Viewing cable 04PANAMA1963
Title: Panama's legislature approves constitutional

04PANAMA19632004-08-03 21:15:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Panama
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 
SUBJECT: Panama's legislature approves constitutional 
reform package in record time; concurrence by next 
legislature required 
REF: Panama 01764 
Summary/Comment: Reform package surmounts apathy 
¶1.  (SBU) Although many thought them dead a month ago, in 
only 21 calendar days Panama's Legislative Assembly 
approved a package of 67 constitutional reforms that most 
Panamanians view favorably.  They began as legislator Jerry 
Wilson's 90-page proposal on behalf of the opposition 
Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). (NOTE: The PRD will 
control the presidency and a majority of legislative seats 
after September 1.  END NOTE.)  The final package 
incorporates additions from ruling Arnulfista Party 
legislators, plus input from others who approached the 
Government Committee before plenary discussions.  Per 
Article 308 of Panama's constitution, President-elect 
Torrijos (PRD) must present the reform package to the newly 
elected legislature immediately after taking office on 
September 1.  The legislators who take over on September 1, 
must then ratify the reform package that their predecessors 
approved for it to be implemented.  We expect this to 
¶2.  (SBU) The poorly attended July 5-28 "extraordinary 
sessions" captivated public attention much less than the 
USG revocation of a former cabinet minister's tourist visa 
for corruption.  One normally vocal advocate of 
constitutional reform told PolOffs that she gave up trying 
to contribute to the debate because her concerns were not 
reflected in changes made to the original proposal. 
Several legislators have used the reform process to air 
petty internal party disputes inappropriate for a plenary 
debate in the Legislative Assembly.  End Summary/Comment. 
What's changed -- the short version 
¶3.  (SBU) Only about 20 of the 67 reforms are substantive. 
Most just refine previous Articles with updated 
terminology, clearer drafting and formatting, and better 
punctuation. Substantive reforms go from reducing the 
number of elected officials to establishing a "Tribunal de 
Cuentas."  Among other things, the reform package: 
---reduces the number of elected officials and the inter- 
regnum period between administrations, 
---reduces legislative immunity, 
---prohibits the President from appointing Supreme Court 
Justices directly from his/her Cabinet or the legislature, 
---mandates a referendum to ratify any plan for Canal 
---maintains the Comptroller General's right to exercise 
pre-disbursement control over government expenditures, and 
---defines a mechanism for convoking a Constituent Assembly 
(Constituyente). (NOTE: Closed-door PRD and Arnulfista 
negotiations led to this response to the most consistent 
civil society constitutional reform demand.  The new text 
prohibits a Constituyente from cutting the term of elected 
officials, alleviating PRD fears that it could be hurt if 
one were convoked during the next five years. END NOTE.) 
¶4.  (SBU) The constitutional reform package calls for 
several cuts to reduce the GOP payroll as well as 
government bloat, such as: (i) cutting the number of Vice 
Presidents from two to one, (ii) cutting the number of 
legislative seats to 71 (fixed) from 78 (variable, tied to 
population), (iii) reducing the number of legislators' 
alternates from two to one each, and (iv) reducing the 
number of Deputy Mayors from two to one.  If the reforms 
were implemented, the reduced depth chart would take effect 
from 2009 (the next election) forward. 
¶5.  (U) Most Panamanians welcome elements of the reforms 
that impact the terms served by elected officials.  The 
reforms would cut the transition period between 
administrations in half to two months, making Inauguration 
Day July 1 instead of September 1.  Legislative sessions 
would be from January 2-April 30, and July 1-Oct 31 
(instead of March 1-June 30 and Sept 1-Dec 31).  Under the 
reformed constitution, all officials elected on May 2, 2004 
(from President-elect Torrijos down) would finish their 
terms two months "early" on June 30, 2009.  The reforms 
stipulate that the Executive must submit the national 
budget to the Assembly within the first legislative 
sessions of the year instead of in October. 
Recount of legislative debate 
¶6.  (SBU) From July 5-19, amidst a lamentable hush from 
civil society, the Assembly discussed constitutional 
reforms in first debate sessions that barely made a quorum. 
On average, 40 of 71 sitting legislators approved each of 
71 proposed reforms during the first of three required 
debates.  A key Assembly staffer expressed concern to 
PolOffs about the lack of commitment and true interest by 
the majority of the legislators.  "Only about 20% of the 
legislators are following the debate and the rest are 
sending their alternates (suplentes) to attend sessions," 
he claimed.  Rumors of secret negotiations between the 
Moscoso administration and the PRD overshadowed plenary 
discussions and exasperated proponents of a Constituyente, 
who called for a new presidential decree ending debate. 
