Martinelli On The Run, Clinton Comes & Varela Promises Transparency

Another day in Panama.

Maybe it was better when we were just a backwater Banana Republic.  Now as the “crossroads of the world,” “where the world meets,” “the hub of the Americas,” and today the site of the Summit of The Americas, Panama is definitely on the world stage.  Also, “on stage,” is the Panama Film Festival which unfortunately has been eclipsed by the Summit.

So, things are busier than usual in Panama City.  Some folks are upset that the US parked an aircraft carrier off Panama, presumably to protect Obama while he is in town for a few days.  Some locals view it as overkill and reminiscent of the US Invasion of Panama while others see it as the usual trappings of a Presidential field trip.  All eyes are on the meeting of Obama and Casto, however, where ever, and when ever.  The local press [LA PRENSA] saw Raul Castro arriving on a Panama City public bus while Obama arrives with the full force and power of the US.

The Summit of The Americas was actually begun by Bill Clinton, so it is fitting that he attends.  There are lots of meetings and discussions that are going on between representatives of the countries involved most of them at a level below the heads of state gathering for the traditional photo ops.  One of these sub forums is the Civil Society Forum which may be a lot more important for the region, and for Panama specifically, than all the hoopla of the big show. What Clinton said was interesting, but what Varela said, if he really means it … and previous Panamanian Presidents have all talked against corruption, but failed to walk the talk … has long-term implications for Panamanian success.

While Panama’s ex-president, Ricardo Martinelli was announcing on Wednesday, April 8, plans to take his allegations of “political persecution” to the Latin American Court of Human Rights, Former US President Bill Clinton was in the city Martinelli fled, congratulating Panama on its fight against corruption in recent months.

Clinton’s words came during the opening of the Civil Society Forum, one of the events being held in conjunction with the Summit of the Americas. It has attracted over 800 delegates from 30 countries.

He said that civil societies must lead the fight to end corruption.

“The people are entitled to have their voices heard and to have their dreams come true,” he said. “The key to success in the 21st century is cooperation with inclusion.”

President Juan Carlos Varela, urged countries of the American continents to strengthen their institutions of civil society to have stronger nations.

“No strong country exists without strong civil societies,” he said.

In his speech, Varela called for dialogue to “find peaceful solutions to the problems of our people” regardless of political differences, and in turn to strengthen mechanisms for participation.

“Governments should not be afraid of the empowerment of civil society, which is called to exercise a supervisory role of governance so that the resources of the state are administered with transparency and public servants act in accordance with the law and are held accountable to the population,” he said.

He said that the summit is an important first step in improving governance, which in turn will help reduce instances of extreme poverty, illiteracy and exclusion. He also noted that investigative journalism has strengthened democracy on the continents, adding that social networks have “given a voice” to members of society who are not organized.

“The strengthening of the mechanisms of participation of civil societies is fundamental to any democratic society,” he said. “In the most difficult moments of the military dictatorship in Panama, our civil societies organized and exercised a key role for the restoration of our democracy. Thanks to the role played by the civil societies, we are a democratic and prosperous country where human rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens are respected.”

“Civil societies are the representatives of the people,” he said. “While there are stable democracies, there are also many problems in the region.”

Best Places to Retire in Panama

My friend, Jackie Lange, who runs Panama Relocation Tours, gets to take people on her boots-on-the-ground tour to many of the best places in Panama to retire.  She sees them all and knows expats everywhere.  The plus of Jackie’s tour is that nobody is selling or promoting anything!  It’s just a great opportunity to get an honest view of Panama and hear un-rehearsed, un-coached stories of expat life in Panama from people who are actually living in Panama.  Here’s one of Jackie’s posts about THE BEST PLACES TO RETIRE IN PANAMA …

Did you know that Panama is the only country where you can watch the Pacific sunrise and the Atlantic sunset?

How cool is that?

Dubbed as the Crossroads of the Americas, Panama, like the rest of Latin America has that laid-back, relaxed kind of vibe. The people are welcoming, warm and friendly. In the past few decades, Panama has been one among the top countries best for retirement. Many people have been searching for the best places to retire in Panama because of one good reason: it is cheaper to live in this tropical country than in most parts of the world.

