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.

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.

"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.

When asked what taking in the world's exiled troublemakers has in it for Panama, three separate sources answered succinctly, "Money." The best proof of that is probably Mr. Serrano, who fled Guatemala in 1993 after trying to close down Congress.

Already a successful land developer before becoming president, Serrano is putting the finishing touches on a luxury residential development and polo club in Panama City. He also owns a string of fast-food restaurants whose name roughly translates as "The Country Chicken."

Yet for the most part - and despite the boisterous Bucaram's reputation - Panama's crop of exiled leaders live quiet if comfortable lives, spending a good part of their time on the golf course.

Panama still earns praise for the role its open-door policy has played in defusing prickly political conflicts. "There's no doubt that Panama's willingness to take in Cedrs facilitated a solution of the Haitian crisis," says Robert Pastor, a Latin America specialist at Emory University in Atlanta who was part of former President Jimmy Carter's negotiating team in the 1994 conflict. "Panama made an essential contribution to resolving a serious conflict for the hemisphere."

Panama also heard "thank you" from the US when it offered the shah a home on the Pacific island of Contadora - reportedly the island's very best residence. The shah's presence in the US after his flight from Iran was proving to be a political problem for then-President Carter. "So the Panamanian idea was that taking in the shah would improve our standing with the US," says Juan Antonio Tack, a former Panamanian foreign minister. "But I don't think it really made any difference."

Accepting Haiti's Cedrs was based on the same assumption, Mr. Tack adds, "but you can't point to any benefit in terms of our relations with the United States."

In any case, Panama's days as a political haven may be limited, especially if democracy continues to strengthen in Latin America.

"Panama and Latin America are still in a transition, but as democracy's roots grow deeper and demands for accountability increase, people won't accept their transgressing leaders' getting away, and Panama will no longer want to take in the scoundrels," says Mr. Pastor.

It's worth pointing out that even though all eyes turned to Panama when Paraguay's Mr. Oviedo and Mexico's Mr. Villanueva and Espinosa disappeared, none of them turned up here. And there's little to suggest Panama would want them.

Panama's case is similar to Switzerland's as a haven for foreign bank accounts, he adds. "Just as Switzerland is finding that role becoming harder, so will Panama find that its particular role as a haven isn't sustainable."

Former Minister Tack says there's nothing inherently wrong with accepting leaders in exile, but he specifies that "Panama should do this on the merits of each individual case," and not thinking in terms of any benefits.

"Any money these people might bring with them may make some local friends happy," he says, "but it doesn't do much for the country."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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