It was reported at the weekend that the Panamanian cabinet had approved an amendment supposedly strengthening Law 70 of January 31st 2019 which criminalized tax evasion for the first time.
For those of us who remember the invasion of Panama in 1989, Noriega’s sojourn in US prisons, and – even for those without much of a memory – the Panama Papers scandal, at first flush this appeared heady news indeed.
Not so fast.
With a smoking gun against its head from the main international financial agencies, and after a year of soul-searching (Google translate: searching for a soul), the Panamanian Government (good to know there is one) agreed back in January to outlaw tax evasion for amounts over US$300,000. In a country that the Economic Commission for Latin America reckons cradles upwards of $340 BILLION of evaded tax, that proved enough to buy some complimentary headlines in the international press.
What were the journalists smoking?
Panama operates a territorial tax system for both companies and individuals. That means everyone is only taxed on income sourced in Panama. Respectable tax rates apply, but the country is pockmarked with free zones and special economic areas (the difference between a zone and an area escapes me) where tax basically doesn’t apply. And then there are multinational enterprises which have a similar status despite not belonging to any zone, area or front drive.
Law 70, which threatens two to four years in the slammer plus payment of the tax owed, specifically states that the evasion to which it applies is only that against the National Treasury. Given the territorial basis of Panamanian taxation and the myriad exemptions, a tax evader would need to go to great lengths to evade US$300,000. In fact, it would be quite an achievement. And if he did, he could be expected to be sent home with a rap over the knuckles as long as he paid up the amount owed plus interest and penalties. However, just in case somebody clever managed to go the whole way, the purpose of the amendment reported this weekend was to exclude first time offenders. I think you would find that, statistically, most people caught evading tax big time are first time offenders (or, more precisely, first time getting-caughters). Even Al Capone, who would have hit it off a treat with Manuel Noriega, only got busted and convicted once.
So, what are the $340 billion of evaded taxes? Of course, evaded from everyone else. Law 70 doesn’t give a fig about all that, not to mention international money laundering.
Do they really believe they can fool all of the people all of the time? Judging by the press coverage, the answer might be ‘yes’.