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Cablegate: Panama Post: Edition 10, Volume Ii

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C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000469

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/28/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA POST: EDITION 10, VOLUME II

REF: PANAMA 433 (AND PREVIOUS)

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

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

1. (C) In this edition of the Panama Post, our top stories
include:

-- Former President Ernesto "El Toro" Perez Balladares
announces that he will endorse Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos
Navarro in the race to secure the governing Revolutionary
Democratic Party (PRD) presidential nomination;
-- PRD presidential nomination candidate Balbina Herrera's
confidante provides a glimpse into Herrera's inner circle and
lets slip that National Assembly President Pedro Miguel
Gonzalez (PMG) might run for re-election;
-- A weak field of PRD National Assembly Deputies emerges in
the race to succeed PMG as the chamber's president;
-- PSM SigmaDos' poll confirms trend that Navarro has closed
significantly the gap against Herrera, though he still trails;
-- In an effort to preserve the bargaining power of Patriotic
Union (UP), UP President Guillermo "Billy" Ford announces he
will seek his party's presidential nomination.

End summary.

-----------------------------------
El Toro Won't Run, Endorses Navarro
-----------------------------------

2. (U) Former President Ernesto "El Toro" Perez Balladares
publicly endorsed PRD presidential nomination candidate Juan
Carlos Navarro and put an end to speculation that he might
seek the PRD nomination himself following his lunch with
Navarro at Panama City culinary haunt Casa de Mariscos on
June 4. Reaction from PRD presidential nomination candidate
Balbina Herrera's camp was immediate. Herrera herself, in a
radio interview, said that discussion of this endorsement
"bored" her. Herrera acolyte National Assembly Deputy Hector
Aleman characterized El Toro's endorsement as "the kiss of
death" for Navarro and asserted that Perez Balladares had the
right to "once again choose to support a loser." Other
Herrera supporters suggested that the life preserver that El
Toro had thrown to Navarro was made out of lead. Perez
Balladares said he offered his "political" support to Navarro
and demurred on whether he would offer any financial support.
Responding to speculation that Navarro might offer Perez
Balladares's wife, Dora Boyd de Perez Balladares, the VP
slot, Navarro dismissed the rumor noting that no such promise
had been made to secure El Toro's support.

3. (C) Comment: So what does this mean? Well, it means that
Perez Balladares will not run for president again, at least
not as a PRD candidate. Herrera soundly defeated Perez
Balladares in the election for PRD President. El Toro does
have a loyal following though, but that following from the
PRD's right wing is generally not inclined to support the
PRD's left-wing "tendency (tendencia)" faction from which
Herrera hails. The most that can be said is that by
endorsing Navarro, El Toro may be able to mobilize a compact
and committed minority of the PRD to back Navarro and perhaps
open their pocketbooks to him. A polarizing figure in
Panamanian politics, Perez Balladares strikes a disconsonant
chord with many Panamanians, including PRD faithful. His
endorsement may turn out to be a wash, but the Herrera camp's
quick reaction to it suggests that they at least are taking
it seriously for now.

---------------------------------------
Member of Balbina's Inner Circle Dishes
---------------------------------------

4. (C) The Panama Post sat down with Manuel Ng, one of PRD
presidential nomination candidate Balbina Herrera's "closest
friends" who participates regularly in her "inner circle"
meetings on June 2. While admitting that PRD presidential
nomination candidate Juan Carlos Navarro was doing "much
better in the city," Ng claimed that Herrera's own internal
polling showed that she was leading Navarro by 16 points. Ng
said that Herrera continued to use Dichter and Neira as its
pollster and that the campaign supplemented this outfit's
periodic polls with telephone polling. He conceded that
Herrera was weak in Herrera (ironic) and Chiriqui provinces
and acknowledged that many of the businessmen that attended a
recent Herrera fund-raiser with business leaders had also
attended Navarro's fund-raiser. Navarro, according to Ng,
had the support of local PRD party structures across the
country in large part due to his tenure as President of the
National Mayors Association. Nonetheless, as evidenced by
the approach to Herrera by "two mayors who signed public
letters supporting Navarro," Navarro could only rely so far
on this network for support. Ng explained that these mayors'
"bases and staff are with Balbina, so the mayors can't stay
with him or else it would mean political suicide for them."

