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Panama’s money stories

Last month I saw this tweet regarding Panama’s money story:

In Panama, there are three types of money: old (from the grandparents), corrupt (from politicians and friends) and dirty (drugs, weapons, laundering, etc.)

Panama’s reputation as a country of carpetbaggers, “cocaine towers” (from the Tailor of Panama), the “home” of #PanamaPapers (even if most of the guilty parties were spread across the four corners of the globe), the country where Odebrecht continues to receive government and municipal contracts in spite of the scandals and admissions of guilt, and the general “juega vivo” precedes it.

But how true is this really? Is the only money in Panama really old money, corrupt money or dirty money?

In this post, I want to have a look at how Panama suffers from both a reality issue and a perception problem.  In my next post, I want to look at the opportunities that Panama offers, the free market, the incubators and technological advantages, as well as looking realistically at challenges (labour force, incentives for small & medium businesses) and close with a third post offering some suggestions for those living or moving to Panama that can make this country the land of opportunity that it really is: the “bridge of the Americas”, the “crossroads of the world”.

The strikes against Panama:

A history of #Pirates and #Carpetbaggers

Anyone in Panama can tell you the history of “Captain” Henry Morgan, the “privateer” who invaded Panama in 1671!  It is an extraordinary story in military history – the capture, sacking and burning of Panama City – especially when you consider that it wasn’t a military campaign. It was just plain piracy by an intrepid Welshman and his “men at arms”!  With 37 ships and possibly 2000 men, Henry Morgan set out for Portobelo, Panama, to pick up the gold that passed through from Peru on its way to Spain.

A few years earlier, he had asserted himself in Portobelo.  Instead of hitting the two fortresses that guarded Portobelo from the sea, where they would have been seen and expect, Morgan landed elsewhere and then marched his men through the jungle and attacked one of the forts from the landward side, in a surprise assault. They took the fortress over quickly, massacred the defenders and blew up the armaments!  The attack on the 2nd fort had many casualties, but was still effective.  Holding these two strategic points, Morgan sent a ransom demand to the Spanish governor of Panama: 100,000 pieces of eight – possibly some $12 million today.  At that time, he took his money and left.

Portobelo, Panama, ruins, pirates, Henry Morgan
Portobelo ruins

But now, set with some 48 cannons and more than 30,000 pounds of gunpowder, Morgan set out to attack Panama City itself (on the Pacific side, not the Caribbean Sea).  To do this, he had to take his men by boat up the Chagres river, so they first hit the Chagres fort. By luck, a shot from one of the pirates set fire to the Spanish magazine, with the resulting explosion devastating the fort and allowing the pirates to storm its walls.  Leaving a small garrison of men behind to guard the fort, Morgan lead some 1,200 men into the jungle to cross the isthmus on foot.

They almost starved to death, crossing the Isthmus, as the Spanish burned and stripped everything in their path, knowing they were coming. They were anticipated when they arrived finally in Panama City with a contingent of 3,600 Spanish troops, some of which were cavalry.  To Morgan’s advantage, the ground was boggy and the horses were unable to maneuver. They cut down most of the cavalry with accurate fire, and when the Spanish tried to stampede a herd of cows, they gratefully slaughtered and barbecued the beasts!  Seeing their cavalry cut down and their stampeded herd slaughtered, the Spanish infantry fled, clearing the way for Morgan’s assault on Panama City itself.  Morgan eventually returned to Portobelo with 175 pack animals laden with treasures. As history books go, the “pirate” Henry Morgan died as “Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Morgan”, rich and respectable.

Panama City, ruins, pirates, attack, Henry Morgan
ruins of Panama Viejo

As history and geography would have it, the Camino de Cruces of Panama – the legendary trail across the Isthmus – lies between two rich colonial ports, with a history rich in gold and gold that was plundered by pirates!

Most people don’t know that the treaty “The Hay–BunauVarilla Treaty (Spanish: Tratado Hay-Bunau Varilla)”, signed on November 18, 1903, by the United States and Panama, was signed by a French-man with the United States.  This treaty established the Panama Canal Zone and the subsequent construction of the Panama Canal. History kindly refers to Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla as “the French diplomatic representative of Panama”, many Panamanian historians describe this treaty signing process a little differently (like how the Panamanian representatives were told to “shut up”).

