Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories – the way forward

Ranking and Index: doing business in Panama

One of the difficulties that I see on the way forward, is that Panama is not the easiest country in which to set up a business (locally) and run it.

Panama scores a low #54 in “economic freedom” according to the Heritage.org, having a score of 67.0 – because of drops in property rights and government integrity (corruption).  On the other hand, the Fraser Institute and the Economic Freedom Network place Panama for 2017 at #30 in Economic Freedom.  Forbes lists Panama as #64 in “Best Countries for Business“.  Unfortunately, economic growth has depended on debt-financed infrastructure projects, while the economy has depended heavily on transportation and logistics services.

One of the biggest problems with all the infrastructure development and spending is the burden this creates on tax payers.  General government gross debt accounted for 39% of GDP in 2017, with a fiscal deficit of 3.1% (up substantially from 2% in 2016). That said, amazingly enough the IMF estimates Panama will have the highest per capita GDP in Latin America – USD 25.712 – in 2018.

That said, Panama continues to have the fastest growing economy in the region: our well-developed services sector accounts for over 75% of GDP.   Before the crash of 2008, Panama has the highest growth rate in Latin America (close to 11%) – with real estate prices and speculation leading the rush.  Since 2013, the GDP has slowed from previous levels of 6-8%, and following on from the #PanamaPapers scandal the banking and corporate services sectors have diminished considerably.  The services which continue to contribute to GDP include logistics, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, tourism and offshore services to a lesser extent.

Unfortunately, Panama dropped (2016-2017) on the global entrepreneurship index from 32.2 to 26.1, and in the innovation index ranks also #63.  In human development, Panama also ranks similarly at #61.  Likewise, in the knowledge economy index, we come in at #64.

Having looked at these indexes, it is interesting to see how well Panama is moving with respect to FinTech, blockchain and the implementation of these technologies. As Panama seeks to leave behind the shroud of “shady deals” and “Panama Papers”, the Ministry of Economy & Finance has announced an initiative to regulate FinTech, blockchain, sandboxes, crypto-currencies, and crowd-funding enterprises.

Development of the Fintech industry in Panama

Bitcoin, blockchain, fintech, crypto, currency, FinTech, disruption, innovationUnbeknownst to most people, Panama is on the list of countries that are friendliest to Bitcoin and crypto worldwide!

Panafintech is the Panamanian Association of Fintech, who so far have organised five blockchain and fintech events.  Back in 2017 they organised an event for 300 people from banking and finance, to discuss blockchain – its scope and application.  It was at this event back in 2017 that Cryptobuyer announced that it was moving to the City of Knowledge and that it would be developing Blockchain Academy Latam.

Blockchain Academy offers training not only to developers and entrepreneurs, but also for financial institutions (such as banks), organizations, schools and the government.  It also offers a bootcamp in which it is possible to learn about cryptocurrencies, industry, mining, Blockchain, opening a digital wallet and other applications of the technology.

blockchain-3212312_1280Cryptobuyer is unique in Panama, offering the “Blockchain Academy Panama“, in which it offers training and certification in programming with blockchain, and has its offices in Ciudad del Saber.  Additionally, it has installed Bitcoin ATMS in parts of Panama, such as in Banistmo (since June 2017) and has installed Cryptobuyer Pay in various local businesses (so that they can accept payments in Bitcoin and other currencies).

Cryptobuyer also set up Blockchain Embassy Panama, which opened in 2017.  In addition to offering crypto clothing and merchandise, craft beers, hardware wallets and working space, the embassy also gives cryptocurrency workshops and presentations.

The first large-scale conference on fintech & blockchain was held May 5 & 6th, at Ciudad del Saber, and called “PanamChain“, with Andreas Antonopoulos  as the Keynote Speaker (author – Mastering Bitcoin (O’Reilly Media), speaker, educator) .  This event was organised by Cryptobuyer and Panafintech.

Coming up on May 24th, Panama will host its secondDigital Business Day“, offered by CAPAtec – the Panamanian Chamber of IT, Innovation & Telecommunications.  This is a “Microsoft Experience Day” – about AI, transforming customer experiences, using ChatBots, and “intelligent billing”.

Disruption & change of the market

Fintech additionally has a role to play in Panama’s “offshore industry”. At its simplest, financial technology – or fintech – applies technological innovations to financial processes, products and services. It could easily play a large role in the lucrative business of identity verification, eKYC and fraud detection. This could also directly impact in the banking industry, if Panamanian banks could work out how to incorporate this into their account opening process.

blockchain-3019120_1280Experts in blockchain have shown that banks could easily change their account opening process to a simple 5-step process relying on this system.  Some go so far as to claim blockchain technology could transform international financial transactions in much the way the Internet transformed communications. Of course, on some levels fintech competes with the traditional financial methods of delivering financial services.

