Photo: Ambassador Ramón Martínez.
We thank you, Ambassador, for making this your first interview with a U.S. outlet since assuming the post of Panama’s Ambassador to the United States. You come to this role after serving as Panama’s Minister of Commerce and Industries. What issues do you hope to center and address during your time as ambassador?
Thank you for this opportunity. Panama and the U.S. have a long-standing, strategic relationship cemented on a shared history, strong partnership, and common vision of the future. We engage on a myriad of complex issues and find that, more often than not, our interests are aligned. For decades we have worked together in exploring opportunities for sustained economic growth, strengthening democracy, promoting human rights and the rule of law in the hemisphere, and fostering the values that unite us.
One of my first priorities is to strengthen that very relationship through high-level engagement with both the administration and Congress. We believe there is much more we can do together to improve our bilateral cooperation, such as setting an ambitious agenda focused on promoting economic growth through investment and more resilient supply chains, addressing the root causes of irregular migration, and redoubling our efforts to implement sound climate policies that allow us to create a more sustainable green economy.
One of our most urgent challenges is getting off the Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list.” International financial transparency is a priority for our country. We are committed to achieving the highest international standards of transparency and have successfully implemented many actions aimed at fighting tax evasion and improving the coherence of international tax regulations and the search for a more transparent international tax system. Being included on discriminatory lists affects our competitiveness and ability to attract foreign direct investment, which brings me to my third priority—investment. Coming to Washington after serving as Minister of Commerce for three years with President Cortizo provides me with a unique perspective and several advantages. Panama understands that today, more than ever, it is important that we partner with the U.S. to build more resilient supply chains and advance digital transformation. We are looking for U.S. companies to take advantage of the many incentives we offer.
President Cortizo has often spoken about the important relationship between Panama and the United States, particularly in tackling big issues like climate change and migration. You previously lived in the United States in the early 2000s. What has most surprised you as you have assumed this new role in Washington, and how would you assess the United States of today compared to the United States you knew when you last lived here?
Panama and the United States have a unique history that has united our nations and created a strong relationship based on shared democratic values and common priorities.
Irregular migration throughout the hemisphere is one of the most complex issues our countries must confront. No one person wants to leave their home and uproot their family, but when faced with dire economic circumstances and security concerns, many feel they have no choice. Panama is only a transit country but has an important role to play. We have long considered this a shared responsibility that must be tackled with a comprehensive strategy that includes all countries and aspects of the crisis. This means prioritizing a humanitarian approach to irregular migration, while combating the criminal elements that exploit our most vulnerable populations and addressing the root causes of migration. We have and will continue to work closely with the United States and other partners in the region to share best practices and implement policies to alleviate the immediate crisis while focusing on the long-term solutions.
With regards to climate change, Panama is a sustainability leader and prioritizes climate throughout its economic policies. We put climate at the center because we understand that the health of our climate impacts the trajectory of every other segment of our society—from energy and conservation to migration and education. Panama’s climate-driven strategy has allowed the country to achieve carbon-negative status.
This year, we assumed the pro tempore presidency of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) and, together with our partners Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, signed an MOU with the Department of State to strengthen marine management, maritime security, and marine conservation financing. And next year, Panama will host the Our Oceans Conference. In this event, Panama will be present as a blue leader committed to the protection of the oceans, their resources, and their biodiversity.
The United States’s presence in Latin America has long been a beacon for democratic progress and development. There are still many countries wanting to expand engagement with the United States and avoid looking for solutions with less desirable actors. Panama stands ready to work with our main strategic partner to invest in strengthening the very institutions and social safety nets that we rely on as the foundation of regional security and stability. This is why it is essential that the United States support initiatives like the Alliance for Development in Democracy.
In September 2021, the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic jointly launched the Alliance for Development in Democracy (ADD), an initiative to promote democratic and economic growth through stronger commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties. The alliance was forged in the context of democratic backsliding in parts of our hemisphere. Can you speak to the genesis of the ADD and what it hopes to accomplish in the years ahead?
The origin of the alliance responds to the common need to promote economic growth within the framework of democracy, human rights and the objectives of sustainable development, in light of the challenges left by the COVID-19 pandemic. ADD is the coming together of like-minded nations who share this vision and believe that cooperation will lead to greater results and demonstrate that democracy can deliver.
