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Cablegate: Panama Post: Edition Iv

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DE RUEHZP #1143/01 1871712
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
R 061712Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0756
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
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RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RUMIAAA/HQ USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
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S E C R E T PANAMA 001143

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NOFORN
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/06/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL PINR KCRM SMIG SOCI PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA POST: EDITION IV

REF: PANAMA 1102

Classified By: POLCOUNS Brian R. Naranjo. Reasons: 1.4(b), (c), and (
d)

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Summary
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1. (C) Welcome to the Fourth of July edition of the Panama
Post! Our staff members were out in force trolling crowd at
the Ambassador's residence for this year's Independence Day
reception to take Panama's political pulse. This week,
Panamanian President Torrijos flexed his muscle: powering
through his hand-picked candidate to be the next Ombudsman
(an ostensibly "independent" government authority), reining
in a proxy battle within the PRD for the party's presidential
nomination, and putting his cabinet on notice that they
needed to perform better. The icing on the cake for Torrijos
was finding an artful solution to ensure that Panama's flag
flies at the PanAm games in Rio. Amid this activity, the
failing marks given Torrijos' Anti-Corruption Secretariat by
a recent poll went nearly unnoticed. In the opposition,
Alberto Vallarino floated that he was looking for a party
while former President Guillermo Endara's Moral Vanguard of
the Nation (VMP) party checked yet another box on the way to
its registration.

2. (U) The following are this edition's stories:

-- Torrijos takes the Cabinet on the road;
-- New Public Defender (Ombudsman) elected and promptly acts
to defend self;
-- Endara takes a dive as the Moral Vanguard of the Nation
(VMP) takes step forward;
-- Torrijos to wave Panamanian Flag at PanAm Games in Rio;
-- Soviet-style, Torrijos manipulates election for Panama
Province Municipal Council Presidency;
-- Electoral Tribunal (TE) expands pool of voters, opposition
wary;
-- Election season must be around the corner -- Vallarino
mulls which party to join; and
-- Torrijos' Anti-Corruption Secretariat gets failing marks
in poll.

End summary.

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Torrijos Takes Cabinet on the Road
-------------- -------------------

3. (SBU) Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, fed up at
taking criticism for his government's performance, threatened
his ministers that he would take the cabinet on the road so
they could answer for their own performance, newly appointed
Minister for Canal Affairs Dani Kuzniecky told the Panama
Post on June 28. Indeed, the Panama Post learned July 3 that
Torrijos would chair a "regional workshop" in Chiriqui
Province on July 6, attendance at which was compulsory for
cabinet members. First VP and FM Samuel Lewis cringed July 4
when asked if it was true that the President would be taking
the cabinet on the road more often in the coming weeks.

4. (C) Comment: Amidst rioting high school students, drawn
out investigations into the dietheylene glycol poisoning case
and the October bus fire, and the arrest of the commander of
the National Maritime Service (SMN), Torrijos has felt
besieged. Minister of Education Miguel Angel Canizales and
Minister of Health Camilo Alleyne are in a race to the bottom
in polls regarding these ministers' performance, neither one
breaking into double digits. In an effort to pressure his
ministers to perform and to spread the blame, Torrijos is
putting the band together and hitting the road, something the
ministers hate as it takes them away from managing their
portfolios.

------------------------------- ---------------
Defender of the Public Elected, Goes on Defense
------------------------------- ---------------

5. (SBU) Elected June 29 by the National Assembly, Panama's
new Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo, or Public Defender)
Ricardo Vargas assumed his office on July 2. Vargas was
immediately put on the defensive defending himself against
charges of human rights abuses, extortion, bribery, abuse of
authority, and other wrong-doings related to his previous
position as Director of Immigration. These charges stem from
a complaint filed with the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's
office on behalf of Xinhao Pan, a Chinese national detained
on Vargas' orders for six months and who was subsequently
deported. On the day of his election, Panama's morning
television interview personality Lucy Molinar grilled Vargas
regarding alleged irregularities during his tenure as
Director of Immigration and accusations that he abused his
wife. (Note: Former Ombudsman Liborio Garcia, who bombards
the Panama Post with missives asserting his innocence, was
removed by the National Assembly for allegedly beating his
wife.) The Panama Post heard Vargas profess his desire as
Panama's ombudsman to fight against "intra-family violence"
as well as for the rights of the handicapped, individuals
with HIV/AIDS, and people affected by environmental
degradation. Responding to accusations that he improperly
issued visas, Vargas has stated that the Council for
Protection Safety and National Defense (CSPDN) had to
greenlight all "restricted" visas to be issued to nationals
from "criteria" countries.

