Corruption is endemic and metastasizes readily; the metastasis is often exponential rather than linear. Although corruption is by no means confined to the much disparaged “third world banana republics,” we do have it here in Panamá, and my wife and I are experiencing some of the consequences personally.
Here are two recent articles from Panamanian newspapers. As is the case with most newspaper reports, some of the facts are distorted. However, the gist of the articles is correct: since July 17, we have not been able to use the only road to our farm because the owner of land through which the road passes, a Colombian businessman, believes that he has the power to violate Panamanian law with impunity.
The law is clear: he is wrong. It is a public road, and we hope that with good luck, continued good legal representation, and pressure applied by the press to officials who have often in the past validated his sense of immunity, we may eventually be able to resume our formerly tranquil lives here.
Thus far, in addition to articles in two national newspapers, there have been several local radio talk shows and a feature on a national television news program. Due principally to press coverage, on July 28 the mayor and municipal council issued an order permitting us to remove the locked iron gate newly blocking the road. We removed it immediately, in the presence of the local sheriff who had been sent by the mayor to witness and memorialize the event.
The next day, July 29, the owner of the land through which the road passes sent earth-moving equipment to dig a ditch to block access. It is approximately seven feet wide and six feet deep and it extends completely across the road. As a consequence, we understand that additional press coverage and governmental action are underway.
In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy books, there is a reference to an “SEP field,” behind which things disappear — people tend to ignore things hidden behind a “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. The local and national press have been doing a good job of removing the SEP field, and our local neighbors — mostly Panamanian — are very much on our side. The area is quite sparsely populated, but more than one hundred people have signed a petition seeking further governmental action on our behalf. Voter turnout for elections is substantially higher here than in the United States, and every vote counts.
But what about the United States? Can this sort of thing happen there?
Cataloging recent incidents of corruption in the United States seems pointless. Many recent examples could easily be provided. When officials take money, votes, or other favors in exchange for their misbehavior, they and their enablers violate the rule of law. When we ask someone to fix a minor traffic ticket, even based on something as simple as friendship, we foster corruption just as when a lobbyist sponsors a fundraiser for a politician in anticipation of future reciprocal favors.
These things may seem to be no big deal, because the laws are flawed. But to the extent that they are flawed, the blame lies on all of us, not merely on “them.” When the rule of law is laxly enforced or ignored, corruption flourishes. It does not much matter whether the bribed or the briber initiates the process or whether the bribe is large or small; the result is no better. It all adds up, and “mony a mickle maks a muckle.”
The United States is a large country with a population of over three hundred million. Panamá is much smaller, with a population roughly one percent that of the United States and a land area of 29,340 square miles, slightly greater than that of Maryland. Corruption is more noticeable here, because almost everyone knows government officials — including the president — or has a friend or relative who does. The legal system has long been regarded by many as something of a bad joke, and direct but improper approaches to government officials can be easier and more effective than reliance on the judicial processes.
Being imprisoned on our farm for going on three weeks has brought the problem home to us, quite personally and directly. The problem, however, is much bigger than us, than Panamá, and than the United States. Corruption hurts people everywhere and needs to be brought out from behind the SEP field through exposure to public attention. That is one of the principal functions of a free press.
New President Ricardo Martinelli was elected in a 60 percent to 36 percent landslide and took office on July 1. Reducing corruption is one of his principal objectives and he has been very busy doing just that, but he still has a long way to go. Despite all of his virtues and popular support, however, he is not a God. Corruption is endemic and of long standing in what might be called a culture of impotence. Still, the new president seems to have taken a stronger stand than did his predecessors — and far stronger than President Obama has taken. Not only in words, but also in action.
This is good for Panamá. President Obama’s failure to push and shove along a similar path is very unfortunate for the United States; perhaps he sees no need to do so because so many people continue to believe that he is near divinity, above reproach. The failure of the major media to penetrate the SEP fields he so dexterously crafts is part of the problem.
Continuing to hide misconduct is helping to remake the United States into one of those pitiful “third world countries.” Weak and pitiful are not good.
What can be done? “Honest politicians” exist, but in many cases the term is an oxymoron. It would be easy to suggest that “honest politicians” be elected to replace those who are not. Unfortunately, once high office is attained, with the power and obligations it brings, people often forget their obligations and think only of how to keep and expand their power. There is no magic solution. Smoke, mirrors, and pretty speeches read from a teleprompter are worthless so long as the SEP fields are working.
Rather than whine that corruption is par for the course, that there is nothing to be done about it, and that it is naïve and unsophisticated to think otherwise, we must take a stand — individually and personally — to fight it.
Here is something my wife wrote which we understand will be published nationally in connection with our own personal problem. The advice she offers to the people here is no less applicable to the people of the United States:
This case is about more than the violation of the rights of the Miller Family. It is about the rule of law versus the violation of law by a few people who apparently feel that the laws of this country do not apply to them. It is about a very small percentage of people who feel that they may, with impunity, coerce, intimidate, bribe or otherwise go outside the law to achieve their own ends.
Everyone who cares about this country and who wants to help to end this cycle of corruption must unite and tell the few outlaws that we will not stand for their behavior.
We have a rare opportunity here. Panama has elected President Martinelli by a landslide. He wants to end the cycle of corruption. But one man, even the most powerful man in the country, cannot conquer this problem alone. He needs the backing and support of everyone who lives here and who believes that the rule of law must prevail — citizens and expatriates alike.
We cannot allow corruption to continue. Acting together in support of the rule of law, we will prevail. Otherwise, we will fail. We cannot permit this to happen to our country.
We are trying our best here, because we have to. The situation affects us “up close and personal.” Were that not the case, we might not care very much; it would be someone else’s problem. Having now experienced the fruits of that sort of outlook, and the culture of impotence it sustains, it is unlikely that we will harbor it again.
Will you wait until a similar problem faces you personally or a friend, or will you do something now to keep it from happening? If you wait, it may well be too late.