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Cablegate: Panama's Report On Chavez's Activities

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

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 PANAMA 000835

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/AND WHA/CEN
WHA A/S ROGER NOREIGA
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/13/2015
TAGS: PREL PGOV PTER PM VZ LABOR HUMAN RIGHTSPOLMIL
SUBJECT: PANAMA'S REPORT ON CHAVEZ'S ACTIVITIES

REF: A. STATE 43965
B. PANAMA 00234
C. PANAMA 00810
D. 04 PANAMA 03025
E. PANAMA 00255
F. PANAMA 00235
G. PANAMA 00799
H. 04 PANAMA 2452
I. 04 PANAMA 2937
J. DAO PANAMA IRR 6 882 9925 04
K. DAO PANAMA IRR 6 882 0113 05

Classified By: AMB Linda Watt. Reason E.O. 12958 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (SBU) Per reftel A, following is Embassy's report on
Chavez's activities in Panama, making reference to its
extensive prior reporting in reftel B. Embassy has already
forwarded the desk copies of recent DAO Panama reports (and
Embassy political and economic reftels) on Chavez and
Venezuela.

Summary
-------
2. (S) The GOV's alleged ties to radical groups in Panama
encompass financial and/or technical support for student
groups, Social Security (CSS) reform opponents, and
Venezuelan-inspired Bolivarian Circles. Panamanian press and
opinion leaders view Chavez as a hot-headed populist with
more potential to destabilize Colombia than Panama. While
some high-ranking GOP officials are less sanguine, President
Martin Torrijos's desire to pursue a commercially attractive
oil pipeline deal with Venezuela demonstrates a belief that
Panama will be able to utilize Venezuelan investment to
improve its economic outlook while keeping unwanted
ideological and political manipulation at arm's length.
Panama's law enforcement ties with Venezuela, much like its
visa policies, do not differ markedly from its policies with
its other neighbors. Embassy believes that Chavez has little
support in Panama at this moment, but a prolonged crisis
perhaps sparked by civil disorders attending
soon-to-be-announced CSS reform could provide the Bolivarian
Circles (in alliance with small but well-trained Panamanian
leftist groups) with an opening to cause problems for the
Torrijos government. End Summary.

GOV's Activities and Ties to Radicals
-------------------------------------
3. (C) Most information regarding the GOV's activities and
ties to radical groups in Panama is relatively recent and
revolves around a December 2004 report about 10 "Bolivarian
Circles" that appeared in a major Panamanian daily (reftel
B), although such Circles apparently have existed since 2000.
Circle spokesman Fernan Casis claimed that the Circles
attend functions at the Venezuelan and Cuban Embassies but do
not receive funds from the GOV or GOP. Casis also claimed
that adherents include labor and student leaders and PRD and
former People's Party (Panama's defunct Moscow-oriented
communist party) members. He also asserted and that the
Circles are on good terms with (the presumably radical
elements) within the SUNTRACS, CONUSI, and CONATO labor
groups (reftel C). In February, Bolivarian Circle leaders,
including university professor Carlos Wong Broce, held a
meeting in Cocle province to agitate for the formation of
another Circle.

4. (C) Other unconfirmed rumors link Circle or Chavez
financing to the opposition movement protesting the
government's upcoming CSS reform, including SUNTRACS and
former CSS Director Juan Jovane. In August 2004, PolOff
observed pro-Chavista banners at the offices of CONATO member
National Center for Panamanian Workers (CGTP) during a
routine courtesy call.

Mainstream Media Sees Chavez Through the AP
-------------------------------------------
5. (SBU) Despite recent chatter about Bolivarian circles,
mainstream Panamanian media generally view Chavez much as the
major wire services (such as AP and Reuters) do, as a
hot-headed populist who could destabilize Panama's neighbor,
Colombia, more than Panama. Chavez consistently is a
lukewarm story and most press follow-up on Bolivarian Circles
appears in gossip columns. A rare editorial on Chavez in
March reflecting a common Panamanian perspective rejected
Bolivarian Circles and Chavism, emphasizing Panama's proud
and "sovereign" history as the author of its own destiny - it
won the Panama Canal from the United States.

Academic Community Sees Marginal Influence
------------------------------------------
6. (C) Academic elites and opinion leaders within Panama
echo the mainstream media and generally see Chavez as an
unstable blowhard with marginal influence. University of
Panama Professor and human rights expert Miguel Antonio
Bernal claimed that most of the UP's 75,000 students and
faculty view Chavez as an extremist. The exceptions are
three radical student groups with fewer than 100 members
apiece: University Popular Block (BPU), Transforming Action
Thought (PAT), and Revolutionary Student Front (FER). Bernal
also claimed that one employees' association with fewer than
300 members, Association of University of Panama Employees
(ASEUPA), sympathizes with Chavez. Bernal suspects that the
student groups began receiving Venezuelan money about six
months ago because group members suddenly seemed richer about
that time.