Panama deals, Panama, carpetbaggers, taking advantage, pillage, raping the natural resources, scoundrels

It is said that Bunau-Varilla was an important shareholder in  Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, which still had the concession, as well as certain valuable assets, for the building of a canal in Panama. He had not been in Panama for seventeen years at the time of representing Panama before the United States and never returned to Panama after the negotiations. For some reason, as part of the treaty negotiations, the US bought all the shares and assets of Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama for US$40 million (yeah, $40 million in 1903).  I’m not saying he was a carpetbagger: you can draw your own conclusions.

The “carpetbaggers” come down from “the north” seeking private gain in the underdeveloped “south”.  According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a carpetbagger was an

“Epithet used during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) to describe a Northerner in the South seeking private gain. The word referred to an unwelcome outsider arriving with nothing more than his belongings packed in a satchel or carpetbag. Many carpetbaggers were involved in corrupt financial schemes.”

Unfortunately, I have seen my fair share of foreigners coming into Panama with an idea to “get rich quick” and then making off with “the spoils”, leaving their investors (often other foreigners) high and dry.  There’s also some stories about Panamanians having done the same, such as the title dispute in Bocas over Hospital Point:

“Stephens, 75, an entomologist, came to the isthmus in 1959 to work for the fruit company. In 1970 he bought Hospital Point, two acres in area, with title dating from 1899. Later on, he bought possession rights to several acres south of the point. His neighbors are a Gnöbe Indian village and another American, Jon Nilsson, who bought possession rights to twelve acres south of Stephens and build a vacation home.”

But a guy showed up with a hand-drawn map, claiming his grandfather had left him that land. When his map was found to be faulty, “no problem”,  “My surveyors will fix that”.  The claim is going through the court-system.  For more on this story: http://laestrella.com.pa/panama/nacional/carpetbagger-hospital-point/23749723 

But most of the cases are like those of “Too Good To Be True” – foreigner on foreigner. Developments and investments where the developer has “gone bankrupt” or left the country with the purchasers money before finishing the project and delivering.  The best advice I read in that article was:

If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is. Panama has many flaws that will not be seen on a two week visit.

Due diligence is required for Panama to be right for you.

Even the late Lee Zeltzer warned in 2011 of a guy “doing the rounds” in Boquete, trying to get people to invest money in a marina project that he wasn’t the owner of!

#Corruption

Since 2016, Panama has been immersed in the “Lava Jato” scandal of Odebrecht.  So far, 43 people have been charged with corruption and related crimes and have been identified as having received money from the Brazilian giant.  News outlets world-wide have outed many politicians, and locally we read news articles that express the following:

  • “In Panama there is a feeling that many people of the current Government are involved in the Odebrecht scandal.”  “Despite of rumors and accusations against government officials involved in the Odebrecht case, no clear evidence has been laid on the matter.”  “Fernando Migliaccio da Silva, executive of the Brazilian construction company, responsible for paying the bribes of the company and close friend of Marcelo Odebrecht, said that two people associated with the company, Luiz Eduardo Soares and Rodrigo Tacla Durán, repeatedly traveled to Panama to avoid the government’s cooperation with the investigation.”   http://www.panamatoday.com/special-report/odebrecht-corruption-scandal-has-left-traces-panama-4624
  • “Odebrecht has become the largest government contractor in Panama in the past decade, with contracts totaling upwards of US$500 million, including one for the construction of a subway line in Panama City.” In these cases, there is $59 Million identified as having been paid out/received by the 43 implicated and charged.  “Although a number of defendants in the case have remained anonymous in order to preserve “the principle of presumption of innocence”, according to a statement from the Roland Rodriquez, spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office, some of the high profiles charged with bribery are ex-president of Panama Ricardo Martinelli and his children, among other well known officials.”  https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Suspects-in-Panama-Odebrecht-Corruption-Probe-Rise-to-43-20170727-0010.html
  • “Third witness says Varela {current President of Panama} took money from Odebrecht”  “Now the specific allegation is that his party’s 2009 campaign — which was dropped after an alliance with Ricardo Martinelli was formed at a meeting at the US ambassador’s residence — got $700,000 from Odebrecht via a US foundation.” “In the October 30 online edition of La Prensa, it was reported that former Panamanian ambassador to South Korea and Panameñista Party activist Jaime Lasso told anti-corruption prosecutors that the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht gave $700,000 to President Varela’s 2009 presidential campaign.”  http://www.thepanamanews.com/2017/10/third-witness-says-varela-took-money-from-odebrecht/

