Viewing cable 06PANAMA14

06PANAMA142006-01-05 14:43:00 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 
¶1.  (SBU)  In May 2005, when newspapers reported that the 
University of Panama (UP) had issued thousands of false 
diplomas, Professor Miguel Antonio Bernal quickly took the 
lead in denouncing the school's administration.  Bernal went 
even further and filed criminal charges against university 
rector Gustavo Garcia de Paredes and other university 
administrators.  Bernal has fought an open battle with UP's 
administration for several years.  In April 2004, Rector 
Garcia attempted unsuccessfully to fire Bernal for publicly 
criticizing his management of the university.  In September 
2005, the university's academic council declared Bernal 
"persona non grata" for his statements about the diploma 
scandal.  Bernal plays the role of a political gadfly well 
and is an engaging personality.  He has gained  celebrity 
status in Panama through his radio talk show and frequent 
op-ed articles in the national daily "La Prensa."  During a 
meeting at his law firm's office with PolOff (Bernal no 
longer has a university office), Bernal spoke freely about 
the university's scandal and called the University of Panama 
"the place that teaches the corruption that permeates all 
levels of Panamanian society."  End summary. 
¶2.  (SBU)  In the wake of the May 2005 UP diploma scandal, 
the government allowed Garcia to conduct his own internal 
investigation.  Garcia's investigation, not surprisingly, 
found that he had no involvement in the issuance of 
fraudulent diplomas.  Garcia admitted that some students 
received diplomas who had not registered and paid for their 
final coursework.  The Secretary General of the university 
resigned following the investigation but is now a full-time 
professor at the university.  No other university staff were 
punished or dismissed.  Garcia's continued presence damages 
the university's reputation and makes it increasingly 
difficult for UP alumni who wish to study in graduate and 
professional schools abroad.  Bernal claims that his 
antagonism to Garcia is not a personal vendetta but an 
obligation he feels to his country.  Outspoken and 
opinionated, Bernal clearly enjoys his notoriety.  However, 
he is also driven by his vision of the type of nation Panama 
could be if the GOP fixed the public university system and 
took steps to reduce corruption in the country.  Bernal also 
believes that failing to repair its educational system will 
be disastrous for Panama. 
Panama's first Public University 
¶3.  (SBU)  Founded as Panama's first public university in 
1935, UP's purely academic role was sacrificed following the 
1968 military coup.  Prior to the coup, UP was the school for 
middle class Panamanian students who could not afford to 
study abroad.  When UP students took their opposition of the 
military dictatorship of Omar Torrijos to the streets, the 
general closed the university for several months and reopened 
it with lower admission standards and reduced fees.  Torrijos 
described those changes at the time as ensuring education was 
available to the poor as well as the rich.  The university 
reemerged as the nation's center of left-wing politics as 
General Torrijos expanded his power base.  Politically 
disloyal professors and student groups were purged from the 
university.  The school's reputation and academic standards 
and credentials have suffered since that time.  Panama's 
national university has become just another example of how 
corruption is tolerated in Panama, according to Bernal's 
Fixing the University - Not a Priority 
¶4.  (SBU)  Wealthy Panamanian families continue to send their 
children abroad for their college education.  Current 
President Martin Torrijos is one of Panama's many graduates 
of Texas A&M University.  Panama's Ambassador to the United 
States, Federico Humbert attended Notre Dame University. 
Since a good education is available to those with the means 
to pay for it, fixing the problems of a dysfunctional 
university are not a priority for the GOP.  However, failing 
to create an educational system that works for the country's 
middle class, only fuels a shortage of well-trained educators 
and technocrats that could help Panama advance as a nation. 
Although Panama has conducted a review of their judicial 
system this year, nothing has been done to address the 
problems at the national university. 
