by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Panama City, Panama
August 11, 2009
AS BUS STRIKE BEGINS, PANAMA HAS NO SYMPATHY FOR DRIVERS
PANAMA CITY, Panama, Aug. 11, 2009 -- If a machete-wielding wild man who is foaming at the mouth with blood dribbling from one reddened eyeball tries to hitch a ride with me today, I'll probably give him a lift.
At least for today.
For today comes the scheduled "transportista" (bus drivers and owners) strike, and most people in Panama will do anything to help the public survive the latest outrage of the bus owners.
"Maco" Arboledo will never get to fight Sept. 5th for the world Super Featherwight boxing title.
He lost his last fight. It was Friday at Santo Tomas hospital. He was the latest victim of an outrageous and antiquated transport system known as Diablos Rojos - the Red Devils.
Jose Euclides Arboleda Diaz or "Maco" was 27, and after a tough young life had a bright future ahead. That was until a bus driver lost control, flipped his bus down a cliff, and killed Maco and three others and seriously injured another 30 people.
Maco had a record of 23 wins, four losses, and nine Knockouts. La Prensa reported the feelings of people around here quite well.
Allow me to translate:
Rogelio Espiño, the manager of Panamanian boxer José Maco Arboleda, yesterday deplored his death and said "I hope this (his death) will help to open the eyes of the authorities so that Panamanians do not continue to die useless deaths thanks to these people who consider themselves to be above the law."
Espiño was present Monday morning at the Santo Tomas Hospital where Arboleda died at 4:00 A.M. local time, according to the doctors who were attending him after he suffered an abdominal trauma affecting his liver that landed him in the intensive care unit.
Arboleda is the third person to have died as a result of the fatal bus accident that occurred yesterday morning. A bus from the Kuna Nega-Villa Cárdenas route overturned near Cerro Patacón on the road that leads towards the Centennial Bridge. Espiño said the boxer's death caused him "much anger and made him feel impotent" because he "was killed in a very unfortunate manner."
The "unfortunate manner" is a way of saying that if any public sympathy for the private warriors of rust and waste which pass for urban transit here lived, now it is gone,
One radio talk-show host this morning, ad-libbing from the editorial in La Estrella/The Panama Star, said, "The paper says it all. The usefulness of this bus system no longer exists. There is no reason for them to be here. They cause death and destruction, and hold the people for ransom. Their time has passed. Get rid of them."
As a reporter, I would ordinarily note that about two dozen people have been killed or severely injured in bus accidents in the past few weeks. But unlike my old employer, UPI, which used to keep running counts of traffic deaths, in Panama people have lost count.
One needs to think of the oldest, crappiest, filthiest big yellow school bus taken out of service years ago in your hometown. Well, 20 years ago that piece of scrap was probably shipped to Panama. As they say in politics, ro "put lipstick on a pig," many of them were painted bright red with festive decorations.
As public pressure mounted against drugged and drunk drivers, a general lack of brakes, bald tires (which are the norm) and never-met or never-posted or never-extant schedules, the transportistas acted.
They responded by re-painting many of the buses a pristine white, perhaps trying to whitewash their buses like their sins. Pollution quickly turned the bright white to night gray, but they kept trying. The airbrushed images of Christ, Che, JFK, MLK, or Mother Theresa on the back doors of the bus were touuched up or repainted, sometimes for the worse.
Today they still cut you off, spew greasy black exhaust, block traffic, and stop with taillights that work as often as the U.S. budget is balanced, residents and visitors to Panama City still get to stare at: Britney Spears, Selena, J-Lo, the late Michael Jackson, Barack Obama and Batman. A few offer the more palatable Panamanian-born baseball stars, such as Carlos Lee of the Houston Astros,
There was a time when cab drivers and their union aligned themselves with the bus drivers, who often own the rickety death traps (or work for their brother-in-law who does). But embattled in their own third attempt to thwart a government deadline to paint all cabs a standard yellow color, they have had their own public relations woes p unsafe and gypsy cabs, fare-gouging, refusal to go to some addresses, and the like.