Lava Jato, Odebrecht, corruption, stadiums, World Cup, scandal, investigations, politicians, corrupt businessmen, kickbacks, kick back, bribes

On the other hand, almost 1/3 of Brazil’s current ministers of government are under investigation.  In Colombia a former senator and the former vice-minister for transport have already been charged.  In Venezuela a number of people were implicated, all the way up to the President Nicolás Maduro. Peru has two ex-presidents under investigation, and even the opposition leader Keiko Fujimori has come under investigation.  (more at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-41109132) This is considered to be one of the biggest corruption cases in history!

#Dirty Money

After all that history of Panama’s money stories, how much more can I say about the dirty money in Panama? Almost thirty years ago when you mentioned “Panama”, everyone responded with “Noriega”. If you were lucky, someone had heard about the Panama Canal and that would be the topic of conversation, rather than Noriega and the 1989 invasion!  Twenty years ago you mention “Panama” and everyone is talking about John le Carré’s book “The Tailor of Panama”, the cocaine towers, and his own description of how he”was drawn by the obvious corruption of Panama and the wonderful collection of characters you meet there”. Ten years ago, you mention “Panama” and every one says “oh, the canoe lady“, referring to the Anne Darwin case of the missing canoeist who showed up alive and well in Panama, alleging “amnesia”.  Role on 2016, twenty years after Le Carré’s publishing of The Tailor of Panama and you get the #PanamaPapers!

Panama, Darwin, canoeist, missing, scandal

A 2003 examination of tax havens by Jeffrey Robinson quotes a US Customs official as saying:

[Panama] is filled with dishonest lawyers, dishonest bankers, dishonest company formation agents and dishonest companies registered there by those dishonest lawyers so that they can deposit dirty money into their dishonest banks. The Free Trade Zone is the black hole through which Panama has become one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world.

Of course, Robinson’s book then goes on to say:

It is a path that leads ultimately to the dealing rooms of New York, the vaults of Zurich and the plushest boardrooms of the City of London.

But most people get stuck on the first quote.  And this perception of Panama is shared by all the publicity on #PanamaPapers, which focused on “The Secrets of Dirty Money“. Of course, the name itself fails to remind readers that most of those secrets were because Mossack Fonseca had “offices in more than 35 locations around the globe” and that most of the referrals of clients were from “first world” countries – bankers, lawyers and other professionals.

PanamaPapers, Panama, money, dirty money, scandal, challenges

On the other hand, there are issues that Panama is tackling in the non-financial institution sectors.  As highlighted in Open Democracy:

the task force identified nearly 730.000 Panamanian businesses considered to be at “high risk” of participating in money laundering. The group found that supervision of these entities is low, and that most of them are still active.

Nevertheless, in 2016 and 2017, Panama took some significant steps in legislating and implementation to clear up those areas of business which were previously unregulated or unsupervised:

The final challenges – perception & development

I can remember speaking with a client on the phone in 1996, who would be visiting Panama for the first time, and he asked me what kind of clothes he should bring and how far out of town the airport was.  I don’t know what got into me that day, but I told him to wear his khakis, and that we would have a white land-rover at the airport to pick him up, and that he shouldn’t worry too much about the accommodation, because we had managed to put air-conditioning in our “huts” in “town” with generator electricity. When he arrived in our office a few days later, he was livid at me! He’d only brought khakis and taken everything I had said seriously!

Image result for caesar park  hotel panama cityHe really did think that he would “walk down the steps” off an airplane at a “jungle airport” where a driver would pick him up in a white land-rover and drive him into “town” which was basically huts. When he got through the airport and the driver ushered him into a sedan and took him to the Caesar Park hotel, he realised that I had been pulling his leg!

In my defense, I was young, with a sense of humour! But those are the images that he had in his head of what he was coming to in Panama!

Some rustic huts, sitting on the beach, perhaps?

Panama, development, challenges, infrastructure, perceptions

It really is all about the perception!

And Panama continues to battle with the perception of how life is in Panama – “Banana Republic”.

 

But, I disagree with Ursula Keiner – I think there is a lot of room for money to be made in Panama by honest, entrepreneurial investors.

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2 thoughts on “Panama’s money stories

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