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Cablegate: Ambassador's Farewell Call On President Torrijos

R 021823Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 2233
INFO NSC WASHDC
DIA WASHDC
CIA WASHDC
SECDEF WASHDC
CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000539

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/01/2018
TAGS: PGOV PM PREL
SUBJECT: AMBASSADOR'S FAREWELL CALL ON PRESIDENT TORRIJOS

Classified By: A/DCM THOMAS E. MESA, REASON 1.4 (A) AND (B)

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

1. (C) During President Torrijos' June 30 farewell lunch in
honor of the Ambassador, Torrijos underscored the excellent
state of bilateral relations, thanked the Ambassador for his
work in sustaining that relationship, said he would move
forward with re-structuring the security forces despite the
false specter of "militarization" raised by the opposition,
and spoke of the importance of institutionalizing and
insulating the security forces from politics. Torrijos
lambasted the media for what he described as a premeditated
campaign to discredit him and his administration in an
attempt to weaken the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party's
(PRD) chances for victory in next year's presidential
elections. Torrijos expressed his hope that the Embassy
would maintain its impartiality in the presidential campaign
after the Ambassador's departure. The Ambassador and A/DCM
assured him that our policy remained unchanged: we support
democracy, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and
not any particular party or candidate. End summary.

---------------------------------
Bilateral Relations Never Better
----------------------------------

2. (U) President Torrijos hosted a private lunch June 30 to
bid farewell to Ambassador Eaton. He was joined by First
Vice-President and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis and Second
Vice-President Ruben Arosemena. Torrijos underscored that
the state of bilateral relations had never been better. It
is a relationship, he added, based on mutual respect. He
thanked the Ambassador for his valuable contributions to this
positive relationship, noting that both he and the Ambassador
came to their respective offices more or less at the same
time. The Ambassador thanked Torrijos for his kind words and
concurred that bilateral relations were strong.

----------------------------------
Moving Forward with Security Force
Re-structuring
-----------------------------------

3. (C) Torrijos said he was adamant in moving forward with
the re-structuring of the Panamanian security forces. In the
next two months, he plans to proceed with the merger of the
National Maritime Service (SMN) and the National Air Service
to create a National Aero-Naval Service (SENAN), create a
National Frontier Force (SENAFRONT), name a uniformed officer
as head of the National Police, and reform the Council for
Public Safety and National Defense (CSPDN). He and Lewis
dismissed media and opposition criticism of the PRD's design
to "re-militarize" the security forces as bogus. They noted
that the PRD ruled by a new generation had no intention of
reverting to military rule. On the contrary, Torrijos sees
the re-structuring as a step away from the past since the new
laws would supersede existing laws from the Noriega years.
More importantly for Torrijos, the new structure would serve
to create a professional service of well-trained officers who
would respond to the growing security concerns of citizens
and help secure Panama's open borders, especially its long
coast lines, from narcotraffickers and terrorists. What he
wants, Torrijos underlined, is to institutionalize the
security forces, keeping them away from undue political
interference. He emphasized that he was the first president
not to use the security forces to spy on political opponents.
He lamented the "mess" he inherited when he assumed office.
The security forces, including the Institutional Protective
Service (SPI), the Panamanian equivalent of the Secret
Service, had been infested with "political hacks."

----------------
Partisan Media?
----------------

4. (C) Torrijos claimed that the media had launched a
deliberate campaign to discredit him and the PRD. He was
particularly peeved at articles in the June 30 edition of "La
Prensa" (the paper of record) that alleged that his
"luxurious" personal property and real estate were evidence
of corruption and personal enrichment while President of
Panama. Lewis added that the media had ignored information
from the President's press office denying the specific
allegations made in the article. Torrijos said "unethical"
media moguls, employees of opposition figures, were blatantly
trying to forge a united opposition for the upcoming
presidential elections. He also feared that some in the
opposition (read: Martinelli) were dangerously cavorting with
the leftists construction union, SUNTRACS, and others for
short-term political gains and economic interests without
measuring the long-term danger to democracy. The
opposition's anti-Torrijos campaign was critical if the
opposition had any chance of winning, Torrijos said, because
of the high approval rating he enjoys (70-80 percent) within
the PRD ranks. He lamented, however, that unlike the past,
the majority of PRD faithful were involved in the political
campaigns out of personal interests rather than any political
conviction.

---------------------------------
Don't Be Fooled by the Opposition
----------------------------------

5. (C) Torrijos expressed his concern that after the
Ambassador departed the Embassy would be dragged into the
Panamanian presidential campaign. The Ambassador and the
A/DCM assured him that while the U.S. will continue to follow
the election process closely, the Embassy would maintain its
neutrality in Panama's domestic politics. The U.S. will not
support any particular candidate or party. Our policy, we
stressed, was to support democracy and strengthen democratic
institutions.

----------
CMMENT
----------

6. (C) Torrijos clearly felt comfortable during the lunch,
comfortable enough to bear his frustrations and fears. He
showed, once again, his thin skin, defending with passion his
integrity and his pure motives in governing Panama. We
should take advantage of the confidentially he shares with us
as we navigate a complex political landscape, looking to
advance our cooperation on security issues. In the end, the
public wants security and the public forces want professional
management. Getting Panama's security apparatus up and
running will not be an easy task, but one that is of great
interest to the U.S. The manner in which the GOP will
implement the re-structuring of its security elements,
through Presidential degree and not through debate and a vote
in the National Assembly, will not make the task any easier.
Torrijos is also clearly concerned about the role the Embassy
could play in influencing the upcoming election and wants to
ensure we remain interested observers, not participants.
Believing he is misunderstood and maligned by the press, we
can expect him to lash out more frequently and publicly about
slights, real or imagined as his time in office expires.

EATON

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