6. (S/NF) Though essentially a sinecure position without the
power to forward cases to prosecutors or submit cases to the
courts, the Ombudsman position is one of the few positions
that the National Assembly can fill on its own. (The other
such positions are the Comptroller General and one of the
three magistrates on the Electoral Tribunal.) As with the
recent move of Dani Kuzniecky from Comptroller General to
Minister of Canal Affairs, the effort to dub Vargas as the
next Ombudsman once again erased whatever separation might
have existed between Panama's legislative and executive
branches and is another example of governing Revolutionary
Democratic Party (PRD) acting by fiat. Indeed, 1st VP and FM
Samuel Lewis called then-Charge on June 28 to indicate that
the cabinet was considering Vargas' nomination and to ask if
the U.S. knew of any reasons why he might not be an
appropriate candidate. Charge indicated that the Embassy was
privy to the same general concerns about possible
irregularities in immigration, including possible nexuses to
trafficking-in-persons. The Panama Post hopes that Vargas
can live up to his assertion upon assuming office, "My
actions will be founded on my conscience. I will make
well-founded criticisms when appropriate and will strive to
meet the highest ethical standards that have characterized
all of my acts in my public and private life." Post has
reason to believe that Vargas was less than religious in
securing CSPDN authorization to issue "restricted" visa to
citizens from "criteria" countries. Vargas' runner-up,
independent political analyst Alfredo Castillero, Panamenista
party President Juan Carlos Varela, and political commentator
Miguel Angel Bernal asserted July 4 that the manner in which
the PRD forced through its candidate would diminish the
credibility of this bully pulpit.

------------------ ----------------------
Endara Takes Dive, VMP Takes Step Forward
------------------ ----------------------

7. (U) Former President Guillermo Endara collapsed July 1
during Moral Vanguard of the Nation (VMP) party's internal
election of representatives to this newly established party's
convention. These internal elections are required by the
Electoral Tribunal (TE), and VMP's satisfaction of this
requirement puts it one step closer to formal recognition as
a new political party. Endara's close advisor, Menalco
Solis, confirmed on July 4 for the Panama Post that Endara
would not participate in an inter-party primary. Doctors
said Endara, who suffers from diabetes and other health
problems, was dehydrated, particularly due to intense heat.
On July 3, the 71-year old ex-president told the press that
he "enjoyed good health," and asserted that he had lost at
least 120 pounds.

8. (C) While it strongly suspects Endara's assertions that
he only weighs 180 pounds, the Panama Post does note that
Endara has lost a significant amount of weight in recent
years. That said, however, this collapse came at a difficult
time for Endara as he is launching his new party and will
remind voters of concerns about Endara's health. Downplaying
Endara's collapse, Solis told POLCOUNS July 4 that it was
very difficult to motivate the rank and file to participate
in these arcane TE-required activities normally only the true

political junkies participated but at the end of the day VMP
checked the box that it had done the necessary to organize
its convention. Echoing these sentiments, Patriotic Union
(UP) luminary Delia Cardenas and Democratic Change (CD) party
leader Ricardo Quijano separately concurred that they had
experienced similar difficulties mobilizing more than the
political diehards in their parties to participate in their
own internal elections for convention delegates. While
Panamenistas continue to push for an inter-party primary, CD
and VMP representatives refuse to commit to such a primary.

