Not just a canal, but a keystone

The bridge nation speaks up

Earlier in the month the Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, gave a talk at Canning House (, @Canning_House) in London called ‘Panama and Central America: Challenges and Opportunities’.


Mr Martinelli spoke at length and was questioned afterwards on the more difficult topics. The president has Italian roots and he was keen to point to them in the talk, spending nearly half his speech praising immigration to the country and the economic benefits of foreign fingers in the Panama City pie. He told us that 7% of the population was from the US but he also stressed that his nation must not to be seen as a tax-sanctuary and that overseas citizens had pay their homeland due as well as the Panamanian ones.

Martinelli eulogised about his 2% budget deficit and national high standard of living and claimed the only rival to his country in Latin America for economic competition was Chile. He boasted of the 12% growth forecast for next year. He assured the collected that he would try hard to save Panama from becoming embroiled in the financial crisis: “we are almost immune, through being so far away and not relying on one commodity or product.”


Panama is famous for its canal but Mr Martinelli admitted that widening and modernising works were behind schedule. He confirmed the companies involved would lose their cash incentive if they miss the July deadline, (which he confessed was likely), saying “the impact on the economy would be great.” He wanted to show us that there was more to the country’s infrastructure than the inter-oceanic waterway and highlighted the investment in rapid building of cruise-liner ports and the improvements to the capital’s public transport system he had approved.


After his talk, the president was pressed on slightly less comfortable issues than easy national promotion and talk of bilateral trade deals. I wanted to steer him towards talking about his neighbours and pointed out that Nicaragua had recently re-elected Daniel Ortega after the president’s party had secured a modification to the constitution. When Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran leader, had tried that in his country in 2009 the army flew in during the night and carted him off to Costa Rica. And the intentions of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan head-of-state, are clear: he would like to stay in power until 2031.

The response of Mr Martinelli was also simple: he is not in favour of re-election – “you should go home after one term”. He was at pains to point out that he was not describing the situation in Nicaragua, but he saw being voted back into office and changing constitutions to allow re-votes as undemocratic moves in a (largely) growing region of democracies. Re-election is outlawed in Panama and Martinelli confirmed it would remain so.


He was also pushed on tax treaties, eco-tourism (a field in which Costa Rica has done particularly well) and security, the most worrying topic in the region. Panama is the link between the north of South America, where the internal problems with criminal gangs are largely subsiding (although international cocaine production continues) and Central America. Here the murders, extortions and abductions are worsening, especially in the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Panama is a transit country, with gangsters flying over it to land in jungle airstrips or sailing along its mosquito-riddled coasts, bubbling through the mangrove swamps in mini-submarines or speedy launches on their way to Mexico. Martinelli was adamant that his country would not be put at risk by encroaching gangs and outlined the security measures – namely the training of more police and the expansion of surveillance procedures – he was taking to ensure his people (and the foreigners and their multi-billion-dollar businesses in Panama City) were safe.

Mr Martinelli’s country is going places but it needs to shout its little voice louder on the regional stage to confront this problematic issue of criminal violence with its Latin partners. The rising violence is a disease that is borderless that requires international treatment. That Panama is comparatively successful is good for the region but Mr Martinelli must not solely focus economic efforts on the foreign-dominated capital. He must remember the villages and small-holders of the countryside. But he is not doing badly.


SPANISH ELECTION VI – Blue prospects

The Partido Popular has won a huge majority in the 2011 Spanish general election. This blog is live in Madrid covering the result and its consequences. For regular updates follow @cullennews on Twitter

It was a record-breaking night. The conservatives have won their biggest ever majority, pounding the ruling Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) in the Spanish lower house by 186 seats to 110, and leaving the centre-left party in their worst ever position. The PP won all but seven of the 50 provinces and increased their majority in the upper house as well, where they now have 136 of the 208 senators.

“I am proud, happy and satisfied. We are facing a decisive time in Spain…but we will be part of the [eurozone crisis] solution, not the problem”

The reaction outside the PP’s headquarters just off Plaza Colón to Mariano Rajoy’s victory words was euphoric. Huge speakers were blasting out something musical for everyone, from Barry White to Frank Sinatra via the latest European club tunes. Hundreds of people crammed in along the street in a strange family-disco atmosphere; infants danced around pushchairs alongside teenagers clutching cans of lager. I was struck by the youthful nature of the crowd, with a large number of children and twenty-somethings showing their proud political colours on a night of joy for the right and desperation for the socialists.

The PSOE central office was a picture of dejection. There was no need for the street to be cordoned off, with about 30 people shuffling around on the pavement. Defeated candidate Arturo Pérez Rubalcaba accepted the result about 90 minutes after polls closed and has said his party will work with the government to try to deal with the economic crisis. According to a communications expert I spoke to, PSOE votes went two ways. Firstly, and unsurprisingly, floating voters plumped for the PP. Secondly, huge numbers of regular socialist supporters went further to the west and voted for the IU (Izquierda Unida, United Left).

