Wealth stashed abroad
The reports were premature—no Filipinos have yet emerged from the so-called “Panama Papers” that hit the world headlines last week. The news that Imee Marcos and her sons, as well as Sen. JV Ejercito, were mentioned in the trove of documents leaked to world media as having secret offshore accounts turned out to be the result of some confusion: They were indeed listed, along with some 500 other Filipinos, not in the Panama Papers, but in an earlier exposé called the Offshore Leaks, which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)—the same media consortium that handled the enormous data breach from Panama—released way back in 2013.
The Offshore Leaks data already constituted a huge cache of documents: some 2.5 million files on about 120,000 offshore companies worldwide, painstakingly read through and analyzed by over 80 journalists from 46 countries—among them members of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—in an unprecedented 15-month collaboration before the results of their investigation were released to world media. Aside from Imee Marcos and Ejercito, former senator Manuel Villar was also revealed to own a secret offshore account in the British Virgin Islands, a known tax haven for the world’s elite.
But the Panama Papers dwarf the Offshore Leaks in scale and magnitude: five times bigger at 11.5 million documents, or some 2.6 terabyte pile of data spanning over 40 years, with information on more than 214,000 shell companies and offshore tax trusts owned by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people in 200 countries, and all from just one source: the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. So vast was the trove that the ICIJ—which was enlisted by the original recipient of the leak, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, to help sift through the data—in turn asked over 400 journalists of 107 media outfits in 76 countries to do a secret collaborative investigation of the documents.
The first reports based on their investigation began coming out on April 3, with 149 documents so far released to world media and the entire cache set to be released in May. But even that drop-in-the-bucket teaser has already triggered tremors in the international community, as the papers detail how various heads of state and other government officials in over 40 countries appear to dodge taxes and/or general public scrutiny on their wealth by hiding it in countries that conveniently provide such secrecy.
The world leaders mentioned in the first tranche of reports include those from Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Iceland, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates; the prime minister of Iceland became the first casualty of the Panama Papers when he resigned his post in the face of Icelanders’ fury at the revelation that he and his wife had interests in some of that country’s failed banks, at a time when the government was in credit talks with those same institutions. More shakeups loom as the leaked papers detail more transactions involving not just high-ranking government figures but also sports stars, drug lords, sundry royalty and other members of the world’s superwealthy.
Who will emerge to carry the honor, dubious or otherwise, of representing the Philippines in the list? We’d have to wait until May to find out; unfortunately, this time no Philippine media organization took part in the Panama Papers project. It’s also fair to point out that maintaining an offshore account is, by itself, not illegal or an indication per se of shady, unethical activity.
But the Philippines’ experience with wealth hidden abroad does not inspire much confidence that its practitioners are merely after their privacy and security. Anyone familiar with recent history would know the names “William Saunders” and “Jane Ryan”—the pseudonyms Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos used when they opened their first Swiss account in 1968, or merely three years into Marcos’ first term of office. The initial deposit: $950,000, a princely sum by any standard for the president of a poor country. But it wasn’t even Marcos’ first secret account; a year earlier, he had placed $215,000 in Chase Manhattan Bank in New York.
It was only after the 1986 Edsa revolt that these holdings came to light, detailed in the papers left in Malacañang after the Marcoses’ midnight flight from the wrath of the people. The Panama Papers should, at the very least, remind Filipinos of that fact: In this country, wealth stashed abroad is, more often than not, wealth stolen from the people.
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