5. (C) Ng let slip that National Assembly President Pedro
Miguel Gonzalez (PMG), under federal indictment in connection
with the 1992 murder of a U.S. serviceman, could reconsider
his decision -- telegraphed in a letter to "comrade and
Secretary General Martin Torrijos" -- not to run for
re-election as president of the chamber. "Pedro Miguel
signed the letter because Martin asked him to; that was it,"
but the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) was
stalled and, with political changes in the U.S. in the
offing, "who knew what could happen," Ng said. Asked if
Herrera would support PMG's re-election, Ng said, "Yes, but
she would take a 'well, it's his right' neutral position."

6. (C) "I don't think that Balbina knows how the Embassy
works. You should meet with her and give her a briefing," Ng
said. Asking questions himself about the Embassy, Ng
commented that he too did not really understand what the
Embassy was or did, adding that most Panamanians though of it
as made up of State, military and intelligence officers.
"After she wins the primaries," Ng said, "nobody is going to
stop us. She will be the next president."

7. (C) Bio note: Ng is a 39-year old businessman from
Penonome, Cocle province. He is widely regarded as one of
Herrera's "closest friends." Ng's brother, Julio Ng, is a
deputy in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). Manuel
is married, has two young daughters, and owns several
restaurants in Cocle. Though he lives in Penonome, he
travels weekly to "inner circle" meetings with Herrera in
Panama City. Ng, who asserts that Herrera has no ties in
Cocle, stated that the candidate had been his house guest on
several occasions. Active in the PRD for over 20 years, Ng
said he met Herrera when he was 19 and Herrera was Mayor of
San Miguelito. Despite their age difference, Ng asserted
that the two "clicked" and have ever since remained close
friends. Currently, Ng is a member of the PRD's
Businessmen's Front (Frente Empresarial), one of the party's
4,200 delegates, Herrera's Cocle campaign coordinator, and
substitute deputy (suplente) for National Assembly Deputy
Cesar Pardo. He stated that were Herrera to win that he
would likely assume an important position in Herrera's
administration.

8. (C) Comment: Ng is certainly an Herrera insider worth
cultivating further. While he may have access to Herrera's
sanctum sanctorum, it is not clear what influence Ng may have
on Herrera. Ng's review of the state of the internal PRD
campaign from Herrera's point of view does, however, suggest
that Herrera has an understanding that she is in a tougher
primary race than she lets on in public. Ng's statements
that a PMG campaign to win re-election as President of the
National Assembly may still be in play and that Herrera would
at least implicitly support him are worrisome, particularly
in light of the weak field of successors that has already
declared its candidacies (see paras 9-10).

-------------------------------
Aspirants to Succeed PMG Emerge
-------------------------------

9. (C) Seven PRD National Assembly Deputies have let their
colleagues know that they intend to run to replace U.S.
federally indicted Deputy Pedro Miguel Gonzalez (PMG) as
President of the National Assembly. The following are
snapshots of these contenders:

-- Benicio Robinson: This three-term legislator, though he
has not held the terms consecutively, hails from Bocas del
Toro province. In the past, Robinson has been linked to
former President Ernest "El Toro" Perez Balladares,
particularly in leaking regarding internal PRD bench
information. A supporter of Juan Carlos Navarro for the PRD
presidential nomination, Robinson had a falling out over
business dealings with fellow PRD deputy Omar Chen who is
presently acting as Balbina Herrera's gatekeeper on her
campaign to secure the PRD presidential nomination.
Allegedly, Chen forged Robinson's signature on documents
related to a land deal in Bocas del Toro thereby robbing
Robinson, ostensibly his business partner, of several
properties. The matter was never properly investigate let
alone pursued in court since both Robinson and Chen have
legislative immunities.

-- Raul Rodriguez -- This two-term legislator hails from
Chiriqui where he represents a small, rural, and poor
district dominated by Ngobe Bugle indigenous people.
Previously, from September 1, 2006 to August 31, 2007, he
served as VP of the chamber. His wife is a member of the
Virzi family, a powerful and wealthy Veraguas-based. Inside
the PRD, Rodriguez is a supporter of President Martin
Torrijos who is also the PRD's Secretary General.

