Isthmian Update – Some of the news in Panama

Price controls extended to July

The price controls set in place by the former administration of Ricardo Martinelli have been extended by the present administration until July of 2015. This decision was made after a government study of the market found positive results from the program which sets retail pricing for 22 products that form part of the “canasta básica,” the basic food goods needed to satisfy the caloric needs of an average home. According to Melitón Arrocha, Minister of Commerce and Industries, the program allows “increased acquisitive power for the Panamanian people and for merchants to rotate their inventory.” In response, Euclides Dóaz, executive secretary for the National Cattlemen Association stated “Price controls undercut development. The sector has forgone $14 million a year and the production of quality cheeses has finished.”

Colón contemplates a “tourist tax”

Colón’s Municipal Council is considering applying a surcharge to travelers arriving to that province’s ports by way of cruise ship. The measure, presented by council member Alex Lee from the district of Barrio Sur, is intended to allocate funds for the “progress and development” of the area. According to Lee, “By law we can implement this fee as is done in tourist destinations throughout the Caribbean like Puerto Rico, Cancún and San Andrés.” As part of the proposal, visitors would receive in exchange a “package of services” to include artistic presentations, increased police presence and improvements of infrastructure.

Decrease in charter flight traffic

Though figures for this year are not yet available, Panama’s Tourism Authority (ATP) has released data that shows a drastic decrease in charter flight traffic to the country for 2013. That year, passengers arriving to the country via charter plane totaled 82,258 as compared to the 136,023 that arrived that way in 2012. This represents a 39.5% drop. According to the ATP, the figures are the result of the increased number of regular flights now servicing Panama, citing higher passenger volumes registered at Tocumen this year. The impact of new charter services that began this year is not expected to be fully felt until 2015.

Nicaraguan Canal has broken ground

This week, the Nicaraguan government and the Chinese concessionaire, HKND Group, officially inaugurated works for the Nicaraguan Canal project amidst protests from farmers whose properties will be affected as well as concerned environmentalists who warn of an impending ecological disaster should the planned construction proceed. The $50 billion megaproject calls for cutting through Lake Nicaragua, the region’s largest drinking water reservoir, as well as the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve, and will span 173 miles. Supporters of the project claim it will raise millions of Nicaraguans out of poverty. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.

Metropolitan Cathedral’s facelift tender

The government announced a request for tenders for restoration of the iconic “Cathedral Metropolitano” located in San Felipe in Casco Antiguo. The reference figure provided by the government for the works totals $11,129,000 and includes stipulations for “museum spaces.” The contractor must also complete works 22 months after the order to proceed is issued. The structure forms part of the country’s “Panamá Viejo – Casco Antiguo Monument Complex,” declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Under house-arrest for the Holidays

Giacomo Tamburrelli, the ex-director of the National Assistance Program (PAN) who was being held under house-arrest while undergoing an investigation of various charges including corruption, was recently taken to the San Fernando Hospital where he underwent a four hour operation to treat a heart condition. Prior to this, Tamburelli accused then-president Ricardo Martinelli of ordering him to approve the contracts for the purchase of dry foods that are being scrutinized by Lizette Chevalier, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor. Public Ministry sources revealed that Tamburrelli will remain hospitalized until Thursday, when he will return home in time for Christmas.

Emberá-Wounaan election results

After 14 months of not having a traditional authority in place, the Emberá-Wounaan tribe held an election to reestablish their government. The new “cacique” (tribal chief) is Idelfonso Ají, from teh district of Cémaco, who succeeds incumbent Betanio Chiquidama. His alternate is Ernesto Guainora from the district of Lajas Blancas. The Emeberá-Wounaan is a semi-nomadic indigenous people who live in the province of Darién widely known by the name “Chocó.” The group has their own form of government and avoids relying on the Panamanian government or assimilating into conventional society. Their officially-designated, self-governed territory (“comarca”) covers two large regions, Chepigana and Pinogana, and their capital is Unión Chocó.

Chiriquí not ready to handle quakes

The director of the University of Panama’s Geoscience Institute, Eduardo Camacho, claims that the country is not equipped to handle an earthquake with an epicenter in the western regions of Chiriquí with a magnitude larger than 7.0 on the Richter scale. “Chiriquí would experience damages totaling $600 million,” he said. According to this expert, the majority of earthquakes felt in Panama originate in the Azuero region and that Volcán Barú, the inactive volcano, is not to blame for the recent tremors. The culprit, it turns out, is plate subduction.

Chame finds creative garbage solution

The Mayor of Chame, Nieves Mayorga, recently announced plans to work with a company called Auto Gas to take the district’s waste, to be compacted and exported for secondary use. The municipality made a request of $300,000 of the National Assistance Program (PAN) to cover the city’s cost for initiating the proposed program which would include a complete clean-up of the area’s trash dump and the setting-up of a recycling plant. The material would be sold on the global market to be used as aggregates for the making of construction blocks in places such as Spain and Peru. According to the proposal, Auto Gas would have two years to run the project and show a profit. Otherwise, the operation and facilities will be auctioned to the highest bidder.

Metro contractor guilty in transnational bribery scheme

The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Alstom SA, the multinational French company that provided the trains for Panama’s Metro, was fined $772 million to settle accusations of a decades-long bribery scheme in which the company paid high-level government officials of several countries to guarantee lucrative contracts. The countries include places such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Bahamas. Altogether, Alstom paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to win $4 billion in projects and along the way, secured approximately $300 million in profit for themselves.

A good year for movies

2014 will be remembered as a watershed year for the country’s nascent film industry. In the last 12 months, four feature-length films debuted in local cinemas and two made-for-TV productions hit the airwaves. Among the films were “Reinas,” “Invasión,” “Rompiendo la Ola” and “Historias del Canal.” Next year, between four and six new national productions will debut, in addition to the Panamanian-American co-production, “Hands of Stone,” a biopic that concerns the life and times of Panama boxing legend, Roberto Durán.