A Suspicious History
Besides being well known for its current surge of drug trafficking and banking irregularities, Panama’s elections, law enforcement, politicians and polls continue to be viewed as subjects of corruption. Panamanians and the international community alike still remember the shady and repressive rule that Panama’s citizens endured during the regime of former dictator Manuel Noriega. For these reasons, special attention is being paid to this year’s Panama City mayoral elections. Panama’s notoriously slapdash political polling system is a particular cause for concern as depressing news of fraudulent activity has been associated with each of Panama’s political posts. But even these sometimes questionable polls are now showing a narrowing of the numbers that separate the top two contenders.
However, it is no secret that corruption and fraud are once again being counted on to sway the upcoming election results, with the heavy financial influence already being exercised by isthmus criminal elements and the suspect role of some well-known government officials. The 1999 mayoral elections served to establish the unanticipated but key role being played by mayoral candidate, Miguel Antonio Bernal, who also is running as an independent in the current election. Then, as well as now, his campaign has lacked adequate funding and the kind of media attention that his campaign deserves. His chances of winning the election have consistently been dismissed in the polls and by practiced hands, which have incessantly portrayed him as a non-factor in the race.
But the negative publicity surrounding the front runner candidate Bobby Velásquez, and his murky financial ties to the exiled Colombian financier, David Murcia Guzmán, are proving damaging not only to the previously favored candidate’s public standing, but also to his ultimate chances for victory. At the same time, there are factors that make Bernal’s prospects very compelling, in spite of his underdog status. Unlike the United States, where there is a financial cap of $2,300 placed on contributions to presidential campaign as well as the requirement that a public listing of any donation over $250 be recorded, Panama has no such restriction nor limitation on funds that can be donated to a campaign. The lack of both the public listing and regulations affecting campaign donations have allowed for widespread corrupt practices in the past, including the de facto buying of public officers.
Vallarino and Bernal Making Moves
Then there is the ostensible contender in second place, Vallarino, and Bernal, trailing in third place. Bernal is an independent and a maverick from an academic background, but this long time fighter for the public good is having troubles of his own surviving as a viable candidate in what seems to be a demonstrably tainted election. An open dissenter who was one of the main opposition leaders to the Noriega regime in the 1980s, Bernal successfully has been contesting cynical efforts on behalf of the Electoral Tribunal and authorities close to the Torrijos administration to unjustly remove him from the ballot. But the developing political scandal regarding the issue of Bosco Vallarino’s dual nationality has enveloped the rightist candidate of the conservative Panameñista Party and may serve to boost the candidacy of Bernal.
Bosco Vallarino, born in Panama, was naturalized as a citizen in the mid-1990s and even resided in Florida. He fled to the United States as an exile and was granted political asylum, which means that he did not need to become a naturalized citizen, yet he pursued citizenship rather than simply residing in the U.S. and preserving his Panamanian citizenship. This act had the effect of automatically renouncing his Panamanian citizenship, and certainly disqualifies him from running for public office in Panama. But he continues to claim his right to Panamanian citizenship, insisting, “ I am a Panamanian citizen. I was born in Panama, the province of Panama, Panama City” as quoted in La Estrella de Panamá. Meanwhile, the hopeful mayoral candidate, who is a broadcaster and owner of a profitable chain of supermarkets as well as a marketing agency, vigorously proclaims his Panamanian citizenship. He defends himself by explaining that the reason he sought naturalization in the first place was because he was fleeing from the persecution of Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega during the 1980s. Vallarino maintains that instances of negative publicity regarding the issue of citizenship are merely nasty rumors being spread by the Velásquez and Balbina Herrera (the PRD presidential candidate) camps which have been purposely misconstrued and even exploited by the media.
Vallarino’s campaign chief has sought to keep the candidate in the race by citing the fact that he has never exercised his right to vote in any U.S. presidential elections. However, this claim proved to be faulty when Darshanine Ranjit, an administrative secretary at the Miami-Dade County Electoral Inscription Office, revealed that the candidate indeed had voted in the U.S. general elections in November 1996. Since this information became public, Vallarino has quickly changed his story, conveniently altering his memory, saying that he did not recall whether he in fact had voted in those elections. The retraction of his previous claims indicates that the contender knowingly lied to the people and then manipulated the language to keep his second-place status in the polls, even though by doing so he discredited himself.
Prosecutors recommended that the Electoral Tribunal remove Vallarino from the mayoral race because his Panamanian citizenship rights were suspended, as a consequence of being a dual-citizen. A decision was made this week regarding the fate of Vallarino’s candidacy. It came as no surprise that the Tribunal signed a decree allowing Vallarino to continue his campaign. This does not detract from the fact, however, that his multiple nationalities are a clear violation of Article 13 of the Constitution of Panama, which clearly states that when a person renounces his Panamanian nationality and assumes another one, the former national’s citizenship and rights are voided. By both U.S. and Panamanian law, Vallarino was legally naturalized and now holds U.S. citizenship and thus is unable to vote, run, or hold a position in any political office (other than that of the United States). However, the Civil Registry issued a document stating that Vallarino has Panamanian citizenship and therefore is allowed to keep his name on the ballot. It is of interest that both Vallarino and his lawyer accused magistrate Erasmo Pinilla of lacking impartiality, yet the Tribunal rejected Vallarino’s request and Pinilla was not replaced. News of his spurious dual citizenship was quickly made public by Panama’s local media and with the elections only weeks away, it seems that the race will continue to be among the three contenders.
