In early May, hopes to contain spiraling corruption levels were dealt an incapacitating blow as charges were levied against the University of Panama’s (UP) administration that illuminated an embarrassing scandal involving, at the very least, the distribution of over 1,000 irregular diplomas. Although presently it remains a relatively obscure issue, the scandalous state of affairs at the country’s leading education institution includes such anomalies as the issuance of multiple diplomas as well as the handing out of such documents to students who had not completed their full course work, thus failing to meet their degree requirements. Less than two months later, on July 14, Panamanian president Martin Torrijos brought the Panamanian government into the scandal’s trenches when he signed into law a controversial piece of legislation granting UP Regent Gustavo Garcia de Paredes increased authority over faculty tenure and the opportunity for him to run for reelection, in effect dismissing widespread calls that have been made for his removal. While corruption and impunity have come to define Panama’s governing process, the recent UP embroilment marks a turn for the worst as the University, historically one of Panama’s more independent and socially responsible bodies, has now fallen prey to the same mendacity that has gutted some of the country’s other public institutions.
President Torrijos was voted into office in 2004 on a pledge to root out ubiquitous venality and underhanded activity that had eroded the people’s faith in his predecessor, Mireya Moscoso. She did not noticeably contribute to the diffusion of public rectitude throughout the government by granting asylum to the mass terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, who was responsible for bombing a Cuban airliner in the mid-seventies which left 73 Cuban athletes and children dead. He was specifically charged with attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro while the Cuban leader was visiting Panama. Moscoso’s decision to grant asylum to Posada, thereby freeing him from a lengthy prison sentence, was rumored to possibly benefit her.
For most Panamanians, Torrijos has utterly failed to inspire much confidence in his integrity. Since his inauguration, the Torrijos administration has not prosecuted a single member of Moscoso’s wildly polluted administration, nor have serious investigative efforts been undertaken to thoroughly explore the matter. Torrijos failed to carry out reforms such as making good on promises to increase transparency in government transactions, and those that he has pursued have largely gone up in smoke. Although he avidly trumpeted his reform and transparency-oriented agenda throughout his campaign, Torrijos still has not done much to ensure that his administration officials conform to the 1999 Transparency Law requiring government officials to declare their assets at the beginning of their term and the end of their tenure. Thus far, Torrijos and the majority of his administration have refused to disclose information about their personal finances in compliance with the law. Moreover, of the three presidential frontrunners in the 2004 elections, Torrijos was the only candidate to refuse to make his campaign finance details public.
Corruption Erodes Panama’s Most Respected Forum for Public Discourse
The recent UP diploma scandal is a singularly foreboding sign for advocates of reforming the country’s ill-reputed judiciary, because it draws Panama’s education system behind the impenetrable veil that increasingly cloaks the majority of Panama’s state institutions from the public’s and media’s scrutiny. The scandal began to unfold when statements were made by junior officials of the University administration alleging that diplomas were being issued to students who had not met the necessary requirements for obtaining a UP degree. One student in particular, Humberto Alcazar Rojas, was cited as receiving an accounting diploma without having completed the required coursework. This prompted law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, one of the UP’s most distinguished academics, who Garcia de Paredes and the Faculty Council attempted to fire last year for criticizing a University’s administrator, to file a criminal complaint against Garcia de Paredes and other high-ranking UP administrative officials, whose signatures appear on the fraudulent diplomas. It has proven very difficult for Garcia de Paredes and the faculty senate to shake off Bernal’s charges because the dissident law professor is one of the few UP faculty members who has an international reputation, and thus is in a position to draw the debauched nature of the UP’s questionable degrees to the attention of U.S. accrediting agencies.
Suspicions intensified regarding his good intentions when Garcia de Paredes closed the UP’s records building after the Public Ministry announced its intentions to investigate the matter. He claimed that the University records office had been forced to close because of repeated student protests over Torrijos’ grossly unpopular Social Security reforms, even though the plazas and meeting halls of the UP traditionally have been considered a forum for open discourse on social and political issues in Panama. In response to a Supreme Court summons, Garcia de Paredes justified the unprecedented office closure by explaining that a Public Ministry investigation would have violated the UP’s status as an autonomous entity. He instead proposed to conduct an “internal investigation,” which was subsequently postponed when another wave of Social Security protests hit the UP campus. At the present time, the dispute over Social Security is a much bigger national issue than scandals on the UP campus.
In an August 8 press conference Garcia de Paredes reported, unsurprisingly, that the internal investigation had revealed no indication of his involvement in the issuance of fraudulent diplomas. He did, however, admit that there “might have been an irregularity in the distribution of a diploma.” He also acknowledged that it was likely there had been errors in the text of some diplomas, which would have to be reprinted, thus accounting for the duplicate diplomas in question. He said it was possible as well that some students had taken their final requirement coursework without registering and paying for the classes, which would have consigned their records to an irregular category. There is no question that Garcia de Paredes’ colleagues throughout Central America as well as in high academic positions in the U.S., including at Columbia University and the University of California, feel that Garcia de Paredes’ continued reign at the UP could pose a massive threat to his institution’s reputation. Academics believe that by trashing the reputation of the University, he will be making it more difficult for UP graduates to qualify for graduate school and professional school programs to which they have traditionally been welcomed.
