What next for Martinelli and CD?
by Eric Jackson
On August 31, in a decision that was delayed for a little more than a week due to last-minute supplemental briefs filed by Ricardo Martinelli’s Miami lawyers, US Federal Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres slapped down the fugitive former Panamanian president’s pleas as most legally educated observers expected. Martinelli threw up all sorts of arguments but his central plea was that the 1904 US-Panamanian extradition treaty didn’t contemplate illegal eavesdropping cases and that the amendment to this treaty that arguably cures that was not adopted until after Martinelli’s alleged crimes. But among the particulars of the extradition request were that Martinelli stole expensive electronic hardware and programs that were used for that surveillance, and theft very specifically is included in the original treaty.
Martinelli’s team says that they will now file a habeas corpus motion in the US District Court in Miami and there would be weeks, months or perhaps years until that comes to trial, time that Martinelli will spend behind bars. On another legal track, he has a request for political asylum pending before the US State Department which, however, had already assented to prosecutors’ move to extradite him. If that petition for refugee status — based on an alleged well-founded fear of political persecution — is denied, then Martinelli might send in the lawyers for an appeal of that administrative decision.
It perhaps depends on the whims of Donald Trump, who put his name on a hotel in a former mangrove swamp here and was furious at Martinelli and Panama that the 2011 opening of the Trump Ocean Club took place amidst knee-deep flood waters on the surrounding streets. The US president is also known to have vulgar and abusive things to say about Latin Americans and Spanish speakers in general.
Presuming that the Martinelli cases will take forever in the United States and that he will remain incarcerated while they unfold, he is still likely to maintain a facade of a political career. In intra-party elections likely to happen this year, Martinelli wants to run for re-election to his post as Cambio Democratico’s president and likely he will be, even if his jailers don’t allow him out to campaign. Speeches by telephone or recorded statements would be in the realm of possibility for a federal prisoner, but then such political activity would also be a classic violation of political asylum and might be used to deny Martinelli’s attempt to get refugee status.
Martinelli also says that he wants to be the Cambio Democratico candidate for mayor of Panama City in 2019. As a candidate for party president, or a candidate for mayor, he would have immunity from investigation or prosecution, which could be stripped from him. The process of lifting his immunity, however, would eat up time and perhaps allow statutes of limitations to run in the process. That, we have seen in a recent decision to throw out charges in the flagrant Finmeccanica radar, helicopter and digital mapping graft case, is a strategy that Panama’s Supreme Court will happily indulge. Whether the national or municipal electorate would be so forgiving is another question.
So where does that leave the Cambio Democratico Party?
It’s actually a slight exaggeration, if one counts everybody who was briefly a government minister during the five years of the Martinelli administration. Still, it is commonly said that all but one of the members of the former president’s cabinet is in jail, under house arrest, or out on bail with travel restrictions for this or that crime.
Why the big scandal, or bundle of smaller ones? Primordially it’s because virtually every government contract during those years was overpriced, with kickbacks in the equation. Some of the proceeds may have been diverted to individuals’ pockets but as a grand strategy that money was used to buy votes in the 2014 elections. Martinelli was just too crude, and his proxy slate of the empty suit José Domingo Arias and Mrs. Martinelli were just too clearly unqualified, for it to work.
Of the four important contenders for the 2019 CD presidential nomination, three — former labor minister Alma Cortés, former public safety minister José Raúl Mulino and former economy and finance minister Frank De Lima — are behind bars or have been in jail on various charges. The fourth contender, corporate lawyer and party secretary general Rómulo Roux, has not been prosecuted. He presents himself as the clean candidate after having served as canal affairs minister, Panama Canal Authority board chair and minister of foreign relations before quitting his public posts in 2013 to unsuccessfully seek the CD nomination for president.
There are people in the party who despise the photogenic corporate lawyer — perhaps former civil service director Mariela Jiménez chief among them. In his role as an attorney, Roux is likely to face some hard questions about his role advising HSBC in the tax-subsidized sale of Banistmo to that British bank, about his work with US-based energy company AES and about work for companies contending for canal expansion contracts that he later oversaw as canal affairs minister. He may get away with all of that, especially as the Panamanian people in poll after poll rank the Panama Canal as a shining success and the canal affairs minister as the most popular cabinet member.
In any case, with Roux and the top of the ticket and Martinelli running for mayor of the capital city — or whatever combination may emerge — CD is going to come out not only disgraced by scandal and fighting among themselves, but shrunken from factions splintering off.
Legislator José Muñoz was the first to officially go, having gathered more than 30,000 signatures to put a new party, Alianza, on the ballot. Does it stand for anything? This will be the fourth party in the legislator’s career — he started out with Solidaridad, then went with the PRD, then switched to Martinelli’s party — and when he talks to the press about that for which Alianza stands, it’s invariably in terms of “my aspirations.” A new vehicle that stands for nothing in particular may be quite popular for politicians who sell for what the market bears and ditch any brand that begins to go south as CD has.
There is an Evangelical political party gathering signatures — the Partido Alternativa Independencia Social or PAIS — and they are expected to gain ballot status. They are set to take both some of the religious zealots and the crudest and most profane politicians ever to hide behind a cross out of the CD legislative caucus into that formation.
Perhaps, however, the new parties might yet ally themselves with Roux or whoever gets the CD nomination for a united presidential ticket in 2019. The chances of that will be better known as the 2019 elections and the deadlines for alliances approach. Barring a new wave of Martinelli nostalgia — despite everything — it looks as if CD will revert to small party status in a contest that may be as fragmented as the one in 1994. But back then the PRD, disgraced by Noriega and ousted by the 1989 invasion, managed to win that year’s contest with a little more than one-third of the vote. One big difference, though, is that in 1994 Manuel Antonio Noriega was neither anywhere on the PRD ticket nor among that party’s leaders.
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