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  HOME | Central America

Panama a ‘Strong’ Regional Partner — Varela
Cutting ties with Taiwan was the ‘right thing to do’

By Charlette Sosa

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- “We are a strong partner” for regional security, said Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela at the Inter-American Dialogue. He emphasized, the major “challenges” Latin America faces are “creating economic development and stability, fighting the illicit drug trade, and solving the Venezuelan crisis.”

“Fighting inequality is just as important as fighting crime,” Varela said. Panama is “investing” its funds based on “social criteria.” He said country’s growth stood at 6.4 percent.

During Monday’s meeting with US President Donald Trump, “we shared challenges” on remedying the stalled growth of Central America’s Northern Triangle, immigration problems, as well as tackling drug trafficking issues throughout Latin America.

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador need to promote “heavy” private investment to create jobs and combat “inequality.” Panama, Varela said, “is ready” to help encourage “a brighter future in the Northern Triangle.”

Varela’s moves to “reform and professionalize” Panama’s security forces — including the some 6000 officers in counter narcotics operations — were applauded by US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. The US appreciates “Panama’s leadership as a regional partner,” Kelly said in release after meeting with Varela Tuesday.

“Panama is a case study” on how to fight crime and corruption, said Varela. The Attorney General has been given “full range” to prosecute and protect “our national economic interests.” Following the money trail will net us some US$500 million, he added.

Between 30% and 40% of Panama’s security budget is devoted to fighting the illicit trade and their syndicates, he noted. The homicide rate is down 45 percent, he added.

Varela gained the presidency as a severe critic of a former ally. His predecessor Ricardo A. Martinelli, fired him in 2011 from his post as Panama’s Foreign Minister. Varela’s five-year campaign against corruption won him clear victory in 2014.

Last week, police in Coral Gables, Florida arrested Martinelli. He is alleged to have diverted US$13.4 million meant for social programs to illegal cyber spyware operations, reported The New York Times. Panama has asked for Martinelli’s extradition.

When questioned on Venezuela, Varela said that he had inherited about 100,000 cans of tear-gas and to date “not one has been fired.” When an administration “uses” tear-gas and military force on a daily basis — this equals absolute “loss of governability and the capacity to rule.”

Panama was among the 20 countries whose Foreign Ministers favored an Organization of American States (OAS) draft resolution censuring Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s Administration. They were three votes short on Monday. The OAS closed their General Assembly Wednesday still short the three votes, reported the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Poverty, unrest, impunity, corruption, and widespread shortages define Maduro’s Venezuela. Protests have been non-stop for over eighty days and the death toll keeps climbing, 77 and counting.

China Yes, Taiwan No

The recent decision to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan “was the right thing to do,” Varela said at the Washington DC-based think-tank’s event Wednesday.

The “diplomatic truce” across the straits between Taiwan and China under former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s Administration was a “success story.” It was Taipei’s “policy changes” under the island-government’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, which led to our decision, Varela explained.

Allies must forge official ties either with the People’s Republic of China (China) or the Republic of China (Taiwan) – but never both. After taking office, Tsai failed to officially back an agreement between Beijing and Taipei to hold separate interpretations of what the “One China” policy means, noted Law Street Media.

Panama’s shift to Bejing leaves only twenty countries which recognize Taiwan. “The Government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory," last week’s statement said.

Beijing “does not trust” President Tsai or her Democratic Progressive Party which supports a “pro-independence stance," reported NPR. China “has used investment and other incentives to lure away Taiwan's diplomatic partners."

China is the second-major user of the Panama Canal. Completed by the U.S. in 1914, it has been under Panama’s control since 1999. Last year, Panama finished a US $5 billion decade-long expansion of the vital waterway which connects the Caribbean Sea and with the Pacific Ocean across 48 miles.
Panama “is emerging as a hub for China to ship its goods to South America, and Beijing has invested millions of dollars in infrastructure around the Panama Canal.”

Varela said that last year during President Tsai’s visit to Panama, he alerted Taiwan: “If the diplomatic truce ends, Panama will switch recognition.”

The Tsai Administration has backed cross-strait “peace and stability,” said Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Taiwan was “left in the dark” about Panama’s “unilateral decision” until the “final moments,” the statement said. Panama “caved-in” to Beijing’s “interference” and made a switch for “economic gain” which disregards “more than a century of diplomatic ties.”

“We make our own decisions,” insisted Varela. Panama “did not ask for anything” from China, he added.


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