President Martinelli Takes on Bernal Amidst Panama’s Plummeting Prospects to Finally Democratize

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• Martinelli establishes his credentials as being worthy of Olympic gold when it comes to being a first-class boor and an authoritarian bully when the issue is democratic dialogue
• At stake: An ill-merited free trade agreement with Washington
• Panama excels in the world of drugs, crime, money laundering and tainted rule
• Bernal case: A test of Panama’s human rights record and capacity for good governance, which the president seems to be rapidly losing
• Eisenmann, Brannan, Jackson and Bernal inevitably will outlast Martinelli in terms of patriotic inspired leadership
• Panama is a poor prospect for free trade because a corrupt Supreme Court will prevent the attainment of a level playing field required by the international business community

Accusations of corruption and a hard veer to the right have caused considerable consternation among U.S.-based Latin American specialists, as local Panamanian civil groups and good government bodies have expressed their concerns abroad regarding the country’s ability to engage in democratic practices under the recently inaugurated, controversial president, Ricardo Martinelli. In recent weeks, Panamanian NGOs have been expressing their concern over the country’s swift move to the totalitarian right, now being witnessed almost daily under Martinelli. He has been accused by a widening circle of critics for having sanctioned corrupt behavior and of being guilty of various human rights infringements. In office for less than a year, Martinelli continues to further blemish a record that already was beginning to appear shabby upon his inauguration.

Patriotic Panamanian Reaches for his Lance

One of the president’s most lethal foes is patriotic grandee Roberto Eisenmann, Jr., who, as much as any Panamanian of his generation, was one of the many reasons why Panama today is even marginally democratic. For those with too short a memory of the 1980s, when General Noriega was ruling the nation, Eisenmann (who, like Professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, had to flee the country at the peril of his life) indefatigably pounded the corridors of the U.S. Senate, to maintain a dialogue with that body throughout that decade. His success came in the form of a resolution condemning the Noriega regime for its anti-democratic behavior.

Although Eisenmann continuously worked to have a resolution passed as a beginning, he condemned General Noriega for drug trafficking, human rights violations and totalitarian tactics. Eisenmann by no means tried to persuade Senators Dodd, Kennedy or Leahy to win over President George W. Bush to use U.S. troops to invade Panama to rid the country of the dictator. No, he felt that such a task would be patronizing to his countrymen and should be undertaken by Panamanians, not Americans, which was not a particularly popular idea at the time. The fact that Panama even manages to be the lame democracy that it is today, is to a huge extent Eisenmann’s crowning achievement.

Just because Panama is a very small and a relatively unimportant nation, its guardians, as we shall see, look upon their profound role to protect its institutions and uphold its honor, as a sacred mission. Nor should their country, they insist, be a trash collector for the detritus of other nations, like the Shah of Iran and General Raoul Cédras, who headed Haiti’s military junta against President Aristide. Nor should President Mireya Moscoso have been forgiven by her nation for shamefully allowing Luis Posada Carriles, Latin America’s single most heinous human rights figure to flee the country, surely at a price. In a recent explosive column in Panama’s leading daily, La Prensa, of which he was the publisher for most of a decade, Eisenmann once again made use of his faultless credentials as a great warrior on behalf of Lady Democracy. He blasted the ugly aspects of the Martinelli regime and lamented the country’s now poor prospects for civility, pluralism and its inevitable fading capacity in the country to tolerate a free circulation of ideas.

Eisenmann attacked Martinelli for tarnishing the country by attempting to abuse the sentinels of democracy, rather than frustrating those who wanted to destroy them. Another doughty ally in the democratic cause has been La Prensa’s crack Washington bureau chief, Betty Brannan Jaén, who once again as she has done so often, recently reached for her quiver in search of one of her truest arrows to defend of the country’s principles of representative rule and free expression. She delivered a powerful response to the President’s attacks on Panama’s democratic process and the traditions that the country most cherished, which, under Martinelli, are under such great risk from the frontal attack that they are now experiencing.

Another name logged on Panama’s scroll of honor is the indomitable voice and pen of Eric Jackson, who many believe is the single most trenchant source for front page-breaking investigative journalism on the mainland. His columns in the Panama News are gems of why first amendment protections in countries like Panama are so important. Furthermore, like Jackson in Panama, the commentary of Washington-based Brannan are predictably brilliant analyses of Panamanian realities as seen by a wide range of Washington analysts as well as policymakers. Her work is so important because her articles are aimed at those who hold malevolent intentions toward Panama’s democratic prospects. By being a consummate professional, she poses a serious threat to Martinelli’s ill-intentions and unqualified arrogance.

Longstanding problems associated with Panama’s broken justice system have, if anything, further worsened under President Martinelli, while an increasing number of outspoken members of the country’s civic opposition are witnessing a growing number of threats against themselves as well as other well-known civic figures and their family members. A particularly recurrent target has been law professor and prominent Panamanian human rights leader Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal of the University of Panama. He has been the victim of a series of anonymous threats and other acts of harassment, presumably on the part of Panama City authorities.

