MS OBALDIA: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Olga de Obaldía. I am the executive director of the Panama Chapter of Transparency International. Our organization is called Foundation for the Development of Civil Liberties, or Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Libertad Ciudadana. It is a pleasure for us, our organizations from the nongovernmental sector that are interested in democratic institutions, anticorruption, and transparency, to welcome today to Panama Mr. Secretary Antony Blinken, and I would like to welcome as well the government officials that are here, the embassy officials that are here, the champions of corruption from three countries – Venezuela, Guatemala, and Ecuador – and local activists that are our comrades-in-arm in this fight against corruption in Panama.
I’ve been asked to give you a brief introduction before I’ll let you hear from the star of the meeting, Mr. Blinken, and I’ll start by mentioning something about the American Trade Hotel where we are right now. The American Trade Hotel and Plaza Herrera – Herrera – just in front of us here are symbols of the resilience of Panama in the – and we are in the Old Historic District of Panama. This plaza dates from colonial times, and the building where we are right now – sorry – and the building where we are right now dates from the republican period. It was built in 1917 and housed the American Trade Development Company, and in the hall next door was the first Citibank that helped finance the Panama Canal.
After falling through disrepair, it ended up housing dangerous gangs in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and the 2000s, and at some point the building was called the Grey Skull Castle, if you can imagine that. And through community movement and local investors, the building was rescued and it’s right now one of the symbols of Panama’s resilience. Panama has been through colonial times, republican times, to a dictatorship, to an invasion, and a new era of uninterrupted democracy since 1990.
However, our democracy right now is being threatened by corruption in multiple fronts. I will just mention four of them, and I’m sure that most of the local press and the local officials are very well informed of what we are facing through regarding corruption and lack of transparency.
To start with, let me mention the critical impact of the impunity and the judiciary; second, the corrupt clientelist structure and practices in the national assembly that trickles down to communities and affects electoral fairness; third, a lack of fiscal accountability in the use of public resources; and fourth, a lack of a robust legal framework to fight and prevent corruption in the public and the private sector.
Our instruments to measure corruption are telling us that Panama is stagnant in the fight against corruption. For the last 10 years, Panama has had an average rating of 36 over 100 in the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International. Moreover, the last transparency index of our parliament showed that Panama has the fourth most opaque parliament or congress in the whole of the Americas. That has an impact, a terrible impact, on the population, and in the last few years, Panama’s population has been showing a lack of faith in democracy. Sixty-five of Panamanian – 65 percent of Panamanian citizens, when asked, are not choosing democracy as their favorite form of government.
On top of that, we need to understand that the relationship between national security and corruption that was so well outlined in the June 3rd memo of the White House regarding the matter is the same thing in Panama. Our national security right now is being threatened by the inclusion in politics and private financing of politics for monies that are known to be from organized crime. And I think you all – most of you know about these facts, and I think this is enough for me. I thank you for the opportunity of talking to you about these matters that are extremely important for us, and I give you Secretary Antony Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you so much. Thank you. And I appreciate very much the reference to being a featured attraction, but the truth of the matter is these are the stars of the evening – our colleagues who are on the front lines of fighting corruption in various parts of our hemisphere.
We’re here principally because our friends and colleagues in Panama are bringing together countries from around the hemisphere to help deal with the extraordinary phenomenon of irregular migration. But one of the things we know very well is that one of the drivers of that irregular migration is corruption and the revulsion at corruption that people are feeling in many countries in our hemisphere and around the world.
If you look at, as well, the drivers of so many popular movements in every part of the world over the last couple of decades, you often find a revulsion at corruption as being one of if not the driver of these movements. And there’s a good, good reason for that, as Olga said so well. It is draining resources from countries that could be put to much better use supporting the people and supporting their needs. It breeds incredible and understandable cynicism about government and about leadership. It fuels all sorts of illicit enterprises. And of course, it helps perpetuate nondemocratic rule in country after country.
So it is at the source of so many challenges, and we are incredibly gratified that we have champions who at great, often personal risk, as well as professional risk are leading the effort to uncover corruption, to create greater transparency in their societies, to prosecute those responsible – and again, in some cases at such risk that you’ve had to leave the countries that you’re from for your own safety and well-being.
The United States is working hard to support these efforts throughout our hemisphere and indeed around the world. Part of it is by elevating the work of those who are combating corruption, and we are honored and proud to do it. Part of it is by supporting civil society through the funding, assistance, training that we give. Part of it is trying to make sure that we’re doing what we can to protect those who are on the front lines of this effort.
So I was really anxious to be here, not to talk to you but to hear from you, to listen to the work that you’re doing, the challenges you’re facing, and to learn a little bit about how we can do even better and do even more to help in this fight and to help you in your efforts. So let me turn it over to you. Thank you. (Applause.)