For starters, a greeting sent by the Secretary General of the Central American Integration System (SICA). But does Nito Cortizo really believe in that? Does anybody? He has xenophobes to contend with in his own party, he looks askance at agricultural “free trade,” until one hits Mexico the farther up the Meso-American Isthmus one goes the more disorderly things get, and then there is a very real identity issue that a lot of outsiders overlook. Is Panama primarily Central American, or are we more properly South American? Looking at the skinny parts on a map does not erase deep cultural and historical ties, even before the Spanish Conquest, that tie Panama closer to the Bolivarian Republics than to what were the United Provinces of Central America, of which we were never one. Graphic by SICA.
What role will Nito Cortizo set for Panama on the world stage?
by Eric Jackson
Who is this man?
Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo Cohen, 66 years old, Panamanian born and raised and of Galician and Greek-Jewish lineages, made his political distinction by an act of political dissidence within the PRD. He was minister of agricultural development in the 2004-2009 Martín Torrijos administration when he did what’s rare in Panamanian public life — he resigned over a matter of principle. He opposed the US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement that the administration had negotiated, warning that it would be a catastrophe for Panamanian farmers. His prediction was accurate.
Those who would cherry pick Panamanian history without knowing much about it might conclude that Cortizo was elected on the ticket of the party that General Noriega once called his own, so he must be anti-American and perhaps worse things than that. It would be foolish to conclude such a thing on that basis. Cortizo went to Catholic schools in Panama and Nicaragua before being shipped off to Valley Forge Military Academy to finish high school. He continued his soldierly studies at Norwich University – The Military College of Vermont, where he got a business administration degree, and then got an MBA and worked on a doctorate in international trade at the University of Texas. After leaving the University of Texas in 1981 he interned at the OAS in Washington and later worked in that organization’s attempts to end the region’s 1980s civil wars.
Cortizo was a protege of Gabriel Lewis Galindo, General Omar Torrijos’s foreign minister and a leading light of the business entourage part of the general’s political coalition. He came back to Panama in 1986 and dedicated himself to private business pursuits through the Noriega crisis, the invasion and its aftermath. In 1994 he ran on the Solidaridad ticket that was headed by Samuel Lewis Galindo and was elected to the National Assembly from the rural coastal circuit of Colon. He was re-elected to that post on the PRD ticket and for a time was the legislature’s president.
Thus Panama and the world are dealing with a man who knows Americans quite well. He has diplomatic experience. He is not known to just accept whatever deal is offered.
What stands might we expect from Cortizo?
Venezuela: He says that he will review Panama’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s acting president. He rejects the argument that the sister Bolivarian republic’s economic crisis is entirely a function of Chavista socialism, pointing out that Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998 amid hyper-inflation because the old oligarchy had run into similar economic problems. There are demagogues in the PRD who, citing various reasons, rail against the Venezuelans who are here — so whatever he might think of this (and he beat the most strident of the Vene bashers in the primary) it should not be expected that he would want to host any governments in exile or pretenders to the presidency or alternative courts. Nito Cortizo is unlikely to be persuaded by the Trump administration, and is likely to try to assert a Panamanian role as conciliator in a situation that may be irreconcilable. Whether he would allow Panama to be used as a military platform for US operations against Venezuela is an interesting question that he has not specifically addressed.
Trade. During the campaign Cortizo talked about agricultural trade but avoided any grand ideological stands about free trade in general. In the days since he has said that he intends to review all of Panama’s trade policies and agreements.
China versus the United States. Cortizo has warned that US inattention to the region is likely to boost China’s profile. Likely as in a warning not to send Mr. Pompeo here to threaten Panamanians who make deals with the Chinese, but instead for Americans to come here with better offers.
Panamanian neutrality. This is an interesting unknown. General Torrijos accepted that in his time Panama was headquarters of the US Southern Command, but also stuck to the basic principle that Panama’s best defense of itself and of the canal is a neutrality that gives nobody a good reason to attack. But Panama under Martinelli pretty much aligned with the Israelis against the Palestinians and under Varela tilted toward the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in their Sunni jihads against several of their neighbors. The last PRD administration was for Puerto Rican independence and recognized the POLISARIO Front as the legitimate government of the former Spanish Sahara, both of which stands Martinelli and Varela repudiated. There have been no pronouncements about these things from the Cortizo camp.
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