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2 Resign From Panel Set Up To Rehab Panama's Financial System

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Panama took a beating earlier this year after the release of millions of documents dubbed the Panama Papers. They showed how a local law firm hid the money of the world's rich and famous in offshore accounts. The government hoped a new transparency commission would rehabilitate that country's battered reputation. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the recent resignations by two well-respected members of that committee have once again put Panama on the defensive.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Last April, Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela took to the nation's airwaves and vowed to clean house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JUAN CARLOS VARELA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are a government committed to transparency, accountability and a clear separation of powers," said Varela. And to prove it, he put together a committee of experts to help Panama achieve all that. To prove this was no fly-by-night committee, Varela got renowned Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz to chair the panel. It was a great public relations move by Panama, given the beating it was taking internationally.

But five months later, that committee has lost all street cred. A Swiss anti-corruption expert on the panel stepped down and so did the group's feather in the cap, economist Stiglitz. Stiglitz says he had no choice but to resign. He says he could never get assurances from the government that the committee's findings would be made public.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: We were rebuffed it in a way that we could only conclude that the government was not serious about transparency.

KAHN: Among the recommendations Stiglitz says he was pushing for were tighter regulation of Panama's free trade zones and mandatory disclosure of all owners of companies incorporated in the country.

STIGLITZ: When I raised that question in our first meeting, you could see the nervousness of some of the Panamanian members.

KAHN: One of those members, the only international expert left, Costa Rican Roberto Artavia says it seemed to him that Stiglitz made up his mind about the country from what he read in the Panama Papers and was too impatient.

ROBERTO ARTAVIA: You're saying Panama is not transparent, the government is not committed. Of course it is. It just realizes that it will take time to adapt its systems to where we need to go.

KAHN: Artavia says the committee will continue its work, and he's confident its findings will be made public. Eric Olson of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., says whether there were misunderstandings or internal differences between committee members, the resignations have hurt Panama's credibility.

ERIC OLSON: The only alternative for the government is to increase the transparency and increase their commitment and actually implement these recommendations, whatever they are, when they come out.

KAHN: Panama's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Miguel Hincapie says the government eagerly awaits the committee's report.

VICE MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS LUIS MIGUEL HINCAPIE: We have nothing to hide. We are prepared to make the final report public.

KAHN: The committee says it will hand the government its findings by the end of September. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.