¶7.  (SBU) After a two-day impasse, President Moscoso agreed 
to extend "extraordinary" legislative sessions to permit 
the required second and third rounds of debate.  Moscoso 
used Catholic Church and the University of Panama 
complaints as a pretext to stall, but internal Arnulfista 
spats were the real cause for the delay.  Only 67 reforms 
passed second and third debates.  Of note, the Assembly 
eliminated a contentious reform submitted by the 
Arnulfistas that would have allowed legislators to summon 
Justices to be questioned on court-related issues. Plenary 
consensus on the latter provision was impossible even 
though it barred Justices being summoned based on specific 
decisions.  Chief Justice Cesar Pereira Burgos warned 
Assembly President Jacobo Salas after first debate that 
such a reform would violate the separation of powers. 
Legislative immunity reduced 
¶8.  (SBU) One of the most welcome reforms was the reduction 
of legislative immunity, considered by many to be a shield 
to protect legislators involved in unethical and/or illegal 
actions.  If the reform is implemented, the Supreme Court 
could investigate legislators without Assembly clearance. 
Except for one notorious 1994 case when a legislator was 
caught in the act bribing businessmen, all other requests 
from the Public Ministry to investigate legislators have 
been rejected.  Sadly, the list of Assembly refusals to 
waive immunity includes Carlos Afu, who waved what he 
claimed was bribe money in the air on national television. 
Changes affect the Comptroller General 
¶9.  (SBU) A passionate appeal from several former 
Comptrollers General (Reftel) saved pre-disbursement 
control ("control previo") from the chopping block.  A 
revised Article 276 would establish a "Tribunal de Cuentas" 
to investigate, prosecute and rule on mal/misfeasance in 
the management of government accounts.  Currently, the CG 
him/herself has those roles, but the reforms dictate that 
the CG would have to submit the cases to a special court. 
If implemented, the reform mandates legislation to define 
the composition and operations of such a court, plus the 
pre-requisites for its magistrates. 
Changes to the Judicial Branch 
¶10.  (SBU) The most publicized judicial reform would forbid 
appointments to the Supreme Court of anyone currently 
holding a legislative or Cabinet seat.  The reform targets 
President Moscoso's most recent appointments to the Court, 
but would allow Presidents (including Torrijos) to appoint 
individuals who have served as legislators or cabinet 
members in previous administrations.  Rumored future 
Justices include hardline PRDs who President-elect Torrijos 
wants to reward for their service to the party, to distance 
from his administration, or both. 
¶11.  (SBU) Another reform would require that alternates 
("suplentes") for Justices be appointed from within the 
judicial branch, whereas currently the President appoints 
them (like the principals).  (NOTE: Suplentes are often 
active members of prominent law firms, not full time 
judicial employees.  Their firms may have an interest in 
the very cases the suplentes are ruling on.  END NOTE.) 
Some constitutional lawyers disagree with this provision, 
claiming that it could alter the "internal independency" of 
the judicial branch.  It could also lead subordinate judges 
to feel intimidated by their absent superiors when ruling. 
The proposal that Justices be assigned to the Court by law 
rather than the Constitution didn't pass for fear that a 
sitting President could pack the court to his/her 
¶12.  (SBU) Article 221 establishes that the Attorney 
General (AG) and the Solicitor General (SG) will no longer 
have appointed alternates.  The AG and the SG will appoint 
his/her alternates from within his/her offices to fill in 
during absences.  Some fear that this reform will increase 
the AG's ability to influence the alternate.  Alternates in 
the past (including the recent past) have rebelled when the 
principal was absent, in several instances for the better. 
Electoral Tribunal gains Independence & Stability 
¶13.  (SBU) Reforms approved to Article 137, paragraph 9 
would allow the Electoral Tribunal (TE) to prepare its own 
budget and present it directly to the Legislative Assembly 
instead of seeking Executive Branch approval.  The 
Comptroller General's Office would audit TE expenditures 
after the fact.  The reforms would also prohibit Supreme 
Court oversight of electoral matters.  (NOTE: The case of 
legislator Carlos Afu's ejection from the PRD was never 
resolved after the Supreme Court snatched it away from the 
TE on questionable grounds.  Afu's "defection" to the 
Arnulfista Party eliminated the basis of the case. END 
NOTE.)  A reformed Article 159 would allow the TE to 
present bills directly to the Legislative Assembly for 
consideration rather than through the executive branch. 
