Cablegate: Panama Elections - Notes From the Field - Chiriqui

Published: Wed 25 Feb 2004 06:17 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
B. PANAMA 0352
1. (SBU) Residents of Chiriqui, Panama's largest dairy,
coffee, and vegetable producer, and its capital David,
Panama's third-largest city, want politicians to focus on
unemployment and an agricultural sector threatened by a
bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.
Pol Counselor and Poloff visited from February 9-11 and met
with Electoral Tribunal Officials, political party
representatives, candidates, and interested observers,
including Catholic Church activists and ACS Wardens.
Interlocutors plugged favorite candidates and expressed
confidence in Panama's electoral system, downplaying the
possibility of electoral fraud. As in Panama City,
unemployment topped voters' lists of urgent needs. Unlike in
the capital, Chiriqui's leaders view Canal expansion as a
vital national project, although one that will give them
little direct benefit. Not unanimously against the
construction of a road connecting the highland towns of Cerro
Punta and Boquete, Chiriqui residents were convinced that
President Moscoso's insistence on building the road despite
strident ecological objections damages Arnulfista Candidate
Jose Miguel Aleman's campaign.
2. (U) Chiriqui is Panama's westernmost province on the
Pacific coast. It extends from Panama's western border with
Costa Rica to the semi-desert lowlands of Veraguas on the
east, bordered on the north by Bocas del Toro province and
the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous community. Poloffs visited Puerto
Armuelles near the Costa Rican border, the home of a massive
banana plantation formerly owned by Chiquita, to the eastern
town of Tole in the foothills of Panama's central mountain
range populated primarily by subsistence farmers. At the
center of the province in the shadow of Volcan Baru (11,400
feet), Poloffs visited the coffee-growing town of Boquete, a
popular ecotourism destination loaded with retired
foreigners, many of whom have established profitable
businesses. Of Panama's nearly two million registered
voters, 259,783 or almost 15% reside in Chiriqui, 90,492 of
them in David and the nearby towns. On May 2, 2004, 38,082
Chiriqui residents will vote for the first time, the most new
voters in any province except for Panama (140,493 of 970,703
total). While Chiriqui's population is clustered in urban
areas, rural concerns, especially in the agricultural sector
influence political decision-makers.
3. (SBU) Electoral Tribunal (ET) officials explained to
Poloffs their efficient management of their regional office
in David and described the entire electoral process after the
official presentation of candidacies on February 2. Although
currently focused on selecting voting place representatives
from each of the political parties, they are also preparing
the logistics to transport voting materials and ET personnel
on election day. he regional director for electoral
organization, engrossed in managing the entire process,
enlisted her colleague, the regional director of public
registry (births & deaths) to pool GOP vehicles and drivers
and make sure that they are in good shape for before election
weekend. The third regional director, in charge of issuing
identity cards (cedulas), described her success in outreach
to remote areas to register voters and replace IDs that are
no longer valid.
4. (U) Each of the seven political parties has a "Campaign
Headquarters" in David, but the bulk of electoral activities
occurred outside those buildings. With the notable exception
of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), with five
full-time staff, no more than two permanent employees were
working in any of the offices that Poloffs visited. On the
streets, Poloffs saw campaign representatives hanging
advertisements and heard jingles on the radio and from
loudspeakers mounted on passing cars. When local candidates
were not busy meeting interest groups or shaking hands and
kissing babies from one end of the province to the next, they
were explaining to poloffs why they would win on May 2.
5. (SBU) Poloffs also met the regional directors of the
Catholic Church's Peace and Justice Commission, who said they
are not concerned about fraud, and are focused instead on
recruiting election observers and collecting funds to train,
transport, and feed them. The Commission will send
representatives to polling stations to observe Panama's
elections for the third time this year, having observed the
1994 and 1999 elections. They are known for the
dependability of their "quick count," intended to ensure that
provincial and national vote totals don't deviate from local
results. Using copies of the final voting tally from each
voting station, Commission representatives will transmit
results to their Panama headquarters for rapid press
6. (SBU) Despite national polling data and assertions to the
contrary from the Endara/Solidarity Party camp, political
insiders insist that the real race is between Revolutionary
Democratic Party (PRD) Candidate Martin Torrijos and
Arnulfista Party (PA) Candidate Jose Miguel Aleman. They
believe that party infrastructures will prevail in getting
out the vote in every corner of Panama for Torrijos and
Aleman, but the Endara camp will suffer from a lack of
organization. Endara's supporters, several claimed, are so
disenchanted with the political system that they will not
vote at all. Endara and Aleman supporters emphasized an
internal weakness of the PRD's alliance with the former
Christian Democratic Party, the Partido Popular (PP). One
Aleman supporter, Liberal Republican Nationalist Movement
(MOLIRENA) provincial Secretary Ivan Jurado, said the
alliance was "like mixing oil and water." After all, he
noted, how can a party that fought against a dictatorship
team up with the party that supported it?
