Cablegate: Panama's New Supreme Court Chief Justice Pereira

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

301947Z Jan 04

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 PANAMA 000200



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/26/2014

REF: A. 03 PANAMA 1796
B. 03 PANAMA 2451
C. 03 PANAMA 3294

Classified By: Ambassador Linda E. Watt for Reasons 1.5 (b) & (d).

(SBU) Summary: Probing the unknown

1. (C) Elected by his colleagues for a two-year term as
President (Chief Justice) of Panama's nine-member Supreme
Court on October 23, 2003, Cesar Antonio Pereira Burgos (DOB:
29 SEP 1929) has not yet shown strong interest in continuing
the drive to reform Panama's judiciary that his predecessor,
Adan Arnulfo Arjona, began two years ago. Upon assuming the
court's top spot on January 5, Pereira Burgos took a tough
line with the press, limiting court access to one accredited
representative of each media company, supposedly to stop
"abusive" and false reporting on internal court
deliberations. Pereira told AID Director that he admires the
U.S. Supreme Court's method of accrediting media (which gives
the press greater continuity on complex legal issues) and
wishes to mirror it in Panama's Supreme Court. Legal
insiders doubt Pereira acted to protect the integrity of the
deliberative process and suggest instead that he wanted to
shield the judiciary from public scrutiny.

2. (C) Justice Pereira has expressed interest recently in
learning more about USAID's Administration of Justice Program
in Panama, but his dedication to judicial reform remains
untested. Pereira paints his management style as inclusive,
and he claims that he will base his decisions on the will of
his peers, which represents an opportunity to generate
"buy-in" for reform from other Justices. Arjona's
unflinching dedication to reform at all costs contributed to
his peers' unwillingness to collaborate with him. At the
same time, Panama's Supreme Court, and other subordinate
elements of the judiciary, continue to be subject to
executive branch interference via patronage appointees and
political manipulation. If our long-term collaboration with
the Supreme Court under Pereira turns out to be fruitless,
Embassy is studying ways to increase its support to
demand-based civil society initiatives that press for
judicial reform from the outside in. END SUMMARY

(SBU) Anti-Arjona alliance

3. (C) A bipartisan alliance of Justices linked to both the
Arnulfista Party (PA) and its perennial opponent, the
Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) united to elect Pereira
Burgos. Embassy interprets this unusual alliance as a
backlash against Justice Arjona, who often operated on his
own, without consulting the other Justices. Resistance among
the other Supreme Court Justices to Arjona's reform efforts
often was rife (based as much on personal animosity towards
Arjona's style as on opposition to the reforms themselves.)
Arjona's colleagues actively politicked against him before
the October internal elections. (See Reftel A.) On October
23, six of the nine Justices voted for Pereira, two voted for
Arjona, and one abstained.

(SBU) Pereira's political colors

4. (SBU) Cesar Pereira Burgos, one of five original "Special
Advisors" to President Moscoso until his January 2000
appointment to the Supreme Court, openly acknowledged his
political inclination in a January 5 speech. In addition to
Moscoso's 1999 campaign, he participated in former President
Guillermo Endara's 1989 campaign and served as Endara's
Ambassador to the UN (1990-92) and Agriculture Minister
(1992-94). Pereira Burgos claims "an old friendship" with
hardline Arnulfista and Legislative Assembly President Jacobo
Salas, and was an opposition legislator from 1980-84,
representing Herrera province, in the Azuero Peninsula.
Several Supreme Court observers have also suggested that
Pereira has ties to ill-reputed businessman and Moscoso
confidant Augusto "Onassis" Garcia, part of the network
described in Reftel B.

5. (C) Before taking charge of the Court in January 2004,
Pereira attempted to have the controversial PECC corruption
case (Reftel C) transferred to his jurisdiction from that of
another Justice, an unprecedented move that his colleagues
vetoed. That case may be an anomaly, indicative of Pereira's
personal animosity toward the defendant, Comptroller General
Alvin Weeden. Observers suggest that Pereira was
transmitting a message from President Moscoso who did not
want to be next in line if Weeden were left unchecked to
investigate her predecessor, Ernesto Perez Balladares
(1994-99) for corruption. Nevertheless, the fact that
Pereira didn't insist on the transfer over the protests of
his colleagues is a positive sign.

(U) Comment: Getting to know you

6. (C) Prior to his election as Supreme Court President,
Cesar Pereira Burgos was known primarily as a grumpy old man
with a tendency to speak out of school, and for his indolence
and conspicuous consumption. Pereira is certainly not a
model reformer, but he's the most direct avenue to influence
the Panama's hierarchical judiciary. A recent Embassy
interaction might point to a more positive relationship with
the Court. The Court's chief statistician asked Embassy to
request formally that Pereira release statistics which should
be available publicly, just to see whether he would approve.
Pereira promptly released the statistics. While structural
reform in the judiciary requires greater conviction than
releasing statistics, Embassy hopes that Pereira's goodwill
thus far is indicative of a greater commitment. However, we
are preparing to pursue other (civil society-based)
initiatives that would advance our judicial reform goals in
the event that Pereira turns out to be obstructionist in his
leadership of the Court.


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