Bocas Mayor Shuts Down Charity Function
Friday, March 25 2011 @ 01:16 PM UTC
Contributed by: Don Winner
For the last few years, BESO Night has been held at the Barco Hundido (aka "the Wreck Deck") a waterfront cantina whose owners close for the day and donate the use of their premises to BESO. Volunteers spend the day of the auction setting up tables with artfully arranged auction items, bid sheets, and pens for the silent auction (the live auction, run by a volunteer professional auctioneer usually starts about 2 hours later.). Guests, who pay $15 per person to enter, wander about examining the auction offerings while enjoying delicious food donated by the best Bocas restaurants, and enjoying no host bar drinks. After a couple of hours, the silence auction closes and a live auction begins.
Tuesday night, my husband and I arrived at about 5:30, and began browsing around the tables, taking a moment to buy a couple of |BESO T-shirts and a few DVD's from one of the volunteer cashiers. When we looked at the bar, we saw that there were no bartenders, but rather, two police officers standing in front of the bar. One of the organizers told me that they had been informed earlier that day that due to the "national day of mourning and reflection" decreed by the president to commemorate the death of former Vice President Guillermo "Billy" Ford, no liquor could be sold. It was explained that an organizer was meeting with the mayor to see if a special permit could be obtained to allow liquor to be sold, otherwise, it would just be soft drinks.
At about 5:45, I glanced out the door and noticed that a police paddy wagon and several police officers were in front of the door, blocking the entrance to the door. A couple of people said "the mayor has ordered us shut down." I went outside, pushed the door open and asked one of the police officers, who appeared to be in charge, what was going on. He was very apologetic and said "the mayor has ordered us to close this event and everybody has to leave." He said that he was very sorry, but he had to take orders from the mayor and the mayor had said that President Martinelli had ordered the fund raiser cancelled He said that because of the president's decree declaring a national "dia de duelo," all bars and cantinas were required to close. I said "but this is a private function and the bar IS closed, its being donated to the organization for the auction and no liquor is being served." The officer said that both he and the correigedor had gone to the mayor's office with an event organizer, and had explained this to the mayor, but the mayor had said that it didn't matter whether the bar was closed or not, or whether liquor was served or not, it could not be used. According to the young officer, its not considered a private party unless you have a "private party permit." I asked him if the mayor could issue one now, and he said "no, he said its too late." It was very clear that the police were not happy about what they were being ordered to do, and probably also unhappy that the off duty police officers who had been hired to provide security for the event would not be working that evening.
At this point, the owner of the Bocas Paradise Hotel, which is down the street from the Barco Hundido, offered to let the food be set up in front of her hotel, and a stream of volunteers began carrying chairs, tables, and trays of food down the street to the hotel entrance, and everybody else followed. Within a few minutes, some 200 people were sitting around/standing around, eating and talking. The police were nice enough to put cones out on the street in front of the hotel, to ensure that traffic was re routed. Eventually, one of the organizers got on a chair and announced that the mayor had ordered that the Barco Hundido be closed and since there was no place else available to relocate the auction, it would have to be cancelled, hopefully to be rescheduled in the future. Some of the attendees had travelled to Bocas just for this event. I spoke to several tourists who had extended their visit to Bocas in order to attend.
Later, I spoke to one of the organization leaders, who told me that after learning about the "no liquor" order, she had gone with a couple of local residents to see the mayor to ask if there was a way a special permit could be obtained allowing them to sell liquor at the event, since the liquor sales bring in a lot of money for the organization. The mayor reportedly said he would see what he could do. An hour later, she returned and met with the mayor, police officers and the correigedor. The mayor said that he had gone on the internet to read the president's decree and it said that no events of any kind could be held in a bar or cantina, even if no liquor was sold, and even if the event was a private function and not open to the general public, and the fund raising event would have to be cancelled. He said that the president's decree was very specific on that point. He did not make any reference to having attenpted to contact the president, anyone on his staff, or the local governor (appointed by the president) to verify this, but it was clear to the organizer (and the police) that President Martinelli's decree was being blamed for the fact that thousands of dollars which would surely have been raised for Bocas indigenous schools and school kids would not materialize.
As it turned out, the BESO event was, strangely enough, the only target of mayoral zeal. A walk around Bocas Town confirmed that the town was full of establishments busily plying the public with wine, beer and liquor...and that included stand alone bars (no food served), stand alone restaurants, stand alone restaurants with bars, hotel restaurants and hotel bars. Grocery stores were also selling beer and wine in large quantities. The only proprietor I spoke to who had been told to stop selling liquor was (oddly enough) a US expat. The "local hangout" bars were doing a booming business in alcohol.
The next day, I attempted to recreate the mayor's self-proclaimed legal research effort, and looked up the Presidential decrees declaring a national day of mourning for Billy Ford. I found two decrees in the gazeta (the "official source" for all Panamanian laws, decrees, regulations, etc.). Interestingly, neither of them said anything about a ban on liquor sales or a requirement that bars be closed; much less a ban on private events being held in a drinking establishment closed to the public, with or without liquor. A copy of the President's decree was also posted on the President's website; it also contained no such restrictions. If there was some other Presidential decree relating to March 22 distributed to mayors in some manner, it does not appear to have been made public.
I also failed to locate any statute or decree that imposes any such restrictions automatically upon the declaration of a national day of mourning without any specific decree imposing same. If there is one floating around somewhere, I couldn't find it. I did find several previous decrees imposing "dry days" in very specific language, the most recent being a national decree imposing a liquor sales ban during the national census, and an October, 2010 decree issued by the Municipality of Panama City imposing a ban on liquor sales, public dances and public musical perfornaces on "The Day of the Dead" (which, ironically, is considered a national "day of mourning.") It appears that restrictions on such activities are usually adopted at a provincial, rather than a national level (except on census and election days). And it is also significant that when restrictions on liquor are enacted for specific days for specific reasons, there are never restrictions imposed on private events, as opposed to bars, restaurants, and other places where you can just walk in and partake.
But...even if there is some kind of over-arching law imposing nationwide restrictions on liquor sales whenever the government adds a new "national day of mourning," it is not reasonable to extrapolate from such a law a requirement that a charitable event not open to the public must be cancelled, even if no liquor is sold. Significantly, the "remedy" for a public establishment that violates a "dry day" decree is not being shut down, but rather, the issuance of a citation requiring the owner to pay a fine of $100 to $1,000. None of the public establishments who were serving liquor on March 22 were, reportedly, issued citations, much less shut down. Yet, the Mayor of Bocas quickly dispatched a squad of National Police with orders to shut down the fund raiser by, presumably, any means necessary (witness the presence of a paddy wagon). Personally, I do not believe that if anyone had asked President Martinelli whether the BESO fund raiser should be shut down and explained what the mayor already knew about BESO's work in the community, he would have said "yes, shut it down."
People in Bocas, both expats and locals, are angry. There is a lot of speculation about why the Mayor, who is a member of the PRD, chose to single out a charitable private fund raiser and sacrifice the well being of thousands of children. The kindest terms I've heard used are "incredible," "unbelievable" and "idiotic," and it goes downhill from there. Most people do not think it was a coincidence that this event was organized by "gringos." You can draw your own conclusions.