Panama’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission Hearing

Normally the Washington-based IACHR is accustomed to very routine hearings, many of which would ordinarily be viewed as not posing any kind of menace to the government under review, in this case Panama President Martinelli. The IACHR Commissioners at first had been notified that former Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez was among those who would be testifying at its hearing regarding the grounds upon which she had been temporarily removed from her official position. Based on minor technicalities that she had conducted illegal wiretaps in violation of a ruling that had been, in fact, retroactively applied, the pro-government court had erroneously decreed that she could not leave the country while her status was being adjudicated. The Martinelli administration and the Court (including two new judges appointed by him) resorted to what was most likely an unconstitutional act, by suspending Gómez and replacing her with a blatantly undistinguished figure who was widely regarded by Panamanians as a machine politician and courthouse lawyer, Giuseppe Bonissi, who was little better than Martinelli’s faithful puppet. Gómez is now facing two years in prison as a result of the government’s contrived charges leveled against her, which were then used as the basis for denying permission to leave the country. The Panamanian delegation had hoped to inform the IACHR Commissioners that the blocking of Gómez’s trip to Washington was an attempt by the president to defuse the possible political damage that the testimony could have done to manipulate the country’s political institutions in his favor. Furthermore, the backlash coming from the current government cannot be exaggerated. In a country where hired bushwhackers gun down their victims on a daily basis, its decision to cancel the two bodyguards assigned to protect the suspended Attorney General could be a very destructive step to take, given the high level of violence that prevails in the country.

Hearing the Case

Professor Bernal was present at the Washington IACHR hearing along with a small delegation that included Magaly Castillo, a representative from a highly regarded and independent body—the Panamanian-based Citizens’ Alliance for Justice as well as, Katya Salazar of the U.S.-based Due Process of Law Foundation. Salazar described the Gómez scandal and the way it was handled as one of the “very strong indications of undue interference [by the executive branch in the judicial process].” She discussed the perilous state of Panama’s court system, which she characterized as relying upon unfair bureaucratic methods, and an inquisitorial system, rather than one in which live testimony is employed and which does not subscribe to the thesis that a defendant is considered innocent until found guilty.

Salazar also spoke of the harmful policy whereby a seemingly mandatory preventative detention is ordered, which slows down legal and judicial processes. Eric Jackson, the highly respected reporter with the Panama News is viewed as one of the limited number of skilled and non-compromised journalists functioning in Panama today. A recent column from Panama observed that around 60 percent of all prisoners currently being detained in Panamanian jails by local authorities have yet to be tried. Magaly Castillo, in her testimony, brought notice to the large number of discrepancies and erroneous practices in Panama’s criminal justice system that need to be redressed, which was difficult to outline in the 20 minutes that each side was allotted to make their statements before the Commission. Castillo went on to state, “[the search for] judicial independence is what brought us here. […] You can’t have judicial independence where you have corruption.” Salazar, Castillo and Bernal finalized their brief testimonies with a request for the Commission to initiate an on-site inspection of Panama’s profoundly controversial court system.

Martinelli’s Heavy Handed Threats

Martinelli officials at the Commission’s hearing did not respond to Bernal, Salazar and Castillo’s allegations with constructive restraint upon return to Panama. In trying to discredit their claims and reputations, Demetrio Papadimitriu, Minister of the Presidency (Chief of Staff), attacked the loyalty of these distinguished Panamanians by stating that the delegation that traveled to Washington deserved to be condemned for “washing dirty laundry abroad,” which “hurt the country’s image.” However appropriate Bernal and his colleagues’ performance in Washington was, it has prompted repercussions for him back home. Bernal specifically has been the target for a number of attempts at stifling his free speech and quashing his longstanding activism in the vanguard of one good cause or another.

Dr. Bernal, a fierce constitutionalist, is no stranger to the perils of facing a political lashing at the hands of rightist extremists. In 1979, he was brutally beaten after protesting against the Panamanian authorities who had granted Shah Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi of Iran refuge in the country under the dictatorship of General Omar Torrijos. In 1987, Bernal was forced into exile to escape from threats of violence against him under General Manuel Noriega. Now, following the IACHR hearing in Washington, Dr. Bernal, upon his return to Panama, once again began receiving threats from anonymous third parties. Because he is such a respected and highly visible academic figure and civic rights leader in his own country, as well as an internationally renowned figure abroad, Bernal became a logical target for such threats, which were taking place in a country already notorious for its lack of respect for pluralistic attitudes and civic guarantees.

