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Cablegate: Panama: Balbina - "I Don't Want to Run For

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #1858/01 3461336
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 121336Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1539
INFO RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 001858

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/10/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: BALBINA - "I DON'T WANT TO RUN FOR
PRESIDENT"

Classified By: Ambassador William A. Eaton. Reasons: 1.4 (b)
and (d)

-------
Summary
-------

1. (C) "I don't want to run for president. (Panama City
Mayor) Juan Carlos Navarro will be the PRD presidential
nominee," Panamanian Minister of Housing Balbina Herrera told
POLCOUNS on December 9. Echoing her emphatic August 9
assertions to DCM, she declared, "I intend to run for mayor."
Asked whether the governing Revolutionary Democratic Party
(PRD) was moving in a more leftward and/or populist
direction, Herrera said emphatically, "No." Stating the need
to continue moving in the modernizing direction started by
President Martin Torrijos, Herrera said, "I am particularly
concerned about the need to provide opportunity to middle
class professionals." Aware of her own anti-American
activities in the past, Herrera professed to want a "richer
exchange of views" with the U.S. Herrera, at the conclusion
of this three-hour conversation, led POLCOUNS on a tour of a
recently completed housing complex to provide permanent
shelter to those left homeless by the December 2005 Curundu
fire.

------------------------------
"I Don't Want to be President"
------------------------------

2. (C) "I don't want to run for president," Herrera declared.
Panama City Mayor "Juan Carlos Navarro will be the PRD
presidential nominee." Pressed that Herrera consistently
out-polled Navarro and that her popularity seemed to rise
every time that she denied wanting to be president, Herrera
said that she had made a commitment to Navarro to support him
for president; "I stand by my word." As when the DCM pressed
on August 9, Herrera insisted that she wanted to be mayor.
Later she remarked that her time to run for president would
come in 2014. She recounted how in 1995, following the
President Ernesto "El Toro" Perez Balladares' presidential
victory in which Balbina helped deliver San Miguelito
(Panama's second largest municipality) to him, that Perez
Balladares offered her a ministerial position. "I turned it
down because I wanted to be President of the National
Assembly. I wanted to learn the congressional process, about
how the budget process works, our programs." Disappointed,
El Toro told her that she would have to get the votes on her
own, to which Herrera said she responded, "I will. Just
don't block my efforts." Staying in the National Assembly
proved to be "the best decision. I learned a tremendous
amount." "I now want to be mayor of Panama. I think it will
be a similar learning experience."

--------------------
Inside the PRD Today
--------------------

3. (C) Turning to the current dynamics in the PRD, Herrera
said that Navarro was currently the only viable -- though not
perfect -- option to be the PRD's presidential nominee.
"There's no way (current First VP and FM) Samuel Lewis will
win the nomination." His campaign had failed to start, he
had no structure, and he had no base in the PRD, Herrera
summarized. As for Perez Balladares, he is a very proud man
-- "You know that he is deeply wounded by his lack of U.S.
visa" -- but was a spent force in the PRD.

4. (C) Navarro would have a lot of work to do winning over
key segments of the PRD, including "Torrijistas," but Herrera
assessed that Navarro would eventually be able to win over
doubters within the party. Asked if Navarro heeded her
advice, Herrera said, "Not frequently enough. He is still
relatively new to the PRD and would benefit from listening to
advice. He really has no structure around him, just himself
and a couple of advisors. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to
listen to anybody but himself." Navarro was particularly bad
about not heeding the party's own unwritten internal rules
for building a base of support. "He came to me once asking
for a public statement of support. My first question was,
'Have you spoken with the President?' He said he had not, so
I told him, 'Do you know how he would explode if you were
here lobbying me now?'"

5. (C) Previously on August 9, Herrera had told DCM that she
thought that Navarro was paying too much attention to his
presidential candidacy and not enough attention to his job as
mayor. Herrera told DCM then that she was not going to be
"manipulated" by anybody and would not "owe Torrijos or
anybody else any favors." While she agreed to run for the
PRD Presidency, she said at the time that she would not rely
on anybody to get her the votes. As she said on December 9
with respect to the PRD Presidency, so too Herrera said with
respect to the mayor's race, "I will go earn the votes on my
own."

6. (C) Torrijos had been weakened by "his mishandling" of the
election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez (PMG) as President of the
National Assembly, but he still determined the direction of
the party. "Torrijos is still our president. I've always
been a disciplined PRD member, sacrificing quite a bit along
the way. I will continue to support my president."
Regarding PMG's election, she said, "I told him (PMG) that
I'd sacrificed a great deal for my party and my election.
Asked by Torrijos to make room for Lewis and (Second VP
Ruben) Arosemena to be vice presidential nominees, I stepped
aside. A lock to be President of the PRD, I stepped aside
when asked to make room for Hugo Giraud." (Note: She
laughed hysterically when POLCOUNS could not remember the
name of the PRD's president.) "Yet, Pedro Miguel was
stubborn and thick (torpe) and selfish; he refused to step
aside," Herrera said disdainfully. "When I saw that his
entire family was up in the galleries, I knew that he was not
going to resign after being sworn in." She asserted that PMG
omitted the final page of his speech, which she had seen, in
which he would have announced his resignation.

--------------------------------------------- --------------
"Need to Provide Opportunity to Middle Class Professionals"
--------------------------------------------- --------------

7. (C) "We now have a massive party, slightly over half a
million members," Herrera said, "who come from all walks of
life and different social strata." Arguing that the party
needed to continue in the modernizing direction that Torrijos
had charted, Herrera said, "We need somebody like Navarro who
continue to pull this mammoth party in that direction."
Asked if the party needed to turn in a more leftward and/or
populist direction, Herrera said, "No." Asserting that
left/right did not make much sense in Panama, especially
today, Herrera said that the PRD needed to be the party for
all Panamanians. "These days I am particularly concerned
about the need to provide opportunity to middle class
professionals."

