Sunday, August 27, 2006

The referendum battle gets close

The referendum battle gets close

by Eric Jackson

According to La Prensa's spin doctors, the latest poll shows that the "yes" campaign retains a huge advantage, with both "yes" and "no" camps losing a few points to the undecideds since this past May. The reality is, however, that at best the "yes" side has a single-digit lead now, because in the climate of intimidation that the government and ACP have created many people are afraid to tell any stranger that they oppose the government and virtually all of those "undecideds" are actually on or leaning toward the "no" side.

You can tell who has the momentum by so many signs: the Excedra Books readers' club reaction to Stanley Heckadon's pro-expansion presentation; changes in the lineups of the Torrijos administration's and ACP's publicity teams; "no" campaign messages painted in the back windows of city buses; endorsements for the "no" side from indigenous organizations and leaders.

Nevertheless there are two months before the election and a lot of things can and will happen.

One thing that's happening right now, in a coordinated effort by pundits and letter writers and government policy, is an attempt to portray the "no" campaign as the labor and leftist militants and nobody else, and to provoke key labor sectors into strike actions and bring the student radicals out to block the streets and throw rocks and molotov cocktails at the cops. The bet is that these tired old tactics, which cause annoying traffic jams and are hugely unpopular, will play into the government's and "yes" campaign's hands and change the momentum that would otherwise carry the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan to defeat.

I get the sense that the Seguro Social clerical workers' leader Priscila Vásquez and educator union leaders like Andrés Rodríguez are smart enough to step around those traps. However, not all of their supporters are. Moreover, there will be government provocateurs and assorted freelance thugs on hand to push them into the traps, as was the case during the Seguro Social strike.

My basic social loyalty is toward working people and my sympathies in these labor disputes are with the CSS workers and teachers. I distinguish between the heads of company unions that front for the bosses and genuine labor leaders, and consider Vásquez and Rodríguez to be the latter, even if they have political disagreements with each other and I have different politics from both of them.

But meanwhile, FRENADESO, the Seguro Social workers and the "street left" factions are far from the entire "no" camp. In fact they don't even comprise its majority. The core of the opposition to the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan is composed of middle class professionals from across the political spectrum who are appalled by the plan's demagogic presentation and, far more importantly, alarmed by its contents.

How can a pediatrician who treats babies who come in sick because their homes in parts of the metropolitan area lack clean drinking water not be concerned about the expansion proposal's likely effect on the urban water supply? How can a banker whose job it is to analyze business plans believe in the incomplete figures and wildly optimistic assumptions that have gone into the government's and ACP's plan? How can a lawyer who's more than just a paper shuffler or bribe negotiator and who believes in the rule of law accept the open vote buying, the use of public funds for political propaganda, the shattering of the organic law and solemn promises that the ACP work force would not be politicized, and the concerted campaign of specious arguments? How can a teacher who's conscientious about his or her job of turning out informed and discerning young citizens not be alarmed when government policy is to promote a financial scheme that makes no intrinsic economic sense and cover it with rhetoric about how "it's a money machine?" How can an architect or engineer whose job it is to estimate the costs of construction projects overlook the many tell-tale signs that the $5.25 billion pricetag attached to the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan is a lowball bid? How can any astute observer of world affairs not notice that the company that the ACP has hired as its consultant for the canal expansion, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is the same one that was in charge of Boston's disastrous Big Dig project?

Fernando Manfredo, Tomás Drohan, Guillermo Endara, Jorge Illueca, Luis Chen, Humberto Ricord, Miguel Antonio Bernal, Humberto Reynolds, Jorge Gamboa, Roberto Méndez, Ariel Rodríguez, Keith Holder et al are not young maleantes with a radical cause to be self-righteous about. You won't find them out on the Transistmica blocking traffic and throwing things at the cops. They're serious and accomplished professionals with well considered objections to what the government's trying to do. If President Torrijos and canal administrator Alemán Zubieta think that they can win a referendum by equating these people with the kids at the Instituto Nacional, that's one more foolish risk they're taking.

But of course, all eggs are not in the broad-brush smear basket. There are also now two "private" campaign committees for the "yes" vote, both of them siamese twins of the government and ACP and both sheltered by a lack of transparency about the sources of their money. We know how Parsons Brinckerhoff has behaved in US ballot issue campaigns, so we can be confident that the New York-based multinational corporation will spend heavily to buy this Panamanian election. Given that the Torrijos administration has chosen the congressman from Caterpillar to head its US Congressional Panama Caucus, we should not be surprised if that Illinois-based multinational corporation also sticks its fingers in this country's affairs. An on and on --- it surely hasn't just been endorsements like those from the Houston Port Authority and the Chinese state-owned COSCO shipping line that delegations from the government and ACP criss-crossed North America, Europe and East Asia to solicit. Soon all MEDCOM and TVN programming will pushed to the background in favor of an avalanche of "yes" commercials of questionable provenance.

Ah, but Toro did that too, apparently with money raised for the most part in Asia, and still his 1998 ballot proposal went down in flames. Martín's problem is that ads brought to us by the corporate board in New York or the politburo in Beijing only go so far with the Panamanian electorate.

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