Authors Note: I know I am a few days late with this, but this is an issue that is only going to grow louder in Panama in the coming weeks and months, so I still wanted to write my article about this.
Last Thursday, January 29th, thousands of Panamanians gathered together and marched down Via Espana to demand an end to corruption in government and the judicial system. Target number 1 on the protesters mind? Former President, Ricardo Martinelli.
When I spoke with Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal, a constitutional lawyer who was one of the protest leaders, he told me the goal of the protests was to demand accountability and make sure that the “cartel of corruption” saw prison. When I asked him if this included former President Martinelli, he responded without hesitation. “Of course, he is number one on the list. Him and his ministers.” As the protesters marched, many of the slogans they chanted included “Martinelli” in them. While I couldn’t understand most of what they were chanting, it was clear that most of the marchers felt the same way as Dr. Bernal did.
Former President Martinelli is a very polarizing figure in Panama, almost a year after his term ended. His supporters say that he did more for Panama than any other President, and helped to grow Panama into a developed country and international business hub. His critics accuse him of doing so through corruption, diverting millions if not billions of dollars to inflated contracts for himself and his friends and family. He has been linked in corruption probes involving former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and recently Panama’s Supreme Court has announced that they will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the President’s actions if office.
Pressure appears to grow on Martenilli by the day, and it has been reported that he has left the country and has appointed power of attorney to his family. It appears more likely that if he does return to Panama, arrest is a definite possibility. The protesters want to use their pressure to increase the likelihood of that happening.
However, from talking to the protesters, it was clear this march was about much more than just Martinelli. They view him as a symptom of a corrupt system, rather than the cause of the disease. When I talked to Carmen, another lawyer who was marching in the protest, it was clear she viewed the justice system as the biggest problem.
According to Carmen, the justice system in Panama is broken. Too much power is given to the executive branch to appoint justices, and as a result, they are corrupt. The legal system operates on an open understanding of “he who bribes the highest, wins.” Those who choose to try their cases honestly are likely to lose, no matter how much the evidence supports them, if they are up against someone who is willing to pay to win their case.
Many of the protesters believe this problem lies in Panama’s constitution. Most wore headbands at the march that read “Constituyente Soberana Ya”, which roughly translates to “Sovereign Constituent Assembly Already.” This is a call for an assembly to draft a new constitution. While Panama has been a relatively peaceful and high functioning democracy since former dictator Manuel Noriega was overthrown in 1989, the constitution has not been updated since the dictator’s rule. This leads to a system that the protesters believe places too much power in the executive branch and individual judges, and lacks adequate protections for the people.
It’s clear that in the long term, this is the protester’s bigger aim. Regardless of what happens with Former President Martinelli, their movement is only starting, and they aim to continue to grow it until changes are made to Panama’s system that reduces corruption. While it is too early to tell if they will be successful in their crusade, it is clear that this movement is only just beginning in Panama.