Viewing cable 05PANAMA914

05PANAMA9142005-04-25 15:15:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 UNCLASSIFIED 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 
REF: A. A) 2004 PANAMA 01883 
     ¶B. B) PANAMA 810 
     ¶C. C) PANAMA 89 
¶1. (U) This message is sensitive but unclassified; please 
protect accordingly. 
¶2. (SBU) Summary and Comment.  Actuarially bankrupt, Panama's 
Social Security System (CSS), which provides pensions and 
medical benefits to the majority of Panamanians, continues to 
operate through the use of its reserves.  Without major 
changes to the system, the pension fund, the largest of the 
social security system's programs, will exhaust its reserves 
in 2012.  While almost all Panamanians agree on the need for 
reform, no public consensus has been reached on how to fix 
the system.  As public debate rages on, the Torrijos 
Administration remains mum on its plans, stating only its 
intention to fulfill its campaign promise of reform. 
Community and civic leaders fear these reforms, regardless of 
their content, could spark rioting and civil unrest.  Unions 
have begun organizing and carrying out protests (peaceful 
thus far) against certain reform measures.  The impending 
reforms to the CSS will be a defining moment for the Torrijos 
Administration as they will require political will and 
expenditure of political capital.  Complicating matters, many 
within the Torrijos Administration believe that a successful 
referendum on Canal expansion will depend on a broadly 
acceptable Social Security reform.  End summary and comment. 
The Numbers: How bad is it really? 
¶3. (U) The Caja de Seguro Social (CSS), Panama's Social 
Security System, provides retirement pensions, medical 
services, and workers' compensation to approximately 
two-thirds of Panama's population through its four programs: 
(1) the Disability, Old Age, and Death Program (IVM); (2) 
Maternity and Health Services Program; (3) Professional Risks 
Program (i.e., Workers' Compensation); and (4) Administrative 
Program (i.e., the program that oversees the administration 
of the entire system).  Plagued by decreasing contributions 
and increasing claims in recent years, three of the four 
programs (IVM, Maternity and Health Services, and 
Professional Risks) routinely show a deficit and have had to 
draw on their reserves to cover costs.  However, failing new 
reforms, reserve funds for the two biggest programs, IVM and 
Maternity and Health Services, will be exhausted in 2012 and 
2006, respectively.  The Administrative Program, the system's 
only program operating in the black, will begin to show a 
deficit in 2010. 
¶4. (U) Most of the system's problems stem from current 
entitlements.  For example, men can retire at 62 years and 
women at 57 years after only 15 years of contributions. 
Consequently, a Panamanian man who retires will 
conservatively cost the program over two times what he 
contributed and a woman approximately four times. 
Additionally, the CSS covers not only contributors and 
retirees but also their dependents and survivors, who may 
include children under the age of 18 (25 if the child is a 
student) and parents over the age of 60. 
¶5. (U) The average Panamanian utilizes the IVM program as his 
sole source of retirement income and Maternity and Health 
Services as his health care program.  Accounting for over 
half of CSS spending, the IVM program registered an 
accumulated actuarial deficit of more than USD 4 billion at 
the end of 2004 to fully cover the approximately 145 thousand 
current retirees or patients.  (Note: Annual spending for 
2004 was USD 549 million and the 2004 deficit of the IVM 
program was approximately 42 million.  End note.)  The 
program operates on the "pay as you go" assumption that, 
within every generation, there will be more younger workers 
contributing sufficiently to the program to cover the 
pensions of the retired workers.  However, as life expectancy 
rates continue to rise and thus lengthen pension annuities, 
the IVM program has seen an average increase of 4.15 percent 
of the number of retirees between 1999 and 2003, but only an 
increase of 0.62 percent of the number of contributors to the 
system during the same period.  The CSS estimates that the 
ratio of contributors to each pensioner will fall from 5.16 
in 1999 to 3.36 in 2014.  (Note: this ratio was 4.49 in 2003. 
 End note.) 
¶6. (U) Almost 70 percent of Panamanians receive some or all 
of their health care needs through the CSS.  The Maternity 
and Health Services Fund total 2004 spending reached USD 380 
million, which resulted in a deficit of USD 22 million and 
left a meager USD 43.4 million in its reserve funds.  Without 
reforms, this fund will be exhausted in 2006, resulting in 
the reduction of multiple health programs and personnel. 
Currently, over 12,600 people are employed by this program 
which operates 15 hospitals, 27 promotional centers and 
preventative health programs, and 12 local primary health 
¶7. (U) The Professional Risks program provides access to 
worker compensation benefits to over 600,000 Panamanians. 
Annual spending increased from USD 38.3 million to 70.1 
million between 1999 and 2004 and projections show the 
deficit could reach USD 24 million by 2014.  This program 
first showed a deficit in 2003 and will exhaust its resources 
by 2010. 
¶8. (U) The Administrative program, which provides all 
operational support for the system, currently operates "in 
the black," and is expected to continue to do so until 2010 
when costs are expected to exceed income.  Costs of this 
program rose to USD 47.5 million in 2004 from 36 million in 
¶1999.  The number of workers in this program has increased an 
average of 7 percent per year between 1999 and 2003, 
resulting in higher salary and benefit costs to the program. 
