21 May 2019

Corruption, a Panamanian way of life

Let's face facts, corruption is everywhere in Panama, and this election will not change that. Martinelli (two presidents ago) was indicted for eavesdropping on his opponents, not for taking backhanders from Odebrecht and others. Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, the incoming president, plans to indict the outgoing president, Varela, on corruption charges. In fact, this was one of the specific platforms that he ran on. So two prior presidents in a row are or will be brought up on corruption charges?

The idea of term-limits is appealing, with a limit on the amount of time that a politician can serve acting as a break on corruption, or so the thinking goes.

The international press has said that the Panama Papers have contributed to the awareness of corruption in the country. Yet Panama's inclusion on the "Grey List" pre-dates the Panama Papers, and the documents released pointed to, in some cases, corruption by non-Panamanians exploiting the Panamanian corporate (and other countries) structures and tax laws. This is a nice idea, but in Panama, the Papers are yesterday fish-wrap; nobody cares.

Real corruption can be seen across Panama, from the bribing of police to the buying of votes by mayors in big cities and small, so simply exploiting Gringos and each other as much as possible.

The 2018 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Panama 93rd out of 180 countries. All told, approximately 38% of Panamanians said that they had to pay a bride to have an official service provided to them. Yet paying a bribe is only one measure of corruption and how deeply ingrained it is in Panama.

In the countryside, true or not, it is a common assumption that mayors are "owned" by local oligarchic families, such as we're told is the case on the west coast of Varaguas. Apparently, Panamanians will openly tell you that their mayor is corrupt, but when asked if they will vote him out, they shrug their shoulders "he is our mayor, so what can we do?" So the roads are potholed, the electricity fails regularly, and rubbish is everywhere. And the families will support the mayor because he does their bidding. After all, if you can pay workers $12 per day to grow rice, then why would you want them educated or working on construction for Gringos at, gasp, $20 to $30 per day?

The mayor promised potable water for everyone in the town of Mariato, but when the water tower was built, it was going to take six weeks or more to hook up the electricity to pump the water and the ensure it was potable. So the mayor asked a local Gringo if he would let the city plug the water system into his power. Feeling like there was an obligation to be a good citizen, and not wanting the backlash of saying "no" to the mayor, he agreed. Sure enough, the town received clean water, certainly from that day and for the six weeks leading up to the elections.

But two to three weeks before the elections, the Gringo was presented with a $4000 electricity bill. He took the bill to the mayor, who simply said: "it is your bill, I'm not paying it". And sure enough, the electricity company came along and cut off the Gringo's power. He (the Gringo) now has no electricity and a $4000 bill; the town had enough water in the tank to last two weeks, and still no power connected to the water system. The water was expected to run out the day after the election - an election that would probably return the mayor to office, even though he has already served the two consecutive terms that he is allowed. [Update: The mayor was not re-elected, and quietly the bill was paid for the gringo.]

And of course, the Gringo will look like the bad guy for failing to pay for the electricity and therefore leaving the town without potable water.

In the towns the children will all tell you that they want to grow up to be policemen. Such civic mindedness is wonderful to see. Until you realise that what they really want is a well paying, low effort job. Not all police are corrupt, depending on your definition of corrupt. But if there is a job in Panama that comes with a steady "extra" income without the need for additional effort, it is to be a country policeman. Let me be clear here; the city cops work hard and face dangerous working conditions that result in many experiencing long term trauma and sometimes physical harm. They are the heroes keeping poor cities like Colon and large parts of Panama City functioning and safe(ish). Yet even then there are areas where they will only go in pairs.

But like many countries, the life of a country cop is a good life. Easy hours, respect, kickbacks, and not a lot of hard work. In another part of the country, when a Gringo had his tools stolen, the police were unable to help, shoulders shrugged, these things happen. Needless to say, it was known in the community who had stolen the tools. Two teens had earned a reputation for thieving around the area.

As the thieves were unable to use the tools, and as has a small reward had been offered, the local religious minister was told that walking by an empty building, someone saw what looked to be tools abandoned inside. Sure enough, the police arrived, "found" the tools, and told the Gringo to go and pick them up.

The Gringo went to the local police and confronted them. "You know who did it, so why haven't they been arrested?"

Well, of course, they didn't know. How could they?

The Gringo then went to the local minister and asked him who were the thieves. He, of course, did not know either. Finally, the Gringo got close to the minister and said "these two are in your parish, and are causing problems across your parish. You have 50 adult males here. Preach a sermon next week saying that the community has a duty to teach the young what is acceptable and what is not. And - tell those two toe-rags that is they try it with him again, they will be never be found." He has not had any problems since.

Of course, the Gringos are just as bad as the Panamanians. Being very clear, Panama is a country full of corruption, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that it is only Panamanians that are corrupt. There is the case of "Max", the Gringo (Dutch I think) who is accused of "buying" large amounts of land from local Indians and Panamanians, paying them 10% of the agreed price in cash, and then having the properties titled in the name of a company. The land(s) are then "sold" for peanuts to another company, which signs the properties over to trusts, which then on-sell them to other shell companies, etc etc. until the audit trail is lost through bureaucratic inefficiency (and bribed judges).

Apparently, but with no evidence, Max's secret is to make sure that he has rented the services of an appropriate judge. This was all long in the past, of course, and this couldn't happen today, I'm sure. But I understand the going price for a judge might have been around $20,000 up to $100,000 depending on the size and nature of the problem that needed to be solved. This is, of course, all hearsay and probably none of it is true.

Of course, Gringos stealing land from the natives is not the only game in town. Stealing property from Gringos is also part of the local repertoire. There is the local mayor who (again, no evidence whatsoever) signed a paper saying that a small parcel of land was owned by a local Panamanian, attesting that the owners of the properties to the North, South, East and West were named on the document. The only small problem was that the name of the Gringo who owned (owns?) the land surrounding the small claim was not included in the document at all.

This document was then used to demonstrate to MIVI, the ministry that builds houses for poor people on their land or on public land provided by a local council, that the family had "title" to that parcel, and MIVI could build the family a house.

One the house was built, the family could then claim the rest of the land, staking a claim on well over 50 hectares, from their small claim or 500 square meters of land. And the document accepted by MIVE would be used to demonstrate, as it was not contested, that the land was theirs, that the Gringo owner had not been to or occupied the land in over a decade, and was not even listed on the document.

At this stage, it becomes further conjecture - that the mayor would then buy the full land from the local family, for a fraction of its real value. Everyone wins. The family gets a house and a very good chunk of cash, the mayor gets the land for a pittance which he can then on sell at a discount, but still enough to make him "rich(er)".

These are but a scratching of the surface of corruption in Panama. The real corruption is of the soul, in which these stories are looked on as a slander on the country (even if they are true) or simply accepted as the way of life in Panama. They got theirs, why shouldn't I get mine.

Of course, the real estate companies trying to encourage Gringos to move to Panama will not say any of this, and Panamanians can become quite aggressive in response to any criticism. A negative comment on a quite frank posting on an Expats in Panama Facebook group resulted in a Panamanian saying that they were going to report the writer to immigration and have them deported. Panamanians can be very prickly.

None of this will change with this election, except that the people at the top being bribed will change, and sadly in five years, even if he has been the picture of honesty and a champion for anti-corruption, someone will run for president of Panama on a ticket of indicting Nito, the newest president. It is the Panamanian way.

As one Panama observer said to me, "the incoming crowd know they have five years to get rich, and then they are out."

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