How Guns N' Roses brought down Manuel Noriega

June 26, 2015

by AQ Online

It was thanks in part to rock and roll hits from bands such as The Doors and Guns N’ Roses that Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, fell from grace. In December 1989, with Noriega holed up at the Vatican embassy in Panama, the U.S. military installed a line of stereo speakers around the building blaring songs such as “Dead Man’s Party” and “All I Want Is You,” a sort of psychological warfare meant to force the notorious strongman to give himself up. On January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered, and the man commonly ridiculed as "old pineapple face" has been sitting in court rooms and jail cells ever since. 

Yesterday, in his first interview since 1996, a softened Noriega appeared on local television to plead forgiveness from the Panamanian people for atrocities committed under his regime. Speaking from a jailhouse in Panama with Telemetro, the now 81-year-old ex-dictator's hands trembled as he read a statement saying he wanted "to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group asking for forgiveness.” 

Noriega has spent the last 21 years in custody for a long list of crimes that include money laundering in France, murder, corruption, embezzlement and crimes against humanity in Panama, and drug smuggling and racketeering in the United States. In the interview, Noriega claimed to be "totally at peace" with himself, and said he decided to break his 19 year silence after a period of reflection with church members and family, denying any motivation of personal interests.

But many family members of the victims of Noriega's regime were unsatisfied with his apology. Karina Ortega, whose father was a sergeant killed during a failed 1989 coup attempt, did not believe Noriega's words to be sincere. KIlmara Mendizabal, whose brother was disappeared under military rule, thought the ex-dictator's apology was significant but that he should "say where the remains are of every person disappeared under the dictatorship.” Noriega's statement, addressed to those “offended, affected, injured or humiliated” by the actions of his superiors and subordinates, did not mention any specific abuses.

While his apology may be a step toward closure on Panama’s dark, painful past, the motivations of a man alleged to have faithfully worn red underwear to ward off the evil eye will likely remain a mystery. According to RM Koster, a biographer, “the problem with Noriega is you can never distinguish between what’s true or not.”

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Tags: Manuel Noriega, Panama, Military Dictatorship

Panama's success isn't just about economics

June 25, 2015

by AQ Online

Over the past decade, Panama has often been in the international spotlight thanks to robust economic growth rates that consistently outrank those of its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. On Wednesday, the country received a different kind of attention after taking the top spot in the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index for the second year in a row.

The index, which uses public surveys to assess factors such as health and sense of community, found that 53 percent of Panamanians were thriving in three or more of five key areas (social, financial, physical, community and purpose), and were more likely to have positive perceptions of purpose and physical well-being than the residents of any other country.

Amid talk of a potential "economic miracle," Panama's position on the list offers a different perspective of the country’s success. But is there a connection between the country's economic achievements and the satisfaction Panamanians feel in their daily lives? Indeed, Panama’s broad economic gains over the past several years—the country averaged an annual growth rate of eight percent from 2003 to 2013—may suggest a correlation between its citizens’ sense of well-being and economic prosperity.

High levels of investment, notably in infrastructure projects like the Panama Canal expansion and Panama City’s metro rail, a first for Central America, may affect residents' sense of where their country is headed. Panama attracts the highest level of foreign direct investment (FDI) among Latin America’s smaller economies and ranks first in the region in FDI as a proportion of GDP. This type of growth means a greater likelihood that the government will spend more on social programs, healthcare and education.

Still, the extent to which Panama’s high level of well-being is driven by this economic success is difficult to ascertain, and there may well be other explanations. One is the neighborhood: countries from the Americas took 11 of the top 20 spots in Gallup-Healthways index, and according to Gallup, the "residents of many Latin American countries are among the most likely in the world to report daily positive experiences such as smiling and laughing, feeling enjoyment and feeling treated with respect each day.”

