Electing a Murderer?
2:31 PM, Sep 4, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
In June of 1992, right before President George H.W. Bush's scheduled visit, a group of Panamanian thugs ambushed an American Humvee north of Panama City, killing a U.S. soldier. Among the murderers, according to a U.S. indictment, was a man named Pedro Miguel González. Over the weekend, González became leader of the Panamanian National Assembly.
His election comes at a time when Panama's center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) is torn between its moderate wing and a more radical bloc associated with jailed dictator Manuel Noriega, who led Panama until his ouster by U.S. troops in 1989. According to Otto Reich, who served as a senior diplomat for Latin America under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, González "belongs to the Noriega faction." Reich says the PRD radicals consider Panama's current president, MartÃn Torrijos, also of the PRD, to be "too moderate" and "too pro-U.S." If the name sounds familiar, that's because MartÃn's father was the late Omar Torrijos, Panama's erstwhile military ruler.
For Panamanians, the timing of González's elevation could not be worse. Congress is now mulling the U.S.-Panama free trade agreement, signed in June, which Panamanians broadly support. But Democratic House leaders are demanding that Panama first amend its domestic laws before the FTA is approved. Having González installed as Assembly leader will only harm the country's image.
González, of course, maintains his innocence in the 1992 murder case. In 1997 a Panamanian court acquitted him. But as Reich points out, senior U.S. officials believe that the trial was "a sham." The State Department is now aghast at his political ascendance.
In an official statement, Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said that Foggy Bottom was "deeply disappointed" with the choice:
Panama is currently experiencing a tremendous economic boom. ("It looks like Dubai," says Reich.) Thus far, Torrijos has pursued responsible policies to sustain the boom and has eschewed the radical line promoted by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. He has shown that Washington need not fear center-left Latin leaders, provided they uphold democracy and free markets. Even though corruption persists, as the Economist noted in July, "Mr. Torrijos's government has a cleaner record than its predecessors," and has also "been rather more effective than its predecessors."
But the election of González is a big setback. "The U.S. sees this as very, very worrisome," Reich says.