Pompeo and Varela: two tales of one meeting

Pompeo, Varela and St. Malo at a photo op without questions. Later there were two widely different versions of the meeting given. Photo by the Presidencia.

Was it a screwball or a slider?

by Eric Jackson

Spin on a diplomatic meeting in which no reporters’ questions are taken is kind of gauche in diplomacy. Either things are confidential or they are not. Otherwise it can be embarrassing to one or both parties. However, spin becomes more important in times of alternative reality.

On Thursday, October 18, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo came to Panama for a three-hour visit, after which he stopped off in Mexico on the way back to Washington. Pompeo met with President Varela and Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de St. Malo. During and just after the meeting, when posing for the press, no reporters’ questions were taken or answered. The actual business sessions were behind closed doors.

In anticipation of the meeting some of the usual leftist and antiwar voices had expressed concern about a buildup toward an “October Surprise,” a US attack on Venezuela just in time for the November 6 elections. Such a move would probably be foolhardy — but since when has that ever stopped Washington from blundering? While there were acknowledgments that the situations in Venezuela and Nicaragua were discussed, there was no war talk for public consumption.

Afterward the Panamanian government issued its statement. The Presidencia described “a meeting that confirmed the solid relationship and successful strategic alliance maintained by Panama and the United States, at a bilateral, regionally and global level.” Strategic, they said? No actual strategy was mentioned. Discussions about drug trafficking, migration, Nicaragua and Venezuela were specifically mentioned in the presidential statement.

To reporters at the airport, Pompeo was talking something entirely different. The emissary of Donald Trump was coming with fraud warnings against China. “It’s when state-owned enterprises show up in a way that is clearly not transparent, clearly not market-driven and designed not to benefit the people of Panama, but rather to benefit the Chinese government,” Pompeo told reporters from The New York Times and selected Panamanian media. Not reported were any specific transaction with a Chinese entity, nor any particular US counter-offer to anything Chinese.

On the plane, Pompeo told the American reporters about Trump’s concern about “predatory economic activity.” No jaded Panamanians were present to ask questions about what used to be called the Trump Ocean Club and the questionable activities and associations that swirled around that before the Trumps were kicked out and their name removed from the building.


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