Diplomatic deliberations

Panama rejects Mexico’s pick for ambassador, bilateral relations could deteriorate.

A recent diplomatic spat between Panama and Mexico has led to an unusual bump in a traditionally healthy bilateral relationship. The disagreement centres around Panama’s refusal to accept Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (“AMLO”) pick for ambassador. The candidacy of historian and former professor, Pedro Salmerón, was refused over allegations of sexual harassment during his academic tenure at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, one of the country’s most prestigious private universities.

AMLO decried Panama’s decision likening it to the “holy inquisition”. Mexico has since presented a different candidate, AMLO loyalist and current Morena senator, Jesusa Rodríguez.

A Mexican ambassador explained, “It seems likely that Panama will take time to accept the new candidate, but it will eventually to appease diplomatic tensions – Mexico is a key political and economic ally for Panama. What is likely is that the new ambassador will not be warmly received in Panama City.”

“It seems likely that Panama will take time to accept the new candidate.”

Mexican ambassador to a third country

Panama’s president, Laurentino Cortizo, asked for “respect” from AMLO after the Mexican president questioned the wisdom of the initial refusal.

Whilst Panama exercises nowhere near the geopolitical clout of Mexico, the country “ … may not support Mexico in international organisations which could affect its regional and multilateral actions,” explained the ambassador.

Panama’s position as an offshore financial centre also means that it has also identified numerous Mexican cartel members who attempt to launder money through the country. Panama could manifest its displeasure with its diplomatic treatment by Mexico by relaxing bilateral cooperation on security and drug trafficking issues.

In Mexico, political dynamics affect ambassadorial choices. The ambassador explained, “AMLO’s appointments obey his political agenda, his time is running out and he wants to reward his friends and leave his mark on everything he touches. Salmerón was always a controversial choice – he is a militant academic but has also lavished praise on AMLO which is why the president looked favourably at his candidacy.”

The new candidate, Jesusa Rodríguez, is also an activist but does not come with the reputational baggage of Salmerón. She has built her political reputation as an activist, advocating for causes from LGBTQ rights to defending marijuana, the poor, women and indigenous communities.

A specialist in international law at the University of Panama said, “Rejecting former senator Jesusa Rodriguez as ambassador after what has already happened with Salmerón’s appointment would be an extremely anomalous event in international relations.”

“Rejecting former senator Jesusa Rodriguez as ambassador after what has already happened with Salmerón’s appointment would be an extremely anomalous event.”

International law specialist, University of Panama

Indeed, it would be unprecedented for the Panamanian government to consecutively deny the approval of two Mexican ambassadors. Doing so would provoke a significant diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Given deep cooperation on stemming the flow of money laundering and combatting illegal migration, both countries would do well to put pragmatism before ego.

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