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(English) Let´s Protect the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs

Eduardo Morgan Jr.

In September 1996, I was appointed Panama’s ambassador to the U.S. These were crucial times for [our bilateral relationship], for the U.S. presence in Panama was coming to and end. There was tension stemming from accusations that our country was not doing enough in the fight against drug trafficking and money laundering. My task would be to prevent these unfounded accusations to permeate American public opinion, preventing its pressure on Panama from jeopardizing the fulfillment of the Torrijos-Carter treaties. [At the time], U.S. public opinion [was] shaped by its major newspapers, mainly The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are characterized by responsible news management, and whose analysis and commentary is done by prominent journalists and columnists, including Nobel Prize laureates.

In those years, the U.S. was worried about drugs and money laundering, and, to exert some control over them, it extended its influence around the world. The instrument of choice in this regard was the infamous “Certification”, an annual review of a country’s cooperation in controlling drug trafficking and money laundering control. To this end, their embassies were staffed with officials of institutions involved in the control and prosecution of this scourge, such as the DEA, FBI and Customs, among others. My first experience in Washington was to accompany our Foreign Affairs Minister and the Executive Director of the our National Security Council to a meeting with Robert Gelbard, Assistant Secretary of State and the official in charge of the dreaded certification process. During that meeting, I realized Gelbard’s contempt towards Panama , as I experienced the crassness, if not outward rudeness, of his treatment of two important Panamanian officials. Gelbard’s mission was to eliminate Panama as a financial center and provide a coup de grace to the Colon Free Zone and the international services provided by Panamanian lawyers. According to the 1996 certification report, Panama was a huge laundromat for Mexican drug traffickers: its construction industry, banks, and corporations were all involved in these illicit activities, with the most important player being the Free Zone, a money laundering center in its own right. According to the report, Panama laundered, only from Mexican traffickers, $10 billion annually. This was an absurd claim, for it would have been impossible for a country with a GDP smaller than $7 billion to launder $10 billion with affecting its economy.

I was very familiar with our system of corporations; a lawyer’s obligation to know the client; our strict bank controls to prevent money laundering; and the measures adopted by the Free Zone for to control cash flows; so before the issuance of the new certification report, I wrote a long letter to Gelbard in which I highlighted the absurdity of the $10 billion claim, and others, against our service economy, which were completely unsubstantiated in the document. I urged him to provide evidence for them, which he never did.

I allude to this experience in light of the assertions by the U.S. Embassy regarding the laundering of drug money in Panama’s Tocumen Airport. It is absurd to think that travelers coming from, mainly, the Caribbean, and South and Central America, are full of drug money, since the $600 billion generated by the drug trade is produced at the sites of consumption, i.e., in the United States. Drug money flows from north to south: from the U.S. to Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, etc. Drug dealers are not so dumb as to move large amounts of cash by plane from a U.S. airport (with strict controls). Narco-dollars are used for imports and exports, for example, the so-called black market for Colombian pesos and the cash purchases of mobile goods like cars and helicopters. This is documented by FinCEN, a U.S. government agency, on its website. Our hub is no different from London’s or Amsterdam’s, and neither are the duty-free shops managed by successful entrepreneurs who have long been engaged in this business.

I do not think that the intention of the U.S. is the elimination Copa’s hub so that it does not continue to compete with Miami’s. It is clear that Americans are surprised by how extraordinarily well we have managed the Canal, by our financial center, our investment grade status, our economic growth, the development of our ports (which they wanted for Bechtel, as well as the Canal expansion), by the City of Knowledge, and now, by Tocumen Airport. Certainly, these comments by U.S. officials, and particularly the reference to the Tourism Minister, are mostly baseless hearsay, what we in Panama call gossip, which has been globalized by Wikileaks. If there was any credible evidence to support these allegations, the U.S. would have already pressured our government to remove him via a warning to our President, especially since they were clear in stating that our President was not involved in any money laundering.

We must be vigilant and take care of our international airport and the thousands of jobs it creates. Lets not make the mistake of accepting agreements for purported security purposes, which could ruin Panama’s hub and the enormous benefits it produces for our economy.

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