The problem with Panama

Mary O’Grady looks at the changes in the Martinelli administration, as he moves Panama, a strategically-important country, towards totalitarianism:
Panama’s Democracy Goes South
When supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli became president in 2009, free-marketeers celebrated, but the honeymoon was short-lived.

The erosion of Panamanian pluralism under Mr. Martinelli seems to have originated in the 71-seat unicameral national assembly. In the last election, his party, Democratic Change (CD), won a mere 13 seats. But since then Mr. Martinelli has been able to persuade 23 other deputies to either defect to the CD or to vote with him in a coalition, thus providing the simple majority he needs for passing laws and confirming judges even as former supporters have become adversaries.

It is not entirely clear how Mr. Martinelli won over all those politicians. But it is worth bearing in mind that the Panamanian constitution was written during the military dictatorship and as such centralizes a lot of power in the executive. Thus Mr. Martinelli has enormous discretion in steering funds to selected congressional districts, and he seems to have used it.

Like Mr. Chávez in Venezuela, who also has a majority in a unicameral national assembly, Mr. Martinelli’s legislative advantage has allowed him to govern unchecked, despite loud protests from the independent press. And like Mr. Chávez, Mr. Martinelli has understood the power of the public purse.

His critics charge that he is corrupt. But that’s hard to know. What is troubling is that close Martinelli cronies have too often been named to posts that ought to be manned by politically independent professionals. One example is the comptroller general. She is a long-time Martinelli associate and the former internal auditor of one of his own companies, leaving the public wondering whether there is anyone really watching the till. He also seems to prefer no-bid contracts for the many public works that he is launching. This has heightened suspicions about the misuse of public funds.

Meanwhile he is reaching for more. Since 1997 privatization revenues have been cordoned off in a special fund with the stipulation that only the interest from the principle could be spent. But this government is creating a new vehicle for future privatization proceeds, and it will have no such constraints. Mr. Martinelli has announced that he will be the one to name its entire board of directors.

Now the president is hinting that he would like another term. Consecutive re-election is not permitted under the constitution, and changing that would require Supreme Court cooperation. He has already named four of the high court’s judges. (One of those, who is now president of the court, handled press censorship for the Noriega dictatorship.) A fifth is a reliable ally. Throw in the three new seats that he advocated for and filled, and two-thirds of the court is his.

And now let’s pause for a moment and thank Jimmy Carter for turning over a vitally important hub of commerce to a string of dictator wannabes.

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3 Responses to “The problem with Panama”

  1. Clark Says:

    These alarmist views are unfounded. Martinelli is a real-estate developer ( I don’t say corrupt since that would be repeating myself ) who, as anyone who has spent time in the country with its ciitizens knows, is the most unpopular president in many years, utterly without popular support. Even most of the politicians, including his own vice president, openly oppose him. Incidentally he’s suing the vice president civilly to intimidate him.
    Yes there will be even more turmoil than usual in the government in his last years of office, but he is much more likely to go on trial or into foreign exile than to be another Chavez.

  2. Jessica Ramesch Says:

    My Dear Fausta,

    Exactly what “string of dictator wannabes” are you referring to? It sounds as if you are not well informed. Can you name any of the presidents of Panama who have served since the arrival of Panamanian democracy and before Martinelli? There is no “string.” There’s Martinelli, and that’s it. Since Noriega was deposed and Panama became, once again, a democracy, government here has been stable. Ask Dell, 3M, Caterpillar, and hundreds of other multinational companies and banks why they’re here. (Hint: it’s not because Panama has been ruled by a “string” of dictator types.) Clark, whose comment is posted here, has the measure of the situation better than you.

    Thank you,

    Jessica Ramesch
    Panama Correspondent
    International Living

  3. Clark Says:


    Martinelli has tabled the bill to enlarge the supreme court and will send it instead to the National Commission for Development for discussion and analysis. It will be considered by the legislature only if there is a national consensus.
    The opposition parties have said they are happy with this resolution of the conflict.
    It’s been a while, unfortunately, since this sort of government was seen in Venezuela or Cuba.