The confessions of David Murcia Guzmán and his involvement with two PRD candidates were a veritable bombshell. He recently confessed from his jail cell that he had “invested” $6 million, split evenly, amongst the presidential candidate Balbina Herrera (a former Noriega loyalist) and mayoral candidate Bobby Velásquez. Guzmán also admits to paying for the use of Panama’s Presidential Secret Service, Servicio de Protección Institucional (SPI), for both business and personal protection. All of these revelations have caused quite a stir in Panama. It may even reach as high as the office of the Panamanian president. Torrijos made a statement claiming that his secret service personnel was not providing protection for Guzmán. The president later retracted this statement by claiming that the agency may have provided services for Guzmán on their free time. Then there is the fact that Panamanian Attorney General, Ana Matilde Gomez, claims to have informed the government of these illicit activities taking place between Guzmán and the SPI back in November of this year, which would contradict the government’s insistence of not knowing of the transactions taking place. As more names are revealed, linking candidates and government officials to criminals, it is increasingly clear that the government is entangled in corruption, in which quid pro quo has become the name of the game and the notion of honesty and public rectitude are the traits that only losers practice.
In another interesting development, three agents from the SPI, Fernando Aguilar, Arles Araúz and Rodrigo Ureña, have confessed that they were indeed personal bodyguards to Murcia. The personnel in question revealed information regarding the notorious October meeting between Murcia and candidate Bobby Velásquez and his father Robert Velásquez in which the money transaction to the PRD candidate was arranged and executed. The public confessions of these three agents have forced President Torrijos to admit that these SPI agents had in fact been Murcia’s bodyguards. This recent turn of events has shed a convincing light on the deeply troubled state of Panama’s electoral process as well as the compromising nature of the Torrijos administration.
Another One Bites the Dust
The web of lies and deceit continues to be publicized as shady dealings have been revealed between Vallarino and Brazilian real estate scammer, Alex Ventura, is a business associate of Vallarino as well as a friend to Guzmán. Ventura’s scam included receiving money and interest from hopeful renters and leasers on these pre-constructed projects, and then cancelling the construction of these high-rise towers. These construction projects were endorsed and promoted by Vallarino’s marketing agency. Ventura also paid for Vallarino’s trip to Cancun, to further promote these real estate scams, it was reported that Ventura also paid for Guzmán’s trip to Mexico as well. These ill-fated real estate projects have not caused destruction only to the purses and wallets of Panamanians, but they have also done damage to the city in terms of flagrantly violating zoning regulation as well as the environment. The real estate scammer was also present during the meeting when money was exchanged between the Murcia and the candidate Velásquez and his father, Robert Velásquez.
The results of the Tribunal’s ruling will affect not only this year’s election, but also the quality of democracy in Panama. The Vallarino case gives the green light to any Panamanian who has been naturalized in another country, which results in a dual nationality status, to vote or run for public office, although it is a clear violation of their country’s Constitution. Seeing as laws have been broken, and the Panamanian people have been deceived time and time again, perhaps this scandal will become the catalyst for a much needed a revision of Panama’s laws. If Vallarino’s name is taken off the ballot, Roxana Méndez, a candidate running as a substitute to be Vice Mayor on the Alliance for Change ticket, could be his replacement in the race. Although Méndez is favored by the middle and upper classes, it is unlikely that she will be able to secure the votes and backing of Bernal’s supporters. If Vallarino’s name is in fact taken off the ballot, it could be predicted that the candidate and his lawyers will appeal to the Panamanian Supreme Court of Justice to preserve his status.
However, this court ruling has once again allowed for corrupt politicians and a crooked government to bend the rules for their personal benefit. This should be a reminder to the Obama administration and key members of the U.S. Congress of the kind of skewed riles of the game they can expect in a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) if signed between the U.S. and Panama. This ruling by the judicial branch has allowed for the absolving of accountability by using a pathetic argument regarding the attention that has been generated by the issue and leaving the final decision in the hands of the Panamanian people. It is a crystal clear fact that money and influence have trumped democracy and the concept of free and fair election. The Panamanian people can now, with good grounds, expect to be cheated by the very laws that govern them. Some believe that the tribunal should allow Vallarino’s name to remain on the ballot, due to the assumptions that he will lose against Velásquez, as predicted by the polls. This comes at a time when prominent Panameñistas are calling for Vallarino’s resignation, with some of them now giving their public and private support to Bernal. Vallarino’s image and credibility have been tarnished, seeing as he knowingly violated the law and then lied to cover it up.
But the case against Vallarino is formidable and shouldn’t be treated with expedience. His choosing to enter into Panamanian politics clearly appears to be in violation of the law. His critics say that he came to the United States, regardless of his motivations, and swore an oath of allegiance to this country. He therefore gave up his Panamanian rights and privileges in spite of the fact that he currently resides in Panama. With Vallarino possessing full knowledge of Panamanian law and expecting to triumph in Panama’s electoral process, he knew that he was in violation of the country’s statute when he did not take steps to void the U.S. naturalization process. At this point, the honorable thing to do would be to pull out of the race. He is the second mayoral candidate, the other being Velásquez, to have his image and motive both questioned and defined. Perhaps more than just an analysis of Panamanian political and government procedures now needs to be carried out. The press and media coverage of such a scandal is appalling considering the fact that editors maintain control over the topics to be discussed and the people to be interviewed as well as the fact that there has been no questioning of the ruling that has allowed Vallarino to continue running, instead the media seems to be doing a public relations piece instead of any real investigations. An actual investigation needs to be authorized in order to protest the astonishingly apparent lack of legitimacy of the mayoral race. It seems that Panamanian politics, with these elections, have reached the bottom of the sludge barrel.