There is a perfectly good reason why this is indeed the crossroads. You can use Panama’s airports to travel either to Central or South America or hundreds of destinations around the world.

Panama is categorized as a tropical country but the weather is not hot, it is warm. From May to the end of the year, expect a much cooler air as the wind from the mountains come flapping down to the lowlands, cooling and relaxing people on the beachfront. Much like its people, warm sand beneath your foot is an indication that you are in beach paradise. Beaches are only part of the Panama scene. The nightlife is also vibrant here that every night you can go to different clubs and bars to your heart’s content.

It is not just the geographic location or the innate natural beauty that fascinates people to live and retire in Panama. There are many perks that one can come across an expat in this amazing country.

Panama is really made for retirees. With health care a fraction of the cost when done in the US, be rest assured that you have high quality health care provided to you. With certain hospitals affiliated with top hospitals in the US (like Johns Hopkins), you can get results but may cost you cheaper. Many of the clinicians are fluent in English so it won’t be difficult for you to communicate. In addition to this, Panama has adopted the US dollar as its national currency. If you’re from the United States, you don’t have to worry about exchange rate reductions in your spending power!

One of the perks you can enjoy after relocating in this country is that you can become a legal resident here. Retirees who chose to become residents can avail of the pensionado program which entitles one to discounts, even when owning your own real estate property. Women over 55 and men over 60, qualify for these discounts:

One time Duty tax exemption for household goods up to a total of $10,000.
Duty exemption for importing a new car every two years.
50% off entertainment anywhere in the country (movies, concerts, sports)
30% off bus, boat, and train fares
25% off airline tickets
50% off hotel stays from Monday through Thursday
30% off hotel stays from Friday through Sunday
25% off at restaurants
15% off at fast-food restaurants
15% off hospital bills (if no insurance applies)
10% off prescription medicines
20% off medical consultations
15% off dental and eye exams
20% off professional and technical services
50% reduction in closing costs for home loans
25% discounts on utility bills
15% off loans made in your name
1% less on home mortgages for homes used for personal residence

The consistent efforts of the government of Panama at positively improving and engaging retiree policies ensure retirees that they made the right decision to live and retire in Panama.

What are my relocation options?

Boquete
Located in the Chiriqui, one of the most fertile provinces in the country, relocating here means you get to experience a cooler climate, ranging from 70-80 degree Fahrenheit. This may be up in the highlands but you would not really be living bucolic. Boquete has a developed expat community so you settling right in is not hard.

What makes Boquete unique is its fog-like rain that creates an ethereal blanket over the area. Actually, this has a purpose – keeping everything fresh and sustainable. With coffee as one of its produce, be enticed in your sensorial feels.

If there is one lace in Panama where you don’t have to learn Spanish, it is this place. Majority of the people here can speak English fluently, partly due to the foreigners calling this their home

Activities You Can Do Here

With the Volcan Baru at the backdrop, and the waters of Rio Caldera running through the city, feel free to enjoy water rafting, if you are the adventurous one. If you miss hiking, feel free to go horseback riding or bird watching. There are plenty of outdoor activities to do here.

The Catch

Depending on the location, accessibility to utilities, cost of property varies. If you are in the outskirts where there is no line for water, electricity and the likes, real estate property can be cheaper. If you wish to be in the town area, expect land prices to soar.

Also, don’t look for the roaring waves of the beach. This province perches 3,400 ft high up the mountains. Also, Boquete is not readily accessible from the capital city. You need to drive to David then fly for 40 minutes to get to Panama city.

Santa Fe

With hills teemed with luscious green, Santa Fe in Veraguas is another highland city great for retiring in Panama. You don’t need to acclimatize to be in this city. Somewhat lower than Boquete in altitude, you can still duck the humidity of the lowlands yet experience warm days that seems to make breathing much easier.

