Commentary: Panama's economy is booming, but institutions aren't

Miami HeraldApril 21, 2011 

PANAMA CITY — Latin America's most strategically located country is booming, and its current prosperity is expected to accelerate in coming years thanks to a windfall of profits from the Panama Canal's expansion. And yet, there are fears about the country's future.

There is widespread anxiety — including from senior U.S. diplomats, according to recently released WikiLeaks cables — that President Ricardo Martinelli's bullying governing style might lead to an excessive accumulation of powers, increased corruption, political turbulence, capital flight, and an economic downturn.

According to a U.S. Embassy cable signed by former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the Panamanian president — a supermarket tycoon elected in 2009 for a five year term — "is prepared to push the limit to get what he wants." It adds that "his penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike."

The cable, published by the Spanish daily El Pais, also said that Martinelli had requested U.S. help to wiretap political rivals, something the U.S. Embassy refused to do.

Political opponents and some leading journalists accuse the president of having maneuvered to oust an independent attorney general, buying off opposition legislators in Congress, intimidating critical journalists, sending tax inspectors to independent media, and — most important — trying to convene a referendum to rewrite the constitution to allow his reelection.

"He's a right-wing (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez," Milton Henriquez, president of the opposition Popular Party, told me. "His plan is to grab growing powers to be able to remain in power indefinitely."

Martinelli has said repeatedly that his proposed constitutional reform would not allow presidents to serve for two consecutive terms, but would allow them to run for office after staying out of power for five years.

Critics say that's just a ruse. They say the president's referendum proposal — much like those of his leftist counterpart in Venezuela — will offer social subsidies in order to get voters to approve a package that would include a vague reelection clause, which a sympathetic justice system could later interpret as allowing an immediate reelection.

During a three-day visit here, I heard many leading journalists complain that Martinelli often calls them or their bosses to complain in a threatening tone about their writing or television comments. "This is the government that most intimidates the press since the days of (former strongman Manuel A.) Noriega's military regime," says Rolando Rodriguez, a top editor of the independent daily La Prensa.

What do you say about all of these charges, I asked Panama's Minister of Government and Justice Roxana Mendez in an extended interview. Is Panama heading for a right-wing populist authoritarian regime?

"There has been a definite change in Panama's governing style that a sector of our population perceives as an excess of authoritarianism," Mendez told me. "We were coming from a government that was weak, excessively tolerant and that avoided conflicts at all costs, and we now have a government that acts at full speed to solve problems without fearing tensions."

But what about Martinelli's calls to journalists, I asked.

"That's him," Mendez said, "If he is bothered by something, he will complain to you about it. But in Panama, there is not one single jailed journalist, nor any government lawsuit against any journalist, nor any media that have been shut down."

Regarding the Martinelli-proposed constitutional referendum, Mendez said — categorically — that "Martinelli will not seek an immediate reelection."

My opinion: Martinelli is not a right-wing Chavez, at least not yet. Unlike his Venezuelan counterpart, he has not shut down independent media, nor sent goons to physically attack critical journalists. And we have yet to see the language of his proposed constitutional reform.

If anything, Martinelli is a tropical version of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, minus sex scandals — a business tycoon who runs the country with the same I'm-the-boss attitude with which he used to run his businesses.

But with the expected doubling of fund transfers from the expanded Panama Canal to the government over the next five years, there will be a great temptation for Martinelli — or his successors — to go on a spending spree, proclaim themselves saviors of the fatherland, and try to remain in power indefinitely.

We have seen that movie before, and it always ends badly. Martinelli could end up being a good president, but he should learn that a system with strong institutions and checks and balances — including critical journalists — is the best for his country, and for his own good.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; email: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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