Avalanche of Dirt: Governance in Panama

It’s been just 25 years since the US invaded Panama and captured dictator Manuel Noriega, fortunately ousting the dictator, but unfortunately leaving the country in shambles. From the ruins has emerged an economic powerhouse, one of the few countries in the world to have averaged an 8.5% GDP growth over the past 5 years. Panama has successfully elected six Presidents since then [including Guillermo Endara, duly elected as President during the wane of Noriega’s dictatorship in an election annulled by Noriega. Endara was sworn in on a US military base moments before the US Invasion in 1989.] Even without a military, which always seems to be an impediment to democracy in Latin America, and in spite of the glitz and gleam of all the high-rise towers in Panama City, the path to true democracy has been a struggle in Panama.

US foreign policy has often been based on the assumption that US-style democracy can be relatively easily exported and copied by others around the world, an assumption that has proved tragically wrong in many instances.

The US has been working on this democratic concept for 239 years and many would argue that we still don’t have it all together.

So Panama has struggled. Every President since Noriega has made contributions to the country, but there is always the lurking specter of corruption and of lining one’s own pockets. Political patronage in Panama is more a fact of life than even in Chicago! Without an entrenched civil service when a new party comes into power almost the entire government is replaced. I once had a guy in Immigration tell me after another party was elected, “Only the janitor’s job is really secure, and even he may eventually have to go.” That makes running a country difficult. It also makes it near impossible to have long-term goals for beyond five years since the President cannot serve two successive terms. A Panamanian President must sit out 10 years before being reelected, probably because of the country’s experience with the dictatorship.

Under Ricardo Martinelli the country zoomed ahead with amazing speed: everywhere there was new construction and infrastructure. Martinelli extended the Cinta Costera around the Pacific waterfront of Panama City, a wonderful project initiated by his predecessor Martin Torrijos, the illegitimate son of the military strongman Omar Torrijos. [It was Omar Torrijos who negotiated the turnover of the Panama Canal with Jimmy Carter.] Martinelli pushed the Canal expansion forward, although the expansion was initiated and improved during the administration of Martin Torrijos. And Martinelli created the amazing Panama City METRO with the first line open and functioning and the second line under construction. [Work on the second line is being continued under the new and current President Juan Carlos Varela.]

Unable to run a second successive term, the Democratic Change party created by Martinelli pushed its own and Martinelli’s hand-picked candidate to succeed him. The election in the spring of last year was hotly contested between three candidates, all from established powerful Panamanian families, all successful and wealthy businessmen, and all slightly right of center. No great political swings or philosophical differences, to an outsider it seemed more like a contest of which family would get the political power and patronage and perhaps the opportunity to continue the Panamanian tradition of graft.

Note that all politicians tend to run against corruption, at least until they are in power. Martinelli’s famous line from his inaugural speech was, “In my administration it’s OK to put your foot in your mouth, but not your hand in the till.”  Everyone decided that what he meant was no stealing from the government and no corruption.  Now some people are concluding that what he actually meant was that only to “proprietor of the store” and have his hand in the till … and take whatever he wants.

Martinelli and much of the country pretty much assumed that his CD candidate was a shoe-in for election and much to the surprise of many a come-from-behind candidate, Juan Carlos Varela emerged as the winner in what turned out to be a very hotly contested election.  Martinelli, addicted to Tweet, Tweeted his stunned dismay.  Juan Carlos Varela had actually served as a coalition Vice President in order to get Martinelli elected in the first place, but early on the two had a very public falling out.  Varela’ is a businessman whose family owns Panama’s largest rum distillery and makes my favorite Abuelo rum.

Panamanians have shown a propensity to always change political parties in elections, maybe as a result of the dictatorship experience.  Many were concerned that Martinelli was evidencing some of the dangerous power-grabbing techniques that they had witnessed before, and that if his party would remain in power the offences they feared would continue.

Now, six months after Varela’s party took over, the chickens seem to be coming home to roost and an avalanche of dirt, abuse of power, and good old graft seem to be rolling down on Martinelli.