Activities You Can Do Here

Because the biggest draw of Santa Fe is its outdoor appeal, there are many activities you can enjoy. Wild orchids and exotic flowers are abundant. Visit the Santa Fe National Park to check the various species for fauna to marvel at. Butterflies and toucans can also be found in this part of Panama.

The Catch

Although there is a flourishing expat community in the area, you still need to learn Spanish. If you are used to having the modern amenities, Santa Fe might not suit you as you might soon find out that you have to adapt to the true Panamanian way of living.

Expect a lot of changes in Santa Fe. If you like the simple life here, it might soon change as new roads are being created to connect the city with the coastal areas.

Volcan

Each country has its own fountain of youth. Panama has Volcan. With similar climate as Boquete, you can enjoy the wafting of cool breeze day in and out. Nestled by Tizingal Mountain, Volcan is like the other places that boast of longer life expectancy. Blame it on natural food and great weather all year-long.

Volcan only have a few thousand inhabitants, including expats. This means you need to still study Spanish. Nevertheless, this city has the basic amenities you can find in a world-class city plus incredible views.

Down in the Lowlands …

Las Tablas

Las Tablas PanamaAlong the coast of the Azuero Peninsula, Las Tablas is a more laid back place compared to other beach side locations in Panama. It is also very affordable compared to other beach communities. I know expats who are renting a 3 bedroom house for $400 a month and a single expat lady who is renting a small one bedroom house for $80 per month. The actual town is about 5 miles to the beach.

The Catch

Since the Azuero Peninsula is considered the Gold Coast of Panama, opportunities are coming in. While this has not been fully realized, you can still enjoy the serenity the place offers for only $1,200 a month. It may be far from the capital city, having to travel or four hours by car, but those fine-paved roads leading to the capital city makes your travel lighter. As you would be living mostly with the fisher folks, you also need to learn Spanish.

Chitre is north of Las Tablas. About a 30 minute drive. Chitre features more shopping opportunities plus a movie theater. About an hour south of Las Tablas is Pedasi.

Panama City

Panama CityWho would have known that there is such a phrase inexpensive metropolis. In many cases, a metropolis tantamount to having high cost of living; however, slash Panama City from that list. Major corporations may be in the city but living within the city does not entail having to expensively. You can marvel at the world-class infrastructure and services without really denting your pocket.

With museums, premium shows and performances, and first-rate dining experience, you’d be surprised how affordable these can be in the capital city. Where else can you find a piece of the rain forest in a metropolis like this but only in Panama City.

The Catch

Relatively, Panama City has a bit expensive property prices, nevertheless, still cheaper compared to cities of the same calibre in the Americas. The El Cangrejo district in the city offers your picturesque neighbourhood with thriving expat community may not come as cheap but still affordable.

Bocas de Toro

Lying in your hammock tied between to palm trees and viewing the stunning coastline seems like an image out of a postcard. Situated in the Caribbean part of the country, Bocas del Torro offers island hideaways and a more tranquil uptake on the beach life.

Bocas del Toro is actually a province in Panama. Bocas Town, is a town on Isla Colon island which is in the Bocas del Toro province.

The Catch

Bocas is not easy to get to. You either have to fly from Panama City to Isla Colon or you have to drive from western Panama near David over the Continental Divide about 3 hours to get to Almarinte. Then take a 40 minute water taxi ride to Isla Colon.

If you like island like and water sports, (and don’t mind being a bit isolated) then Bocas Town and the other islands in the area would be a good choice for you.

Coronado

If there is one beach community expats have been raving about for the last few years, it is Coronado. Tucked an hour away from Panama City, it presents the best of both worlds. The facilities you can only find in a cosmopolitan city and the unrestricted beach lifestyle that only Latin America offers.

What is unique about Coronado’s beach is that it is not the run-of-the-mill white sand. It is, in fact, a greyish sand, a mixture of pristine white sand and the volcanic sand, remnants of an extinct volcano. Being located in the “Arco Seco” area, aptly named because of the arc-shape of the coastline and the fact that this area does not receive much rain during the rainy season, Coronado has numerous activity-inducing facilities such as tennis courts, golf courses and the likes.

