Election of Panamanian Official Strains U.S. Ties

Panama and the U.S., longtime allies, are at odds over the election of Pedro Miguel González to the head of Panama's National Assembly because he is wanted for murder in the United States. The spat comes as the two nations negotiate a free-trade agreement that now could be in jeopardy.

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Panama and the United States are negotiating a free trade agreement. However, those talks could be in jeopardy. That's because the man elected to one of Panama's highest political offices is wanted for murder in the United States.

Pedro Miguel Gonzalez of the country's ruling party became the head of Panama's National Assembly. The U.S. Embassy had said his election would be counterproductive.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Panama City.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a saying in Panama, if the U.S. sneezes, then Panama gets - not a cold - but pneumonia. This is a country that was founded with direct U.S. support. For decades, the U.S. had military bases, and there was the U.S. control of the Panama Canal. The U.S. is Panama's biggest trading partner. The U.S. dollar is the national currency.

The election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez was bound to upset the world superpower. Gonzalez is under indictment in the U.S. for the shooting and killing of U.S. Army Sergeant Zac Hernandez in June 1992. It was a tense time just after the U.S. invasion in 1989. The slaying took place a day before then President George Bush, Sr. was about to visit the country.

Gonzalez was tried and acquitted in a Panamanian court. The U.S. says the outcome was rigged. Gavin Sundwall is the U.S. Embassy press attache in Panama.

Mr. GAVIN SUNDWALL (Press Attache, United States Embassy, Panama): It certainly presents difficulties. The United States remains committed to our working with Panama to the extent possible on our shared agenda of free trade and strengthening democracy. But this does present great difficulties at the moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The American Congress is currently considering whether to grant Panama a free trade agreement. Sundwall expressed surprise at the timing of all this, saying that there was a lot at stake and implicit warning. Still, members of the Panamanian government of the same party as Gonzalez have remained defiant.

Balbina Herrera is the transport minister, speaking at the inauguration of the widening of the Panama Canal yesterday. She said that the killing of Zac Hernandez should be seen in the light of the U.S. invasion of Panama.

Ms. BALBINA HERRERA (Transport Minister, Panama): (Through translator) The invasion challenged us as a nation. The United States has obviously been hurt by what has happened to its national. But what happened with thousands of Panamanians also hurt us. So we don't want to open up old wounds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the wounds of the invasion and its aftermath have not seemed to have fully healed over. On Saturday, when Gonzalez took over his new position, he appeared to taunt the U.S.

In a speech to the assembly, he said, quote, "The era in which the U.S. has had the last word in determining who governed our nation and how they did so is over." He has offered to resign, though, in order not to (unintelligible) the free trade agreement.

But some in Panama worry it already may be too late. Mireya Moscoso is a former president and a member of an opposition party. She first opened the free trade talks with Washington.

Ms. MIREYA MOSCOSO (Former President, Panama): (Through translator) The mistake that they've made is going to cost this country dearly. The free trade agreement is going to be in danger when the senators in Washington realize that the person presiding over a branch of the government is a person being tried in U.S. for murder.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The present Panamanian president, Martin Torrijos, too wants the free trade agreement to pass to help ensure the strong growth taking place here. Still, his political problem is that he can't be seen to cave in to U.S. demands. Whatever he decides, though, he'll have to act quickly.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Panama City.

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