-------------------------------------------
Torrijos to Wave Flag at PanAm Games in Rio
--------------------------------------------

9. (SBU) Responding to the sturm und drang over the
Pan-American Sports Organization (ODEPA)'s suspension of the
Panamanian Olympic Committee (COP) for intractable
corruption, Panamanian First VP and FM Samuel Lewis told
Ambassador July 4 that President Martin Torrijos had decided
to travel to Rio de Janeiro for the PanAm games the week of
July 9. While normally such a suspension meant that Panama's
flag would not wave nor its national anthem be heard,
apparently ODEPA's rules state that if a country's head of
state/government is present that such honors must be paid.
With this artful maneuver, Torrijos adeptly responded to
public calls that he do "something" where the GOP actually
has little leverage. Lewis added that, while it provided
funding to the COP, the GOP had no actual control over the
COP; "We're going to change that."

-------------------------------------------
Soviet-style, Torrijos Manipulates Election
-------------------------------------------

10. (C) Torrijos manipulated the election for the President
of the Panama Province Municipal Council on July 3 to ensure
that his hand-picked candidate, San Miguelito Councilman
Nicolas Barrios, was chosen in a PRD show of force, Panama
City Councilman for San Francisco Carlos Perez-Herrera, PRD
National Executive Committee (CEN) Member Samuel Buitrago,
and Panamenista Party President Juan Carlos Varela all
separately confirmed for the Panama Post on July 4.
Perez-Herrera was the front-runner in a race against fellow
PRD member Virgelio Crespo, a councilman from Panama City's
Bella Vista District. While Panama Province councilmen were
to select their president during the week of June 25,
Torrijos sought and secured a postponement until July 3,
ostensibly to twist arms to secure more votes for Crespo.
Unable to put Crespo over the top, Torrijos instead summoned
the councilmen to the Casa Amarilla, a meeting center in the
presidential compound. Torrijos, First VP and FM Samuel
Lewis, Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro, and Panama
Province Governor Gladys Bandiera -- all of whom are neither
members of nor able to vote in the Panama Province Municipal
Council -- appeared on the stage to discuss this election.
Torrijos stated that since there was no consensus in support
of Perez-Herrera or Crespo, a councilman from San Miguelito
should be chosen. Torrijos and San Miguelito Mayor Hector
Carrasquillo then consulted in whispers on stage for several
minutes. Then, according to our sources in a maneuver
reminiscent of Supreme Soviet elections, Torrijos announced,
"Who agrees that San Miguelito Councilman Nicolas Barrios
should be President of the Municipal Council?" Torrijos',
Lewis', Bandiera's, and Navarro's hands flew into the air
followed by the hands of many councilman who actually had a
right to vote, after which Torrijos declared Barrios the
winner.

11. (C) Comment: Our readers are probably asking
themselves: why did Torrijos, accompanied by PRD heavy
hitters Lewis and Navarro, go to such lengths to manipulate
an inconsequential election? Composed of councilmen from all
of a province's municipalities, these provincial municipal
councils and their presidents do control limited funds with
which they can carry out minor public works projects (e.g.,
road repair, cleaning up parks), but they are largely
ceremonial and symbolic. One explanation is that Torrijos
was unsatisfied with Perez-Herrera's independence stripe and
wished to have a more reliable political operator in the
position. Perez-Herrera's fearlessness in being a stickler
for adherence to proper procedure and effective oversight in
Panama City's City Council, at times clashing with Navarro,
probably raised questions as to whether he was the one to
have at the helm of a possible pipeline for political
patronage. (Note: Perez-Herrera has been selected for an
International Visitor Program (IVP) on grassroots politics.)
PRD National Executive Committee (CEN) member J. J. Amado,
III provided POLCOUNS a more interesting explanation on July
6: Torrijos intervened because the PRD internal campaign for
the party's presidential nomination was beginning too early
and being waged by proxy. Perez-Herrera was seen to be
former President Ernesto "El Toro" Perez Balladares' proxy,
and Crespo to be Navarro's proxy. To discipline the PRD and
protect his preferred successor Lewis' interests, Torrijos
slammed through Barrios. The real winner in all this
maneuver therefore was Lewis: his cousin Navarro was put in
his place, El Toro was forestalled, and Carrasquillo, who is
mayor of Panama's second largest municipality and whom Lewis
has been cultivating assiduously, puts his man in the job.
This power play by Torrijos belies the PRD's assertions that
all is A-OK inside the PRD and points to significant tensions
between presidential aspirants who are already jockeying hard
for position.