Bernal, however, remains unconvinced by Garcia de Paredes’ excuses and posturings. Following his press conference, he insisted in a statement to the daily El Panama America that there is still cause for the matter to be investigated, noting that “you cannot issue a diploma to a student who has not paid for the coursework.” He vowed to continue pursuing accountability on the part of the UP’s administration. He can expect very little institutional support in his endeavor, judging from the Panamanian judiciary’s as of yet lackluster response, which has included no further attempts to investigate the corruption allegations, let alone prosecute those involved. The Public Ministry and Attorney Generals’ Office have, in what has come to be the standard for the Department of Justice, abdicated their responsibilities to enforce accountability on the part of Panama’s state institutions and have instead maintained a detached neutrality. In a hemispheric-wide era of accountability and a striving for self respect, Panama’s judiciary remains one of the most compromised in the hemisphere, forcing an honorable patriot like Bernal to stand up almost alone against his country’s paid hands and false prophets.
More troubling still is the conduct of Torrijos’ ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) in its shameless promotion of the political interests of Garcia de Paredes, indeed one of their own. None of his recent imbroglios have shaken their as of yet unflinching support for him, however self-disgracing his department has turned out to be. The controversial University of Panama reform law passed on July 14 will give Garcia de Paredes increased jurisdiction over the hiring and firing of faculty and, potentially, the ability to exercise control over the faculty’s right to criticize his agenda. The government’s move to enable his reelection also indicates its unwillingness to openly pursue justice when a member of its tight-knit political fabric might have been engaged in dishonest undertakings. It also bodes ill for the upper reaches of the Panamanian education system’s ability to evade the greed and corruption that have infiltrated so many of the Torrijos administration’s other institutions.
If You Pull the Thread…
The Torrijos government’s decision to throw its full support behind Garcia de Paredes is evidence of the control that a tight conglomerate of Panama’s most powerful business and political players have over the country’s main institutions. In addition to being the UP regent, Garcia de Paredes is also president of the Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI), which manages, sells and leases assets in the former U.S. Canal zone, and includes a lucrative network of real estate, military facilities and airports. In an interview with COHA, journalist and highly regarded Panamanian policy analyst Okke Ornstein ventured that Garcia de Paredes is indeed a member of the “small group of entrepreneurs, law firms and politicians that basically owns and runs Panama.” It may not be unreasonable to speculate that government officials engaged in construction or real estate transactions with the ARI would be mindful not to upset the nation’s president or those close to him. In addition, since most of the Panamanian legislative and upper classes send their children to universities abroad, and not to the UP, they have relatively little personal stake in rescuing its eroding integrity.
Ornstein also muses that corruption and white collar crime have begun to take root in Panama’s government in large part because there are no opposition movements or media powerful or independent enough to demand accountability from public leaders: “on the business level, political differences do not exist.” As a result, allegations of fraud, nepotism and embezzlement are actively overlooked and rarely investigated. The Panamanian chapter of Transparency International published an “Impunity Index” for Panama that revealed that in the 110 most noteworthy corruption cases between the years 1997 and 2002, only 17 cases were investigated and only four of those led to a conviction. Such figures underlie the trend in Panama and, in fact, throughout Latin America in general, toward an increasing aggregation of business and political interests, a movement that has frighteningly dangerous implications when combined with low levels of accountability and grave shortcomings regarding the extent of transparency in government institutions.
Disdain for Human Capital Threatens Panama’s Development Potential
The recent entanglement of the University of Panama in the diploma fraud scandal constitutes an unnerving step toward further deterioration of state institutions now that it is being revealed that corruption has in fact taken hold in Panama’s education sector. President Martin Torrijos has had little success in convincing the Panamanian public that he is earnestly attempting to fulfill the “zero corruption” pledge that elevated him to the presidency last fall. In a May CID/Gallup poll, 62 percent of all Panamanians surveyed believed that Torrijos had kept few or none of his campaign promises. This poll was taken even before the UP diploma scandal had surfaced or protests over Torrijos’ controversial Social Security privatization measures came to a head. The Torrijos administration has probably stooped too far to recover, and the son has turned his back on redeeming not only the name of his father, Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, but his own as well. In a continent full of second- to fourth-rate presidents, Martin Torrijos apparently made the decision to mimic the corruption of Costa Rica-type presidents rather than take his model for high public rectitude from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia or Argentina’s President Kirchner.
At this late date, the only thing that could be done to exhume the Torrijos presidency from its present status would be for him to insist that an independent authority investigate corruption claims at the University of Panama to ensure that justice is served here, if not in multiple other sectors of the country’s political life. If no action is taken it will mean yet another great disappointment for the Panamanian people who have waited in vain for leaders they can trust to govern with integrity and conscience, while bringing even further repudiation of Torrijos as he sees his approval ratings sink further into oblivion.