The GOP: Its Strategy and Concerns 
¶9. (SBU) Entering office on September 1, 2004, President 
Martin Torrijos outlined an ambitious agenda of zero 
corruption, fiscal reform, social security reform, and canal 
expansion.  In February 2005, the Torrijos Administration 
followed through on fiscal reform, enacting legislation that 
tightened government spending and increased taxation (Reftel 
C).  While not popular, these reforms were passed and 
implemented quickly without much civil backlash, as some had 
feared.  However, the Torrijos Administration faces a steep 
uphill battle to win public approval of the upcoming social 
security reforms.  Long-known to be an actuarial time bomb, 
the CSS nonetheless is the sole source of retirement income 
for many Panamanians and, until now, has been the proudest 
achievement of Panamanian public policy.  Its reform, 
necessary in lieu of collapse, has sparked a volatile public 
debate over how to fix the system.  Complicating matters, the 
GOP believes a successful CSS reform is essential to a 
successful canal expansion referendum. 
¶10. (SBU) Recent media reports indicate the CSS draft reforms 
could be announced later this month.  However, Torrijos and 
his advisors have been tight-lipped about the reform's 
timeline and components.  Many supporters fear this lack of 
dialogue is unnecessarily intensifying public debate, by 
giving credence to the criticism that the GOP has plans to 
privatize the CSS.  Some GOP members fear that opportunistic 
unions will cause mass protests and rioting.  This fear is 
not ungrounded as some labor unions have already begun 
peaceful protests against potential CSS measures (i.e., 
raising the retirement age, increasing contribution level, 
among others).  Heightening the tension is the memory of 
September 2003's mass, violent protests over the firing of 
union-backed CSS director Juan Jovane. 
¶11. (SBU) Widely believed to be leading the Torrijos 
Administration's CSS reform plans are Rene Luciani, Director 
General of the CSS, Minister of Health (MOH) Camilo Alleyne, 
and Minister of Economy and Finance (MEF) Ricaurte "Catin" 
Vasquez.  Experienced and highly regarded in their respected 
fields, none of the three are seasoned political operatives. 
Some PRD supporters fear this lack of political experience 
will hurt the reform process as the trio is too focused on 
"crunching the numbers" rather than planning for the 
inevitable damage control.  Luciani, appointed by President 
Torrijos for a 5-year term as CSS's Director General, is a 
former Vice Minister of Planning and Economic Policy (now a 
part of the Ministry of Economy and Finance and CLICAC 
(Panama's Fair Competition Authority) Commissioner. 
¶12. (SBU) Rumors of the proposed reforms abound and only a 
select few have seen the draft bill.  PRD legislator and 
government-employee labor leader Leandro Avila, told EmbOff 
that "reforms are needed, but the GOP is not even counting on 
us to campaign in favor of them.  They (GOP) do not keep us 
(i.e., the legislators) posted."  Dr. Carlos Abadia, a 
prominent civic leader and former Vice Minister of Health, 
believes that the bill proposes, interalia, increasing the 
retirement age, contribution years, and monthly payments by 
the employers and employees. 
--------------------------------------------- --------- 
The People's Voice: Unions and Civic Leaders Speak Out 
--------------------------------------------- --------- 
¶13. (SBU) Panama's sometimes violent unions (Reftel B) are 
becoming increasingly vocal within the debate over social 
security reform.  Most major labor organizations support the 
"Popular Movement" 25-point reform proposal, which favors 
transferring state-owned property and businesses to the CSS 
(i.e., canal stock, former canal properties), increasing 
social security taxes and compliance, and taxing 
"representational funds" (which were taxed for the first time 
in the recent fiscal reforms).  (Note: Representational funds 
form a substantial portion of many professional government 
and public sector workers' salaries and are used to cover 
meals, events, and conferences.  End note.)  While Labor 
Minister Rivera asserted GOP property would not make a dent 
in the CSS problem, he told EmbOff that the union call to 
increase compliance within Panama's burgeoning informal 
sector was valid. 
¶14. (SBU) While Panama's major union umbrella organization, 
CONATO (National Council of Organized Workers), signed onto 
and continues to support the "Popular Movement" reform 
proposals, its members are split over protest tactics and 
have already held separate demonstrations.  Most CONATO 
members, aligned with and/or financially supported by the 
ruling PRD, are willing to "play ball" and follow a script of 
peaceful protest, negotiation, and concession. 
¶15. (SBU) On the other hand, CONATO member CONUSI 
(Confederation of Independent Labor Unions) takes the lead of 
its largest member, SUNTRACS (Sole National Union for 
Construction and Related Industry), a well-organized, 
financially and politically-independent Marxist union, which 
has been at the center of past violent protest (Reftel B). 
CONUSI Secretary General Gabriel Castillo told EmbOff that it 
will use protests, marches, and, if necessary, street 
closures and a general strike to push its proposals. 
SUNTRACS Secretary General Genaro Lopez is also pushing a 
referendum on the GOP's soon-to-be-announced proposal, a 
demand that may equate to a rejection of any proposal. 
¶16. (SBU) Comment.  The bottom-line for most unions and the 
general populace may be preventing an extension of the 
retirement age.  In a country where many workers still begin 
manual labor in their teens, retirement after more than 35 
years of physical labor at age 62 (for men or 57 for women) 
may seem to them not only justified, but medically necessary. 
 Regardless of which reforms are implemented, there is a 
sector within Panamanian civil society that will fight 
against the changes.  What is not clear, however, is the 
level of violence, if any, that will be employed by the 
protesters.  A senior GOP official told the Ambassador that 
the proposed reforms are not as severe as the unions are 
bracing for.  End comment.