Clouds of Corruption

President of Panama Mireya Moscoso
President Mireya Moscoso's administration has been tainted by allegations of corruption (Photo: AFP).

The credibility of Panama’s democratic institutions faces an extraordinary challenge as the three branches of national government have been rocked by allegations of corruption. Charges that bribery influenced recent legislative votes to confirm two Supreme Court justices and approve a US$400 million shipping infrastructure project “have brought to light other questionable practices that spatter mud across the political spectrum,” Willy Carrera Loza and Eric Jackson noted (Jan. 25) in The Panama News. Popular reaction has been swift, they added, with “a broad section of Panamanian society stirred to protest” by the allegations.

“There is no feeling of revolution in the streets, Carrera Loza and Jackson wrote, “but it does seem that the country has reached a point at which few people have much confidence in any branch of the government, political party, or individual leader. The national discourse of the moment is an inquiry about what can be done to get rid of the corruption that’s damaging Panama’s democratic institutions and business climate.”

Paulino Romero, a Panamanian academic and diplomat writing in La Prensa (Feb. 7), argued that President Mireya Moscoso and the National Assembly are reaping the bitter fruits of Panamanians’ “experience of anguish, deception, disillusionment, frustration, and repudiation” inspired by repeated failures to punish and eradicate official corruption. “Opposition legislators, businessmen, educators, workers, lawyers, journalists, and finally, the entire citizenry have pointed out and denounced scandals of corruption, nepotism, and other violations of the constitution and the law,” Romero wrote. “But at no time has the government been disposed to swiftly correct it. Quite the contrary, its response has always been the same, ‘Let them present the evidence’—and nothing more!”

Carlos Guevara Mann, former Panamanian director general of foreign policy, offered an incisive analysis in La Prensa (Jan. 31), tracing the roots of parliamentary corruption back to the origins in 1984 of the present Legislative Assembly. The military dictatorship reorganized the national legislature “to apply a ‘democratic’ veneer to the arbitrary actions of an authoritarian regime....[It] converted the assembly into a business for legislators and political parties,” who routinely traded votes for “bags of cash” and other special favors. Guevara Mann lamented that the nation’s return to democratic rule in the early 1990s failed to produce “the political will to...democratize state institutions,” evidenced by a series of well-publicized vote buying and other bribery scandals that have roiled the legislative assembly over the past decade.

“As a consequence of that lack of will..., today a frightful degree of corruption predominates in the legislature,” Guevara Mann concluded. “The culture of corruption...has undermined the foundations of the Panamanian political structure. Now is the time for us to rebuild on solid and democratic bases.”