Friday, April 08, 2016

From Mallorca To Panama

Panama is a Central American republic which has gifted to the world a canal and a hat. In more general terms, its global impact is limited. It doesn't possess a national football team of any note, which might spread its name further, and hasn't been responsible for any international musical genre. In the relatively recent past, global attention was paid to it on account of General Manuel Noriega, a military ruler for whom corruption and abuse of human rights weren't options but ways of life. When the US finally invaded - Operation Just Cause - Noriega was removed from power, flown to the US, put on trial and sentenced to 40 years for, among other things, drug trafficking and money laundering.

Since then, Panama has become a more stable society, one mostly ignored by the world. Until now. To its canal and its hat, it has now added its papers. The world has also become familiar with a law firm called Mossack Fonseca, a firm that everyday folk around the globe would never have heard of. Less than everyday folk, however, knew a great deal about it. Panama itself is one of the chief tax havens cited, albeit that it lags some distance behind the British Virgin Islands. The Bahamas, the Seychelles, paradises in one regard have been revealed to be paradises in another - the Spanish refer to a tax haven as a "paraíso fiscal".

While the leaks have claimed Iceland's prime minister, cited the father of Britain's PM, implicated the president of Russia and have led to Swiss police interest in the headquarters of Uefa, they have also landed rather closer to home in Mallorca. Two of the island's major hotel chains have been forced to issue statements in respect of dealings with Mossack Fonseca. The Escarrer family (Meliá Hotels International) administered from 1985 a trust through Mossack Fonseca which looked after the wealth of the hotel chain's founder and president, Gabriel Escarrer Juliá. Meliá says that in line with Spanish government measures the situation has been "regularised" for a long time, with overseas bank accounts being declared to the tax authorities.

Luis and Carmen Riu Güell of Riu Hotels & Resorts had at least two offshore companies registered in Panama, which were linked to Mossack Fonseca. Riu says, however, that the association with Mossack Fonseca ended some years ago. It has stated that it complies with tax laws in both Spain and Panama. It might be noted that Riu has two hotels in Panama. As such, there now being bank accounts and registered companies would not be unusual. These are, says Riu, legally constituted companies.

It needs stressing that there is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing on behalf of Meliá, Riu or family members. But the leaking of their Panama connection could really not have come at a worse time. Or put it another way, it couldn't have come at a better time for certain politicians. Laura Camargo of Podemos was one of the first to put her Panama hat on. The matter will be taken to parliament next week. President Armengol will be asked what measures the Balearic government will be proposing to investigate what quantity of money has "allegedly" been "stolen" from the islands. She needs to be careful what she says, one can't help feeling.

Inevitably, the affair is being linked by Podemos to what Camargo describes as "serious cases of labour exploitation" in the Balearics. It is the accusations of exploitation plus the demonising of the hoteliers, especially the large ones, that make the Panama papers such a Godsend for Podemos. As it also is for David Abril, the most vocal of anti-hotelier Més voices. The large hotel chains should now cease giving lessons and advice in respect of tourism policy, he says. While the hoteliers have been campaigning against the tourist tax, they have been "diverting millions to Panama through phantom companies in order not to pay tax here". Even the town hall in Palma is having its say. Neus Truyol, the Més deputy mayor for ecology, wants the state to investigate cases of alleged tax fraud suggested by the Panama papers.

It might be noted that there are others mentioned in the papers. One of them is King Felipe's aunt, Pilar de Borbón, the sister of the former king, Juan Carlos. And in the case of the royals, her name appearing among the leaks is also less than opportune. One aspect of the ongoing Nóos trial is that Princess Cristina's husband was involved in diverting money to tax havens via the companies that he and ex-business partner, Diego Torres, set up.

The Panama papers will continue to throw up revelations, as potentially damaging as any from Wikileaks. Spain got away relatively lightly with Wikileaks, but now, and regardless of how correct affairs were or may have been, the political atmosphere is different. There are some who will smell blood. 

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