7. (SBU) Even Aleman supporters agree that President Moscoso
is detracting from his campaign, especially with her stubborn
support for the "Ecological Road" between Boquete and Cerro
Punta a controversial 12 km mountain road would pass through
a national park. In late 2004, Moscoso stated to the Press,
"the Ecological Road will be built, and I don't care if it
hurts Jose Miguel Aleman's campaign." Neither Chiriqui
Arnulfista Party President Einar Fanovich, nor any of Poloffs
other interlocutors in Chiriqui could explain why Moscoso is
so intent on the road being built. Amcit warden Price
Peterson, a Boquete resident for over thirty years, claimed
that neither Moscoso nor any of her close associates owns
land along the proposed route, contradicting reports that La
Prensa published. Peterson noted several serious engineering
obstacles that would have to be overcome for the alternative
route to be viable. (Note: Local ecologists have claimed that
the road will damage unique forest and wildlife habitad
irreparably, in an area they say has the fourth highest
annual rainfall in the world. END NOTE)
8. (SBU) According to several interlocutors, despite
large-scale coffee and dairy agroindustry in the Chiriqui
highlands and a substantial banana plantation in the
lowlands, many rural residents of the province are small
farmers who could not compete in an open market. Ivan Smith,
a former MOLIRENA activist whose allegiance to Endara VP
Candidate Guillermo "Billy" Ford motivated him to join the
Endara camp, is a third-generation employee of the Puerto
Armuelles banana industry who moved to David over ten years
ago. He explained that after Chiquita left Puerto Armuelles,
taking lucrative salaries and fringe benefits with it, many
unemployed plantation workers departed in search of other
opportunities in urban areas or settled on uninhabited lands
as subsistence farmers. An infant free trade zone at the
port directed by two Arnulfista patronage appointees offers
no short term solutions to unemployment in that region.
Expressing a pragmatic approach, PRD Chiriqui coordinator
Belgis Castro Jaen claimed that there are already plenty of
unemployed people in Chiriqui, and forcing small or medium
farmers to cease production will create more. A bilateral
Free Trade Agreement with the United States will benefit
Panama, Castro claimed, but Panama needs to find ways to
allow vulnerable sectors to transition into other, more
competitive enterprises.
9. (SBU) Prohibitive campaign costs ($200,000 and up for a
legislative seat) and intra-party oligarchies block new
candidates from emerging. Campaign stakes rise rapidly from
zinc roof panels and cinder blocks in local representative
races to six figure expenses in legislative races. For
instance, MOLIRENA incumbent Jorge Alberto Rosas, who
represents an expansive but under-populated segment of
Eastern Chiriqui with only 19,697 registered voters, told
poloffs that he expects to spend around $250,000 on this
year's campaign. Cambio Democratico candidate for mayor of
David, Raul Montenegro acknowledged that even with $35,000
that he can piece together from personal savings and
contributions from his friends, he is at a disadvantage
compared with his opponents' party machinery and wealthy
10. (SBU) The pool of viable candidates is small, and they
move between parties as their interests shift, as evidenced
in the race to defeat Rosas. The Rosas family represents a
Chiriqui political dynasty with extensive financial
resources. Without similar opportunities, others can't
afford to be loyal to one party. Rosas occupies the seat
that his father Jorge Ruben Rosas lost in 1994. MOLIRENA
President and Jose Miguel Aleman's co-candidate for First
Vice President Jesus "Maco" Rosas, is Jorge Alberto's uncle.
Jorge Alberto explained that whereas Ricardo Martinelli's
Cambio Democratico Party picked a virtual unknown as its
candidate, Solidarity chose allies of former Arnulfista
Rodrigo Jovane, who defeated Jorge Alberto's father in 1994,
and could beat him on May 2.
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