US embassy cable - 05PANAMA835

PANAMA'S REPORT ON CHAVEZ'S ACTIVITIES

Identifier: 05PANAMA835
Wikileaks: View 05PANAMA835 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Panama
Created: 2005-04-13 20:35:00
Classification: SECRET
Tags: PREL PGOV PTER PM VZ LABOR HUMAN RIGHTS POLMIL
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
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 RIGHTS,POLMIL 
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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