Lawmakers Downplay Bolivarian Potential
---------------------------------------
While Ministers Express Concern
-------------------------------
7. (C) Several prominent Panamanian legislators denied that
Bolivarian Circles could harm or make any difference in
Panama (reftel B). While the media and opinion makers have
paid little attention to Chavez, top policy makers, including
Minister of the Presidency Ubaldino Real, have expressed
concern for Chavez-supported activities and their potential
impact on CSS protests (reftel B).

Torrijos Defends Recent Economic Ties
-------------------------------------
8. (C) Panama's economic ties to Venezuela consist almost
entirely of oil sales. (see reftels B, D, E). Recently,
Panama joined the G-4 (which includes Venezuela, Colombia and
Mexico)(see reftel D). Panama imports around 80% of its oil
from Venezuela and recently began discussions about using a
part-U.S.-owned oil pipeline in western Panama to send
Venezuelan crude oil to a Pacific port for Asian (read
Chinese) customers (reftel E).

10. (S) Torrijos and GOP officials repeatedly have told
Emboffs that Panama's interest in a pipeline deal is a purely
commercial arrangement that would exploit Panama's geographic
location (reftel F). In April, Torrijos reportedly told U.S.
Congressman Rick Renzi that he was interested in the pipeline
project because it would produce much-needed cash for Panama
(reftel G). Further, Torrijos rationalized that Panama would
be able to control the flow of oil and that Colombia would be
willing to build an oil pipeline if the Panama deal falls
through.

11. (C) Panamanian MFA officials deny that the limited
commercial links, part of Panama's broader regional strategy,
increase Venezuelan leverage over Panama (reftels B, H, I).

Limited Law Enforcement Cooperation
-----------------------------------
12. (C) While dozens of PPF officers have been trained in
Venezuela over recent years, the U.S. and other Latin
American countries (such as Argentina and Chile) have
historically exercised greater influence within Panama's
security forces (reftel B). Of the 45 ranking PPF officers
sent on international courses in 2004, only five studied in
Venezuela. Embassy is unaware of any information-sharing
agreement between Panama and Venezuela. PPF officers
recently trained in Venezuela express the same disdain of
other Panamanians for Chavez and his Circles (reftel B).

13. (C) Chavez has little influence in Panama, despite his
living 18 months here following his failed 1992 coup (reftel
B). Chavez, at that time, allegedly stayed with his former
military school roommate, current Panamanian secret service
(SPI) Deputy Director Juan Antonio Gomez, but some sources
report that the pair have had a falling out (reftels J, K).


No Special Visa Requirements
----------------------------
14. (SBU) Panama's visa requirements for Venezuelan
passport holders are identical to those for U.S. citizens.
Visitors for stays up to 90 days need a visa, but can enter
with a tourist card for stays of 30 days. Panama does not
place special requirements on Venezuelans for permanent
residency.

Comment
-------
15. (C) While Chavista propaganda could capitalize on
Panamanian discontent with corruption and social inequality,
Panamanians, proud of their "sovereign" history in which they
achieved independence from Colombia and won the Canal from
the U.S., are put off by the Chavista ideology. Bolivarian
Circles have named themselves after Panamanian national
heroes in the fight for sovereignty, including President
Torrijos's deceased father, General Omar Torrijos, although
this transparent ploy has not translated into increased
popular support.

16. (S) Today's small, inconsequential Bolivarian Circles
could gain political influence in the event of a prolonged,
general political crisis in Panama that undermined the
legitimacy of the political system. More immediately, some
in the Torrijos administration are concerned that Venezuelan
money might fund home-grown Panamanian leftist groups to
organize violent street demonstrations against
soon-to-be-announced CSS reforms. President Torrijos, with a
better claim to the legacy of Panamanian sovereignty than the
Circles, not surprisingly is more preoccupied with improving
Panama's economic situation through regional commercial ties
than with the populist/socialist Bolivarian ideology. So
far, Torrijos has not succumbed to the temptations of
subsidized Venezuelan oil, although we have heard unconfirmed
reports that Venezuela has offered Panama lower-priced oil in
return for diplomatic support for Cuba in the United Nations.
Torrijos's April 7 announcement of a temporary cut in gas
taxes demonstrates his preoccupation with the political
implications of galloping fuel prices. While GOP officials
discount any enduring convergence of Panamanian and
Venezuelan political, military, or ideological interests, how
Venezuelan "oil diplomacy" may play out in the long term is
unclear.

WATT

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