Panama: Cabinet Crisis of Government Crisis?

-By Mauro Zúñiga Araúz

The current problem in the Panamanian cabinet is that the ministers are merged among themselves and with the President. The competition among them is not about productivity, which is close to zero, but about who achieves the dirtiest deals; a high percentage of them end up in the BOSS’ pockets as Papadimitriu, Minister of the Presidency, told the President.

Naturally, there are ministries with greater opportunities to make dirty deals than others, but in all of them, in one way or another, they exist. Some ministers also receive perks, not in cash but in kind, of varying quality. The ministers meet among themselves and with close friends to talk about the type and amount of dirty deals they do daily, weekly or monthly, which are made light of by everyone. The President does not participate in all these parties, who is entertained with even more juicy deals. The problem is that if the President decides to dismiss anyone, as he tried to do a few days ago, the cabinet crisis that ensues can be of such magnitude that it ends up destroying the current government. But in spite of all this and of the merger, cracks are already underway in the cabinet, which may precipitate the crisis by other mechanisms.

The bribery scandal that has just broken out in Italy, which favored Minister Mulino and the President himself, has led to an unusual fear among other ministers, especially the less fortunate, that the Panamanian case could be internationalized, and that Panama could be punished with high scale economic and political measures, which, linked to the dramatic decline in the President’s popularity, may lead to popular uprisings of undetermined prognosis. To all this we must add that the government is on the brink of bankruptcy due to the unbridled looting of public funds, which can lead to shutting down some of the mega-projects and even to the lack of liquidity to cover the government payroll.

The results of the last health sector strike, which had the support of over 80% of the population, has not been analyzed in detail by the government, which is desperately seeking funds to meet its immediate commitments. Therein lie his intentions to lay hands on the Trust Fund and to implement, as soon as possible, the sale of State services, through variations of the Public Private Partnership Act, already rejected by the citizenry.

The conclusion, seen from whichever perspective you want to, reflects that Martinelli’s government has reached rock bottom, with very few ways out, unless he resorts to repression, which will only hasten his downfall. The situation is tarnished even more by the imminent arrival of former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. The latter is not going to create a political situation per se, because after 21 years of exile, he will only find a small group of followers; he may, at best, shatter the PRD party even more, as his supporters would ally with the Democratic Change party, but that number doesn’t seem to be significant, although we don’t know its magnitude for sure.

The real problem with Noriega’s arrival is that it will expose his ties with Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal, given that the latter purchased, with the help of the former, the first Super 99 grocery store in the country. Since that time, Martinelli’s fortune has soared to the same extent as the proliferation of his supermarkets. Martinelli is a very wealthy man, with investments in banking and in multiple companies. Where did his fortune come from? It is a mystery that has sparked much speculation, which will not stop until there is an independent audit of his supermarkets’ bookkeeping. Noriega was tried in the U.S. for drug trafficking, but a drug dealer without a money washing machine at his disposal can not do much. Do we know of the existence of all those money washers used by Noriega?

Moreover, the arrest in Mexico of the President’s cousin, Ramon Martinelli Corro, Treasurer of CD (the President’s party), for drug dealing, with young Ninoska Escalante, who is also linked to the President, and the arrest in Miami of David Murcia Guzman who was convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme and who donated to Martinelli’s campaign, and the evidence that all links to those donations were extracted from the file, significantly increase the suspicions that the President’s fortune came from unlawful sources. That connection is, in my view, the most significant issue of Noriega’s arrival in Panama. Everything I’ve been denouncing in the media for over a year will be cleared up. Only time will tell.

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