Noriega’s Back, but Panama Has Yet to Escape Its Banana-Republic Past

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Esteban Felix / AP

Panama's ex-dictator Manuel Noriega gestures while being carried in a wheelchair by a police officer inside El Renacer prison in the outskirts of Panama City, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011.

Panamanians are doing their best to register indifference to the return of Manuel Noriega. The 77-year-old former military dictator, drug-trafficking convict and all-around banana-republic creep, who’s been rotting behind bars in Florida and France since the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, was flown home Dec. 11 to begin serving 60 more years in prison for ordering the murders of political opponents in the 1980s. By collectively shrugging, his countrymen would like the rest of the world to think that Panama has moved well beyond those tropical strongman days, into a functioning, institutional democracy in which Noriegas are museum pieces.

Unfortunately, Panamanians are only fooling themselves, not us. While Panama can be commended for holding credible presidential elections since Noriega’s downfall, and its management of the Panama Canal since the 2000 U.S. handover has been stellar, the country has done little else to build its democratic bona fides. Its judicial system, for example, is about as dysfunctional and corrupt as they come in the developing world – a recent lowlight was a Supreme Court ruling that nullified a will leaving $50 million to Panama’s poorest children so that the deceased’s politically powerful relatives could get the money instead – and its current President, Ricardo Martinelli, seems determined to keep the caudillo tradition alive on the isthmus.

Martinelli, a right-wing supermarket tycoon, was elected in 2009 by a landslide. Since then, his authoritarian style has been reminiscent of Latin American strongmen of the past. Or, as noted in a diplomatic cable authored in the summer of 2009 by then U.S. ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson and WikiLeaked last December, “Our challenge is to convince [Martinelli] and others in his government that the 1980s are over in Central America.”

That cable is one of the most telling windows into Martinelli’s retro governance, which in many ways is a conservative version of that of his fellow Central American leader, left-wing Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose own autocratic bent is inviting comparisons to past Nicaraguan dictators like the Somozas. In the report, Stephenson complains of Martinelli’s “bullying” efforts to get the U.S. to help him wiretap his opponents. Martinelli “clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies,” the cable warned, adding that he “seems prepared to dispense with legal procedure” and even “chided [Stephenson] for being ‘too legal’ in her approach to the issue.”

See “Panama’s President: Trying on a Strongman Role?”

What makes the cable particularly eerie now, in light of Noriega’s return to Panama, is its insight that “Martinelli ran as a pro-U.S. candidate, and now assumes the U.S. owes him a debt as a right-of-center counterbalance to [socialist, anti-U.S. Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez in the region.” If so, Martinelli’s mind-set truly is a throwback to the Cold War, when Latin American leaders like Noriega – who in his heyday was known in Washington as “our man in Panama” – could leverage the U.S. because they helped keep communism out of their corner of the western hemisphere. To her credit, Stephenson rejects that arrangement as a 20th century relic, in spite of the U.S.’s frosty relationship with Chávez (who, like his pal Ortega, has built a troublesome caudillo reputation himself).

One hopes, in fact, that the Obama Administration leaned on Martinelli and got him to back off his more antidemocratic urges – including a law he rammed through Panama’s Congress last year that effectively voided labor rights, but which he later suspended following international outcry – before finalizing a free-trade agreement with Panama this year. (Colombia, after all, had to adopt deep labor reforms before it got an FTA with the U.S. this year as well.) Ditto when it comes to what critics call Martinelli’s harassment of the media – international journalism organizations have cited Panama as a dark place for press freedom these days – his disdain for separation of powers and his penchant for strong-arm police tactics. Panamanians themselves are indicating their displeasure: Martinelli’s approval rating plunged from 67% in August to 46% just a month later.

Panama matters because, as it expands the canal and builds up its financial industry, it’s bidding to become the Hong Kong of the Americas. Panamanians, as a result, perhaps shouldn’t be so dismissive about having Noriega back in their midst – or about the fact that the Martinelli government went to such pains to keep the former tyrant hidden from view when he arrived on Sunday. They would do well to keep Noriega more visible, at least in their minds if not their eyes. Panama is certainly a better country, and no longer a murderous government, since his fall. But as long as he sits in his El Renacer prison cell, Noriega should also be a reminder of how far Panama has failed to come.