about how they plan to go about it. Corruption cases abound and can be found at all levels of government.
The latest case uncovered involves the legislators and their alternates, all of whom are protected by parliamentary immunity. In the past five years, all but 3 of the 78 legislators have imported luxury cars—130 Mercedes Benzes alone—with tariff exonerations amounting to US$3.5 million. Worse yet, it is a well-known secret in Panama that these “honorable” elected officials use this prerogative to beef up their already comfortable $7,000 a month salaries by subsequently selling the vehicles, with a “little something extra” tacked on for the “favor.”
Various other corruption and bribery cases are also pending investigation at the moment. The population was recently scandalized by the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the case against the Investment Center in the Caribbean port city of Colón, which publicly bribed legislators.
Other ingredients in the potThe country’s less than rosy economic situation contrasts dramatically with the promise-strewn campaigns and party rallies. It is true that at 4% last year’s official economic growth rate was better than expected, as it followed 0.8% in 2002 and 0.3% in 2001. Tourism, construction and port and canal activity contributed to the growth. Nonetheless, the US$8.86 billion public debt currently represents 70% of the gross domestic product. Both it and the foreign debt, which is holding steady at just under US$6.48 billion, hang heavily over the country’s future. While Panama maintains its fame for a per-capita annual income of US$3,700, this figure only indicates that a lot of money is circulating in Panama. The people neither see nor get their hands on much of it because Panama has Latin America’s second worst income distribution. This is evidenced in part by the fact that 95% of the indigenous population, which makes up 10% of the total population, lives below the poverty line.
The country’s main problem in mid-2003 was social security. At the root of this still unresolved crisis are two conceptions of society security: one related to collective interests and solidarity and the other to private interests and profit. Juan Jované, who originally headed up the Social Security Fund for this government and acted as a proponent of solidarity, was so opposed by the bulk of the business class that they finally got him booted out of his post.
What has happened since then? A moratorium was approved for bosses who don’t pay into the security fund, causing the government to lose millions of dollars. There is now a move to legalize the privatization of retirement pensions, a big business cherished by the insurance and financing companies that wanted Jované’s head.
Patria means so many things…“Patria means so many things...” begins Blades’ much-loved song. It certainly does. Beautiful things and also things at the center of national attention that bring pain and worry. To finish cooking up the sancocho of our 2003 Centennial, we must mention four other issues that hurt and keep us on our toes.
One. Reported cases of malaria increased by 120% in the year of the centennial festivities, particularly affecting the indigenous areas.
Two. Efforts have been mounting since last August to change the Constitution, a just initiative supported by various bishops, priests, lay Catholics and non-Catholic churches. Roughly 100,000 signatures have so far been collected in support. Although many things could and should be improved in the highest law of the land, the first and most urgent thing we need to improve is our attitude about the value of honoring it.
Three. President Moscoso has for some time been determined to build a highway across the National Park of the Quetzals—yes, Panama has quetzals, too—in the western part of the country. Although it has been demonstrated that the highway will irreversibly damage the area and most public opinion in the country opposes the ecologically hazardous project because it appears to favor the President’s friends and relatives, it is still going ahead.
Four. As a postscript to the Republic’s centennial celebration, we were visited by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. In Nicaragua, at least some said “no” to him. In Panama we don’t know how to say “no.” “Yes” to CAFTA, “yes” to the FTAA, “yes” to control of supposed “terrorists” and “yes” to who knows how many other things, while nobody thought to remind the gringos that they have to come and clean up all the bombs and toxic waste they left behind in the areas around the canal.
JORGE SARSANEDAS, SJ is envío’s correspondent in Panama.