Whatever the cause, the country certainly has room for improvement. Panama ranked ninth out of  17 countries in Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index, losing points for the government’s lack of efforts to report on socio-economic indicators and leaving it tied for last in protecting LGBT rights. Corruption remains a stumbling block, as does a large income gap. After a focus on economic growth under the previous administration, President Juan Carlos Varela, who was elected last year, has promised to make improving social inclusion a priority. If he follows through, one can expect Panama to see even more success in the well-being of its citizens.

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Tags: Panama, Social Inclusion Index

Summit of the Americas: U.S.–Cuba Rapprochement, But What About Cuba–Cuba?

April 10, 2015

by Jaime Hamre

As a crowd gathered outside the entrance of the Summit of the America’s Hemispheric Civil Society and Social Actors Forum on Wednesday—one of four sponsored gatherings being held on the margins of the summit—a small parade of youth hoisting large Cuban and Venezuelan flags approached. Chanting revolutionary slogans such as “Viva la revolucion! Viva Cuba libre! Viva Venezuela,” they quickly forced their way to the entrance, where they were blocked by de facto bouncers attempting to sift those with badges through the chaos. “All of us or none of us, damn it!” one protester yelled.

The scene was a clear manifestation of the tension leading up to today’s summit, as Cubans from two opposing political poles—both claiming to represent the real Cuba—have flooded to Panama to be heard. Big name Cuban dissidents such as Berta Soler and Miriam Celaya headed human rights forums this week sponsored by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and Florida State University-Panama. Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez represented her new publication, 14 y medio, in the press pit—alongside Granma and other Cuban state publications. While famed Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez inaugurated the parallel People’s Summit on Thursday, his son Silvito El Libre was slated to perform at a hip hop show sponsored by the Nation Endowment for Democracy in another part of town.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela has been under fire from both sides of the Cuba divide since he invited Cuban President Raúl Castro to the summit (Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama soon after issued their historic announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement on December 17).  Miami hardliners and Cuban dissidents condemned the temporary detention of dissident Rosa María Payá after she arrived at the Panama City airport, as well as the perceived legitimization of Cuba’s current government by Panama.  Meanwhile, the Cuban government and pro-Castro groups protested the reported arrival of Guillermo Fariñas—recently pictured with Luis Posada Carriles, who was involved in the 1976 bombing of the Cuban flight 455—and Félix Rodríguez, implicated in the death of Che Guevara.

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Tags: Summit of the Americas, Panama, Cuban dissidents

Negotiations Continue over Panama’s Barro Blanco Dam

March 23, 2015

by Louisa Reynolds

A new round of negotiations will begin on March 27 over Panama’s $225 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project—now 95 percent complete, but the source of a long-standing feud between the Generadora del Istmo  S.A. (GENISA) company, the contractor for the dam, and the Ngäbe Buglé Indigenous group, which is vehemently opposed to the project due to environmental concerns.

After a wave of local protests stalled construction work on February 9, the Panamanian government launched negotiations with GENISA and Indigenous communities on February 21. The government has since agreed to investigate alleged environmental violations committed by GENISA, including the mismanagement of solid and hazardous waste and failure to coordinate the use of explosives and flammable substances with the fire department.

GENISA is a Panamanian company created specifically for the construction of the Barro Blanco dam. The project has been financed through equity capital, as well as loans provided by the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).

The talks are being led by a high-level committee headed by Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, and facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City. Other committee members include Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera, Interior Minister Milton Henriquez, Labor Minister Luis Ernesto Carles, and Minister for the Environment Mirei Endara.

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Tags: Ngäbe Buglé, Barro Blanco Dam, Panama, consulta previa

Cuba and the Summits of the Americas

September 5, 2014

by Richard E. Feinberg

If the U.S. wants to keep the Summit of the Americas process on track and regain some measure of influence in the hemisphere, it will have to change its Cuba policy, pronto. Reframing our policy and saving the Summit process isn’t as tough as it seems; it just takes leadership.