The governments of Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and the United States recently announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the creation of a U.S.-ADD Supply Chain Consultative Dialogue. Since its inception, the ADD countries have noted that this new bloc represents an attractive option for U.S. companies that want to nearshore supply chains—if combined, the economies of Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic would represent one of the United States’ largest trade partners in Latin America. What does the Panamanian government hope to accomplish with today’s MOU?
The global economic context highlights the need to promote more secure and resilient supply chains. Panama’s strategic location and sound business environment have allowed it to play a crucial role in world trade—a part we want to continue playing while promoting the prosperity of our citizens.
Panama is taking concerted action with the private sector to advance its position as a manufacturing hub. For example, following the pandemic, we passed the Manufacturing Services for Multinationals Act, also known as the EMMA regime, which allows companies to shorten their supply chains, nearshore their manufacturing operations, and leverage our logistics infrastructure for distribution purposes.
Today, over 180 multinationals, including nearly 40 American companies, have their regional headquarters in Panama. Nonetheless, we recognize the need for a bold agenda signaling that the enabling environment and business logic for nearshoring are in place for the private sector to make a move—a plan we hope this dialogue will advance as we build an ecosystem of talent, technology, and infrastructure conducive to the expansion of our shared economies and the promotion of the ideals for which we all stand.
The United States government has indicated its strong support for the Alliance for Development in Democracy. Vice President Kamala Harris stated earlier this year that the ADD countries “have outlined an ambitious and a necessary agenda” for the region. How would you characterize the level of support the ADD has received from the Biden administration in recent months, and which areas do you think are ripe for deeper engagement?
The Biden administration has had to navigate a complex political and economic environment: the Ukrainian conflict, rising inflation, increased geopolitical tensions, and a myriad of security challenges from climate change to immigration that have been taking up space on the foreign affairs agenda. Still, the U.S. administration has been a great advocate and is providing close support to the ADD. They have demonstrated their willingness to work with ADD countries to deliver tangible results.
The opportunity for deeper engagement is in agreeing on a joint, ambitious plan with the United States—a project the U.S. Congress can fund and support and a plan to enable the expansion of digital and physical infrastructure, workforce development programs, climate change mitigation initiatives, energy transition investments, and the manufacturing of strategic industries in the ADD countries in a way that creates the needed environment to ensure success for U.S. exports, the economy, and our countries. Only through an ambitious plan to boost economic growth and a very public commitment of all parties to this initiative can we signal to everyone in this region that it pays off to play by the rules and that we do not need to go beyond this hemisphere to find willing partners.
This MOU focuses primarily on supply chains and nearshoring. What specific policies would you like to see from the U.S. government to promote nearshoring in the ADD countries and the wider region?
The ADD countries can play an important role in supply chains identified as critical by the United States, including those of pharmaceuticals, electric vehicle batteries, critical minerals, and semiconductors. For us to play that role, however, we need the support of both the White House and the U.S. Congress.
I would like to see earmarked funds from the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity for nearshoring investments in the ADD countries. Substantial market forces have given rise to a concentration of productive capabilities in Asia. We cannot alter economic facts with political declarations. Instead, we must bolster the business case supporting the political reality that is already evident to all of us: that our long-term security and prosperity depend on a resilient supply chain closer to our shores.
Last month, Ecuador became the fourth country to become part of the Alliance for Development in Democracy, joining Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama. What does Ecuador’s membership mean for the alliance, and does the ADD expect to take on new members beyond Ecuador?
Panama welcomes the participation of Ecuador in the Alliance for Development in Democracy. Ecuador is the eighth largest economy in the region and is an essential voice in some of the most pressing security challenges we all face. Moreover, Ecuador has well-developed sectors that only increase the economic muscle and capabilities of the alliance. Panama is among Ecuador’s leading import and export partners, and we are confident their contribution will make this coalition stronger and more relevant.
With regards to the expansion of the alliance, this would need to be a discussion with all the members, including Ecuador. People in our countries demand short-term results and a long-term vision of how our governments will achieve the goals of economic prosperity and opportunity for all. Therefore, our focus should now be on how we will deliver those results and provide such a vision.
Beyond this announcement on nearshoring, what else might we expect from the ADD in the coming months?
Moving forward in the alliance, the presidents of the ADD will meet during the UN General Assembly. Until then, we will be engaging in conversations with the U.S. administration on implementing the Memorandum of Understanding effectively and defining a roadmap for collaboration in other areas, such as climate change, migration, democratic governance, and the fight against corruption.