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Fugitive’s election muddles trade deal prospects

The Hill | September 07, 2007

Fugitive’s election muddles trade deal prospects

By Ian Swanson

Advocates of a U.S.-Panama free trade deal have a new headache: Panama has just elected an official wanted for arrest in the U.S. for allegedly killing an American soldier.

The State Department immediately criticized the election late last week of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez-Pinzon as head of the Panamanian national assembly. But it indicated it would not change the administration’s plans to seek approval of the free-trade agreement (FTA).

Despite Gonzalez’s election, “the U.S. remains committed to working with the government and people of Panama on our shared agenda in support of expanded trade and strengthened democracy,” a State spokeswoman told The Hill.

In Congress, however, some key members have signaled that Gonzalez’s election could have an impact. An aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said it would factor into whether the Senate would move forward on the FTA, which Congress is expected to consider this fall.

In an e-mail to The Hill, Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was disappointed by the election, and that the development could set back relations between the U.S. and Panama governments given the outstanding warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest in the U.S.

According to the State Department, Gonzalez and others have been indicted in the U.S. on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to murder and attempted murder of a U.S. national in the killing of U.S. Army Sgt. Zak Hernandez-Laporte. They are also wanted for the attempted murder of U.S. Army Sgt. Ronald T. Marshall.

Laporte was killed and Marshall was wounded in an assault near Chilibre on June 10, 1992, almost three years after the U.S. invaded Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega. The incident took place days before a visit to Panama by then-President George H.W. Bush.

In a 1997 trial in Panama, Gonzalez was acquitted of the charges in a decision criticized by the U.S.

“The United States wants those responsible for the murder of Sergeant Zak Hernandez-Laporte and the attempted murder of Sergeant Ronald Marshall to face justice,” State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said in a Sept. 1 statement.

President Bush has already signed the trade deal between the U.S. and Panama, but Congress must approve legislation for the agreement to go into effect. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative referred calls regarding the Gonzalez election to the State Department.

Meanwhile, business lobbyists have warned the election could make what was seen as an easy vote more difficult by giving congressional opponents a ready excuse to vote against the deal. One business lobbyist who supports the agreement said it gives FTA skeptics a perfect way to explain their vote against a deal that is now supported by key figures such as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Congress is expected to pass the FTA, but probably without broad support from the House Democratic Caucus.

Grassley noted that one press report said Gonzalez had offered to step down from his post to avoid hurting the U.S.-Panama trade deal. “If so, I encourage him to act on his own offer,” Grassley said.

The Baucus aide said Congress needs to keeps its eye on political changes in all potential trade agreement partner countries.

The election was an unexpected development for many, the aide said.

 source: The Hill