Finally, to avoid all three electoral magistrates leaving 
simultaneously, the revised constitution stipulates that 
they be appointed for staggered 10-year terms.  To achieve 
this, when all three magistrates leave in 2006 one new 
magistrate would be appointed for ten years, another for 
eight and a third for six.  Their successors would be 
appointed for ten-year terms. 
Contempt out and wiretaps in 
¶14.  (SBU) The reforms would eliminate Paragraph 1 of 
Article 33, which allows judges and justices to impose a 
sanction (either jail or penalties) without trial to anyone 
they considered has "offended them or shown no respect for 
them".  One outrageous case came to light several years ago 
when then-Chief Justice Arturo Hoyos sent a lawyer to jail 
because he considered that the lawyer had "disrespected" 
him verbally.  (COMMENT: This item is similar in spirit to 
contempt provisions in the US, but capricious application 
has made it problematic.  END COMMENT.)  On a related 
issue, the Arnulfistas were unable to garner PRD votes to 
support the elimination of criminal charges for libel and 
slander as that reform fell victim to short-sighted party 
¶15.  (SBU) The current constitution forbids wiretapping; 
however after passing the anti-money laundering bill in the 
1990's, the Attorney General's office has allowed 
wiretapping in certain cases.  Many lawyers and even judges 
and justices had widely different positions on the 
practice, ranging from vehement criticism to quiet 
applause.  The reform would allow wiretapping with prior 
authorization for a specific purpose.  If not, information 
obtained from wiretaps would not be admissible as evidence 
and whoever eavesdrops on telephone conversations without 
prior authorization would be subject to criminal charges. 
Political parties democratized -- sort of 
¶16.  (SBU) One reform would require political parties to 
have a democratic internal structure and operating 
procedures.  The change reflects Arnulfistas' concern about 
the way that President Moscoso has imposed her will on the 
party and PRD criticism of the same.  On the other hand, 
despite the widespread belief that it is a liability to the 
democratic system, the Assembly maintained the 
constitutional norm that allows a political party to unseat 
one of its members from the legislature ("revocatoria de 
mandato").  (COMMENT: This is a convenient way for large 
and small parties alike to enforce voting along party 
lines.  Then again, the reformed constitution would allow 
constituents to "recall" independent legislators under 
certain conditions.  This may discourage independents from 
running for the Assembly. END COMMENT.) 
Reforms with presidential fingerprints 
¶17.  (SBU) The first two reforms in the package clearly 
reflect President Moscoso's and President-Elect Torrijos' 
personal interests.  Article 11 of the Panama's 
constitution states that foreign adopted children of 
Panamanian nationals can only become Panamanians when they 
"reach 18 years and clearly state their wish to keep 
residing in Panama."  The reform would drop the age 
requirement, which means that Moscoso's 13-year-old son, 
adopted in Costa Rica, could soon be naturalized.  The 
Reformed Article 19 would prohibit discrimination based on 
disabilities.  President-elect Torrijos' daughter Daniela 
is a child with special needs. 
Comment: Fallout and follow-up 
¶18.  (SBU) Despite concerns that a lack of political will 
(particularly from the Moscoso administration) would stop 
the reforms, closed-door negotiations once more prevailed 
to move things along. The PRD and the Arnulfistas (as 
applicable) may now exalt President-elect Torrijos' 
"initiative" and trumpet GOP "cooperation."  Critics 
believe that the reforms were not studied carefully and may 
challenge at least one before the Supreme Court.  For 
instance, the reform to Article 141 that caps the total 
number of legislators grants a fixed number of seats to the 
Kuna (2) and Ngobe-Bugle (3) indigenous groups.  Since 
those legislators would represent smaller populations than 
the others, their influence in the Assembly would be 
disproportional, allowing 4% of Panama's population to 
control 7% of its legislators.  Their privileged positions 
would violate Article 19 of Panama's constitution if 
considered racially discriminatory. 
¶19.  (SBU) Civil society has lukewarmly welcomed the 
establishment of a procedure for calling a Constituent 
Assembly (Constituyente).  The reformed Article 308 of the 
Constitution would allow a Constituyente to be convoked: 
(i) by the executive branch (with the approval of the 
Legislative Assembly), (ii) by a 2/3 Legislative Assembly 
vote, or (iii) at the petition of 20% of the population age 
18 or greater (about 380,000 people) whose signatures were 
collected within six months.  In a six to nine month 
period, the Constituyente (composed of 60 elected 
representatives) could reform part or all of the 
constitution, but not introduce retroactive changes or 
alter the terms of sitting elected officials.  Constituent 
Assembly reforms would then be submitted to a national 
referendum.  Those who feel that the reform package is not 
enough are rumored be waiting for a September ratification 
by the new Legislative Assembly to start collecting