While the newspaper Martinelli owns defends him, much of the rest of the country seems to be piling on.  Martinelli has left the country on an extended trip of the US and Europe, stopping enroute in Guatemala to meet with an outfit called PARLACEN [Central American Parliament] which he had previously referred to as a “den of thieves.”  Martinelli made an impassioned plea for PARLACEN to grant him immunity and sanctuary because with everyone piling on back home he was a victim of political persecution.  PARLACEN denied his request.  Reportedly, before leaving Panama on his private jet, Martinelli gave his wife and brother full power of attorney in all his affairs.

So as an expat do all these symptoms of democratic and government dysfunction, cause me to question my decision to live in Panama?  Not really, no more than all the symptoms of democratic and government dysfunction in the US cause me to want to give up my US citizenship.

All this for those of you who might not be familiar with the ins and outs of the Panamanian political game so I could share this from PANAMA NEWSROOM supposedly quoting at length from Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper. I confess that I was unable to find this Guardian article on their website … so it could just be an example of folks piling on the former President, but sometimes where there is enough smoke there is indeed fire.

MEDIA WATCH: MARTINELLI -“GREED, PRIDE, LUST AND ENVY”

RICARDO Martinelli loved to parade himself on the world stage and made more overseas flights than any of his predecessors. During one of his trips to the US, he boasted to CNN that the reason for Panama’s “success” under his management was that his was a cabinet of businessmen..With the ongoing corruption and spying revelations he is now getting the attention he never envisaged from media around the world.

On the day after thousands of Panamanians representing all levels of society paraded through the streets of Panama denouncing corruption and calling for his imprisonment, Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper carried the following report revealing behind the scene’s details that have not appeared in local media although they have been the meat of many rumor mills:
The Guardian reports:
WHEN THE UNITED STATES rejected former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli’s request for spying equipment to eavesdrop, , on his political enemies, the former supermarket baron turned to another source: Israel.
Now scores of Panama’s political and social elite are learning that the eavesdropping program that Martinelli’s security team set in place sprawled into the most private aspects of their lives – including their bedrooms. Rather than national security, what appears to have driven the wiretapping was a surfeit of the seven deadly sins, particularly greed, pride, lust and envy.
Nearly every day, targets of the wiretapping march to the prosecutors’ office to see what their dossiers contain, often emerging in distress. Martinelli, who left office in July, is facing a rising tide of outrage not only over the wiretapping, but also over reports of vast corruption. His personal secretary has left the country. The eavesdropping equipment has vanished.
“Martinelli was obsessed with knowing what everybody was gossiping or saying about him,” said Álvaro Alemán Healy, the Cabinet chief for the current president, Juan Carlos Varela. “He used to brag that he had a file or dossier on everybody who is important here in Panama.”
Martinelli’s request for U.S. assistance in setting up such a program – and the U.S. rejection – has been known for years; it was detailed in one of the tens of thousands of State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks.
But new details of what happened after that rejection are just now emerging, and Panama is shocked.
A few days ago, prosecutors summoned legislator José Luis Varela, the current president’s brother, to review a partial dossier of emails and transcriptions of conversations that government snoops had culled from him and his family. Among them was an email his wife had sent to one of his grown sons.
“It said things like, ‘You never finished university, you’re sleeping too much and you don’t have a goal in life,’” Varela recalled.
Wiretapping scandals are not new in Latin America, even under democratically elected governments. Colombia was rocked by a tapping scandal in 2008 that eventually led to the dissolution of its domestic investigative agency. Around the same period, reports of wiretapping under Peru’s then-president, Alberto Fujimori, were partly responsible for his eventual jailing.
Alemán said the government believes Martinelli’s security team kept active wiretaps on “between 150 to 175 people,” among them the Roman Catholic archbishop of Panama, opposition political leaders, rival business tycoons, supreme court judges, U.S. Embassy personnel, his own Cabinet members and even the woman identified publicly as his mistress.
Some of the targets say they long suspected that Martinelli’s security team spied on them, but they voice abhorrence at new details of the surveillance that have emerged in recent weeks.
“What shames me about this is how they used this information to destroy families, harm marriages, obtain business, hurt rival business, and even affect diplomatic relations,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor and human rights activist who has filed a criminal complaint against Martinelli over the wiretapping.
When Martinelli first approached U.S. diplomats about helping him with wiretapping, he asked them to expand a U.S. program aimed at suspected drug traffickers, known as Matador, according to multiple secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in late 2010. When U.S. diplomats noted that U.S. and Panamanian law forbade such wiretapping, Martinelli turned to Israel, purchasing a $14 million package from MLM Protection Ltd., which offers “cutting edge, customized security solutions.”
Two of Martinelli’s former top security chiefs, Alejandro Garuz and Gustavo Pérez, were detained earlier this month in the wiretapping scandal, while two other security technicians are fugitives. An employee of the National Security Council has cooperated with prosecutors and is now under protection, apparently overseas.
“Former President Martinelli has no relation to these supposed events,” a spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said in a brief telephone interview.
Once Martinelli left office, Alemán said, “the (wiretapping) equipment disappeared. It’s not here. We don’t know if it’s been taken out of Panama.”
The Israeli equipment offered sophisticated capabilities to the Panamanian snoopers, allowing not only the monitoring of cell and fixed-line telephone calls and emails but also Whatsapp and Blackberry texts. Moreover, the techs could burrow into hard drives and extract data and video, and remotely activate functions. They could also detect signals of nearby cellphones to determine who might be meeting.
“They can turn on the video (function) of your cellphone when it is resting on a table, and can turn on the microphone to hear who you are meeting with,” Bernal said.

