Control of GESE goes to PRD figures
by Eric Jackson
In mid-August the US government’s drug money laundering case against the Wakeds collapsed. Yes, the Colombian nephew Nidal Waked did plead guilty to money laundering and will spend the next several years in prison. But it was about bank fraud, not drugs, for getting a line of credit from a Chinese bank for one purpose, using it for another and routing the money through US institutions in so doing. But the Clinton List is about drugs and not banking crimes, and US authorities placed Nidal Waked, his Panamanian uncle Abdul Waked and all the businesses they owned on the Treasury Department’s list of those with whom US citizens and resident aliens will be in trouble if they do business with them. Most of the Wakeds’ businesses were sold, but the two newspapers, El Siglo and La Estrella, were run by Abdul and he fought to hold onto them. Nidal never had anything to do with the newspapers, Abdul was never charged with a crime, and when the drug charges against Nidal were dropped one would think that the basis of the Grupo El Siglo – Estrella (GESE) would be gone and the ban on Americans doing business with that business would be over.
Not so, and less that a week after the Nidal Waked plea bargain Abdul Waked capitulated to US pressure and transferred 51 percent of the shares of GESE to a foundation composed of an employee of his, company president Eduardo Quirós, former Vice President under the Martín Torrijos administration Samuel Lewis Navarro and former Panamanian ambassador to the United States Eloy Alfaro de Alba. Control effectively goes to Lewis and Alfaro, who are pledging to defend freedom of expression. Aristocratic opinion is almost uniformly ecstatic. The people who work at the two newspapers — the sex and death tabloid El Siglo and the more traditional broadsheet La Estrella — are mostly relieved to see that the probability of their closure has receded, but some are also anxious about what happens next. Will political dissidents like labor leader Genaro López or law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal lose their columns? Will there be an influx of itinerant PRD publicists onto the newspapers’ staffs? Will the papers become a vehicle for the Samuel Lewis Navarro presidential campaign that some say that Martín Torrijos is trying to engineer? And might it be that the American Embassy, in a sordid and unstable political situation, is betting not so much on the PRD but trying to arrange things so that certain people in that party — former Agriculture Minister Laurentino Cortizo, who opposed the “free trade” pact with the United States; or xenophobic demagogue and legislator Zulay Rodríguez, who it is said was forced out of a judicial post at the urging of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and American Embassy after she let some Colombian drug suspects walk — from getting nominated and perhaps coming to power here?
Even were it absolutely the case, the embassy would never admit such a thing. And the 2009 Martinelli – Varela slate that was put together in a meeting at the US ambassador’s residence had nothing to do with the Americans, either, so we are told.
Lewis Navarro is one of Panama wealthiest individuals and Alfaro is also quite well to do. The former is the son of General Omar Torrijos’s emissary to Washington and key advisor during the Panama Canal treaty negotiations. The latter, also well to do, is related to past presidents of both Panama and Ecuador and some of Panamanian history’s most noteworthy diplomats. He served on the Panama Canal Authority board of directors as an appointee of the PRD administration of Ernesto Pérez Balladares.
Lewis Navarro was both president of the Banco del Istmo and Vice President of the Republic of Panama in April of 2006 when he announced to Banistmo shareholders that there was an offer to buy the bank. Thereafter, through the cabinet on which he sat there passed what was not much noticed at the time, proposed legislation to adjust the tax laws, which the Torrijos Cabinet Council passed and sent on to the legislature to be formally proposed the next month. On June 12 of that year, Lewis Navarro was in London, reportedly negotiating with HSBC about some government business. That same day in Panama the tax law went before the plenum of the National Assembly for debate. Among the provisions was a reduction in capital gains taxes on the sale of shares in certain sorts of companies from 30 percent to five percent. The law passed two days later and in the middle of July the sale of Banistmo to HSBC was announced. Under the new law there was a tax savings windfall of about $400 million that was shared among about a half-dozen people, one of them Samuel Lewis Navarro.
Banco Universal, for which Alfaro was director and spokesman throughout the Martinelli years, figured in many of the financial scandals of that time, including a lot of the activities of the now closed Financial Pacific brokerage house, the bogus Tonosi irrigation project and the laundering of proceeds from then Supreme Court president Alejandro Moncada Luna taking kickbacks for the awarding of court construction or remodeling contracts. Banco Univeral’s principal owner, Felipe “Pipo” Virzi, was vice president of Panama during the Pérez Balladares administration and is related to Ricardo Martinelli by marriage. Virzi has been in and out of jail and house arrest since his bank was shut down by the banking superintendency for defying orders to freeze certain accounts believed to be related to money laundering. It looks as if various prosecutors and courts are in the process of taking a series of dives so that the various investigations come to naught. Financial Pacific is particularly touchy, as it is most probably a murder case, the disappearance of Securities Superintendency senior analyst Vernon Ramos, who was looking into insider trading via that brokerage in shares of the now closed but not cleaned up Petaquilla gold mine’s Canadian parent company.
So the rumors and speculation about what’s in store for El Siglo and La Estrella are ongoing. Because Abdul Waked gave space to folks like far left labor leaders and political outcast anti-corruption activists whom the rabiblancos really despise, those folks are for public consumption taking a low-keyed wait and see approach to the transaction at the moment. On Twitter and Facebook, Panama’s establishment and its acolytes are generally upbeat. The most vocal critics tend to be of the left and their messages tend to be along the lines of impugning Lewis Navarro’s and Alfaro’s honesty or decrying the very notion of the US government having anything at all to say about who owns mass communications media in Panama. Those who combine these messages sometimes also talk about double standards.
The United States seized all media that could be grabbed during the 1989 invasion, and carted away all government archives with records about the Noriega regime’s dealings with the media barons of that time. With the exception of Fulele Calvo, who spent many months in jail with no charges against him, the US forces returned most of the media to their pre-invasion owners. Were files in US possession used for blackmail, or just the knowledge of their probable existence and current possession enough to assure pro-American editorial stands? We can only guess. In any case, the GESE situation is not the first time that Washington has intervened to decide who can and who can’t own a newspaper in Panama. Probably the invasions wasn’t either — in Canal Zone times and later under the US-dominated Panama Canal Commission there was a history of US agencies blacklisting or attempting to blacklist journalists so as to prevent them from working in the Panamanian media.
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