AND NOW PLAYING IN PANAMA: TORRIJOS II
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
MIAMI. May 3, 2004 -- Unofficial returns show that Martin Torrijos, son of the late Panamanian strongman Gen. Omar Torrijos has trounced three major opponents to win the presidency of the Central American nation.
In the first presidential election since the United States turned control of the Panama Canal over to Panamanians, Torrijos was scoring more than 47 per cent of the popular vote, to former president Guillermo Endara's 30 per cent. The overwhelming strength of Torrijos pretty much sinks the theory of some analysts that voters would automatically link Torrijos the son, to the tactics of charismatic but often iron-fisted Omar Torrijos who was killed in a plane crash more than two decades ago. As with criticism of the Bush dynasty in the United States (Pres. George W. and Florida Gov. Jeb), some analysts chided Torrijos the younger for "never holding a grown-up job." Officially, the Martin Torrijos pedigree sports a military prep school in the U.S. followed by a degree from Texas A&M University. Of course, his supporters are quick to point out that he served a stint as a manager of a U.S. corporation. They are not too quick to point out that the job was managing a McDonald's/ The election to replace "La Presidenta" Mireya Moscoso, widow of another former president, brought lots of old political ghosts into the open. It was Gen. Torrijos whose ousted Endara. The military grip on the nation after Torrijos' death evolved into the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega.
After U.S. intervention to oust Noriega in 1989, Endara and his supporters were restored, but the tacit endorsement of U.S. authorities might have hurt Endara's law and order and anti-corruption campaign. Foes of U.S. foreign policy pointed to Endara as the candidate of the United States. Ironically, many Panamanian business and civic leaders - even those officially opposed to Endara - felt that he had the best chance of rooting out corruption which has marked the Moscoso administration. Martin Torrijos faces the economic issues of a multibillion dollar proposed widening and expansion of the Canal, to keep of with larger ships; completion of a second bridge and connecting roadways linking North and South America, and rising crime connected with incursions of Colombian rebels and the drug culture - and money - which has accompanied relations with Colombia. International observers generally felt the election was fair, but some of the glaring irregularities are sure to be paraded before the public and Panama City's eight daily newspapers in days to come. A building set up for Sunday voting erupted in flames in the central state of Cocle's capital of Penonome in predawn hours. Some rural voting sites were not properly staffed, and a rose handed to Endara's wife while she was heading for the ballot box allegedly had a sensitive microphone hidden in its petals. La Presidenta's proxy candidate, Jose Aleman received last than 20 per cent of the vote, and supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli about 4 per cent. The importance, or lack thereof, of this key election in the "Crossroads of the Americas," was visible in the complete lack of coverage in major U.S. broadcast media. U.S. networks were preoccupied Sunday with Iraqi news and the Likud Party elections in Israel. The two Miami-based Hispanic news networks led with Iraqi news and Mexican soccer scores, and made no mention of the election in Panama in the evening newscasts, which are broadcast throughout Latin America.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Company securities, Boca Raton, and taught political science and inter-American relations at the U. of Florida and U. of South Florida.