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Cablegate: La Prensa Founder Roberto Eisenmann Slams Panama's

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

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 PANAMA 000540

SIPDIS


DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/CEN/BRIGHAM


E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/04/2014
TAGS: PREL PINR PGOV PM POL CHIEF
SUBJECT: LA PRENSA FOUNDER ROBERTO EISENMANN SLAMS PANAMA'S
POLITICAL CLASS

REF: A. 03 PANAMA 0798
B. 03 PANAMA 2451
C. 03 PANAMA 3294
D. PANAMA 0440
E. 03 PANAMA 2442
F. PANAMA 0145


Classified By: AMBASSADOR LINDA E. WATT FOR REASONS 1.5 (B) AND (D).


SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) Roberto Eisenmann, Jr., founder of Panama's
anti-dictatorship daily newspaper La Prensa, since 1990
turned political maverick and op-ed gadfly, recently shared
with POL Counselor some caustic commentary on what he called
the "outrageous" attitude of Panama's political class and its
corrupt behavior. Eisenmann said his "hopes" for Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD) presidential front-runner Martin
Torrijos began to fade when Torrijos was slow to disengage
himself from first cousin Hugo Torrijos. Hugo is Martin's
major, if not chief financial backer and recently dismissed
campaign manager, implicated several times for financial
abuse of public office, though never formally charged. Given
Torrijos' spotty resume and his apparent reliance on shady
finances, Eisenmann views an increasingly likely Martin
Torrijos presidency as "on the job training and then hope for
the best." On former President Endara's candidacy, Eisenmann
said he faces a "very uphill battle," adding that Endara has
"no new ideas" and lacks money and a national organization.
Although occasionally critical of U.S. politics in Panama and
the wider region, Eisenmann is nonetheless an analyst with
insight and a person of integrity whose views carry weight,
even among those Panamanians who view him as arrogant and
elitist. End Summary.


Two Biggest Parties "Equally Corrupt"
-------------------------------------

2. (C) As a journalist, Roberto Eisenmann has focused
squarely on corruption -- during military rule and after --
and he finds Panama's political elite sadly lacking. He is
anything but sanguine about democratic Panama, since
Operation Just Cause ended Panama's 21-year military
dictatorship in December 1989. Panama could be a first-world
country, he says, if it had decent government for just ten
years. Following the ouster of Manuel Noriega, he recalled
that Panamanians with strong political convictions wanted a
bipartisan system with two strong parties (Arnulfistas and
PRD), but the two parties now "are equally corrupt." "The
attitude of the political class is outrageous," Eisenmann
said. "They don't seem to give a damn." Panama must clean
house or risk the emergence of a Panamanian Hugo Chavez.


Endara As Anti-System Candidate
-------------------------------

3. (C) Eisenmann is grateful for former President Guillermo
Endara's presidential candidacy in Panama's May 2 election,
"or else we would have some crazy populist running," he
added. Endara is an establishment figure running for
president in a slot that otherwise might have been filled by
a genuine anti-system candidate, such as fired social
security fund administrator Juan Jovane. What Hugo Chavez
proved in Venezuela -- that "anyone" can run for president --
may become true in Panama, Eisenmann said. (See Reftel E.)
At least in the May 2 election, no candidate poses any threat
to the democratic process. Eisenmann said that Endara faces
a "very uphill battle," and lacks a national organization,
money, as well as new ideas.


Friends Get the Cash Box
------------------------

4. (C) Eisenmann had few kind words for out-going President
Mireya Moscoso. Referring to his one-year stint as advisor
to President Moscoso, Eisenmann recalled telling her "I have
friends too but I don't give them the cash box." Eisenmann
added that Moscoso hates former President Endara "with a
passion" because she sees him as a Arnulfista party
"traitor."


Historical Dislike of PRD
-------------------------

5. (C) Eisenmann acknowledged his dislike of the PRD for
historical reasons (an allusion to his personal clashes with
PRD military strongmen Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega), but
said he tries to be objective. He views an increasingly
likely Martin Torrijos presidency as "on the job training and
then hope for the best." (Note: Martin Torrijos has held two
jobs in his life that we know of. He managed a McDonald's
fast food franchise in Chicago in the late 1980s. During
1994-1998 he was Vice Minister of Government and Justice
under President Ernesto Perez Balladares. Given this limited
experience, many other observers also worry about Torrijos'
lack of depth on issues. End Note.)