Many options are given to you in case you wish to retire and live in Panama. Its proximity to North America make this your dream destination for relocation.

Come join us on a Panama Relocation Tour to discover what Panama has to offer.

Avalanche of Dirt: Governance in Panama

It’s been just 25 years since the US invaded Panama and captured dictator Manuel Noriega, fortunately ousting the dictator, but unfortunately leaving the country in shambles. From the ruins has emerged an economic powerhouse, one of the few countries in the world to have averaged an 8.5% GDP growth over the past 5 years. Panama has successfully elected six Presidents since then [including Guillermo Endara, duly elected as President during the wane of Noriega’s dictatorship in an election annulled by Noriega. Endara was sworn in on a US military base moments before the US Invasion in 1989.] Even without a military, which always seems to be an impediment to democracy in Latin America, and in spite of the glitz and gleam of all the high-rise towers in Panama City, the path to true democracy has been a struggle in Panama.

US foreign policy has often been based on the assumption that US-style democracy can be relatively easily exported and copied by others around the world, an assumption that has proved tragically wrong in many instances.

The US has been working on this democratic concept for 239 years and many would argue that we still don’t have it all together.

So Panama has struggled. Every President since Noriega has made contributions to the country, but there is always the lurking specter of corruption and of lining one’s own pockets. Political patronage in Panama is more a fact of life than even in Chicago! Without an entrenched civil service when a new party comes into power almost the entire government is replaced. I once had a guy in Immigration tell me after another party was elected, “Only the janitor’s job is really secure, and even he may eventually have to go.” That makes running a country difficult. It also makes it near impossible to have long-term goals for beyond five years since the President cannot serve two successive terms. A Panamanian President must sit out 10 years before being reelected, probably because of the country’s experience with the dictatorship.

Under Ricardo Martinelli the country zoomed ahead with amazing speed: everywhere there was new construction and infrastructure. Martinelli extended the Cinta Costera around the Pacific waterfront of Panama City, a wonderful project initiated by his predecessor Martin Torrijos, the illegitimate son of the military strongman Omar Torrijos. [It was Omar Torrijos who negotiated the turnover of the Panama Canal with Jimmy Carter.] Martinelli pushed the Canal expansion forward, although the expansion was initiated and improved during the administration of Martin Torrijos. And Martinelli created the amazing Panama City METRO with the first line open and functioning and the second line under construction. [Work on the second line is being continued under the new and current President Juan Carlos Varela.]

Unable to run a second successive term, the Democratic Change party created by Martinelli pushed its own and Martinelli’s hand-picked candidate to succeed him. The election in the spring of last year was hotly contested between three candidates, all from established powerful Panamanian families, all successful and wealthy businessmen, and all slightly right of center. No great political swings or philosophical differences, to an outsider it seemed more like a contest of which family would get the political power and patronage and perhaps the opportunity to continue the Panamanian tradition of graft.

Note that all politicians tend to run against corruption, at least until they are in power. Martinelli’s famous line from his inaugural speech was, “In my administration it’s OK to put your foot in your mouth, but not your hand in the till.”  Everyone decided that what he meant was no stealing from the government and no corruption.  Now some people are concluding that what he actually meant was that only to “proprietor of the store” and have his hand in the till … and take whatever he wants.

Martinelli and much of the country pretty much assumed that his CD candidate was a shoe-in for election and much to the surprise of many a come-from-behind candidate, Juan Carlos Varela emerged as the winner in what turned out to be a very hotly contested election.  Martinelli, addicted to Tweet, Tweeted his stunned dismay.  Juan Carlos Varela had actually served as a coalition Vice President in order to get Martinelli elected in the first place, but early on the two had a very public falling out.  Varela’ is a businessman whose family owns Panama’s largest rum distillery and makes my favorite Abuelo rum.

Panamanians have shown a propensity to always change political parties in elections, maybe as a result of the dictatorship experience.  Many were concerned that Martinelli was evidencing some of the dangerous power-grabbing techniques that they had witnessed before, and that if his party would remain in power the offences they feared would continue.