In coming months, the United States is going to face a tough choice: either alter its policy toward Cuba or face the virtual collapse of its diplomacy toward Latin America. The upcoming Summit of the Americas, the seventh meeting of democratically elected heads of state throughout the Americas, due to  convene in April 2015 in Panama, will force the Obama administration to choose between its instincts to reset Cuba policy to coincide more closely with hemispheric opinion and its fears of a domestic political backlash.

During her visit to Washington on September 2, Panama’s vice president, Isabel Saint Malo, indicated her intention to invite Cuba to the Summit, but public U.S. statements failed to commit President Obama’s attendance.

The periodic inter-American summits have become more important than ever for U.S. regional diplomacy, but our Latin American neighbors have said—firmly and unanimously—that unless Cuba is invited, their chairs will be empty. At the same time, the alarming specter of photos of Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro conversing around the same table, apparently as equals, will set off a political reaction among the Cuban-American hardliners, Democrats and Republicans alike—the thought of which gives the White House politicos heartburn.

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Tags: Summit of the Americas, Cuba-U.S. relations, Panama

Monday Memo: Panama Elections – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – Uruguayan Marijuana – Colombian Mine Collapse – Brazil Soccer Death

May 5, 2014

by AQ Online

This week’s likely top stories: Juan Carlos Varela will be Panama’s next president; talks between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are postponed; marijuana legalization goes into effect in Uruguay; a Colombian mine collapse kills at least 12 people; a Brazilian soccer fan is killed in Recife.

Juan Carlos Varela Wins Panamanian Election: Juan Carlos Varela of the Partido Panameñista won a highly anticipated election on Sunday as Panamanian voters elected their next president. With 80 percent of votes counted, Varela had gained a 7 percent lead over his closest rival, José Domingo Arias of the ruling Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change), with Partido Revolucionario Democrático (Democratic Revolution Party—PRD) candidate Juan Carlos Navarro in third. Both Arias and Navarro conceded victory to Varela on Sunday night, although the election results are not yet official. Varela will take office on July 1 with Isabel Sain Malo, who will become vice president.

Talks Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic Postponed Again: A third round of talks between the Haitian and Dominican government have been postponed a fourth time after Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, who is mediating between the two countries,  asked to reschedule. Haitian and Dominican leaders were expected to discuss trade, health, tourism and migration on May 6—and to address last year’s Dominican Constitutional Court decision that has left hundreds of thousands of descendants of Haitian immigrants born in the Dominican Republic without citizenship. A first round of talks between the two countries took place on January 7, and a second round took place on February 3. The third round was originally scheduled for March 12, and is now expected to take place on May 8.

Uruguayan Marijuana Law Comes into Force: Uruguay’s marijuana legalization law will go into effect on Tuesday, permitting Uruguayan adults to grow up to six cannabis plants and to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug each month. All Uruguayan pharmacies that choose to sell cannabis must register with the national government, as do all individuals who wish to purchase marijuana from pharmacies. Diego Cánepa, head of the country’s drugs board, said that the sale of cannabis is not expected to begin until late 2014, but that the licensing process for companies to grow the plant will be rolled out within the next 15 days.  Uruguayan President José Mujica, who will visit the White House on May 12, has criticized pot laws in the United States, saying that Uruguay’s policies will be more restrictive.

Death Toll Rises in Colombian Mine Collapse: At least 12 people were killed when an illegal gold mine in Colombia’s Cauca department collapsed last Wednesday night. After three victims were identified last week, rescue workers recovered more victims this weekend, and say that at least four other people who are still missing may have perished. The mine collapse was the second in less than a week in Colombia, after four miners in Antioquia department died after inhaling toxic fumes in an illegal mine.

Brazilian Soccer Fan Killed in Recife: A 26-year-old Brazilian soccer fan was killed outside the Estadio do Arruda in Recife on Friday, when unidentified fans ripped toilet bowls out of the stadium bathroom and threw them from the top deck in a match between Santa Cruz and Paraná. Brazilian authorities will bar fans from the stadium for the next two matches and said that Santa Cruz fans will be banned from all stadiums until those responsible for the death are identified. The Arruda stadium will not host any World Cup matches, which start next month.

