WASHINGTON — Ah, to be a fly on the Oval Office wall Thursday as President Barack Obama meets with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, the subject of a series of State Department cables that WikiLeaks obtained and passed to McClatchy.
The cables aren't kind to Martinelli. They describe him as a man of "limited attention span" who "makes strong impulsive decisions with minimal information." They cast him as vindictive, authoritarian, fixated on spying on his political foes and contemptuous of checks on what one cable calls his "hyper-presidency."
If diplomacy is the art of discretion and subtlety, these cables miss the mark. But they lay out the contours of an often-abrasive relationship between then-U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara J. Stephenson and Martinelli, a University of Arkansas graduate and self-made millionaire who took office July 1, 2009.
Martinelli, who founded Panama's Super 99 supermarket chain, cast himself as a right-of-center counterweight in Latin America to Hugo Chavez, the radical Venezuelan leader. Martinelli's isthmus nation, which occupies a choke point at the center of the Americas, is a global transit point for commerce. Two-thirds of the ships that cross the isthmus are either going to or coming from the United States.
Roughhouse skirmishes between Martinelli and Stephenson began days after his inauguration, and the cables peel back the issues at stake.
Stephenson sent a cable to Washington relating how Martinelli sent her "a cryptic BlackBerry message that said, 'I need help with tapping phones.' " In follow-up meetings, Martinelli and his aides demanded that a U.S.-designed wiretap program to catch drug traffickers be expanded to target his domestic political foes, a move that was illegal under Panamanian and U.S. law. He threatened to reduce counter-narcotics cooperation if Washington "did not help him on wiretaps."
Martinelli's chief security aide, Olmedo Alfaro, confided to a U.S. counter-all drug agent that the president had an ulterior motive.
"Alfaro said he had orders from the president to find out who 'was sleeping with his wife,' " Stephenson cabled Washington.
By the second week of the Martinelli administration, Stephenson alerted superiors in Washington to what she called a hardball style that was "almost certain to spell trouble for Panama's democratic institutions." It was a message that would grow stronger in the cables well into 2010.
A month later, in another cable marked secret, she noted "an attitude of suspicion and vindictiveness" and an aggressive style designed "to push the limit to get what he wants" even at the cost of alienating the United States.
"His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike," she wrote.
In later months, she'd inform the State Department of Martinelli's efforts to install two "cronies" on Panama's Supreme Court, replace an attorney general whom he couldn't control and send tax auditors after businessmen who were friendly to the political opposition.
Yet Martinelli and his top security aide were still focused on gaining control of the wiretap unit, which employed only U.S.-vetted Panamanians listening in on some 200 cellular phone lines linked to suspected organized crime figures and Colombian guerrillas in camps in the remote jungles of Panama's Darien Gap.
Another secret cable signed by Stephenson describes Martinelli and Alfaro as "consumed with plots and threats both real and imagined," focusing on Martinelli's "obsessive concern with being the target of a kidnapping."
Even as Stephenson shifted Panama's focus to broader security concerns, she found herself reminding Washington of imbalances in the relationship.
"Panama's help is much more crucial to us than it is to Panama," Stephenson said in a cable from 2008 that emphasized the sweeping nature of Panamanian cooperation. She noted that one-third of all the ships in the world are flagged in Panama, and the nation had ceded the right for U.S. agents to search any of those vessels on the high seas with Panamanian approval, a major concession.
As months passed, distress at the U.S. Embassy over Panama's disarray on security issues deepened. Much of it focused on cocaine trafficking and the presence of some 200 fighters from the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials, a Marxist guerrilla group from Colombia that had moved over the border into the Darien. One cable noted that the FARC had a logistical foothold in Panama City, linking its presence to rising homicides.
Martinelli's most trusted aide, Jimmy Papadimitriu, admitted to Stephenson the "chaotic state" of the government's security policy, saying rivals all claimed to have the embassy's endorsement for pet projects.
"Every one of them thinks he is in charge, and everyone has his own version of what the gringos say," Stephenson quoted him as telling her.
"That evening," the cable continued, "the Ambassador received a BlackBerry chat message from the president stating, 'Get Silver.' " — the ringleader of the FARC drug trafficking ring — " 'You have my blessing. Need to meet every week.' "
It was a green light to go after the 57th Front's deputy commander, Luis Fernando "Silver" Mora Pestana, a guerrilla chief whom U.S. prosecutors had indicted in a kidnapping-for-ransom case that involved a U.S. citizen.
But launching such a raid involved vast coordination, and U.S. strategy first was to help Panama choke off supplies to Silver's camp, weakening the rebels. As 2009 neared an end, "Get Silver" was still a dream. That's when Martinelli dropped a bombshell: He'd given the green light to Colombia to conduct the strike to destroy the rebel camp.
The announcement alarmed the U.S. Embassy. Only a year earlier, Colombia had conducted a cross-border strike into Ecuador to wipe out a FARC encampment, killing a member of the rebel high command and some 20 others. The move sparked emergency sessions of the Organization of American States and angry reactions in Quito and Caracas.
Stephenson told Washington she was "deeply concerned" that a cross-border attack would cause long-term damage to security cooperation with Panama.
"An attack would hand a propaganda victory to Hugo Chavez, who would claim the attack was launched from a U.S. base in Colombia," she said. It would stir Panamanian mistrust of Colombia and "reinvigorate the anti-American left" in Panama, she added. The resulting outcry would cause Panama to pull in the reins on cooperation.
"President Martinelli's tendency to glibly say yes to any proposal by a government he sees as an ideological ally adds an additional layer of complexity and unpredictability," she wrote.
U.S. pressure in Bogota and Panama City appeared to work. The cross-border Christmas raid never took place. "Silver" remains on the lam.
Later that December, Stephenson turned her focus to the "seamy underside" of Panama's Tocumen International Airport, a conduit for money launderers, among them the president's second cousin, Ramon Martinelli, who'd been detained a month earlier in Mexico.
Her cable said the smuggling ring "moved up to $30 million per month through Tocumen last year," adding that the embassy had no information linking the president himself to money laundering.
The matter of his cousin's arrest in Mexico came up when Martinelli saw Stephenson that month.
"Martinelli said he was satisfied," Stephenson reported. "If the Mexicans had not arrested him, the GOP" — the government of Panama — "had plans to arrest him. He said Ramon had always been a 'black sheep' and was sullying the good Martinelli family name."
Despite his bruising political style, Martinelli remains highly popular in Panama. A poll this month by the firm Dichter & Neira found that 70.1 percent of his countrymen approve of his leadership.
His only comment on the WikiLeaks cables came last December, after the release of one cable claiming that he'd asked Stephenson to help wiretap his enemies. His statement said that "help in tapping the telephones of politicians was never requested."
Stephenson ended her stint in Panama in mid-2010. Her State Department superiors clearly thought highly of her work. She's now the No. 2 diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in London, Washington's most important posting in Western Europe.
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