Now, six months after Varela’s party took over, the chickens seem to be coming home to roost and an avalanche of dirt, abuse of power, and good old graft seem to be rolling down on Martinelli.

While the newspaper Martinelli owns defends him, much of the rest of the country seems to be piling on.  Martinelli has left the country on an extended trip of the US and Europe, stopping enroute in Guatemala to meet with an outfit called PARLACEN [Central American Parliament] which he had previously referred to as a “den of thieves.”  Martinelli made an impassioned plea for PARLACEN to grant him immunity and sanctuary because with everyone piling on back home he was a victim of political persecution.  PARLACEN denied his request.  Reportedly, before leaving Panama on his private jet, Martinelli gave his wife and brother full power of attorney in all his affairs.

So as an expat do all these symptoms of democratic and government dysfunction, cause me to question my decision to live in Panama?  Not really, no more than all the symptoms of democratic and government dysfunction in the US cause me to want to give up my US citizenship.

All this for those of you who might not be familiar with the ins and outs of the Panamanian political game so I could share this from PANAMA NEWSROOM supposedly quoting at length from Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper. I confess that I was unable to find this Guardian article on their website … so it could just be an example of folks piling on the former President, but sometimes where there is enough smoke there is indeed fire.

MEDIA WATCH: MARTINELLI -“GREED, PRIDE, LUST AND ENVY”

RICARDO Martinelli loved to parade himself on the world stage and made more overseas flights than any of his predecessors. During one of his trips to the US, he boasted to CNN that the reason for Panama’s “success” under his management was that his was a cabinet of businessmen..With the ongoing corruption and spying revelations he is now getting the attention he never envisaged from media around the world.

On the day after thousands of Panamanians representing all levels of society paraded through the streets of Panama denouncing corruption and calling for his imprisonment, Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper carried the following report revealing behind the scene’s details that have not appeared in local media although they have been the meat of many rumor mills:
The Guardian reports:
WHEN THE UNITED STATES rejected former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli’s request for spying equipment to eavesdrop, , on his political enemies, the former supermarket baron turned to another source: Israel.
Now scores of Panama’s political and social elite are learning that the eavesdropping program that Martinelli’s security team set in place sprawled into the most private aspects of their lives – including their bedrooms. Rather than national security, what appears to have driven the wiretapping was a surfeit of the seven deadly sins, particularly greed, pride, lust and envy.
Nearly every day, targets of the wiretapping march to the prosecutors’ office to see what their dossiers contain, often emerging in distress. Martinelli, who left office in July, is facing a rising tide of outrage not only over the wiretapping, but also over reports of vast corruption. His personal secretary has left the country. The eavesdropping equipment has vanished.
“Martinelli was obsessed with knowing what everybody was gossiping or saying about him,” said Álvaro Alemán Healy, the Cabinet chief for the current president, Juan Carlos Varela. “He used to brag that he had a file or dossier on everybody who is important here in Panama.”
Martinelli’s request for U.S. assistance in setting up such a program – and the U.S. rejection – has been known for years; it was detailed in one of the tens of thousands of State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks.
But new details of what happened after that rejection are just now emerging, and Panama is shocked.
A few days ago, prosecutors summoned legislator José Luis Varela, the current president’s brother, to review a partial dossier of emails and transcriptions of conversations that government snoops had culled from him and his family. Among them was an email his wife had sent to one of his grown sons.
“It said things like, ‘You never finished university, you’re sleeping too much and you don’t have a goal in life,’” Varela recalled.
Wiretapping scandals are not new in Latin America, even under democratically elected governments. Colombia was rocked by a tapping scandal in 2008 that eventually led to the dissolution of its domestic investigative agency. Around the same period, reports of wiretapping under Peru’s then-president, Alberto Fujimori, were partly responsible for his eventual jailing.
Alemán said the government believes Martinelli’s security team kept active wiretaps on “between 150 to 175 people,” among them the Roman Catholic archbishop of Panama, opposition political leaders, rival business tycoons, supreme court judges, U.S. Embassy personnel, his own Cabinet members and even the woman identified publicly as his mistress.
Some of the targets say they long suspected that Martinelli’s security team spied on them, but they voice abhorrence at new details of the surveillance that have emerged in recent weeks.
“What shames me about this is how they used this information to destroy families, harm marriages, obtain business, hurt rival business, and even affect diplomatic relations,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, a law professor and human rights activist who has filed a criminal complaint against Martinelli over the wiretapping.
When Martinelli first approached U.S. diplomats about helping him with wiretapping, he asked them to expand a U.S. program aimed at suspected drug traffickers, known as Matador, according to multiple secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in late 2010. When U.S. diplomats noted that U.S. and Panamanian law forbade such wiretapping, Martinelli turned to Israel, purchasing a $14 million package from MLM Protection Ltd., which offers “cutting edge, customized security solutions.”
Two of Martinelli’s former top security chiefs, Alejandro Garuz and Gustavo Pérez, were detained earlier this month in the wiretapping scandal, while two other security technicians are fugitives. An employee of the National Security Council has cooperated with prosecutors and is now under protection, apparently overseas.
“Former President Martinelli has no relation to these supposed events,” a spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, said in a brief telephone interview.
Once Martinelli left office, Alemán said, “the (wiretapping) equipment disappeared. It’s not here. We don’t know if it’s been taken out of Panama.”
The Israeli equipment offered sophisticated capabilities to the Panamanian snoopers, allowing not only the monitoring of cell and fixed-line telephone calls and emails but also Whatsapp and Blackberry texts. Moreover, the techs could burrow into hard drives and extract data and video, and remotely activate functions. They could also detect signals of nearby cellphones to determine who might be meeting.
“They can turn on the video (function) of your cellphone when it is resting on a table, and can turn on the microphone to hear who you are meeting with,” Bernal said.