But in the past few weeks, I've noticed that even the cabbies are considered national heroes, at least compared to the bus drivers. People who never tip the modestly priced taxis sometimes add a quarter or fifty centésimos, which are the same size, color, weight and composition as U.S. coins, to defer high gas prices.
The "Old Panama" president, Martin Torrijos, shelled out $25,000 to some of the city's bus owners to give up their routes, or licenses, and scrap their buses as part of a new transportation system. First there was a Bogota-style, wide-lane, limited-access, reticulated double bus system plan which seemed clean and efficient. Those drivers who could walk a straight line, breathe, and wake up each morning, would have a chance for jobs with the new company.
That plan was scrapped for a number of reasons, including the disruptive need for good roads and wider boulevards that could actually handle the wider express bus lanes.
Next came the Metro plan. A subway for Panama, the newspapers cheered. Why not? There hasn't been a major earthquake near the city in a few hundred years, although there was a nice tremor a few weeks ago. The storm drains and sewers need to be fixed, and utility lines are ancient and need to be buried, anyway. It can be done, right?
Well, Torrijos who was term-limited, saw his party lose. The month-old Administration of supermarket magnate Pres. Ricardo Martinelli had their own consultants who thought a monorail style transit system would be cheaper to build and maintain and more efficient than a subway, so that idea was floated.
The president of the National Association of Transportation, a guy named Dionisio Ortega, and his members have fought at every turn.
He not only called for a massive work stoppage that began at midnight today and is stranding tens of thousands of people, but demanded that the government's reimbursement plan was not good enough - any change in the bus system should require a $75,000 payment to each bus owner, the union leader said.
Most politicians and a lot of folks in the street not only laughed at this demand, but probably could point out entire rows of buses along Avenida Central - a main shopping district - that are not worth a total of $75,000.
Next there was a suspicious "coalition" of groups no one had ever heard of who were floating the idea that the "central depot" for a Metro or monorail would be on the site of the "beloved" or "treasured" Legislative Palace.
This was becoming a laugh riot.
The only people who treasure and feel nostalgic about the building that houses the Congress for Panama is, well, no one.
It was an almost-new governmental complex when I worked in the building for a few weeks back in 1974, and even then it was a smelly, dark hellhole.
A friend who worked there for several years said, "That building should have been torn down years ago. It is a disgusting place to work."
Now, as Panama celebrates its 490th birthday this week, and Kiwanis International brings hundreds of delegates from around the region to a convention in Panama to honor civic pride and public service, the Diablos Rojos want to hold Panama hostage.
La Estrella reports that, "Ortega said that millionaire consortiums want to take over the public transport and nobody has talked about compensation that should be given to bus drivers and owners, once the modernization plan and the Metro is finally created."
Starting off with that threat that if a crazy guy was unable to get to work, or to his next victim today, and I saw him hitchhiking, I would pick him up, seemed a bit over the top, even to me.
But then I thought of a scene late Friday afternoon on the crowded, five-lane Avenida Nacional.
A heavyset señora with grocery packages from a food market in one hand, gamely dragging a small child with the other, had waved down a Diablo Rojo as it started to pull away. The driver stopped and as the woman huffed and puffed her way almost to the open door and then the driver started to roll away. She screamed at him to stop, and he slowed - for a few seconds - and, toying with her, perhaps to his own perverse delight, each time she got close enough to reach for the rattling clap-trap door, he pulled a little further away, He finally left her stranded in the roadway surrunded by busy, traffic and choking clouds of smoke. Literally, he left her in the dust.
In my car, I turned to a colleague in the passenger seat, a guy who has been in Panama for more than 30 years. He was already shaking his head.
"Unbelievable," he said. "I saw it, but I don't believe it. These guys should be shot."
So, when the strike begins, my opening line to that desperate hitch-hiker this morning would be, "Trying to catch the bus? Throw your machete in the back and hop in!"