Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela defended his country’s financial reputation and reiterated Panama’s commitment to greater transparency Tuesday in the wake of the leak of millions of documents that show ties between world leaders and a Panamanian law firm that specializes in setting up shell corporations.
Speaking at the 46th annual Washington Conference on the Americas, an event hosted by the Council for the Americas at the U.S. State Department, Varela said the leaks, known as the Panama Papers, revealed a global problem, and he called on world leaders to work together to increase transparency and share more tax information.
“Many countries’ . . . legal and financial structures are still vulnerable of being used for purposes that do not represent the common good,” Varela said. Still, he added, “Panama held its head up high and continued our irreversible course toward reform and transparency.”
Varela and other Panamanian leaders have complained that the country has been wrongly maligned as a tax haven. He said he was determined to ensure Panama’s financial transparency, that his country was working with other nations to share tax information and that he favored creating an international panel to improve transparency in Panama’s offshore financial industry.
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Varela, whose comments were part of a larger discussion of his country’s economy – including the expansion of the Panama Canal – was the keynote speaker at the conference, which brings together foreign dignitaries and U.S. policymakers and business leaders. Speakers included Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan-American Health Organization.
Pritzker spoke about improved relations with Cuba and touted President Barack Obama’s recent trip as helping to animate the Cuban people to press for political change that will eventually lead to the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo.
She declined to predict when she thought that might happen, but she said it would be very difficult for the U.S. to reverse course now, after the re-establishment of direct U.S.-Cuba mail service and the expansion of travel to the island, including new cruise ship service.
“The Cuban government is evolving,” she said. “They’ve clearly embraced engagement. But they’re not rolling over to say we’re going to change who and what we stand for. So it’s a process.”