Either way, there can be no mistake: the PSOE has been soundly beaten. Mr Rajoy urged his flag-waving supporters to party last night but to be ready for work today. (One wonders if Angela Merkel has put the champagne and beer on her ever-generous continental tab.) Yesterday’s grey drizzle has turned into a bright and warm autumn day but dark times are ahead.

Despite the crushing victory the conservatives have far from convinced the entire country: 312,000 ballot papers were spoiled; 322,000 were left unfilled; and nine million people – a quarter of the nation – did not vote at all. Spaniards will have to work together and be ready to compromise with Europe to confront the rocketing unemployment, rising borrowing costs and budget deficit. A trabajar.

SPANISH ELECTION V – El péndulo oscila

Tomorrow, on Sunday, 20 November, Spain will hold a general election. This blog is live in Madrid covering the build-up and the vote itself. For regular updates throughout the weekend, follow @cullennews on Twitter

El péndulo oscila (The pendulum swings)

Today has been the dia de reflexión which traditionally precedes elections. It is a campaign-free day on which to consider your coming democratic decision. So what have Spaniards been thinking about?

The economic situation and high unemployment are the top two items on the list. Arturo Pérez Rubalcaba, the PSOE leader, wants to grow the economy before thinking about imposing any cuts. Mariano Rajoy, his PP counterpart, has not been clear about his economic plans but the undercurrent of gossip is that the conservative austerity axe is coming.

Mr Rajoy must explain how Spain is supposedly going to be different: under the present circumstances pessimism understandably persists. Mr Pérez Rubalcaba likes to point out that Portugal and the UK both recently replaced socialist governments with conservatives who, he says, have only exacerbated their crises with poorly defined and wounding austerity measures. Either way, Spaniards have probably had enough of talking about banks, cuts and bailouts and now want some action.

Also on the list to think about tonight is the widely appreciated belief that Spain could have been different. A photographer from Madrid, a Galician man who works in sales for a multi-national company and writer from Barcelona I spoke to today all exemplified the anger and sense of hopelessness amongst the young and the indignado movement.

However much Rajoy believes he can build a better Spain different from the PSOE-governed country he may inherit, many of the people he needs to inspire to help the economy to grow and the jobs to be created are fed up with the two-party pendulum. They have placed some hope in the new party Equo, which advances many of the same ideas and ambitions of the indignado movement. Equo has set its sights on about five seats (no threat to the pendulum) but the age and spread of voters will be of interest. The latest unemployment rate for 16-24 year-olds is shocking: 45.8% of the age group do not have a job.

The PP may be returned to the legislature from the comfort of the regular right and the floating voters of the middle-class. Rajoy must pay attention if the key to Spain’s unknown future, the young, do not vote for him, do not vote at all or vote, for example, for Equo. The fracturing of the youth vote will stop the possibility of a mass change driven by twenty-somethings’ ballot papers. But they are the people with whom the PSOE has started to lose touch. Spain’s new government, whoever it is, must not consider them a lost cause drifting away.

There is, indeed, much for the public to consider this evening. But the Spaniards who must have their thinking caps set tightest on their heads must be the uncertain politicians.

SPANISH ELECTION IV – Depende, depende

On Sunday, 20 November Spain will hold a general election. This blog is live in Madrid covering the build-up and the vote itself. For regular updates throughout the weekend, follow @cullennews on Twitter

Depende, depende (It depends, it depends)

It has been pleasantly mild in Madrid today and the same could be said for the campaigns of the two major parties in Spain, the conservative opposition PP (Popular Party) and the socialist party in government, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). With one full day left until the Spaniards follow their Iberian neighbours the Portuguese and head off to the ballot boxes for a eurozone crisis general election the mood in town seems calm; almost resigned.

This has been an ambulatory run-up to the election. There has been no bloody battle between the parties, just consistent criticism from the sidelines. They have been warming up for a match for months but have yet to take the field. And it seems that Arturo Pérez Rubalcaba (@conRubalcaba), the PSOE’s potential next prime minister, is privately accepting of the defeat. He has spent the whole campaign electioneering without a chosen finance minister and has resorted to psychological electioneering:

“Cuanta más fortaleza tenga el PSOE mejor la democracia española”

(Spanish democracy will be all the better for having a strong PSOE)

That is: do not vote us out of power totally or Spain’s democratic principles will be at risk. Not that PP leader and the probable new presidente del gobierno on Sunday, Mariano Rajoy (@marianorajoy), has been any more clear with his policies. He has infamously replied “depende” (it depends) when the elephant in the room, namely, the economy and austerity measures, has been raised. The leading newspaper El País today stated that Rajoy’s main objective for this campaign has been:

“Llegar hasta las elecciones del domingo sin anunciar una sola medida impopular. Sin molestar a nadie. Disimulando”

(To get to Sunday’s election without announcing a single unpopular policy. Without annoying anyone. Hiding)

Maybe all this sighing and dragging of feet is because both men know that whoever wins on Sunday will have to face a financial nightmare. Perhaps Pérez Rubalcaba has not appointed a finance minister because nobody wants the job. Perhaps Rajoy has been hiding because he himself knows that, if he wins, he will certainly have to announce some unpopular belt-tightening measures.

