John Feeley, the new ambassador of the United States in Panama, believes that the country has played a role in the global fight to prevent tax evasion, but said the U.S. is in favor of the position of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that Panama accept its standards for sharing tax information.
He also said that "Panama is more than papers," and Panamanians know it, so "it is not necessary to state these rhetorical defenses."
"It is necessary...to adapt the offshore industry here with the almost 40 jurisdictions worldwide, including three in the U.S.," the ambassador said, referring to Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada.
Feeley arrived in Panama two months ago, shortly before the publication of hundreds of articles worldwide based on documents leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca. Those revelations cast Panama in the global spotlight, even though the articles detailed the actions of only the law firm, and not the government or the country.
The new ambassador also inherited the situation involving former President Ricardo Martinelli, who since the end of January 2015 have been living in Miami, having fled Panama the day he was indicted by the Supreme Court.
Feely declined to discuss the Martinelli situation, saying he needed to respect the codes of diplomacy. But he did discuss the Mossack Fonseca situation, saying "Panama is more than papers" several times, a phrase that has been heard many times in the country since the investigation into MF became public.
He also noted the actions undertaken by Panama to conform to international standards of financial transparency, and said that the laws adopted by Delaware to create its offshore industry are basically a copy of Panama's laws.
"We live in a world where there are many lists," he said, referring to threats by countries such as France to place Panama on a list of non-cooperative jurisdictions.
What is your view of Panama?
It is extremely positive. Panama is a country where I had aspired to work, but for various reasons it was not possible. I've come nearly eight years after the first attempt. It is a country that has a history traced with the U.S. The warmth of the people, the times, the historical situation of the times that we are living in Latin America, all in all, leads me to say that I am happy to be here in Panama.
What have you focused on during these two months?
I have four priorities. They are very simple. One, to protect American citizens and commercial interests. Two, helping Panama in the strengthening of its democratic institutions. Three, establish, maintain and deepen cooperative ties with levels of security to combat crime. Four, expand the prosperity of Panama and the U.S.
Tell me about the projects in the fight against organized crime.
Panama is an excellent partner in the fight against crime in the hemisphere. Due to its geographical location, it is in the transit zone for cocaine that goes to the U.S. market. We accept co-responsibility and work with countries in the transit zone and in the production zone: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. We have a very fluid dialogue with all walks of life. In two months I've gotten to know all the commanders of the national border service, the national police and the national air service. The relationship is excellent, and includes very frank dialogue.
Will the U.S. assist with corruption cases?
I've said it before: corruption is a cancer in any society, and is part of human nature. There is no country or society that is immune to the temptation of corruption. This government is committed to the fight against corruption. It is working in terms of judicial requests. We want to be that partner that will continue working. We are helping Panama in its desire to attack, minimizing and controlling corruption.
What about the leak of the Mossack Fonseca documents?
First point: Panama is an excellent partner in the fight to ensure transparent business in the world. It had problems that were diagnosed by the FATF [financial action task force]. Immediately, Panama, and I'm not talking about only about the president and the minister of Economy and Finance, etc. I'm talking about society as a whole, and that includes the banking sector, among others, all put their hands in to help solve the problems that were designated by the FATF...I believe that Panama has complied with this issue, and will continue to do so, judging from the pronouncement of the president in Japan on common reporting standards; and the chancellor in New York. From this embassy, we have an almost daily conversation with officials of the US Treasury Department. It is unfortunate that the case is called Panama Papers, but I think Panama is much more than paper, and Panamanians know it. It is not necessary to proclaim these rhetorical defenses. It is necessary to continue this work to adapt the offshore industry.
Tell me about the 'offshore' industry in the U.S.
President Obama recognizes that even in the United States, we have offshore companies in Wyoming, Nevada and
Delaware. So I repeat the words of Obama: the Panama Papers is not a problem only of Panama. The global economy is presenting new challenges on the issue of tax evasion. We must respond in a multilateral context, with mutual respect. And that is precisely what Panama is doing, which seems to us to be the right thing.
What do you think of the role the ICIJ played?
As part of our policy, we support freedom of expression. We have a saying by Thomas Jefferson, one of our heroes. He said that if I had to choose between living in a country without a free press or political parties, he would choose to live without parties, because the information that flows to the citizenship is the basis of democracy. In Panama, you have a fairly free press. It does not face the threats that exist in Colombia, in Honduras or in
Mexico, where I participated in programs for the protection of journalists. I also have a very personal reason, my son is journalist, and I am the media client, and as a customer, I have a firm commitment to freedom of expression.