Wall Street Journal Publishes "Over The Top" Unfair and Biased Attack Article Against Ricardo Martienlli
Tuesday, June 19 2012 @ 11:41 AM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Panama's Democracy Goes South: When supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli became president in 2009, free-marketeers celebrated, but the honeymoon was short-lived. By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
- Some 15,000 ships, carrying 5% of the world's sea-going cargo, already pass through the Panama Canal every year. But when a third set of locks capable of handling larger vessels is completed in 2014, analysts expect the annual canal cargo volume to double. This will ensure that in the 21st century, "the path between the seas," as historian David McCullough called it, will be an even more significant international trade route.
- The economic importance of this legendary passage is but one reason that a stable and free Republic of Panama is a security interest for the Western Hemisphere. That, in turn, is a good reason to heed the warnings from a growing chorus of Panamanians that center-right President Ricardo Martinelli is moving the country toward authoritarianism.
- "He is constructing public works but tearing down institutions," says Aurelio Barria, a Panamanian businessman and the leader of Civic Crusade, a nonpartisan movement famous for its democratic advocacy during the dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Noriega. As if to prove Mr. Barria's point, on Thursday Mr. Martinelli went ahead with his plan to pack the Supreme Court by naming three new judges who will grow the bench to 12 from nine. Opposition parties pledged to fight the move.
- James Madison wrote that "in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." The trouble for Panama is that Mr. Martinelli is out of control.
- When the supermarket magnate was sworn in as president on July 1, 2009, free-marketeers around the region celebrated. Until then, Hugo Chávez copycats seemed to be popping up everywhere. Mr. Martinelli's victory in Panama suggested that democratic capitalism could make a comeback. But the honeymoon was short-lived.
- The erosion of Panamanian pluralism under Mr. Martinelli seems to have originated in the 71-seat unicameral national assembly. In the last election, his party, Democratic Change (CD), won a mere 13 seats. But since then Mr. Martinelli has been able to persuade 23 other deputies to either defect to the CD or to vote with him in a coalition, thus providing the simple majority he needs for passing laws and confirming judges even as former supporters have become adversaries.
- It is not entirely clear how Mr. Martinelli won over all those politicians. But it is worth bearing in mind that the Panamanian constitution was written during the military dictatorship and as such centralizes a lot of power in the executive. Thus Mr. Martinelli has enormous discretion in steering funds to selected congressional districts, and he seems to have used it.
- Like Mr. Chávez in Venezuela, who also has a majority in a unicameral national assembly, Mr. Martinelli's legislative advantage has allowed him to govern unchecked, despite loud protests from the independent press. And like Mr. Chávez, Mr. Martinelli has understood the power of the public purse.
- His critics charge that he is corrupt. But that's hard to know. What is troubling is that close Martinelli cronies have too often been named to posts that ought to be manned by politically independent professionals. One example is the comptroller general. She is a long-time Martinelli associate and the former internal auditor of one of his own companies, leaving the public wondering whether there is anyone really watching the till. He also seems to prefer no-bid contracts for the many public works that he is launching. This has heightened suspicions about the misuse of public funds.
- Meanwhile he is reaching for more. Since 1997 privatization revenues have been cordoned off in a special fund with the stipulation that only the interest from the principle could be spent. But this government is creating a new vehicle for future privatization proceeds, and it will have no such constraints. Mr. Martinelli has announced that he will be the one to name its entire board of directors.
- Now the president is hinting that he would like another term. Consecutive re-election is not permitted under the constitution, and changing that would require Supreme Court cooperation. He has already named four of the high court's judges. (One of those, who is now president of the court, handled press censorship for the Noriega dictatorship.) A fifth is a reliable ally. Throw in the three new seats that he advocated for and filled, and two-thirds of the court is his.
- Even if, as critics contend, Mr. Martinelli is a power-hungry caudillo, some might be tempted to tolerate him because he is not left-wing. Importantly he is not threatening property rights. But that ought to be little comfort. Once the institutional checks and balances that defend society against dangerous demagogues are destroyed, the door is open to candidates across the political spectrum. Just ask the Venezuelans.
Just Twelve Paragraphs - And Not One Word From The Other Side: Someone please point to any line in this article from a source who is either a member of the Martinelli administration, or someone who is truly independent and objective. The fact is, there are none. Every word in this article is designed to convince the reader of the premise - that Martinelli is out of control and democracy in Panama is toast - and that, my friends, is the definition of bias. Let me point a few things out for you (facts) the author if this article decided to ignore;
- Para 1 - Ships go through the canal and it's being expanded. No problem.
