Panama recently issued an arrest warrant for former President Ricardo Martinelli claiming that he committed numerous crimes during his tenure, including the use of illegal surveillance on his political opponents. Corruption is an old enemy in Panama, but an independent judiciary and the efforts of President Juan Carlos Varela seem to signal that a new day has dawned.
Little over a year ago, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, an event that transformed global commerce and solidified an enduring relationship between the United States and Panama. Today Panama is the fastest growing economy in the region, and the U.S. is their largest trading partner.
There’s also widespread security cooperation between the two countries. In fact, it was through a partnership with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that Martinelli first proposed his domestic surveillance program. Martinelli urged the DEA to help him tap phones as he believed journalists, students, clergy, and politicians were plotting to kill him. The U.S. refused.
The Martinelli affair represents a rare political black eye on a democratic success story. Since the U.S. assisted in the deposing of dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, there has been a succession of democratically-elected, reform-minded leaders. This commitment to democracy has proven resilient.
The U.S.-Panama relationship has thrived anew under the reform-minded Varela, once a member of Martinelli’s administration. Varela ran and won on an anti-corruption platform. As longtime allies, the U.S. should support Panama’s painful but important fight to end corruption, including supporting Varela’s efforts to reform procurement law. Nothing can better cement the legitimacy of democracy than transparency and a level playing field.
Robert McMillan, Former Chairman of the Board, Panama Canal Commission, Garden City, NY