An Outspoken Professor, Political Activist, Celebrity 
--------------------------------------------- -------- 
¶5.  (SBU)  Bernal, 56, has a long history of opposing 
corruption and the status quo in Panama.  He is a professor 
of constitutional law who earned his doctorate in law and 
political science from the Sorbonne.  As a Fulbright 
Professor he taught at Lehigh University, and later Wake 
Forest University.  He is one of the few internationally 
recognized intellectuals in Panama.  In 1975, Panama's 
military government exiled Bernal because of his open 
criticism of their rule.  In 1979 while he protested against 
the Shah of Iran's presence in Panama, police beat him 
severely, resulting in his hospitalization.  He is not 
currently affiliated with any political party but he 
campaigned unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for 
mayor of Panama City in 1999.  Bernal frequently writes 
newspaper articles critical of corruption in Panama and has a 
popular radio talk show four days a week.  On the streets of 
Panama, people recognize him, engage him in conversation, or 
shake his hand from their car windows. 
Corruption 101 Taught at the University 
¶6.  (SBU)  Bernal described Panama as a country with a 
corrupt environment: "The government is corrupt, the private 
sector is corrupt, and the legal system is corrupt.  The 
worst corruption is at the University of Panama where they 
teach corruption."  Bernal is concerned about the integrity 
of the university where the majority of Panamanian college 
students study.  Exuding exasperation he said "If we (the 
university) can't prepare the people to run the country, we 
are in trouble.  The university is going downhill and is 
giving diplomas to the undeserving." 
No investigation necessary? 
¶7.  (SBU)  The lack of a real investigation of the diploma 
scandal gives credence to Bernal's comments.  In April, 
following a confrontation between student groups, Bernal was 
given photocopies of bogus diplomas issued by UP.  Bernal 
informed Panama's Attorney General about the phony diplomas. 
When the Public Ministry announced plans to investigate the 
awarding of fraudulent diplomas, Rector Garcia closed the 
registrar's office and blamed the closure on student 
demonstrations against social security reforms.  In response 
to a subsequent Supreme Court summons, Garcia justified the 
closure of the university's records building by explaining an 
investigation by the Public Ministry would have violated the 
university's "autonomous" status.  Garcia announced that an 
internal investigation revealed that he had no involvement in 
the issuance of fraudulent diplomas.  The Secretary General 
of the University resigned following the investigation but 
now has a full-time university teaching position and serves 
as an advisor to the rector.  In fact, no one of all the 
persons involved in diploma irregularities were punished. 
Professor Bernal maintains that hundreds of persons, some of 
them now important persons in Panama, including Minister of 
Government and Justice (MOGJ) Hector Aleman, have received 
fraudulent diplomas from the university. 
Rewarding Excellence in Education? 
¶8.  (SBU)  In July, two months after the diploma scandal 
exploded, Torrijos signed a law granting Garcia increased 
authority over faculty tenure decisions and allowing Garcia 
to run for reelection as rector for a third time.  Bernal 
describes Garcia as "someone protected by Panama's 
establishment" and blames the university's problems on 
elements of the ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) 
that still control the university.  With 74,000 students 
(2.5% of Panama's population) and 4500 professors UP is a 
large institution.  Full time students pay only $27 per 
semester to attend the school, payable in installments.  Many 
choose to become "professional students," taking one course 
per semester and remain enrolled at the university for years. 
 The GOP spends approximately $1350 per university student, a 
relatively low figure that produces a low-quality education. 
Paranoid or brilliant? 
¶9.  (SBU)  Bernal sounds somewhat paranoid when he describes 
the university's frequent student demonstrations as a 
cooperative effort between the GOP and the university.  He 
cited demonstrations demanding clean-up of former U.S. 
military firing ranges that occurred immediately after the 
announcement of President Bush's November 2005 visit to 
Panama.  Student demonstrators threw rocks and molotov 
cocktails on the streets near the university and then 
retreated into the campus to continue these activities.  Some 
students used large slingshots to launch stones from the 
university onto cars and police on the nearby streets. 
Citing the tradition of universities as a place of sanctuary, 
the university does not allow the police to enter their 
grounds to stop the rock throwing and to arrest students. 
After  demonstrating, the students eat in university 
cafeterias and then leave the campus in a university-provided 
bus.  Following the anti-Bush demonstrations, however, the 
Panamanian National Police (PNP) stopped a bus after it left 
the university and arrested six demonstrators.  Bernal, 
however, believes these arrests were an anomaly on the part 
of the PNP and that MOGJ Hector Aleman will not allow these 
arrests to continue.  (Coincidentally, a group of bank 
robbers recently drove their get-away car to UP's congested 
campus area prior to abandoning it and fleeing on foot.) 