Tags: Juan Carlos Varela, Panama, Marijuana, Uruguay, World Cup

Panama, Colombia To Sign Trade Agreement

September 20, 2013

by AQ Online

Panama and Colombia are expected to sign a bilateral free trade agreement in Panama City today, finalizing a commitment that was reached by the two countries last June. Panamanian Minister of Commerce and Industry Ricardo Quijano and Colombian Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Sergio Díaz-Granados will participate in the official treaty-signing ceremony.

During a television interview yesterday, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli expressed optimism about the agreement, saying that it is pivotal for Panama’s integration into the Pacific Alliance. Panama currently has free trade agreements with Chile and Peru and seeks to establish bilateral trade agreements with other Pacific Alliance member states—including Mexico, Chile and Colombia.  

Martinelli also confirmed that the agreement will end what he has deemed an "unfair and detrimental” aspect of Panama’s trade relationship with Colombia. Currently, Colombia imposes a 10 percent “re-exportation” tariff on Panamanian-produced textiles and footwear before they are shipped internationally from Colombia’s free trade zone, Zona Libre de Colón. Last year, Colombian exports to Panama amounted to $2.857 billion, 80 percent of which was accounted for by crude oil. In contrast, Panama only exported $72 million of goods to Colombia, represented mainly by apparel shipments.

Tags: FTA, Colombia, Panama, Ricardo Martinelli

Panama-U.S. Trade Deal Goes Into Effect

November 1, 2012

by AQ Online

A trade deal between the U.S. and Panama that was negotiated five years ago went into force on Wednesday. The agreement, which will allow increased U.S. exports into the country, was signed by former president George W. Bush in June 2007 and ratified by Panama’s parliament the same year. However, the U.S. Congress held up the agreement with concerns over Panamanian labor protections and tax haven laws. It was finally ratified on October 12, 2011 and signed into law by President Obama on October 21, 2011.

The trade promotion agreement, known in Spanish as El Tratado de Promoción Comercial (the Treaty of Commercial Promotion) will eliminate Panama’s tariffs on 86 percent of U.S. goods such as cars, medical and information technology, chemicals, and electrical equipment. It also eliminates Panama’s tariffs on 50 percent of U.S. agricultural exports. Other tariffs will be phased out over time. The agreement will open the U.S. market to 100 percent of Panama’s industrial and fisheries products, as well as textiles and artisanal items.

Ricardo Quijano, Panama’s minister of commerce and industry, said that the trade agreement would benefit Panamanian consumers, who he said will pay less for products that enter the country without taxes. He argued that the agreement will give Panama the tools it needs to compete in a free market economy while the country is in the midst of a $5.3 billion canal expansion project.

However, members of Panama’s agricultural sector are worried that they are not prepared to deal with a flood of low-priced products from the United States. The Asociación Nacional de Benefactores y Exportadores de Café (National Association of Coffee Benefactors and Exporters) said they were worried about the reduction of tariffs on instant coffee.

“The direct consequence of this measure is the accelerated loss of the national market stocked by national producers, benefitting transnationals with a lot of economic power,” said the coffee producers in a public announcement.

The U.S. is Panama’s principal trade partner, with $163 million of Panama’s $785 million in exports destined for the U.S.

Tags: Panama, Panama-U.S. trade, trade promotion agreement

Monday Memo: AQ’s Top Expected Stories for the Week of August 13

August 13, 2012

by AQ Online

Top stories this week are likely to include: Fidel Castro’s birthday; Buenos Aires subway shutdown continues; public teachers to end striking in Panama; talks to renew in Colombia between the government and the Indigenous Nasa; and a possible dialogue over Venezuela’s detained U.S. Marine.

