Last week was the pivoting point. The small support margin for the proposed Panama Canal expansion project disappeared and if a referendum would be held today, the proposal would be rejected. The pro-government newspapers have stopped publishing polls. There are protest marches in the streets by schoolteachers who demand decent pay for their work. The police quashes protests in the interior with tear gas when teachers march on the Panamerican Highway. A panicky move by Torrijos to start some sort of national project on development has miserably failed to gather support for his Canal proposal. Nothing seems to go right for the government, the ACP and its corporate sponsors.
What to do? That was the subject of a breakfast meeting of Panama's Cupola in the Miramar Hotel early last week. FRENADESO calls it "The Breakfast of the Year". Present were Martín Torrijos, Leonel Solís, Comandante Colamarco and other high government officials, construction moguls from Shahani, Herman Bern, Javier Cardoze, bankers from Banco General and Joseph Salterio of HSBC-Panamá, the capos of Cable & Wireless, the energy companies, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and APEDE.
This must have been an uncomfortable meeting for president Martin Torrijos. He has so far failed to play the populist role his father was so good at, and failed to obtain massive support for most of his policies. His approval rate goes up only in times that little is to be heard of him. End 2005 and early 2006, information was trickling down from the Cupola that his removal was being considered. In the case of the Canal Expansion, at the heart of his government, he again failed to get the people rallying behind it.
The Cupula took several decisions during that breakfast at the Miramar Hotel.
First, another massive publicity campaign is to be launched to get "the message" to the people. Since the work of Hector Aleman, who heads the propaganda team, has been unsatisfactory so far, Milton Henriques was added to the team because of his media experience (he worked for newspaper El Panama America).
Then the issue of money. The Cupola assigned $6 million to this last-effort campaign. One construction capo donated $200,000 immediately.
Other corporate participants promised to advertise for the Canal proposal.
UNION FENOSA ADVERTISES PRO CANAL EXPANSION
One of these advertisements is already to be seen on TV. A commercial for electricity company Union Fenosa goes something like this:
Pic: Large green traffic light. Graphic - a green tick.
"We have the green light (in green type). We have to move and we have the green light. The secret of our success as people and as a country is in taking the right decisions at the correct moment."
Let's decide to increase (ampliar) our possibilities" (written in green type).
"Let's build a better Panama"
What would they be talking about, we wonder? Raising electricity bills so high that Panamanians switch their TV off while ironing? Or another decision that will be presented on a red-and-green form in the coming months?
WHAT MORE CAN WE EXPECT?
The news about the meeting of the Cupola puts seemingly unrelated events of the last week or so into a different perspective.
For example, we received an email from journalist Maribel Cuervo de Paredes, who wrote that when she was holding a presentation against the Canal proposal at a forum discussion in a Church about the Canal, the meeting was disturbed by a PRD diputada suplente (a sort of sub-legislator), Mrs. Maruja Moreno. Accompanied by about 12 others, Mrs. Moreno started to interrupt the speech, yelling and screaming and scanting "Vote Yes! Vote Yes!", until she and her gang were finally removed. We can be sure that there will be more of this typical PRD behavior.
Earlier this week we already reported that the "Yes" campaign has finally discovered the internet and for example is actively participating in fora and even hijacked Wikipedia to facilitate propaganda efforts. This is all done anonymously.
The government is trying to demonize the striking teachers - whom they know will all vote "NO" - to prevent a spreading no vote.
Miguel Antonio Bernal told us earlier that "since the days of Noriega I haven't received as many threats as I'm receiving these days."
Your reporter, having been largely ignored for years by the mainstream media, was suddenly important enough for a half-page personal attack in La Prensa, for nothing else than simply having had the audacity to ask a question. The article in La Prensa ended with a clear warning: "If Mr. Ornstein wants to practice journalism in Panama, he should do it ethically. That is the least I can ask as a citizen of this country."
WHY IT WON"T WORK
However, these last-minute stepped up campaign efforts will not be very effective. The first reason is that using scare tactics in combination with advertising is an incredibly dumb thing to do in 2006. Scare tactics, disturbing meetings, tear gassing protesters and threatening people are tools that are effective in a situation of total control, i.e. during the dictatorship - when most politicians in power today got their "education." It does not work in a relatively free environment where people are furthermore networking and exchanging information with increased speed and ingenuity. Worse, even, the scare tactics discredit the costly advertising and other propaganda efforts. They're undermining their own efforts with this.
The second reason is that it is too late. Influencing public opinion is like trying to steer a post-panamax ship: You turn the rudder and nothing happens. Then, after some time, the ship will slowly start to turn. In order to turn the ship and arrive at a preset destination, you need to plan these maneuvers well in advance. Frantically turning the wheel to avoid an imminent collision is usually not effective.
The third reason is that money does not buy trust. They could spend $25 million in the next month and find that the population still does not trust them. For its close relations with the advertising world, the Torrijos government has a dramatic lack of understanding of the importance of getting the audience to trust a brand name. If they would have been just a little more serious and less amateurish, they would have created a Torrijos brand that represented trustworthiness, transparency and vision, as they started to do during the election campaign. Instead, they did exactly the opposite. Not one high level corruption case has been adequately resolved. Public debt has gone up. Employment has not gone up. Expendable income has gone down. Privatized energy and telecom companies continue to rip off the public. Security in the streets has further deteriorated. But foreign trips by government officials have multiplied.
By its lack of initiative and leadership in social-economic issues and its blind eye towards corruption, the Torrijos government has destroyed whatever confidence the "Patria Nueva" brand had right after the elections. They've further worsened the situation by coming up with a proposal for the Canal that doesn't address the urgent necessities of Panamanians and is based on suspicious calculations. This has been another major (if not fatal) mistake which Torrijos has even further worsened by not discussing the proposal in a mature fashion but instead calling critics things like "the forces of chaos."
Arresting and prosecuting Mireya Moscoso and some of her accomplices would have been a much better (and cheaper) campaign move than getting Union Fenosa to produce and air imbecile commercials with green traffic lights. The members of the Cupola don't understand that to be taken seriously, you need to act serious.
And, last but not least, the fourth reason is that the Yes campaign is a top-down propaganda campaign while the NO front is conducting a networked grassroots campaign that is a thousand times more effective than slick propaganda which is immediately recognized as such.
In short, the NO campaigners couldn't wish for anything better than these bumbling efforts by the Panamanian Cupola.