SPANISH ELECTION III – Lucha roja, ola azul

On 20 November Spain will hold a general election. This blog will cover it live from Madrid. This is the third preview post on this mid-economic crisis European election. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here)

Lucha roja, ola azul (Red fight, blue wave)

The people are ready to have their say once more. Portugal and Ireland have already voted but the two most recent electoral changes, in Italy and Greece, were undemocratic appointments of ‘national-unity’, technocratic governments.

PSOE campaign publicity on La Castellana boulevard in Madrid

A detailed poll earlier in the month by the national Centre for Sociological Research predicted the Spanish conservatives winning 190-195 seats, with about 46% of the vote. The party in government, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE), has accused the Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) of triumphalism. The poll forecast 116-121 seats for the PSOE (about 29% of the vote). They and their prime ministerial candidate, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, know they are on the back foot and have chosen the election slogan:

“Pelea por lo que quieres” (Fight for what you want)

But should the PP and their leader, Mariano Rajoy, win, they will face the difficulties of trying to implement untasty austerity measures and any celebration at a possible landslide victory will be tempered pretty quickly by looking at the state of the country they would now head.

One in nine households has nobody working and the October unemployment figures showed 4.3m people out-of-work, the worst results for the months for 15 years. Spain’s borrowing rates are edging towards the Irish and Greek default limit. Speaking to young Madrid residents there was a sense of anxiety over what Mr Rajoy might do to Spain should his party win the 180 seats necessary for an absolute majority on Sunday. One Galician girl told me:

“I don’t like Zapatero [the outgoing PSOE prime minister] but Rajoy scares me”.

It seems that the winner’s hands will be tied for a good while by the constraints of the eurozone crisis. The PP have told us to:

“Súmate al cambio” (Join the change)

PP campaign publicity on La Castellana boulevard in Madrid

but with the single currency’s woes far from over, weak economic growth forecasts and austerity measures on the menu, the return to power for the PP after seven years in opposition will be announced not with champagne, but with strict sips from a poisoned chalice.

For live updates throughout the election weekend from Madrid: @cullennews

Hacking the gangs

Going online to fight the Mexican gangsters

The wing of the hacking group Anonymous based in the Mexican city of Veracruz recently threatened to expose names and activities of Los Zetas criminal organisation which it accused of being involved in the disappearance of one of its members.

In the video below (in Spanish), Anonymous warned that on Saturday 5 November, if their colleague still had not been freed, they would name taxi-drivers, police officers and local authorities who had “dedicated themselves to being the eyes and ears” of the gangsters. The word “polizeta” is also used; it combines ‘policeman’ and ‘Zeta’ to demonstrate the proximity between the law and the lawless.

Source: MrAnonymousguyfawkes, YouTube, 2 November 2011

The video’s defiance – “You made a big mistake taking one of us. Let him go. If anything happens to him then you sons of bitches will remember the 5th November” – is laudable in a world where the gangs have developed spiders’ webs of fear and violence across Mexican society.

However, just 24 hours after posting the video the Veracruz ‘hactivists’ seemingly backtracked on their threat due to the overwhelming risk they were placing on their lives. We have seen how the gangs have intimidated and murdered reporters and they have the capacity to terrify anyone reporting the conflict differently from how they would like with torture, rape and extortion.

Nevertheless, it seems that that the wider hacking community considered and dismissed the Veracruz decision. The larger wing of the global Anonymous group, ‘Anonymous Iberoamerica’ posted this belligerent and daring blogpost on Wednesday 2 November, restating their repudiation of the criminals and their refusal to be dominated. The Twitter hashtag #OpCartel has remained in use and there is incessant online activity and discussion over this bold challenge, despite the past reactions of the authorities to Internet debate of the drugs problems.

The violence carried out by the gangsters is often of a nearly unspeakable brutality but Mexico would quickly lurch a hundred paces backward into serious problems if the media never reported and disputed the problems. The freedom of the press must not be privatised and restricted. As a leading Latin American nation and a member of the G20, if Mexico were to lose this pillar of democracy its stumble towards lawlessness and political default would be more acute. The politicians are hesitating and treading water ahead of the presidential elections on 1 July 2012. It seems that Anonymous is not prepared to wait that long and is ready to risk death rather than to continue to be subordinated by the fast-moving, well-connected and devastatingly violent criminal gangs.

This blog will cover the Mexican general and presidential elections live from the country in June and July 2012.