- Para 2 - Panama is important to world trade and the United States, "so it's a good idea to heed warnings..." - plants the seed to convince the reader to buy into the bias and premise being established by the writer.
- Para 3 - The Civilistas is not "nonpartisan" as described by the author. They are now an organization which supports the political agenda of the Panameņista political party, and therefore they are in "opposition" to Ricardo Martinelli and his Cambio Democratico led government. The most widely recognized "civilista" is Roberto Eisenmann, the owner of the La Prensa newspaper, who is in a legal battle with the government because they are making him pay $3 million dollars in back taxes.
- Para 4 - Quotes James Madison. That's nice. The problem is that the author ends this paragraph with a flat out declaration - "The trouble for Panama is that Mr. Martinelli is out of control." She does not quote a source for this statement, so the only other possible conclusion for the reader is that it's a position held by the author herself. As one of the highest ranking Editors at the Wall Street Journal, the author knows exactly what she's doing with this. It's a grammatical construction selected, once again, to reinforce a premise.
- Para 5 - Speaks of the difference between democratically elected left wing leaders in Latin America with allusion towards Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, or Rafael Correa in Ecuador - funded by and supported by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez - and the center-right businessman Ricardo Martinelli. The author says, once again without quoting a source (besides herself) saying "the honeymoon was short-lived." Really? Says who? Check the math and do the numbers. Panama's economy has been growing like crazy. New Foreign Direct Investment is pouring into Panama, in buckets. The government of Ricardo Martinelli is building so many new government public works projects that employment in the construction sector is now at 100% (or virtually 0% unemployment) and construction companies can't bid on the projects the government would like to build because there are no employees left to build them. Really, no kidding. More than 2 million tourists visited Panama last year, setting a new record. There is absolutely nothing - and I mean not a damn thing beyond the political rhetoric of his political opponents - indicating the "honeymoon is over" when it comes to the math, economy, and numbers. The only possible conclusion is that the author was spoon fed this information, and she parroted it back with no thought or personal investigation of the facts on the ground.
- Para 6 - No problem. Concur.
- Para 7 - No problem. Concur.
- Para 8 - Yes, the democratically elected Deputies in the National Assembly who are either from the Cambio Democratico (CD) political party, those who have changed from other parties to join the CD, or from the Molirena political party who are in alliance with the CD, now have a majority of the seats. That means they can pass practically anything they want. But while Martinelli obviously enjoys a great deal of influence over these lawmakers, they are not his slaves. Each and every one of them was democratically elected by the Panamanian people. Would the author make the same argument and the US Senate, controlled by the Democrats, and Barack Obama? There is no difference. None. The same party controls the Executive and the Legislative branch of government. It happens all the time after an election.
- Para 9 - Full of nonspecific allegations and insinuations of corruption. She also uses the words "it's hard to know" or that it's "troubling" and there are "suspicions." Personally I've come to the conclusion that all Panamanian politicians are corrupt to one extent or another, and Ricardo Martinelli is no different. I think this administration is no more corrupt, or no less corrupt, than that of Ernesto Perez Balladares (1994 - 1999), Mireya Moscoso (1999 - 2004), or Martin Torrijos (2004 - 2009). It seems like the Panamanian people don't learn the facts and details about the abuses committed by former presidents until after they have been out of power for at least ten years, once their immunity from the PARLACEN has run out, and the judges they appointed to the Supreme Court to protect them have left the bench after serving their ten year term on the bench. Only now have there been legal actions against Ernesto Perez Balladares for corruption in allegations of concessions and kickbacks granted for casinos. So far there have been no significant actions taken against Mireya Moscoso, mostly because she's stuck a deal with Ricardo Martinelli to avoid prosecution. And, the PRD is spearheading the effort against Martinelli and the new supreme court justices, because they know Martinelli will use that power to go after prominent (and horribly corrupt) PRD politicians like Martin Torrijos and Balbina Herrera, mostly through the CEMIS case. So, in fact, the allegations of corruption and being made by the corrupt, for the most part. In Panama, corruption is the common denominator.
- Para 10 - Yes, the government is planning to change the law to allow for a different, maybe better use of the government owned shares in the electrical and telecommunications companies. The government expects to be able to raise more than $1 billion dollars from the sale of these shares - which they will spend on additional public works projects like continuing the effort to expand and improve the water distribution network (not everyone in Panama has steady access to clean drinking water), and much of the money will be put into the newly created Panama Savings Fund. This protected fund can be used in the event of a national emergency such as an earthquake or flood, or if the economy suffers a recession then the money can be used to help reactivate the economy on things like public works projects. Martinelli is a businessman who is looking for a way to make a "better use" of those funds. This was one of this campaign promises, by the way. It should not have been a surprise, to anyone.