Demonstrations - Government safety valve 
¶10.  (SBU)  Bernal also believes the GOP allows violent 
student demonstrations to further their own policies.  He 
feels peaceful demonstrations (as those that occurred in May 
and June against social security reforms) would truly hurt 
the government.  By allowing violent student demonstrations 
to occur, the GOP redirects attention towards the students 
who are seen as unreasonable by the Panamanian public.  Also, 
the violent nature of some of these student demonstrations 
deters other citizens from joining the demonstrations or 
protesting.  Bernal maintains that "By closing the streets, 
the government can control the demonstrators and prevent real 
massive demonstrations.  If the real people took to the 
street, the government would fall." 
Other Problems Exist at UP 
¶11.  (SBU)  Bernal also asserts the university's finances are 
in trouble but the comptroller of Panama has never 
investigated them.  Bernal claims lucrative contracts to 
operate restaurants and copy centers on the university are 
awarded to friends of Garcia.  He also maintains that there 
are "phantom workers" who are on the school's payroll but do 
not work.  Humberto Alcache, a handyman who works for the 
rector was arrested for stealing computers in 2002 but the 
charges against him were dropped.  Contracts to operate 
Kiosks that sell snack food and copy centers that reproduce 
textbooks and student handouts are also awarded to friends of 
Inappropriate use of sanctuary? 
¶12.  (SBU) Bernal is particularly bothered by the university 
policy that allows violent students to use the university as 
a refuge.  He told PolOff that the university protection 
exists to protect freedom of expression, not criminal acts 
and recalled that he had protested against the military 
dictatorship without violence.  Bernal described typical 
student demonstrators as big and strong, unlike the short, 
skinny students that make up the majority of the university's 
enrollment.  He called many of the demonstrators "permanent 
students" who have been at the university for 12-15 years and 
take a single course each semester to remain enrolled. 
Bernal beliefs about university sanctuary differ radically 
from university rector Garcia.  Following the arrest of the 
six students, Garcia called their arrest an abuse of the 
autonomy of the university.  Bernal also resents the 
university being closed periodically because of student 
demonstrations.  "It hurts the university when it is closed. 
It hurts education in Panama.  A classroom should always be 
open.  The university has become a center for political 
interests, not academics."  (Comment: UP recently reopened 
following a week long closure due to student protests.) 
Comment: Can UP be saved? 
¶13.  (SBU)  Bernal is not sure if the university problems are 
solvable.  He is concerned about his country's future and 
believes Panama needs more contacts with the outside world. 
"In the future, Panama may not be able to defend its 
interests.  Our people aren't ready to assume positions of 
responsibility.  The telephone company had to hire Spaniards 
to work in critical fields like security."  He is discouraged 
about the role of outside universities in Panama such as 
Florida State and Louisville University.  In the early 1990s, 
Bernal unsuccessfully approached several other American 
universities about establishing branches in Panama.  "Student 
exchanges with American universities, could erase some of the 
bad feelings between our countries.  The international 
scientific community should build centers around the Panama 
Canal to protect this environment.  Many Panamanians now go 
to Canada to learn English.  Why not exchange 500 students 
between the US and Panama to teach them English and Spanish?" 
 Bernal calls Panama "an intolerant, closed society that must 
open up to the rest of the world.  People need to become 
involved in the government or another crazy could come to 
power in Panama.  Populists governments, such as Venezuela, 
are dangerous." 
¶14.  (SBU)  Bernal is more than a self-serving academic.  His 
academic credentials alone would allow him to live 
comfortably in many other developed countries but he is 
passionate about Panama.  He fears the university's problems 
will affect Panama's ability to compete internationally.  UP 
today lacks modern libraries, laboratories, and computer 
equipment as the result of mismanagement and inadequate 
budgets.  Bernal describes the situation as a disaster for 
Panama and a major deterrent to foreign investment.  He calls 
the university "a place where people learn how to cheat.  An 
architect or lawyer leaves the university with a diploma he 
or she did not really earn, unprepared to do their 
professional work."  Bernal concludes "The University of 
Panama teaches students to be corrupt.  If you're not corrupt 
in Panama, you are a controversial figure - like me."