Blockchain = distributed ledger technology  – provides decentralized networks that simply record transactions.  So, for example, IBM provides “Blockchain-as-a-service” for banks.  It is interesting to see how the blockchain industry could have helped Panama avoid the #PanamaPapers, as expressed by Otonomos BCC:

Our hope is that a decentralised database, which by its very nature is secure, tamperproof by third-parties and immutable even by its very authors, can be looked at by enlightened regulators around the world. This technological architecture could ultimately become a global, cross-jurisdictional database.
At Otonomos, which represents private company shares on blockchain and makes them programmable, we have engineered a decentralised solution that performs Know-Your-Customer checks at every stage of the ownership chain of company shares, and watermarks the shares with the UBO’s identity.
In addition, Otonomos has architectured our solution with the privacy of end-users in mind. We make public only such information regulators in a specific jurisdiction require to be publicly accessible, whilst masking non-publicly disclosed information.
Finally, we future-proofed our solution by letting third-party verification agents — typically organisations such as banks who by legal mandate from their Government can perform KYC checks -“stamp” people’s KYC at the blockchain level, resulting in a layered verification process in which every check fortifies a user’s KYC.

Nonetheless, it seems that tech giants are much further ahead in disrupting banks, as these lag behind in cloud computing, AI and big data.  Fintechs define the direction of innovation in financial services, but they face a challenge in their ability to scale (something that companies like Amazon or Facebook have already dealt with).  So, for example, Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing for Capital One and Nasdaq.  That’s because of the scope of the transactions that occur on a single day, which small start up fintech companies are not ready to handle.

If what we see internationally occurs in Panama, this means that large banks are acquiring fintech companies and digital banks, as strategic acquisitions – they are simply leveraging the competition to re-establish their leadership in the market.  So, for example, in Panama we have a small crypto-currency that was recently established:  Natan Edu – created by a group of young entrepreneurs, as a payment system in education, to allow payments of online courses.  This was created by Osmar Major and Marcos Pineda (22 and 24 years old respectively).  Will this be swallowed up by bigger players in the market?  Additionally, just this week, DigitalX (the first crypto-currency fund established in Australia) indicated that it is looking at Panama to establish the Latin American financial hub.

Response from the banking sector

Panama’s banking sector, however, has been very cautious in response to fintech, indicating that until it is fully regulated, they simply see the possibilities of further scandals for money laundering.  On this note, Panama’s banking Superintendence issued a notice to banks that the activity of exchange, investment, purchasing, and commercialization of “Bitcoin” or any other crypto-currency is unregulated in Panama.

As a result, some traders were threatened with having their bank accounts closed at local banks for receiving funds from their international crypto accounts!  This seems to be completely contrary to the way it is being dealt with, for example, in the US where Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley both announced that they were going to get involved in crypto-currencies.

Nonetheless, we find that Australia (leading with DigitalX), the UK and other jurisdictions have all introduced regulations in order to create the market conditions for development of fintech, blockchain and financial services.  For example, back in 2015-2016 the UK introduced their regulatory framework, working closely with the operators, so that fintech firms could set up.  This involved the Innovation hub (similar to what Panama wishes to do in the City of Knowledge), in which the businesses can understand the financial regulations and how these might apply to their business model.

As with the Innovation Hub in the UK, the City of Knowledge will simply provide guidelines, from which the startup would need to apply for the regulatory approval from the respective agency (possibly the Banking Superintendence or the Securities Commission).  Also copied from the UK is the idea of the “sand box” – where fintech startups can test their financial products and their business model in the market, and then work out the details of regulation as the market develops.

So, as Panama looks to regulate “Specialized Financial Entities”, as it is calling fintech companies, setting up crowd-funding enterprises, incubators and sand boxes, I hope that it doesn’t simply protect the interests of the existing players (like banks), but rather innovates to draw into the country investors, know-how, and entrepreneurs that are looking to build something special from Panama.

 

 

 

Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories, part 2

In Part 1 of Panama’s money stories, I highlighted some of the sordid details that Panama has been known for and the ways that Panama has been presented and vilified in the press internationally.  In this Part 2, I want to have a good look at what Panama has to offer, the strengths and weaknesses of Panama’s location, workforce, and infrastructure.  In Part 3, I am simply going to dream of “what could be” – well, because this is PanUtopia.

