PANAMA CITY – U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said here Sept. 13 that his government has a “problem” with the decision by Panamanian lawmakers to elect as their congressional speaker a man Washington, D.C. accuses of killing a U.S. soldier in 1992.
Gutierrez, who made a lightning visit to Panama last week to tout a bilateral trade pact that was signed in December but has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, emphasized that “a problem has arisen that didn’t exist before and it has to be resolved.”
While declining to engage in “speculations” about a possible negative impact on the trade deal or other aspects of U.S.-Panamanian relations, Gutierrez was clear in emphasizing that this is a situation that must be dealt with as soon as possible.
“I’m anxiously awaiting speaking with the President, but the resolution of this problem will be left in the hands of the government of the Republic of Panama,” added Gutierrez, who subsequently met with Panamanian head of state Martín Torrijos before traveling on to Peru.
Pedro Miguel González, elected speaker of Panama’s National Assembly earlier this month, stands accused in the United States of participating in the June 10, 1992, ambush that resulted in the death of U.S. Army Sgt.Zack Hernández and left Sgt. Ronald T. Marshall wounded.
The attack came on the eve of a planned visit to Panama by then-President George Bush, who fewer than three years earlier had ordered a U.S. invasion of the Central American country to depose and apprehend military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, wanted in the United States on drug charges.
Hernández and Marshall were both part of the substantial U.S. military garrison that was based in Panama until 1999, when Washington, D.C. ceded control of the Panama Canal to the government in Panama City.
González, who spent three years in hiding after being fingered as a main suspect in Hernández’s death, turned himself in to Panamanian authorities in 1995. A jury later acquitted him of the killing after a trial in which U.S. prosecutors took part.
Washington, D.C., however, refuses to recognize the Panamanian verdict and continues to maintain an international warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest.
Reacting to U.S. expressions of displeasure over his election as assembly speaker, González has said that succumbing to pressure from other states in the country’s affairs “would be to return to the past” and he emphasized the independence of the branches of government in a democracy.
Gutierrez said that the González matter is “disappointing” for his government, which “maintains the commitment to work with the Panamanian people and government to move forward on our shared agenda of open markets, growth and economic opportunities.”
The commerce secretary is traveling accompanied by a score of U.S. lawmakers on a tour that also will take him to Colombia and Peru, countries with which the United States has also signed free-trade accords that are still awaiting ratification by Congress.
While the accords with Panama and Peru are thought likely to be approved, U.S. Democratic lawmakers have indicated they will delay consideration of the trade treaty with Colombia.