- Para 11 - The author says "Now the president is hinting that he would like another term." This is a flat out lie. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a lie perpetuated by the political opposition from the PRD and Panameņista political parties in order to plant the seeds of fear. The fact of the matter is that Ricardo Martinelli has consistently and repeatedly denied any interest in being reelected. He even went so far as to take the somewhat ridiculous step of inviting every Notary Public in Panama City to the Palace of the Herons where he swore out and signed a promise to NOT seek reelection. Martinelli has done everything humanly possible to dispel this fabrication - a creation of the opposition political parties and nothing more - and the only thing left for him to do would be to get a tattoo on his forehead saying "I'm Not Running in 2014." He has, on the other hand, spoken often and repeatedly that he would like to see a "continuation" of government. In other words, he wants the CD candidate, whoever that might turn out to be after they have their primary election, to win. But he himself does not want to run, nor will he make any kind of an attempt to change the rules in order to allow reelection. Martinelli cannot be reelected because it's prohibited by the Constitution of Panama - so he can't be a candidate. He's a smart politician and he knows the people of Panama both would not stand for it, nor would they vote for him to stay in office. But any insinuation that Martinelli intends to try to stay in office after the 2014 elections is to perpetuate one of the standard "attack" lines created by the opposition - and the simple fact that it appears in this article is yet another indication that the author was spoon fed by someone from the opposition. Therefore, it's neither fair, nor balanced. And it's simply not accurate, either.
- Para 12 - "Just Ask The Venezuelans"? This last paragraph seems to indicate that Martinelli intends to start taking private property away from citizens or companies. However, there is not one single indication of that happening, ever. As far as I can tell this is simply more invented fear mongering. The author does not quote anyone or name a source, so again it's apparently what she thinks. Wow. Such rare shows of blazing ignorance from someone with the title of "Editor" at the Wall Street Journal are concerning.
I'm Not A Martinelli Fan: Don't take my criticism of this article the wrong way. I've been in Panama for 25 years. When I first arrived in 1987 Manuel Antonio Noriega was in charge. Since then I've seen government administrations run by the Arnulfistas (now known as the Panameņistas), the PRD, and now the Cambio Democratico. Since I started doing this website full time in 2005 I've taken more than my fair share of shots at Panamanian politicians of all stripes - and Ricardo Martinelli is no exception. When I see them doing something I agree with, I applaud. When I see them doing something I disagree with, I express my opinion. My regular readers will know I basically support the Martinelli administration, especially in their ability to get stuff done to improve this country and the lives of the poorest Panamanians. With that having been said, Martinelli plays political hardball, Panamanian style. Yes, it's true that he's been accumulating power and he's taken over practically any position of power, right down to the local dog catcher. They have overstepped their bounds on a couple of occasions and have had to step back. But for the most part you can't argue with success. There is a long laundry list of accomplishments - too long to name here - and most Panamanians would agree that Martinelli has gotten stuff done. They all know that.
What The "Opposition" Fears Most: For more than 50 years two very small groups of active politicians took turns in power in Panama. The nucleus of these two groups were formed by Omar Torrijos (PRD) and Arnulfo Arias (Panameņistas). But both of those guys are now dead. The same people held on to power for so long that even Omar Torrijos' son Martin Torrijos got elected as president (2004 - 2009) as well as the widow of Arnuflo Arias, Mireya Moscoso (1999 - 2004). And now for the first time since before WWII Panamanians have had a third option. Ricardo Martinelli grew his Cambio Democratico party right between the other two traditional power houses. The CD is now the largest political party in Panama, mostly because they won the election in May 2009. Both the PRD and Panameņistas are horribly corrupt, and their biggest fear is that if the CD movement takes hold for real, then they will never regain the political prominence they once enjoyed. So they are going "nuts" for two reasons. The first is the fear that they will never be able to run things again. And the second is that with eight out of twelve justices on the Supreme Court - and even more if the CD candidate wins the election in 2014 - they will be going to jail for their past acts of corruption. So this battle is for power (so they can go back to stealing from the people) and freedom (to keep from getting thrown in jail.) They are going "all in" with this fight over the Fifth Chamber. The fight over the sale of the state owned shares is just an added bonus, but the real "meat" of the fight is over the judges.
Shame On You, Wall Street Journal: The next time you want to publish an article about the state of affairs in Panama, please try to be a just a little more fair and balanced. This article was "over the top" unfair and unbalanced to the point I felt obliged to reply. It's a shame, really.
Copyright 2012 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.