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Panama: historic haven for political exiles

Earlier this month, Mexico City's former mayor disappeared amid corruption cries. Where did he flee? Many say Panama.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2000


Panama - Abdal Bucaram, the man who was president of Ecuador just long enough in 1997 to earn the nickname "loco" or crazy, is living comfortably in exile in Panama. But he's keeping busy.

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"If we can make an appointment for next week, then with great pleasure I will meet you," Mr. Bucaram recently told a reporter from his cellphone. "But this week I'm meeting with so many political leaders," he continued, "I even had to tell my wife not to try to see me because I don't have time." The impeached Bucaram once predicted Ecuadoreans would eventually beg for him to come back, and he's been suspected of plotting a triumphal return.

But in the meantime, he is in Panama upholding a tradition where some of the world's most problematic leaders, no longer able to remain in their country, have made Panama their new home.

The fact that Panama serves as a welcome nest for some of the world's top exiled birds and fallen politicians draws attention periodically. It happened earlier this month when a former Mexico City mayor and tourism minister, Oscar Espinosa, disappeared after being hit with charges of embezzling $45 million from city coffers. With Interpol drawn into the search, speculation on Mr. Espinosa's whereabouts included - where else - Panama.

When Paraguayan Gen. Lino Oviedo disappeared from his exile in Argentina last year, Panama topped the list of his likely hideouts. And when former Mexican Governor Mario Villanueva disappeared last year after drug-trafficking allegations surfaced, it was Panama, again, at the top of most people's "where- to-look" list.

But Panama's days as a haven for fugitives and democracy's outcasts may be drawing to a close, some observers say, as the idea of accountability takes hold and wayward leaders are expected to face the consequences of their transgressions at home. Panama may be tiring of a reputation for open arms that no longer fits with the aspirations of a democratic Latin America. After Argentina's Juan Pern in 1955 and Reza Pahlevi, the shah of Iran, in 1979, a flurry of leaders tossed by the tumult of democracy taking hold in Latin America have come here in the 1990s. Jorge Serrano Elias from Guatemala, Roul Cedrs from Haiti, and Ecuador's Bucaram, all fled to Panama when the newly empowered folks at home said "enough" and kicked them out.

Even Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez passed through here after his 1994 release from prison, where the former Army lieutenant had been serving time for his failed 1992 coup attempt. In fact, it is probably the Chvez example that gives Bucaram the hope that his second chance is still around the corner.

Many Panamanians still seem untroubled that their country might be seen as a haven for other nations' scoundrels. As a country of ports and a centuries-old transit point, they say, Panama has always served as a refuge from storms.

Nor has the motivation always been purely altruistic: When the ex-leaders disembark, they've been known to bring with them more than just a suitcase of clothes.