PANAMA CITY - Pope Francis insisted Thursday that public officials live simply, honestly and transparently as he opened a visit to Panama and a region that has been rife with corruption scandals and is now coping with political upheaval in nearby Venezuela.
Francis didn’t mention the Venezuela crisis during his first remarks in Panama after a meeting with President Juan Carlos Varela at the presidential palace. He stuck to his script, celebrating Panama’s indigenous heritage and its place as bridge between oceans and cultures.
He thanked the government for “opening the doors of your home” to young pilgrims who have flocked here for World Youth Day, the Catholic Church’s big youth rally and the reason for his visit.
But he warned that those same young people are increasingly demanding that public officials live lives that are coherent with the jobs entrusted to them, and build a “culture of greater transparency” between the public and private sectors.
“They call upon them to live in simplicity and transparency, with a clear sense of responsibility for others and for our world,” Francis said. “To lead a life that demonstrates that public service is a synonym of honesty and justice, and opposed to all forms of corruption.”
Transparency International estimates that as much as 1 percent of Panama’s GDP, approximately $600 million, may have been lost to various corruption schemes during the presidency of Ricardo Martinelli, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014. Martinelli was extradited to Panama last year from the United States to face political espionage and embezzlement charges.
In addition, two of Martinelli’s sons have been detained in the U.S. and are being sought on corruption charges in Panama. They are suspected of receiving more than $50 million in “undue payments” from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which is at the center of one of the largest graft scandals in history.
Odebrecht has acknowledged paying nearly $800 million dollars in bribes in a dozen Latin American nations in return for favors and works contracts.
That includes at least $59 million in Panama, although authorities say the real figure is likely much higher. In addition to the Martinelli sons, the scandal has already implicated former government ministers under the elder Martinelli as well as people linked to the party of the current president, Varela.
The Martinelli family has denied involvement by the sons in the bribery scandal and alleges persecution by political foes. The former president also denies any wrongdoing and says he is being targeted politically.
But the Martinelli and Odebrect scandals are just some out of many that have plagued the region.
Transparency International’s latest index of perceived corruption ranks the entire Central American region poorly, with the exception of Costa Rica. Panama ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed globally in 2017, better than many in the region including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but still far from clean.
In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales has hamstrung the U.N.-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, which has pushed many high-profile investigations that have swept up politicians, public officials and businesspeople during its decade-plus of existence.
In El Salvador, former President Mauricio Funes is wanted for alleged corruption and is currently a fugitive granted asylum with several family members in Nicaragua. Another ex-president, Tony Saca, was sentenced in September to 10 years for embezzlement and money laundering.
In Honduras, former President Porfirio Lobo’s wife has been suspected of diverting $700,000 in public funds and his brother accused of pocketing about $300,000 in government money. His son, Fabio, was sentenced in the United States to 24 years for drug trafficking.
Mexico has seen a number of scandals involving purported graft or conflict of interest during the recently ended presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto. In perhaps the most high-profile case, Mexicans were shocked to learn that a mansion dubbed the “casa blanca,” or white house, was being sold to the president’s wife by a favored government contractor. Multiple governors have been accused of bilking millions from state coffers.
Pena Nieto’s successor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, made fighting corruption a cornerstone of his 2018 presidential campaign but has largely taken only symbolic steps against it since taking office Dec. 1.