Location, location, location

Like any good real estate investment, Panama has a great location.

It is the Bridge of the Americas and the Crossroads of the World: with the InterAmerican (or Pan-American) highway travelling East-West along the entire length of the Isthmus (well, except for the Darien Gap which Panama refuses to open – but that’s fodder for another post). Running North-South through the Istmus is the Panama Canal, recently expanded to allow post-Panamax ships to pass through.

The Pan-American highway has many stories to tell, haivng 14,000 miles of road (or roads) that traverse from Tierra del Fuego all the way to the Arctic Ocean. I remember at 8 years old a French couple that had started riding their motorbikes in Argentina and were heading up through Mexico, intending to get all the way to Alaska! pedal moped, riding bikes, interamerican highway, argentina, alaska, mexico, colombia, Panama, Bridge of the Americas

They were something like this – but much more worn and dirty! And fitted out to carry their bags on the back, and side-bags.  At 8 years old, I could only imagine the adventures they were having!  Roll forward to 2018 and we still get those bikers through Panama – perhaps riding better bikes, but with the same adventuresome spirits!

As the land bridge between the two continents, Panama boasts an incredible variety of species, both plant and animal life.  From North America, it has jaguars, tapirs and deer, from South America sloths, anteathers and armadillos, and from the oceans the giant sea turtles which lay their eggs in Bocas del Toro and even on the Casco Viejo beach in Panama City!

Panama, Isthmus, land bridge, Bridge of the Americas, Crossroads of the WorldPanama is blessed in its location: we are protected from the hurricane belt, getting pelted only by tropical storms and heavy rain.  While Panama rests on the Pedro Miguel fault line, it does not have a history of seismic activity.  You might read about the 1621 earthquake, or the 1991 Bocas del Toro earthquake (which actually happened in Costa Rica, but caused considerable damage in the neighbouring Bocas area).  This is one the strongest recorded earthquakes in Costa Rican history, registered at 7.7! But, as noted, it was actually in Costa Rica…

Since the 1500s (you might remember the pirate stories) Panama has played an important role in international trade routes: from Peru through to Spain, with the French and the United States heavily interested in participation in the possibilities of this location.  Even today, Taiwan and China dispute investment and participation in the Panamanian economy (the ports), and a US presence is continually felt under the terms of the 1979 treaty in spite of the removal of a military presence.

Hub of the Americas

Panama Canal, Miraflores, locks, logisticsFrom this location, Panama has become known as “the hub of the Americas” – one of the most significant transportation and logistics countries in the world.

As a travel hub, Panama has developed Tocumen International Airport to attract flights from Europe (KLM, Lufthansa, AirFrance, Iberia, Turkish Airlines, & Condor), China, and North, Central and South America.  The recent investment in the expansion of Tocumen is about 84% completed, with an expected completion in the third quarter of 2018.  This investment project was above US$900M, taking it up to 54 gates and extending the runway for larger aircraft. By 2025, the two terminals are expected to handle some 25 million passengers per year.

Panama has also become an important hub for telecommunications, with the Submarine Cables passing through Fort Amador and Colon (such as the Arcos Cable that connects Central America, Florida and the Caribbean and the South American Crossing cable).  In 2010, Panama became one of the first countries in the world to offer free wireless broadband access nationwide through the National Internet Network project, which provides free wifi at libraries, some busstops and other government sites.  In Panama City, connectivity is pretty easy to get, but there are generally fluctuations in the areas where there are not fibre-optic connections.  For businesses that rely on fibre-optic level connectivity, there are a limited number of neighbourhoods that can guarantee this service.

Panama, shipping, transportation, logisticsAs a logistics hub, Panama intends to make the most of its geographical location, creating the largest logistics conglomerate in Latin America. Shipping, logistics and trade contribute close to 35% to the national economy, making the concept of “hub” vital to Panama’s growth.  It uses the Canal, the ports on the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans (MIT, CCT, Cristobal, Balboa & PSA), the train line between the ports, and Tocumen International Airport (Copa, DHL, FEDEX & UPS), to provide multi-modal solutions.  This is all interconnected with the Colon Free zone and Panama Pacific zone.  The logistics industry is expected to create 10,000 or more jobs per year for the next 10 years or so – over 100,000 jobs in a growing industry!

Obviously, in order to fully develop this hub, Panama needs to continue investing in additional infrastructure for distribution and storage essential to the international business community.  Georgia Tech maintains a Logistics Innovation and Research Center in Panama, aimed at aiding the country to become the trade hub of the Americas.

