Photo: Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli
President Obama will be meeting with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli Thursday to discuss security and trade. This meeting comes after Wikileaks released State Department cables in which Martinelli was not spoken of favorably.
The documents state Panama’s president has a “limited attention span” and tends to make “strong impulsive decisions with minimal information.” They go on to paint him as a vindictive, authoritarian man, obsessed with spying on his political rivals. It continues with claims that Martinelli is scornful of any questioning of what one cable called his “hyper-presidency.”
The not so warm relationship between the U.S. and Panama was only made worse by the cables, and with Thursday’s meeting ahead, it should make thing interesting, to say the least.
Abrasive encounters between the then-U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara J. Stephenson and Martinelli fill a number of the cables including one that
incident between the two that points to just how strained the relationship had become just days after Martinelli took office in November of 2009.
Stephenson once sent a cable to Washington that spoke of “a cryptic BlackBerry message that said, ‘I need help with tapping phones.’” In subsequent meetings, Martinelli and his aides stated that, unless a U.S.-designed wiretap program was expanded to allow the tapping of his domestic political rivals, he would reduce Panama’s counter-narcotics cooperation.
Olmedo Alfaro, Martinelli’s chief security aide, confided to U.S. officials however, that Martinelli wanted to use the wire-taps to “find out who ‘was sleeping with his wife,’” Stephenson said in a cable to Washington.
“His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike,” she later wrote. She would go on to inform the State Department of Martinelli’s attempts to place two “cronies” on his country’s Supreme Court to ensure he could control them. She added that he was trying to replace an attorney general he could not control, and was sending tax auditors after businessmen that gave support to his political foes.
Still, despite the conflicts, Panama will be following a U.S. model when it merges its customs and immigration bureaus.
“Panama is the first frontier of the United States in terms of security,” Martinelli stated after meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials Wednesday.
So as the meeting at the Oval Office concludes, it will be interesting to learn what was discussed with the Panamanian president Stephenson was speaking of when saying, “His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike.”