Panama Tiring of Status as Dustbin for Dictators


Jorge Serrano, the onetime president of Guatemala, today rules over a 125-acre country club outside Panama City, commanding an army of gardeners and dishwashers. In the capital, other failed ex-Latin American leaders try their luck at the casinos, or jog along the seaside Avenida Balboa.

For decades, Panama has granted asylum to ousted strongmen, from Serrano to the shah of Iran. But the arrival of Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s powerful former spy chief, has prompted an uproar, with many saying this young democracy should no longer be a dustbin for dictators.

“This makes us look like Ali Baba’s cave,” groaned Miguel Antonio Bernal, a former international affairs advisor to President Mireya Moscoso.


Montesinos fled to Panama on Sept. 24 after the release of a video apparently showing him handing a $15,000 bribe to a Peruvian congressman. The resulting scandal was so huge that Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori pledged to step down and disband Montesinos’ intelligence agency, which has been accused of torture, kidnappings and murder.

Panama initially turned down a Peruvian government request to take in Montesinos. But, after pleas from U.S. and Latin American officials, Panama issued him a tourist visa. The government has hinted it will soon give the thumbs up to an asylum petition by Montesinos, who claims he is suffering political persecution.

“As a country, we have maintained a policy of cooperating to solve these international political crises,” Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Aleman said in an interview. “There is a tradition of asylum. That may be why other countries ask our cooperation.”

But Panamanian politicians, newspapers and human rights activists are questioning whether that tradition should continue. To some, it’s a matter of national self-respect. Others say a broader issue is at stake: Who should get asylum? Latin American countries have enshrined the principle of political refuge, a reflection of the region’s turbulent history of dictatorships and rebel movements. But, with democracy now widespread, many say it’s more important to support local justice systems seeking to hold their politicians accountable.

“Political exile can’t cover acts like drug trafficking or death squads,” said Teresita Yaniz de Arias, vice president of the national Legislative Assembly. “We’re confusing the right to asylum with giving welcome and protection to someone trying to avoid legal responsibility.”

With its central location, bank secrecy laws and, critics say, lax security and judicial apparatus, Panama has long been a favored destination for those on the run.


In perhaps the most famous exile case, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi set up house at the Panamanian resort of Contadora after he was toppled by Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. It reportedly took five helicopter flights to transfer his luggage to the island.

In 1955, Gen. Juan Peron of Argentina moved for nearly a year to Panama, where he met cabaret dancer Maria “Isabel” Estela Martinez. She became his third wife and, later, president of Argentina.

More recent arrivals include Serrano, who fled to the isthmus in 1993 after unsuccessfully trying to impose one-man rule in Guatemala; Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army ruler who moved to Panama just before U.S. troops occupied his country in 1994; and Abdala Bucaram, the former Ecuadorean president who was impeached in 1997.

Generally, Panamanians have been tolerant of asylum-seekers. They point with pride to their history of taking in refugees, from Jews fleeing Hitler to Cuban boat people.

But Montesinos is a different story. His asylum petition has come under fire by former Panamanian leaders, opposition politicians and even the government’s human rights ombudsman. The Legislative Assembly, Panama’s congress, has demanded that the foreign minister explain the government’s actions. Newspapers have been filled with negative editorials, and there have been small protests.

Some say the uproar reflects this Central American country’s desire to step out of Washington’s shadow. Senior U.S. officials, along with Latin American leaders and the Organization of American States, urged Panama to accept Montesinos, saying it was necessary to head off turbulence or even a coup in Peru.

In the past, Panama routinely agreed to U.S. requests to accept asylum-seekers like the shah and Cedras. But since this country took control of the Panama Canal at the start of the year, citizens have a sense of increased sovereignty, analysts say.

“Since we received the canal, we are considering the question of how Panama can show an independence it didn’t have before . . . because of the strong U.S. pressure,” political analyst Julio Yao said. “Since we got control of the canal, all Panamanians want to clean up the face of the country.”

In addition to ethical and nationalist concerns, Panamanian critics reject Montesinos on practical grounds. They allege he could cause trouble, since he is believed to still exert widespread influence over the military and other institutions in his native land. They say it doesn’t make sense for a country like Panama, which doesn’t even have an army, to accept such a risk.

“We have enough corrupt people,” said Bernal, the former presidential advisor. “We don’t need to import them.”

Apparently fearing problems, the Foreign Ministry has imposed a gag order on Montesinos. It has booted out seven Peruvian police and army officials linked to the fallen spymaster who had tried to enter the country on tourist visas.

If he does start causing trouble in Peru, “it would affect Montesinos’ staying” here, said Aleman, the foreign minister.

Montesinos has kept a low profile. After arriving, he vanished from public sight, reappearing only in a photo Thursday in the Panama America newspaper. The picture, which the newspaper said Montesinos arranged at an undisclosed location, shows the 56-year-old exile in a chair reading a book with a vase of bird of paradise flowers beside him.

Peruvian opposition figures have demanded that Montesinos be returned home to face trial on bribery and other charges. But exiles in Panama have historically stayed beyond the reach of prosecutors.

For example, Guatemala sought to extradite Serrano, wanted on charges ranging from rebellion to misuse of millions of dollars of public funds. But Panama said no, and the former strongman today presides over the Hacienda Country Club, a resort featuring a faux-colonial clubhouse, pool and stable of 53 polo and jumping horses, set amid cloud-tufted mountains in the poor countryside. Employees at Serrano’s club told a visiting reporter that Serrano was abroad on business and unavailable for comment.

Like Serrano, Montesinos doesn’t seem to want for money.

In fact, the Peruvian appears to have foreseen the need to have a fallback country. He began seeking permanent resident status in Panama in January 1999, Aleman said.

According to a report by the Panamanian daily La Prensa, Montesinos declared in his application that he had enough money to support himself, presenting as evidence a $100,000 certificate of deposit in a Panamanian bank. However, Montesinos didn’t follow up on the residency procedure.

Newspapers here speculate that Montesinos has a good deal more money stashed in Panamanian banks, as well as property here.

For a country well versed in the art of asylum, Panama had a difficult time shaking off its own last military strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, who was finally removed by a U.S. military invasion in 1989. Aleman said the memory of that political crisis weighed on the minds of citizens here as they received Latin America’s latest political pariah.

“We Panamanians have lived this type of bitter experience,” he said. “This helps us to cooperate now with our brother country, Peru.”