Fidel Turns 86 Years Old: Cuba’s revolutionary leader and former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86 years old today. He faces health issues, having stepped down from the presidency in 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery—and has not been seen in public or mentioned in the news since June 19, according to Reuters. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini notes of the occasion, “Six years ago when Fidel Castro stepped aside to pass the torch to his brother Raúl, people thought the end was near. Give the man's staying power credit, but really, what modern country in the region and in the world remains as centered and fixated on an 86-year-old man? It's a sign of how little Cuba—and U.S. policy toward the island—has progressed. We're all stuck in the past.”

Subway Shutdown in Buenos Aires: A strike by union employees of Buenos Aires’ municipal subway system is entering its tenth day today, with no end in sight after talks broke down on Friday with the administration of Mayor Mauricio Macri. The subway shutdown has inconvenienced between 600,000 and 1 million daily commuters. Macri, the most prominent figure of the opposition Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal—PRO) party, is blaming the ruling Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) party, to which President Cristina Fernández belongs. Macri is accusing FPV operatives of inciting the union workers, who are demanding a 28 percent increase in pay. Buenos Aires Deputy Mayor Maria Eugenia Vidal stated that the city officials “just don’t have the means to pay for this.” Pay attention to see if there will be any breakthrough in negotiations this week.

Teacher Strike to End in Panama: Leaders of a teacher strike in Panama reached an understanding with the government on Saturday to end the weeklong strike today. Teachers were protesting over issues such as decaying classrooms and insufficient pay.

Santos-Nasa Mediation To Resume in Colombia: Leaders of the Indigenous Nasa group expect to set a date by this Tuesday for the resumption of mediated talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos. More than 10,000 Nasas marched in the department of Cauca yesterday demanding the government return to the table. Cauca, in southwest Colombia, is home to many rebels belonging to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The Santos administration, therefore, has placed many Colombian soldiers in Cauca as part of the ongoing internal conflict with the FARC, which the Nasa view as a threat to their territorial sovereignty. The Nasas and the government, however, hope to reach an agreement through mediation.

Venezuela-U.S. Showdown Over Detention: After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced late last week that police have detained an American citizen who claimed to be a former U.S. Marine, tensions have flared between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments. According to the Associated Press, a State Department official said that the U.S. authorities were not notified of his arrest. Chávez has openly suspected that the detainee, whose name has not been released, may be a “mercenary” scheming to destabilize Venezuela. Stay tuned to see if there may be more updates on this case in the coming week.

EXTRA, Rio 2016: After yesterday’s closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the world’s attention turns to Rio de Janeiro for 2016. But is the city ready? Check out AQ’s television segment on Brazil and the Olympics on the “Efecto Naím” program on NTN24. 

Tags: Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Indigenous Rights, Education, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, Cristina Fernandez

DC Water Cooler: Hold Drops and Ambassador Swaps

April 11, 2012

by Liz Harper

On March 29, the U.S. Senate confirmed several of President Obama’s diplomatic nominations, many of whom were tapped to serve in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). Here’s a brief rundown of the confirmed WHA officials and their new positions: Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Larry Palmer, Ambassador to Barbados; Pamela White, Ambassador to Haiti; Phyllis Powers, Ambassador to Nicaragua; Jonathan Farrar, Ambassador to Panama; and Julissa Reynoso, Ambassador to Uruguay.    

Not only do these confirmations provide a celebratory sense of relief, as many of these officials waited months for their nominations to proceed through the Senate, but the timing could not be better as the U.S. delegation prepares to depart for Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend’s Sixth Summit of the Americas.

Jacobson was nominated in late September after becoming acting assistant secretary in July 2011 when her predecessor, Arturo Valenzuela, returned to academia. It’s both notable and laudable that a woman is leading WHA for the first time.  

Jacobson’s candidature was challenged by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who placed a hold on her nomination last November with a call to the Obama administration to “review abuses in the people-to-people Cuba travel policy.” Rubio dropped his hold on March 22 following guarantees from the State Department that it would require “applicants to demonstrate how their itineraries constitute purposeful travel that would support civil society in Cuba and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities,” according to the senator’s news release.

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Tags: Bolivia, Panama, Venezuela, Barbados, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, U.S. Department of State, Roberta Jacobson