Alarm Bells
-----------

6. (C) Eisenmann praised Torrijos for his ability to gain
control of the PRD, for isolating the old guard, and winning
a democratic intra-party primary vote. But he sounded alarm
bells about Hugo Torrijos, Martin's "money man," who served
as his campaign manager (until Martin recently asked him to
step down) and likely will play a prominent role in a PRD
presidency, and who recently was implicated in a scandal
concerning his stewardship of Ports Engineering Construction
Corporation (PECC -- See Ref C). In November 2003
Comptroller Alvin Weeden apparently called Torrijos to warn
him to remove his cousin from the campaign on the day before
accusations against Hugo Torrijos (and former president Perez
Balladares) became public in the PECC scandal. Even after
removing Hugo a month later, Martin insisted it had nothing
to do with PECC, adding that he was sure that Hugo was
innocent of any wrongdoing. (Note: Eisenmann thought the
surprising thing about the PECC scandal was that Perez
Balladares reportedly got such a small part of the action --
only 7.5%. "I bet he was pissed off when he found out the
Torrijos boys were getting more than him," he said. End
Note.)


"This Hugo Thing"
-----------------

7. (C) "I had hopes for Torrijos but this Hugo thing set me
back," Eisenmann said. Hugo Torrijos was ports director
under PRD President Ernesto Perez Balladares, "and left
rich," Eisenmann noted. "A lot of money is made in Panama's
Asian consulates," he quickly added, the Philippines in
particular. (Note: Also Vietnam. Overall, commercial
authentications make Tokyo Panama's most lucrative far
eastern consulate. End note.) Augusto "Onassis" Garcia
(advisor and close associate of President Moscoso) and Hugo
"understand each other," Eisenmann continued. Onassis Garcia
controls Panama's Asian consulates, he explained, (as Hugo
Torrijos controlled them under Perez Balladares, when he was
ports director, and before that under Manuel Noriega, as
Finance Ministry shipping and consular services director).
When Onassis Garcia's nephew, Juan Carlos Escalona (now
Panama's ambassador and consul general in Manila), got there
in 2000, Eisenmann continued, "Hugo Torrijos told him, 'It
will take you 18 months to set up your own system. Why not
use the one that I have and give me a cut?'" Eisenmann
quipped, "These are the guys who are in government, because
it's good business for them."


Background: Seamen's Visas a Lucrative Trade
--------------------------------------------

8. (C) The licensing of merchant seamen to work on
Panama-flagged vessels in East Asian capitals, Manila in
particular, is a lucrative business for corrupt Panamanian
officials (see Ref A and B), as is ship registration.
Seamen, in their thousands, reportedly must pay an inflated
"fee" of several hundred dollars, which officials pocket, for
an identity cards whose nominal price starts at $115. Also,
to obtain their health clearances, the seamen reportedly must
use only specific Manila clinics which, it is assumed, pay
kickbacks to the officials. (Comment: Embassy Panama has put
the issue of seamen's visas and vessel registration at the
top of our maritime security agenda. While we have made
major progress in virtually every other area of that agenda,
the issue of seamen's visas and vessel registration remains
elusive because of corruption in Panama's consulates and its
Maritime Authority (AMP). We hope to engage the next
government which takes office on September 1, 2004, stressing
that corruption involving seamen's visas and the registration
of vessels under Panama's flag poses a direct threat to U.S.
-- and Panamanian -- security interests. End comment.)


Ties of "Blood, Marriage, and Adultery"
---------------------------------------

9. (C) Interlocking relationships of blood and marriage (and
adultery, as the wags have it) among Panama's elite go beyond
mere nepotism, making official corruption difficult to root
out. For instance, Amb. Juan Carlos Escalona's brother,
Arnulfo Escalona, is currently Minister of Government and
Justice. Both are nephews of Onassis Garcia (Moscoso's close
advisor) but Arnulfo is also widely rumored to be President
Moscoso's paramour. Garcia's daughters, Bertilda and Rita,
are Administrator of the Panamanian Maritime Authority (AMP)
and Panama's Consul General in New York, respectively.
Bertilda, Rita, and Juan Carlos thus control three of four
AMP offices with authority to register ships and issue
seafarer IDs (the fourth is London). This particular group
has long been known as the "Chitre Mafia," after the
Panamanian town they hail from (Ref D).


COMMENT
-------

10. (C) Eisenmann may be an inveterate contrarian in his
views, but his disdain for the traditional parties
(particularly the PRD and Arnulfistas) is a sentiment
increasingly shared by Panamanians who are unhappy with the
corruption, clientelism, and cronyism within the political
class. Likewise, much of the popular support for ousted
Social Security Chief Jovane, as well as the popularity of
Solidaridad candidate Endara, reflects an underlying populism
in Panama that could create conditions for the emergence of a
charismatic demagogue, similar to the Chavez phenomenon in
Venezuela. Many observers believe that Panama's May 2, 2004
election is key to restoring the credibility of the
traditional political parties. (See Reftel F.) If Torrijos
wins the election, as current trends suggest, Eisenmann and
other top opinion shapers will be watching closely to see
whether Torrijos lives up to his pledge to be "the Tony Blair
of Panama." As Torrijos's First Vice Presidential Candidate
Samuel Lewis Navarro has said about corruption in Panama,
"Change starts at the top." His first test will be the
appointment of government officials who can break the corrupt
traditions that were described by Eisenmann.


WATT

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