INTIMATE VIDEO
Among the victims angriest about the surveillance is Zulay Rodríguez, a 43-year-old lawyer and legislator from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.
“They stole a video of my husband and me – intimate,” Rodríguez said. “They use a technology that lets them take intimate scenes inside your bedroom.”

Unlike many of those affected by the domestic spying, Rodríguez found out about the video not from the boxes of files and printouts and hard drives at the prosecutors’ office, but from officials close to Martinelli long before he left office.
“They called me to threaten and say they had the video,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez believed them, because cellphone conversations that she’d had with her husband while they were in a period of difficulties had been tapped and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the Martinelli administration to embarrass her.
Rodríguez said prosecutors told her they have only a fraction – 20 percent – of the material captured by the National Security Council spies. Most of it was carted away when Martinelli’s handpicked candidate lost the presidential election in an upset last year, but the team overlooked a hard drive.
When Rodríguez went into the prosecutors’ office to peruse the dossier gathered on her earlier this month, she found a stack of material.
“They had transcripts of conversations I had with my family, my father, with party leaders, with activists,” she said.
Rodríguez has joined Bernal and many others in demanding that the former National Security Council members and Martinelli face criminal trial.
Panama, a nation of less than 4 million, has a small ruling elite, and many power brokers socialized with Martinelli even as they learned of his propensity to regale them with outrageous details of others’ personal lives, relishing the most intimate “information.”
“He wants to know who is screwing whom,” Alemán said.
Party leaders and legislators took action to protect sensitive discussions.
“When politicians would meet, it was almost like a ritual. They would leave their cellphones outside the room,” said Guido A. Rodríguez, a former editor of the Panama America newspaper [now controlled by Martinelli] who is now a prosecutor overseeing the auditing of public accounts.
“There was almost a collective paranoia,” he added.
Even the most innocuous incident could unleash the talents of the spy team.
One politician recalled that he’d been at a social event with Martinelli and his mistress. When he raised his phone to snap a photo, the two raised their middle fingers at the camera.
“I sent (the photo) to him. He told me his people erased it from my phone,” said the politician, who asked not to be publicly linked to the incident. THE PANAMA NEWSROOM

2 thoughts on “Avalanche of Dirt: Governance in Panama

  1. Richard, This article is the most welcome ever. My Panamanian wife and I have been following the news about the investigations and found your article most helpful in filling in the missing pieces. It appears that President Varela just might clean up a lot after all.
    I have been here five years and will try for Panamanian citizenship asap. I am interested in any help you can give me to get that done.
    Martinelli might have taken a lesson in spying from you know who but probably wasn’t as knowledgeable and ending getting caught. Please keep up us posted. Thanks again, Joseph.

  2. Richard.We were with you on The Christmas cruise and enjoyed your talks on the Canal.Currently reading “Escape to Panama” and reading your blog.Not ready for the big move yet but thanks for all the info.Do not have time to read your latest post but will do so tonight.Thanks!

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