Last August I warned about the troubling signs coming from Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli. Elected in 2009 on a free market platform, Martinelli has quickly embraced interventionist economic policies (particularly a sharp increase in public spending) that sooner or later will take a toll on Panama’s macroeconomic stability. More worryingly, I pointed at a disturbing pattern of cronyism, erosion of democratic checks and balances, and harassment of the media emanating from the Martinelli administration.
A cable released by Wikileaks this week seems to confirm many of these fears. Dated August 2009 and signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, it describes Martinelli’s “autocratic tendencies” such as asking the U.S. government for help to wiretap political opponents—a request that was promptly rejected by the U.S. embassy in Panama. Stephenson goes on to say that, after meeting the Panamanian president, she is under the impression that Martinelli “may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”
According to the cable, Martinelli has resorted to “bullying and blackmailing” of private businesses. Stephenson describes how the Panamanian president told her that “he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data.” A bill has also been introduced in the National Assembly (where Martinelli’s coalition enjoys a large majority) that would “require registry of prepaid cell phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the government for criminal investigations.” Martinelli also told Stephenson that “he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions.”
The cable ends noticing how “[m]ost of [Martinelli’s] government appointments have favored loyalty over competence.” That is, the Martinelli administration is riddled with cronyism– as I wrote back in August.
There is new evidence outside of the Wikileaks cable which confirms Martinelli’s ominous autocratic inclinations. For instance, international media organizations have lambasted the Martinelli administration in recent months for its encroachment on independent media. Reporters Without Borders dropped Panama 30 spots in its latest Press Freedom Index, noticing that the country “has taken an opposite direction, in an atmosphere growing increasingly tense between the media and the authorities.” The Interamerican Press Association says in its most recent report on Panama that “[o]ver the past six months, freedom of the press has been threatened by actions by institutions belonging to the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, as well as from the Judicial Branch and the Prosecutors’ Office.” As I pointed out in my August op-ed, Martinelli has appointed loyal (and controversial) figures to both the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.
The diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks as well as these reports by international organizations lend credibility to the argument that Ricardo Martinelli is a growing threat to Panama’s rule of law and democratic institutions. Panamanians have a lot to be worried about.