-- Dennis Arce -- This three-term legislator also represents
a district in Chiriqui province. Though not considered a PRD
bench heavy weight, he nonetheless has run unsuccessfully for
chamber president on several occasions. Once as a
consolation prize, Arce was awarded for one year the
chairmanship of the powerful Budget Committee. Normally
though, he serves on social-oriented committees such as the
Education Committee. His daughter is consul in Milan, and
his son is a deputy to the Central American Parliament
(PARLACEN).

-- Cesar Pardo -- A seasoned PRD operative, Pardo is a
three-term legislator from Cocle province. In a province
traditionally dominated by the now basically extinct Liberal
Party, Pardo was left as one of the few PRD "caciques
(chiefs)." His substitute (suplente), Manuel Ng (see paras
2-6) is a close aide to Balbina Herrera. During "El Toro's"
tenure as president, Pardo's son, a graduate of a Mexican
medical school, became embroiled in a scandal involving the
sale of fake Mexican college diplomas. While several
Panamanians went to jail, Pardo's son was not among them.
The speculation at the time was that Pardo, who was then
National Assembly President, acted to protect his son. Pardo
is on speaking terms with Torrijos and maintains close ties
to Perez Balladares.

-- Hermisenda Perea -- One of the few woman legislators,
Perea is serving in her first term representing a Panama City
district that includes some of the poorest areas of the city.
Though still an assembly freshman, Perea was elected as VP
of the chamber early during Torrijos' tenure as president.
She is a strong support of PMG, has worked closely with First
Lady Vivian de Torrijos on various social projects, and grew
close to then-Housing Minister Balbina Herrera following
flooding in the Curundu neighborhood in her district and
subsequent fires in the same area.

-- Jerry Wilson -- A former Supreme Court Magistrate under
the Noriega regime, Wilson was also widely known for the big
bashes he threw at his ranch in honor of the now disbanded
Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) and Noriega. Currently in
his third term as legislator, Wilson was President of the
National Assembly when Torrijos was sworn in 2004. Torrijos
secured the chamber's presidency for Wilson. In a
long-winded speech before the international media, Wilson
delivered thanked everybody under the sun -- including his
ex-wives -- for allowing him to achieve the exalted position
of President of the National Assembly. According to media
reports, Wilson said, "Thank you" thirty-two times.
President-elect Torrijos was speechless, First Lady-to-be
Torrijos was furious, and Wilson, who cried, earned the
nickname "little tear (lagrimita)."

-- Rogelio Paredes -- Son of a hardcore PRD founder of the
same name, Paredes is in his second term representing a
Panama province district. For most of his time in the
chamber, he has served as Chairman of the Human Rights
Committee. In the Perez Balladares Administration, he was
Vice Minister of Housing. Paredes was the final hold-out in
the 2007 race against PMG for the chamber presidency, not
opposing PMG on ideological or other grounds, but rather
because he wanted the job. He is considered a long-shot
candidate to succeed PMG.

10. (C) Comment: The brief vignettes above should give our
readership an inkling of the kind of Star Wars bar nature of
the PRD National Assembly Deputies' race for the presidency
of the chamber. The current field of candidates is
surprisingly weak, and the Panama Post cannot provide any
tips as far as which horse to bet on. The Panama Post asks
itself, however: if the field is so weak and nobody starts
galvanizing support soon, what stronger candidate might
emerge to succeed PMG or would one?

---------------------------------
PSM SigmaDos Poll Confirms Trends
---------------------------------

11. (SBU) Eager to tell the Panamanian electorate that he was
gaining fast on fellow governing Revolutionary Democratic
Party (PRD) presidential candidate Balbina Herrera, Panama
City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro published the results of a PSM
SigmaDos poll that he had contracted. This poll assesses the
voter intentions solely/solely of PRD members. Prospective
respondents names were drawn from the party rolls as
identified in the Electoral Tribunal's records; respondents
self-confirmed their party affiliation. According to this
poll, Navarro trails Herrera by 5 points, polling 43 percent
to Herrera's 48 percent. The poll also proposed a number of
general election scenarios. Both Navarro and Herrera would
enjoy the support of about two-thirds of PRD party members,
according to four hypothetical general election scenarios.
Navarro took the lead over Herrera as the candidate with the
most capacity and/or ability to resolve Panama's security/law
and order problems: 37 percent of respondents said Navarro
would do a better job while 34 percent said Herrera would.
Asked who would be best able to solve the problem of the
rising price of the basic basket of goods (canasta basica),
the two candidates were essentially tied with Navarro at 34
percent and Herrera at 33 percent.

