If you have been following the local news or read BoqueteNing.com you are aware there has been a political tempest occurring in Panama this week. The Wall Street Journal even published an op-ed piece on the uproar.
Simply stated what is happening is as political as anything currently happening in the US. Ricardo Martinelli the President of the Republic of Panama was elected with a union of his party, Cambio Democratico (CD) and the Panamanista Party. When elected his party did not have a majority of the legislature and he needed a collation government. The Vice President, Juan Carlos Varela was head of the Panamanistas and was also appointed as Chancellor, the position that runs Panamas international affairs. Slowly the President managed to convert non CD legislators to his party and when he felt he had the leverage he terminated his union with the Panamanistas. He then fired Varela from the Chancellor position, this left his Vice President as an outsider and outspoken adversary of Martinelli. Varela is hoping to be elected to the presidency in 2013.
In his three plus years as President Martinelli has done some good things, some bad things and allegedly some corrupt things. He, like each President elected since the US invasion in 1989 has functioned under a constitution created by the prior military dictators of Panama. This constitution makes the executive, the President, a virtual dictator for five years and prohibits their re-election.
Some of the good things Martinelli has done have alienated a lot of people. One I know through first hand exposure is the changes in the Education system. Panama has a very poorly ranked public education system. In the last three years Panama has seen a scarcity of skilled labor, Panamanians who were educated in the public system do not have the skills needed to do todays jobs. The effort to redo the educational system has been significant and the model being used is the system in Costa Rica, a well ranked system.
In another program modeled after a success in Brazil, the government is paying parents to keep their children in school, providing text books, laptop computers and providing money to pay the matriculation fees that prevented many students from attending high school.
This has alienated teachers who have been forced into longer hours, more training and less vacation all with only a small increase in salary. Still if the effort is continued for years it will raise the education level of all Panamanians. In my opinion this is all good even though it removed a month of Mayras vacation time, it is a small price to pay for the future of a nation.
Other huge infrastructure projects like the Metro bus system and Metro rail system in Panama City are also to be applauded. These have people upset also. The Metro bus system which is replacing the Diablo Rojos has been slow to reach the same level of frequency as the death dealing private buses of the past. One reason is the scarcity of bus drivers. Many Diablo Rojo drivers were excluded from driving the new buses due to their driving records, many had to be imported from Columbia, something that makes some locals angry. The new changes in the immigration law are to provide for skilled labor, something Panama needs desperately.
I was in Panama City just a couple of weeks ago and the traffic is the worst I have ever experienced there. The construction of a sewer system for the city, massive construction in Casco Viejo and the new rail system have the roads tied into knots. This is upsetting a lot of people, but wait a few years and there will be an upside.
This and other major projects are also happening under a cloud, the cloud is the expense. This government has forced businesses to install new equipment to facilitate tax collection. It has borrowed heavily and needs to pay the bills incurred. It has also let many large contracts without bids, raising the specter of collusion and corruption.
What brought about the current crisis? Politics and an effort to slow a consolidation of power. The President had requested a special session of the legeslature to approve some some changes. He wants to sell some governmental assets, the government currently owns a minority interest in electrical generation and Cable and Wireless. In addition there is a clear effort to fill the Supreme court with more judges loyal to him. For more details on the issues check Don Winners Panama-guide.com .
There is fear among Panamanians I know, fear about Martinelli, it runs along political lines. In a country where about 40% of the working population has a government job, the primary concern is jobs. Many positions high and low are political appointments and do not survive governmental changes. Those who benefit from the government, support the government; those on the outside want in.
Is the government corrupt, I suspect it is, so is every other government I have ever known. I grew up in New York City and was taught that the definition of politician was corruption, that never changed in anyplace I ever lived.
We, the expat community can only watch from the sidelines. This government has changed a lot in Panama, some good like infrastructure, some bad, based upon the need to pay for the same infrastructure. There is no escaping that the things needed to move a developing country forward are costly and someone needs to pay the price.