Cablegate: Panama: Torrijos Vents to Ambassador


DE RUEHZP #1186/01 1922042
R 112042Z JUL 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 001186



E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/10/2017


Classified By: Ambassador William A. Eaton. Reasons: 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. (C) Panamanian President Martin Torrijos vented to
Ambassador on July 9 as they traveled together from Panama
City to Colon to visit the USNS Comfort. In an atypically
chatty mood and highly agitated, Torrijos let down his guard
and let loose: lambasting the press, asserting that former
civil crusade leader and prominent businessman Roberto
"Bobby" Eisenmann was somebody into whom the Embassy should
look, complaining about non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), and kvetching about the "rich and powerful" who still
felt they ran Panama. Addressing the rising cost of the
basic basket of goods in Panama, the President also
complained that "middlemen" were "gouging" average
Panamanians and said the government would begin, for example,
buying rice and managing its sale and redistribution to the
public. Finally, Torrijos complained that the U.S. Congress
-- in asserting that Peru and Panama must adopt all
implementing legislation before the U.S.-Panama Trade
Promotion Agreement (TPA) would be acted on -- constituted
moving the goal posts on Panama (septel). Vulnerable,
demonstrating the thinness of his skin, and clearly wanting
the Ambassador to hear his side of the story, Torrijos'
comments also raised questions about how new the "New
Homeland (Patria Nueva)" wing of the governing Revolutionary
Democratic Party (PRD) really is. End Summary.

The Press is Out to Get Me

2. (C) Torrijos opened his rant by launching into a tear
lambasting Panama's press, in particular their recent
scrutiny of the "Seeing to Learn" ("Ver para Aprender")
program managed by First Lady Vivian Fernandez de Torrjos.
(Note: This program provides needy students with eye
glasses. Press carried widely a story of Panama's
optometrist association's report asserting that this program
was mishandled in that the same companies that supplied
glasses were also the companies that conducted the exams.
One noted optometrist asserted that this arrangement created
an incentive for companies to issue glasses to students who
did not need them -- and indeed whose eyesight would be
damaged by them -- so that they could receive greater
payments from the First Lady's Office.) Torrijos repeatedly
noted, "The eye glasses only cost eleven dollars, and it was
money well spent." Clearly, the press had an anti-Torrijos
agenda. The president even asserted that the timing of the
press' "campaigns against him" were predictable: Whenever
the GOP's unpaid publicity bills exceeded USD one million,
Torrijos asserted, the press exerted pressure by running
negative press. Since the press was in family hands, they
could not float more than USD one million, Torrijos claimed.

Bobby Eisenmann is Out to Get Me

3. (C) Turning from La Prensa to La Prensa's former
publisher, Torrijos claimed that Roberto "Bobby" Eisenmann
was now exerting more control over leading Panamanian
broadsheet daily La Prensa. "The recent shake-ups in La
Prensa's leadership have Bobby's fingerprints all over them."
(Note: Eisenmann was a key leader in the anti-Noriega Civil
Crusade, continues to be a significant stock holder in La
Prensa, and remains a prominent businessman. Eisenmann also
heads the Panamanian chapter of Transparency International.)
Torrijos launched into a tirade about NGOs in Panama;
"Somebody should look into who's financing these NGOs. They
are in the pay of powerful interests in Panama." Possibly
referencing Transparency International, Torrijos said, "They
complain about the government's lack of transparency, but
they don't fess up to their funding sources or their payrolls
as the government does." The President said he would planned
to propose "sunshine" legislation in September to require
NGOs to ensure transparency with respect to their funding
sources, finances and salaries of their employees.

4. (C) "Eisenmann is trying to hijack" the UNDP-facilitated
national dialogue to develop a national development strategy,
Torrijos asserted. Not liking what's being contemplated,
Eisenmann wanted to tie the Torrijos Administration's and
future administrations' hands to follow Eisenmann's master
plan. "Who elected him?" Torrijos exclaimed. "If Bobby
wants to make political decisions for his country, he ought
to run for election, not try to manipulate the country behind
the scenes."

