What Obama missed by skipping Panama in Latin America tour
Panama is investing $20 billion to boost itself as a global hub. President Ricardo Martinelli's vision provides a glimpse of the US's newest trade partner as a bilateral free trade agreement works its way through Washington.
President Martinelli wants Panama to be known as the next Miami as a shopping and airline hub; the next Chile for copper exports; the next Dubai as a business and real estate capital; the next Rotterdam as a shipping hub; and the next Singapore as a global logistics center.
"We are seeking our own path in the world, but we have to copy the good things that other countries have done, for example what Singapore has done and what the Dominican Republic has done in tourism," Martinelli told the Monitor following the recent investors conference, "Panama: Where the World Meets."
Martinelli's vision provides a glimpse of America's newest trade partner as a bilateral free trade agreement works its way through Washington – even if US political relations with Panama are not as cozy as they used to be. The choice of President Obama, during his first visit to Central America, to visit of El Salvador instead of other right-wing allies on the isthmus could be viewed as a snub to Panama, especially after leaked US cables labeled Martinelli a "threat to Panamanian democracy" for his "lack of commitment to the rule of law" and "his exaggerated presidentialism."
Indeed, the supermarket tycoon aims to turn Panama into a "one-stop shop" to the world.
Though it sounds like a tall order, Panama, which enjoyed 7.5 percent economic growth last year – more than double the Central American average – seems up to the challenge. According to projections from the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, Panama will lead the region in economic growth over the next five years, thanks in large part to a five-year, $20 billion public-investment plan highlighted by a $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, to finish in 2014.
Too much growth, too soon?
While analysts doubt Martinelli can succeed in creating aisles here for every global taste, years of sustained and impressive growth have already helped Panama rise above the tropical ranks of banana-republic status. Donald Trump's decision to build the world's first Trump tower outside the US – and the tallest building south of theUS-Mexican border – in Panama City itself showed "we are world class," says Tourism Minister Salomon Shamah.