The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, is putting on a big show right now. Is it for the benefit of the voters in the May 2014 presidential and legislative elections, or is it for the United States, the historical kingmaker of Panamanian politics?
On July 11, the Panamanian government announced that it had boarded a North Korean ship, the Chon Chong Gang, on suspicion that it was carrying drugs. In fact, it was not, but did have on board a massive amount of sugar from Cuba and some armaments. The government of Cuba, where the ship had stopped before heading on to Panama, quickly explained that the armaments were obsolete items, some of them originally made in the 1950s, that were part of Cuba's air defense system. The Cuban Ministry of the Exterior said that they were being sent to the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea to be upgraded and repaired.
None of the items were offensive weapons capable of causing damage to other countries or contributing to alleged efforts by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, nor has Cuba ever attacked any of its neighbors. But 53 years of relentless U.S. hostility to the Cuban Revolution have made it necessary that Cuban anti-aircraft defenses be maintained at all times. Cuba does not have the capacity to manufacture such things, and to buy entirely new systems would be extremely expensive. However, Panama has referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council as a possible breach of sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Then on June 17 a former CIA official in Milan, Italy, Robert Seldon Lady, was arrested in Panama under an Interpol warrant. Lady and other CIA operatives had originally been prosecuted in Italy for their role in illegally kidnapping a Muslim man, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, and sending him, as part of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition program, to Hosni Mubarak's Egypt where he was tortured.
At the time of the conviction in the Italian court, the 22 CIA agents were no longer in Italy. Lady's conviction and 9-year sentence, since reduced to 6, triggered Interpol's intervention. Under normal circumstances, Panama should have sent him back to Italy to serve his sentence but at the last minute, Martinelli's government sent him to the United States instead, where he will have freedom and impunity. Italian authorities expressed frustration that Panama did not even give them a reason for not extraditing Lady.
Few people in Panama or beyond believe that Martinelli's government acted purely on its own initiative in these matters. The Panamanian officials said they were tipped off about the Korean ship, and it is assumed that the tip came from the United States. Likewise it is fairly obvious that the freeing of Lady was done at the request of the United States also.
Martinelli is a businessman of right-populist views. His international allies include U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., and some dubious figures in the government of former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Berlusconi. Although Panama has been relatively prosperous in recent years, the Martinelli government has earned the enmity of labor unions and indigenous organizations, whose protests he has crushed harshly. .
In particular Martinelli's support for rapacious mining interests in their conflict with indigenous communities has been condemned. In presidential and legislative elections scheduled for July 1, 2014, Martinelli cannot run again because of term limits, so his political party, Cambio Democratico (Democratico) is running Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias.
Issues for the elections include the question of corruption, which has grown greatly during Martinelli's tenure, and also labor rights and economic issues, including the high national debt. The centrist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has chosen former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro as its candidate, and the right-wing Panameñista Party, of former President Mireya Moscoso, is running the country's dissident vice president, Juan Carlos Varela. None of these candidates appear to be ready to join Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and others in challenging the neo-liberal "Washington Consensus" which stresses development through untrammeled foreign investment, expansion of environmentally unfriendly mining activities, privatization and austerity.
The left has not made a strong showing in recent Panamanian elections, but there is a possibility that this might change. A new left wing political party, the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD) has arisen from the activities of unions, indigenous rights and social justice organization, and is now in the process of deciding whether to contest the presidency in 2014. FAD activists report that people are joining the new entity enthusiastically.
Since the overthrow of dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, the United States has maintained a "hands on" policy toward Panamanian electoral politics, brokering deals for electoral alliances. This is likely to be the case this time around also. Mr. Martinelli is somewhat discredited because of the corruption allegations, and his extreme willingness to do the U.S. government's bidding in the matter of the Korean ship and the CIA agent may have something to do with wanting his party to be on the right side of the historical kingmaker of the North.
Photo: Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli delivers his annual State of the Nation speech at the National Assembly in Panama City, July 1. Arnulfo Franco/AP