--------------------------------------------- -
The Transportation Interests Are Out to Get Me
--------------------------------------------- -

5. (C) The transportation cabal, in cohoots with the press,
was misrepresenting the facts with respect to efforts to
improve public transportation, Torrijos claimed. "I am not
going to back down from my plan to deploy articulated buses."
(Note: Articulated buses are extra-long buses with an
accordion-like mid-section that allows the bus to bend.)
Stating that he had made a mistake in trying to bundle his
entire transportation reform effort into a single, neat
package, Torrijos asserted that transportation interests were
grabbing hold of the effort to try and establish an ironclad
monopoly for themselves. Torrijos said that his government
had broken this effort into three more manageable packages
(NFI) in order to get the best deal for the GOP. Initially,
articulated buses would start running before the end of his
administration in 2009 on the Northern Corridor (Corredor
Norte) toll-road with low fares (possibly forty cents) as the
tolls would subsidize the bus.

The Oligarchs Are Out to Get Me

6. (C) Torrijos asserted that the "rich and powerful in
Panama" also worked to stymie his efforts. For example,
claiming that Moscoso-era officials continued to receive some
USD 40,000 in "residual" kick-backs from Tocumen
International Airport duty free concessionaires, Torrijos
asserted that when it became apparent that the gravy train
would be ending soon, vested interests raised a ruckus.
"That was the reason for the delay in contract process for
the airport duty free concessions. Shifting his fire,
Torrijos complained that "middlemen" were "gouging" consumers
by raising the prices of basic food products in the "basic
basket (canasta basica) and thereby preying on poor
consumers. While greater efficiencies in agricultural
production were lowering costs, the President asserted that
middlemen were not passing the cost savings along but rather
were increasing their profits. Much as in the energy sector,
Torrijos said that his government would buy rice and
guarantee rice purchases for producers. Then the government
will control the sale and price of rice.

Off to the PanAm Games

7. (C) Torrijos said that he and First VP and FM Samuel
Lewis would travel to Rio de Janeiro to attend the
Pan-American Games (reftel). Since Panama's President would
be there, Torrijos explained, Panamanian athletes would be
able to fly the Panamanian flag and the Panamanian national
anthem would be played for any Panamanian athletes who won
medals. While now the GOP contributed funds to Panama's
Olympic Committee (COP), Torrijos said he had no control over
who served on the various sports governing bodies. New
legislation would give the GOP more control over nominations
for this governing bodies, Torrijos asserted.

Middle Class Growing, Not Shrinking

8. (C) Wages were rising, so the middle class was growing,
not shrinking, Torrijos asserted, in response to recent press
reporting that claimed that the middle class was an
endangered species. "Well, it depends on what you mean by
middle class," Torrijos clarified. In Panama, for example,
he explained that a person who earned USD 2,500 was
considered to be in the upper class; "Is that reality?" he
asked. "We need to define middle class before we can say
whether it is growing or shrinking."

9. (C) Torrijos was on a roll. Emotionally protesting,
Torrijos showed his sense of vulnerability and his
extraordinarily thin skin. Particularly, the President was
incensed by the press' recent reporting of the President of
Panama's optometrists association denunciation of the First
Lady's free eyeglass program, especially assertions that
funds were mishandled and children's vision adversely
affected. Clearly he wanted Ambassador to hear his side of
the story in the hopes that Ambassador would take with a
grain of salt press stories attacking Torrijos and his
government. Torrijos also, however, provided an exceptional
glimpse into his thinking and style of government replete
with: excessive suspicion of the press, an unsophisticated
understanding of the role of NGOs in civil society and belief
that they served as Trojan horses, and belief that he was
embattled against interests that he perceives in a very
personalized way. Instead, Torrijos confronts a largely
docile press, commands the UNDP-led national dialogue and is
able to manipulate its outcomes, and services his own
PRD-associated "rich and powerful." In the run-up to
Panama's 2009 elections, one key question will be has the
governing Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) -- the
creation of dictator Omar Torrijos, the current president's
father, and the party of Manuel Noriega -- really changed its
spots. If Torrijos' tear is any indication, the PRD leopard
may not have changed its spots all that much.


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