Through trusted personal sources close to the government, Bernal became aware that the President’s staff had been scrutinizing every aspect of his private life, from his bank records to social contacts, even going so far as surreptitiously taking pictures of the house where he and his family resided. Furthermore, Bernal has been informed that his phones were being tapped and that he and members of his family frequently have been tailed by unidentified figures. Meanwhile, Bernal has continued to adamantly declare that he has nothing to hide. However, with past examples of how recklessly the current and previous governments have been in their attempts at intimidation—Bernal has good reason to worry that acts of physical violence are not out of the question and could be directed against him as well as members of his family. Reliable sources have speculated to COHA that orders to hector Bernal could come directly from the office of President Martinelli or his Chief of Staff, Demetrio Papadimitriu.

The pattern of attacks aimed at discrediting distinguished civic leaders, like Bernal and his associates, as well as a strategy of intimidating independent non-government groups, are a recurrent fact of life in the country. Others, who have demonstrated some degree of opposition to Martinelli in recent months, have had to face similar acts of harassment aimed at discrediting their reputations. Respected lawyer, Magaly Castillo, repeatedly has been impugned based on her previous connections with the Attorney General’s office, as part of an attempt by the Martinelli Administration to establish that her comments before the OAS body were biased and not to be trusted. Angélica Maytín, who heads the Panama office of the international organization Transparency International, also has been a victim of allegations defaming her reputation. Moreover, reports have been received that her personal tax returns have been meticulously combed for shortcomings, real or imagined.

Martinelli’s Actions and Reactions

The vexatious treatment of Bernal and other leading members of civic society, in addition to the hardly orthodox removal of Gómez from the Attorney General’s office, are just some of the disturbing but routine actions apparently being authorized by the Martinelli administration as a matter of course. After Panama’s National Assembly approved and set a date for the implementation of a new Code of Criminal Procedures that were aimed at incorporating various anticorruption measures in 2008, Martinelli, once in office, postponed its implementation for a month, just before the legislation was scheduled to take effect. Furthermore, the President has padded the Supreme Court with several undeserving and ill-prepared candidates who he knows are guaranteed to accommodate themselves to his preferences, rather than serve their offices in an entirely professional manner. The court now openly defers to Martinelli, demonstrating its oft-displayed servility by suspending Gómez from office.

The Panamanian president further displayed his contempt for democratic procedures after a peaceful protest march being staged by construction workers suddenly turned violent as a result of provocations at the hands of the authorities. Several of the officials went so far as to charge the protesters with violating a recently inaugurated section of Law 110, which states that one can be imprisoned for up to six months (or even two years on associated charges) for obstructing the free transit of vehicles on Panama’s public streets. In other words, activists must confine their protest to the sidewalk of one city block, or face the risk of being jailed. Furthermore, the law is quite vague in terms of its execution, which basically allows those in a position of authority to interpret the law however they see fit.

Under another section of Law 110, Martinelli is essentially free to proselytize (i.e., bribe) opposition elected officials in an effort to have them switch their registration from an opposition seat in favor of his party. Under the old law, it was the political party rather the individual who decided who controlled the legislator’s seat. This change was far from trivial because it could allow the president to persuade a given legislator to switch his or her party membership. If the country had a well-regarded and untainted judicial system, actions like the alarming ad hominem campaign aimed at intimidating Bernal and other dissidents, could be legally quashed. However, it seems as if Martinelli’s controversial game plan is to intensify the campaign against Bernal and his like-minded foes for the remainder of Martinelli’s presidency.

The violence and mayhem that is enveloping Panama since the Martinelli administration took office, claimed one more victim at the end of April with the assassination of Javier Justiniani, a human rights advocate and foe of President Martinelli. While it is still early in the day to accuse anyone of complicity in his death, a solid case exists that he was a troubling opponent to the Martinelli administration and that the authorities do not seem to be going out of their way to see to it that a speedy and thorough investigation of the crime takes place.

The Lingering Free Trade Factors

The unfavorable attention surrounding Martinelli due to acts of injustice and blatant violence, and the personal attacks he has sanctioned against those who have had the courage to recently testify before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, without question could eventually adversely affect the pending ratification of the U.S.-Panamanian Free Trade Agreement. Professor Bernal is very well-known in key circles in Washington and the shabby treatment being afforded him and members of his family will not be ignored for long or dismissed. Nor will the human rights infringements and the pervasive corruption of the Panamanian judicial system—particularly when it comes to matters of money laundering and secret U.S. bank accounts—be overlooked or treated kindly. While the species of sly political tactics that have created a façade of democracy in Panama may have been successful during the debates preceding the implementation of the Panama Canal Treaties initiated under General Torrijos, they are today reminiscent of another era, now past. Meanwhile, tactics recently spawned by the Martinelli administration to suppress the opposition may not have the same success in posing an impressive barrier to prevent the President from steamrolling key circles in Washington, in order to prevent enacting a Free Trade Agreement between Panama and the U.S.