--------------------------------------------- -----
Electoral Tribunal Expands Pool of Eligible Voters
--------------------------------------------- -----

12. (U) Panamanians of voting age who are overseas, in
hospitals or in detention (but not sentenced) would be
eligible to vote in Panama's May 2009 elections, the
Electoral Tribunal (TE) announced July 3 as it launched its
national effort to update the voter rolls. Launching its
update of the electoral roles, the TE said it expected
2,294,538 Panamanians to be eligible to vote. (Note:
Panamanians do not register to vote. Rather, the TE
maintains a comprehensive national identity system of all
Panamanians. When they turn eighteen, Panamanians are
eligible to vote and the TE adds their names to the voter
rolls.) TE Magistrate Eduardo Valdes clarified that only
Panamanians "who had not adopted another nationality" would
be eligible to vote overseas. These changes, coupled with
the number of Panamanians reaching voting age, would add some
300,000 new voters, political commentator and human rights
attorney Miguel Angel Bernal told the Panama Post on July 4,
adding, "I am concerned that if not handled properly we could
be opening the door to voter fraud." Other opposition
politicians Delia Cardenas and Juan Carlos Varela expressed
similar concerns. The TE will need to resolve whether
overseas Panamanians vote only in the presidential race or in
local elections as well.

13. (U) Further concerns were raised July 5 -- this time by
PRD politicians -- when it was learned that 66,126 persons
would be excluded from the voter roles. According to the TE,
those individuals excluded had neither voted in 1999, 2004,
2006 nor taken any action to update their information (e.g.,
residence) with the TE. Possible PRD presidential aspirant
Balbina Herrera characterized this development as
"worrisome," especially since Panama's Constitution did not
require citizens to vote. In essence, Herrera is concerned
that voters, who are still alive and kicking, might have been
disenfranchised because they had not voted in the past 8
years nor had any reason to update their personal data with
the TE. The TE has launched an aggressive campaign urging
voters to update their status with the TE if: they will turn
18 by May 2009, have changed residence, will require special
attention due to a medical condition, plan to live overseas,
or have a family member who has passed away. Stay tuned.

----------------------------- -----------------------------
Election Season Must be Near: Vallarino Measures Up Parties
----------------------------- -----------------------------

14. (U) Perennial presidential contender Alberto Vallarino
said he would decide which party to join, either the
Panamenista Party or the Patriotic Union (UP) party, over the
next two months, in a July 2 interview on Channel 13. In the
end, his presidential candidacy would depend on the support
he enjoyed. Making the political rounds, Vallarino ate lunch
July 2 with Endara's wife, Anna Mae, but not the ex-president
himself, an interesting way to reach out to the Moral
Vanguard of the Nation (VMP) party. While Anna Mae de
Endara has supported Vallarino in the past, VMP President
Guillermo Endara has supported former President Mireya
Moscoso.
15. (SBU) Several news outlets joked that the campaign
season must be starting in earnest since Vallarino was
mulling over which party to join and generating buzz as
speculation mounts over which party he would join without
making any commitments. Regardless of which party he joins,
Vallarino has the ability to upset the opposition calculus.
He would become the third or fourth Panamenista prospective
presidential candidate. Also, by joining former former 1st VP
Billy Ford in UP, Vallarino could serve as yet another anchor
holding UP back from endorsing current 1st VP and FM (and UP
godfather Samuel Lewis Galindo's nephew) Samuel Lewis Navarro.

------------------------------------
2/3 Flunk Anti-Corruption Secretariat
------------------------------------

16. (U) Asked how they would characterize the performance of
Torrijos' Anti-Corruption Secretariat in the fight against
corruption, 62.7 percent of those polled said bad (43.7
percent) or very bad (19 percent). Only 28.9 percent said
its performance was good, and 3.4 percent said it was
excellent. These results, which were part of a poll
conducted by Dichter and Neira, were the latest tidbits that
La Prensa meted out on July 3. Local Transparency
International Excutive President Angelica Maytin noted that
the most significant development on this secretariat's
activities was the elimination of its ability to conduct
administrative investigations, what was "it's most
significant function." Meanwhile, the secretariat's
spokesman said the poll reflected its low profile.
Eaton

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