March 5, 2018 at 5:50 PM
PANAMA CITY — A worker with a crowbar on Monday pried the word “Trump” from the sign in front of the only Trump-branded hotel in Latin America, after the building’s owner said he’d won a legal fight to take control of it.
The removal of the Trump name from the Trump International Hotel Panama came after a days-long standoff between the majority owner, Cypriot businessman Orestes Fintiklis, and the president’s company.
But the building’s future remained uncertain: The Trump Organization said it could still retake control of the hotel.
Fintiklis had sought to fire the Trump Organization — which has a management contract running through 2031 — because he blames the company and the Trump brand for poor revenue. The Trump Organization had refused to leave. There followed 10 days of confrontations, including shoving matches, a power outage and several appearances by police.
On Monday, a Panamanian legal official visited the hotel with an escort of 15 police officers. After a long session in a back room, the legal official left without comment. The Washington Post sought unsuccessfully to determine what, exactly, she had decided.
But, after meeting with her, Fintiklis was definitive. He said he had won.
“Today, this dispute has been settled by the judges and the authorities of this country,” Fintiklis told reporters. He declared that he was so impressed by Panama’s legal system that he would soon become a Panamanian citizen.
“And now, as you guessed it, I will play the piano,” Fintiklis told a crowd of reporters. He then began to play a tune on the piano in the hotel lobby, repeating a ritual that he had used to mark previous victories in the case. This time, Fintiklis played what he said was a traditional Greek song, “Accordeon,” an anti-fascist anthem. He sang along in Greek.
The Trump Organization, however, disputed that it had been defeated.
It issued a statement saying that the legal official had only shifted control of the hotel to a third-party administrator, while Fintiklis and the Trump Organization are still embroiled in court fights in the United States and in international arbitration.
“To date, there has been absolutely no determination whatsoever by any court or other tribunal as to the status” of the hotel, the company said in a statement from the Trump Organization’s executive vice president, Alan Garten.
At the hotel, Fintiklis seemed very much in control. He said he had fired 10 employees who had sought to block his control. Reporters saw some employees turning in Trump hotel IDs.
Then, as reporters watched, a worker with a hammer and a crowbar removed the Trump name from the large sign outside the hotel’s entrance.
For the third time since Inauguration Day, the Trump brand was coming down from a hotel. The cases illustrate a trend for the president’s business: His polarizing political brand seems to have alienated customers in liberal U.S. cities and some foreign countries.
In the other cases — at Trump-branded hotels in Toronto and Lower Manhattan — the owners struck deals with the Trump Organization, agreeing to remove the name.
In Panama, Fintiklis chose a more confrontational route.
Fintiklis bought 202 of the hotel’s 369 room units last year, assumed control of the hotel’s condominium owners association and quickly moved to kick out the Trump Organization.
“We are ALL losing money and it is getting worse. The only ill-deserved winner here is the [Trump Organization] who continues to clip management fees whilst our hotel is driven into the ground,” Fintiklis wrote in a letter to fellow hotel-room owners earlier this year.
The broader hotel market in Panama has collapsed amid overdevelopment and a slowdown in tourism. Average occupancy for luxury properties fell from 57.5 percent in 2012 to 40.3 percent for 2017, according to STR, a hotel market data company. But Trump Panama condo owners say their units have done even more poorly. Fintiklis said that, in 58 units, the owners had lost so much money on rentals that they were refusing to pay their condo fees.
The Trump Organization “continues to attach to our property like a leach, draining our last drops of blood,” Fintiklis wrote.
The Trump Organization refused to leave the property, saying Fintiklis had no legal grounds to break its contract, which lasts until 2031.
Fintiklis escalated the fight in late February, when he showed up in Panama and sought to fire the Trump management in person. That tactic failed, at first — Trump staffers refused to allow him in, and Fintiklis played a mournful tune in the lobby in protest.
The Trump Organization responded that Fintiklis had ignored previous legal cases and resorted instead to “mob-style” tactics.
When asked whether the president had been briefed on the dispute or had spoken to anyone in Panama about the fate of his business, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley wrote in a brief email response, “I’d refer you to Trump Org.” The Trump Organization did not immediately respond when asked whether it had been briefing the president on this issue.
Trump said he gave up day-to-day control of his businesses, including the Panama hotel, when he became president. But he still owns these businesses, and he can withdraw money from them at any time.
In his last financial disclosures, Trump reported that his company had made about $810,000 in management fees from the Panama hotel in the preceding 15 months.
Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.