Open for Business

Panamanians are complaining that the economy has really slowed, and yet it continues to be the 2nd fastest growing economy in Latin America. While the growth rate dropped from 11% in 2013 and 5.3% in 2016, it is still over 4.6% in the first quarter of 2018!  Infrastructure investments are underway in a number of areas, including the building of the second metro line in Panama City and the studies underway for another bridge across the Canal, which will include a metro rail bridge for the third line.

Depending on who you believe, and how the scoring is done, Panama ranks #3 in being “open for business”.  The World Bank rates Panama as 79th, taking into account a number of factors, and 39th for the ease of starting a new business.  Apparently registering for and paying taxes in Panama is one of the most difficult aspects of doing business in Panama!  But, hopefully that ranking will change, with the adoption of the online tax payment system implemented recently.  Panama is also ranked 54th in Economic Freedoms, which looks at rule of law, government size, regulatory efficiency and open market criteria.

That said, Panama continues to consolidate its position as a business hub, as the headquarters for more than 130 multinational companies!  The principal business and investment attractions for Panama are:

  • corporate headquarters & regional services
  • multimodal logistics
  • infrastructure development
  • maritime services
  • light manufacturing (free zones)
  • renewable energy investments
  • tourism

This translates into the following prime locations/special laws and incentives:

  1. Panama Pacific 
  2. Ciudad del Saber
  3. Colon Free Zone
  4. Special Free Trade Zones (dotted around the country)
  5. Multinational Headquarters

In terms of quality of life, Panama is ranked #1 in Central America and #4 in Latin America (UNDP).

Workforce & other challenges

workforce, employees, professional, training, educationAs I pointed out in my previous blog post about Panama’s money stories, corruption is probably the biggest obstacle that Panama faces – and it certainly is as far as perception goes. While Panama’s economy is stable and Panama has a well-developed services sector (most employment in the areas of banking, commerce, tourism and logistics), Panama continues to under-prepare its workforce for modern challenges. The poorly educated workforce ranks as the third obstacle in business for firms!

Education standards are considered to be poor by the World Economic Forum. The quality of public school education in Panama is still under fire, with a World Bank study indicating that upon completion of secondary school, the quality of the education is equivalent to 8 years of education, rather than 12.   Panama has taken important steps in improving the level of English in the public school education system, but still needs to modify the focus at Univeristy level.  Nonetheless, tertiary education is not in line with the needs of the marketplace – as social sciences, administration and law continue to be the predominant choices for students, rather than technology and sciences!

Back in 2016, news sources were reporting the problems employers faced at job fairs: while 72,000 jobs were on offer, only 25,000 people joined the labour market through these fairs, because they were under-qualified or lacked experience.  Call-centers in Panama provide about 14,000 jobs to the Panamanian workforce – the principal ones in Panama are Dell and HP.  But there continues to be a need for better qualified English-speakers for Call-Centers.  Even in 2018, Panama faces these same challenges in logistics, tourism and even the construction industry.  Among the listed skills required are “soft skills”, such as discipline, punctuality and others.

At the same time, it appears that Panamanian firms do not do well in offering formal training to their employees, which does not assist employees in getting the industry specific training that they need.  Training for tourism or customer services is virtually non-existent and foreigners are constantly complaining of the bad service in restaurants.

Retraining, especially in technical schools, is very low.  There is a “stigma” attached to working in “manual labour”, and yet a dearth of properly qualified electricians, plumbers and specialist construction workers. Improvement is especially necessary in the vocational and technical areas. Everyone is a “handyman” and “knows how to do it”, but the reality is that you wouldn’t be able to pass inspections!  And as Panamanians have sought to move out of “menial labour”, Nicaraguan, Colombian & other immigrants have taken the posts of maids and housekeepers.

There are laws protecting many professions, such as law, medicine, dentistry and engineering. This means that foreigners cannot practice in these professions in Panama.  Yet, one of the fallacies is that chemical engineering is reserved solely for Panamanians – but Chemical Engineering isn’t actually taught in Panamanian Universities! Guess how many chemical engineers we have…

Inflexible labour laws are another cause for complaint among prospective investors into Panama: firing is heaving regulated, labour mobility is limited and labor typically costs 41% more than the paid salary (including social security, holiday pay, liquidation costs, etc.).  Panama’s minimum wage is the highest in Central America, and it is often difficult to find fluent English speaking employees.  Panamanians typically have an intermediate to advanced level of English, but are seldom proficient in business writing and customer service level English.

 

All of that said, Panama continues to be one of the most attractive places in Latin America for investment.  And yet, with respect to innovation, Panama still has so much to learn.

Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

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.