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Panama Denying Charity to Children?

Despite high rates of GDP growth thanks to the canal and banking sectors, over 40 percent of Panama’s population is rural and poor. This population is already squeezed by Panama’s net food-importer status.  UNICEF statistics show that the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population has an annual family income 32 times that of the poorest 20 per cent, making Panama one of the most unequal countries in the world. More than half of children under the age of 5 live in poverty, and nearly 30 percent live in extreme poverty. Most of these children come from indigenous areas. And Panama is one of very few countries in the region that has experienced a rise in child chronic malnutrition, despite rising GDP growth. 

So why is Panama's government putting up roadblocks to the charitable distribution of nearly $50 million to combat child hunger? And not only that, but engaging in an extended harassment campaign against the lawyer designated to execute this will?

Here's the story from the International Herald Tribune's Marc Lacey:

In life, Wilson C. Lucom was not exactly child-friendly. The curmudgeon never had children_Kids03 himself, nor was he especially close to the offspring of his third wife, Hilda. When he opened his ample checkbook, friends say, it was more likely to finance a conservative political cause than to help underprivileged youth.

But Lucom, a native of rural Pennsylvania who spent much of his life in Palm Beach, Florida, surprised everyone in his will, which was disclosed upon his death two years ago at the age of 88. After doling out relatively small portions of his tens of millions of dollars to survivors, he left the rest to a foundation he had dreamed up in secrecy to aid the poor children of Panama, where he spent the final years of his life.

It would be one of the largest charitable donations, if not the largest, in Panama's history, but so far not a single child has had access to the money. The will has set off a vicious legal battle that is playing out in at least four countries. Criminal charges have been filed, insults traded and threats made. The number of law firms involved exceeds 20.

"This is all about greed," said Hector Avila, an advocate for at-risk children in Panama who organized a demonstration of young people in May outside Supreme Court in Panama, calling for Lucom's gift to be honored. Within a week of the protest, Avila survived a shooting. No link to the Lucom case was established.

Richard Lehman, a Florida-based lawyer, is the executor of Lucom's estate, and has set up a webpage describing his legal battle with Panamanian authorities. The situation has gotten so bad that Lehman has requested precautionary protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Listen to what Lehman and several charitable organizations in Panama had to say about the case:

I've spoken with Lehman a number of times, and he thinks that signing an FTA with Panama sends exactly the wrong message to a regime that fails to respect human rights, not to mention its disregard for the suffering children within their own national borders.

We'll keep you updated about any developments in this case, and feel free to go to the Lucom - Lehman website to become more informed, and please spread the word!

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