INTIMATE VIDEO
Among the victims angriest about the surveillance is Zulay Rodríguez, a 43-year-old lawyer and legislator from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.
“They stole a video of my husband and me – intimate,” Rodríguez said. “They use a technology that lets them take intimate scenes inside your bedroom.”

Unlike many of those affected by the domestic spying, Rodríguez found out about the video not from the boxes of files and printouts and hard drives at the prosecutors’ office, but from officials close to Martinelli long before he left office.
“They called me to threaten and say they had the video,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez believed them, because cellphone conversations that she’d had with her husband while they were in a period of difficulties had been tapped and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the Martinelli administration to embarrass her.
Rodríguez said prosecutors told her they have only a fraction – 20 percent – of the material captured by the National Security Council spies. Most of it was carted away when Martinelli’s handpicked candidate lost the presidential election in an upset last year, but the team overlooked a hard drive.
When Rodríguez went into the prosecutors’ office to peruse the dossier gathered on her earlier this month, she found a stack of material.
“They had transcripts of conversations I had with my family, my father, with party leaders, with activists,” she said.
Rodríguez has joined Bernal and many others in demanding that the former National Security Council members and Martinelli face criminal trial.
Panama, a nation of less than 4 million, has a small ruling elite, and many power brokers socialized with Martinelli even as they learned of his propensity to regale them with outrageous details of others’ personal lives, relishing the most intimate “information.”
“He wants to know who is screwing whom,” Alemán said.
Party leaders and legislators took action to protect sensitive discussions.
“When politicians would meet, it was almost like a ritual. They would leave their cellphones outside the room,” said Guido A. Rodríguez, a former editor of the Panama America newspaper [now controlled by Martinelli] who is now a prosecutor overseeing the auditing of public accounts.
“There was almost a collective paranoia,” he added.
Even the most innocuous incident could unleash the talents of the spy team.
One politician recalled that he’d been at a social event with Martinelli and his mistress. When he raised his phone to snap a photo, the two raised their middle fingers at the camera.
“I sent (the photo) to him. He told me his people erased it from my phone,” said the politician, who asked not to be publicly linked to the incident. THE PANAMA NEWSROOM