Panama Is More Than A Hashtag

Apr 9, 2016
Originally published on April 11, 2016 1:46 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a social media label that's been viewed around the world - #Panamapapers. The hashtag refers to the massive leak of documents that show how a Panamanian law firm has helped the world's rich, famous and infamous hide their money. But for many in the small Central American country, the scandal and that hashtag couldn't have come at a worse time. And some are fighting back. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Upset that their country has been reduced to a hashtag, Panamanians are filling their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages with this tourism ad...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KAHN: At the end of the 40-second promo showcasing Panama City's skyscraper-filled coastline, stunning white sand beaches and exotic animals, a dark screen reads, we don't want delinquents, money launderers or frauds. Panama is a true paradise with hospitable and honest people.

JAVIER ROZETTE GONZALES: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: "You can't judge a whole country by the actions of just one person," says Javier Rozette Gonzales, a Panamanian civil engineer. Rozette is referring to the actions of Mossack Fonseca, the Panama City-based law firm at the center of the financial scandal.

GONZALES: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: "It's only one firm implicated in this says," says Rozette. He's worried his country is getting a bad rap and that his international clients, including Americans and South Koreans, may stop investing here. He says a bad group of lawyers doesn't mean the whole legal system of Panama is corrupt. In fact Panama's banking and legal system had been getting positive marks for improvement. In February a respected international transparency group removed Panama from its so-called gray list. Eric Olson of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. says Panamanian lawmakers also had recently passed laws strengthening financial reporting.

ERIC OLSON: It's kind of unfair to just tarnish Panama as a country with all these scandals.

KAHN: Many of the offshore accounts created by the law firm were set up in countries throughout the world, including the United States. But he says while Panama is moving toward being more transparent, it still has a lot of work left to do.

OLSON: You know, it's a dollarized economy. And they've made this a priority. They attract the good and the bad and the ugly.

KAHN: And its refusal to sign onto some international rules on tax and financial disclosures isn't helping either. That hasn't stopped some prominent citizens from fighting back against the international scorn unleashed since the Panama papers leaked and the hashtag circled the globe. Pres. Juan Carlos Varela says his country welcomes all outside scrutiny.

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JUAN CARLOS VARELA: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: "These types of challenges strengthen us as a country fighting for financial transparency," Varela said on national television. Alfredo Motta, who runs an economic development think tank and is a member of the richest family in the country, says Panama's economy is solid, one of the strongest in the world today. And he adds banking and legal services are just a small part of what makes up the country.

ALFREDO MOTTA: Panama is much more than that. Panama is tourism. Panama is agriculture. Panama is the canal. So we are much more than that.

KAHN: And as the newest hashtag tweeted by Panama supporters says, Panama is not papers. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.