12. (U) Technical Data: This poll, published as an insert in
several Panama City newspapers, was prepared for Navarro's
campaign. The target group was Panamanian citizens, over the
age of 18, who are members of the PRD and who reside in
Panama, and the total universe of possible respondents in
this target group was 597,522 people. The poll was conducted
nationally, except in the Darien province and the indigenous
reservations (comarcas). A total of 1,223 people were
interviewed, the margin of error was 2.8 percent, and the
level of confidence was 95 percent. The sample was
stratified according to socioeconomic distribution.
Interviews were conducted face-to-face from May 9 through 13.
Interviews were conducted in homes, not on the street or in
commercial locations. Only those prospective respondents who
passed the filter (e.g., PRD members over the age of 18
residing in Panama) were polled. The starting point for
interviews in each neighborhood was randomly selected. Then
each fifth home was visited in Panama province and each third
house in the rest of the polled area. Only one person per
home was interviewed. Dangerous neighborhoods were excluded
in the interest of protecting the pollsters' safety. No
pollster interviewed themselves or another pollster or
pollster's friend or family member. Supervisors verified and
validated previously done interviews at variable intervals,
covering about 30 percent of the polled area and individuals.

13. (C) Comment: Navarro political advisor Ivan Gonzalez
was elated with the trends that the latest polling is
revealing when he met with POLCOUNS on May 27. "We still
have a lot of work to do, but we have a better machine and
are working it hard." In particular, Gonzalez was very happy
with the response to the security/law and order question,
explaining, "We've been pushing the message that Navarro is
the one best prepared to deal with the security problem and
that is showing up in the polls. Next we're going to
underscore that Balbina is bad for the economy and that
Navarro is good." The only thing that elated Gonzalez more
was how dismissive and unconcerned Herrera and her advisors
were reacting to the latest polling. CID/Gallup (reftel),
Dichter and Neira, and now PSM SigmaDos as well as some
internal polling all confirm the closing trend in the PRD.
Herrera confidante and National Assembly Deputy Hector Aleman
brushed off questions regarding the polling in a May 27 radio
interview as reflecting a mere momentary blip.

-------------------------------------
UP's Ford Declares Run for Presidency
-------------------------------------

14. (U) Former First VP and current President of Patriotic
Union (UP) Guillermo "Billy" Ford announced his candidacy for
UP's presidential nomination on May 29. In doing so, Ford
declared that his candidacy was not intended to obstruct
opposition unity. Ford did state, however, that he ensured
that UP was taken seriously as an important player in the
broader opposition. UP VP Jose Raul Mulino will serve as
interim president of the party now that Ford has declared his
candidacy.

15. (C) Comment: Ford's run is not a serious drive for the
Palacio de las Garzas Presidential Palace. He is nowhere in
the polls and shows no prospects of being able to improve his
standing. Furthermore, Ford is in poor health owing to this
lifetime smoker's poor lung condition. Furthermore, he has
not been able to sustain lengthy periods out on the stump
without landing himself in the hospital to recover. Rather
this push is an effort to maintain UP's unity and to remind
his VPs Anibal Galindo and Jose Raul Mulino -- the former
preferring Martinelli and the latter Vallarino -- that he is
not a potted plant, figure head leader of this new party.
Ford previously has told POLCOUNS that he wants to get the
best deal for UP in joining other opposition parties to form
an alliance. Commenting to the press, Ford has noted that UP
should not go with the first alliance offer that is made to
it, suggesting that UP is looking for the best alliance deal
possible. Ford's presidential candidacy should be seen and
interpreted in this light.

ARREAGA

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