Tim Padgett: Panama Hasn't Overcome Strong-Man Past

Roundup: Talking About History

Tim Padgett is Miami and Latin America Bureau Chief for Time magazine.

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."..

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