8. (C) Whether doctors or teachers, engineers or accountants,
Herrera said that it was becoming increasingly difficult for
middle class professional families, even with two incomes, to
sustain their standard of living given flat wages and the
rise in the cost of living. "Most importantly though, I am
worried about the lack of opportunity for middle class
professionals to rise above a glass ceiling in the companies
and industries controlled by elite families. The business
leaders need to open opportunity for these people to
achieve." Asked if she was worried about providing
opportunities for lower class workers, Herrera said, "No. We
have programs for them. Many jobs have been created in
construction and security. While there are still problems,
things are improving, and they know that we are responsible
for that improvement."

9. (C) If Panama was to share wealth and opportunity more
equitably, the economy had to continue growing. "I don't
wish to return to the ideas of my radical past. Torrijos has
shown us how we can keep the economy growing." That said,
over the years, Herrera told DCM on August 9 that she had
learned to respect the role of private enterprise. "We need
to let them do their business," she said, "but the government
has a role to play in ensuring wealth and opportunity are
shared." Poverty, she added, was Panama's biggest challenge,
but one in which the PRD was not reaching the masses; "It is
a ticking time bomb." She told DCM that cited crime was the
second biggest challenge, but one that only received
attention when somebody in an upscale neighborhood was a
victim.

--------------------------------------------- ----
"Want to Keep a Conversation Going with the U.S."
--------------------------------------------- ----

10. (C) "I want to keep a conversation going with the U.S.,"
Herrera said. She added that such contact needed to be
handled carefully so as not to upset Torrijos or draw too
much attention to the relationship. "You know that the
Consejo (Council for Public Security and National Defense)
listens in on all of us," she said in an aside, echoing her
August 9 comments to DCM. Herrera concurred that the PRD
could often seem to be a black box in which it was often
difficult to decipher what was going on inside. "I am a bit
surprised that you wanted to talk politics with me. I thought
that the Embassy supported (Democratic Change (CD) President
and presidential candidate Ricardo) Martinelli," Herrera
said. POLCOUNS said that that was not true, that the U.S.
was not backing candidates in Panama, and that the U.S. was
focused on supporting a free, fair, and transparent electoral
process that strengthened Panama's democracy. Whereas on
August 9 she was primarily concerned by the challenge that
former President Guillermo Endara would present in the
presidential race, on December 9 she was primarily concerned
about Martinelli.

11. (C) "The U.S. and the PRD would benefit from a richer
exchange of views." Aware of her own anti-American
activities in the past, Herrera asserted, "I've come to
realize that Panama needs a strong partnership with the U.S."

--------------------------------
Tour of Curundu Housing Projects
--------------------------------

12. (C) The day's three-hour conversation concluded with an
impromptu visit to a recently opened housing project for
those left homeless by the December 2006 fire in Curundu.
Prior to departing, Herrera explained that she had focused
the Ministry of Housing (MIVI) on three main tasks: building
new public housing, rehabilitating older public housing, and
keeping better housing statistics to track progress. "My
ministry has a plan that we prepared carefully. When I had
to travel to the States for a month for medical treatment for
my granddaughter, I could do so confidently because my team
is committed to this plan and knows what to do." She then
mounted up a handful of camp-followers and dashed off --
POLCOUNS in tow -- to see an innovative housing project built
in an old lingerie factory. With great pride, Herrera
strolled through the self-contained complex that provided
efficiency, one bedroom and two bedroom homes to thirty-three
of the nearly one hundred families left homeless by the
fires. She greeted many inhabitants by name and received a
hero's welcome. To live here, tenants had to sign an
agreement to care for this property. Also, MIVI coordinated
with other ministries to bring in other needed social
services. She also outlined plans to purchase an unused
warehouse and condemn a dilapidated building across the
street to provide sixty to seventy more public housing units.
Asked by one occupant, "You're not going to run for
President; you're going to be our mayor, right?," Herrera
responded, "Right."

-------
Comment
-------

13. (C) Herrera's emphatic assertions that she would not run
for president fly in the face of what is increasingly
becoming accepted wisdom that she will be the PRD
presidential nominee. If true, then the opposition --
portions of which are trying to demonize her, a task for
which they have plenty of Noriega-era material -- may be
preparing to run against the wrong candidate.

14. (C) Herrera came across as a fully committed PRD member
who was prepared to sacrifice for her party but who also
skillfully preserved her own political space. She strived to
impress separately upon DCM and POLCOUNS that she had
consciously -- and more importantly independently -- arrived
at her decision to run for mayor of Panama City, not
president. She portrayed this decision as a deliberate
effort to gain executive experience and to overcome her
skeptics' concerns regarding her radical past. Of course,
there could be a more strategic element to her calculus to
run for mayor now and president later. In doing so, she may
believe that she can avoid failing to overcome the pendular
effect of Panamanian politics that since 1989 has thrown each
incumbent party out of government and replaced it with the
opposition. Seen in this light, Herrera may be calculating
that Navarro will take the fall for the PRD in 2009 leaving
her to swoop in to then benefit from the pendular effect in
2014 to ride it back into power.

15. (C) Of course, it remains to be seen if Herrera -- the
non-presidential candidate who's presidential numbers go up
every time she professes not to want to be president -- would
succumb to "draft Balbina" effort. The most that Herrera
would admit on either August 9 or December 9 was were
circumstances to change sufficiently, then the political game
-- and her role in it -- might change.

EATON

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