Ortega, Martinelli talk trade, investment

Proving they have more in common than meets the eye, President Daniel Ortega and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli—two men who supposedly represent opposite ends of the political spectrum—got chummy on Friday during the Panamanian leader’s first official visit to Nicaragua.

Martinelli, who skipped Ortega’s inauguration last January, said he “felt at home” back in Nicaragua, where he spent “the best two years of my life” in the 1970s as a graduate student at INCAE business school in Managua.

Despite the apparent differences in the two presidents’ political visions, Panama’s right-wing supermarket-tycoon-turned-president, who has a reputation of being ruthless in business and politics, seemed to hit it off well with Ortega, whose reputation in politics and business is similar.

Both leaders have been accused by opponents in their countries of disregarding constitutional checks and balances and consolidating personal power at the expense of institutional democracies. The two presidents have also been accused of using their influence over police and judicial authorities to persecute and harass their opponents.

Panama’s opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which supported the Sandinistas in the 1970s, complains that Martinelli has used his sway over the Prosecutors’ Office to “investigate” numerous members of the opposition on charges ranging from money laundering, to conspiring against his government, to plotting against the security of the Panama Canal. A U.S. diplomatic cable Wikileaked in December 2010 revealed President Martinelli also sought U.S. help to wiretap his political opponents (Martinelli’s government dismisses the Wikileaks scandal as a “mistaken interpretation.”)

Despite their democratic deficiencies, as business administrators Ortega and Martinelli are presiding over the two fastest-growing economies in Central America. So when they got together on Friday, they predictably talked trade and investment rather than discussing the finer points of democracy.

Ortega said the meeting focused on how to “dynamize trade,” which he said is “an issue of interest to all Nicaraguans and Panamanians.”

Martinelli, who also took time to meet with Nicaraguan business leaders to promote investment in Panama and express interest in increasing beef imports from Nicaragua, offered Ortega vague promises of investment and development.

“Panama is more than willing to help Nicaragua with everything it needs to built ports, develop tourism airports, or free-zones, or whatever you want,” Martinelli said. “I think the better off Nicaragua is the better off all Central Americans will be, Panamanians also.”

Following his meeting with Ortega, Martinelli spent the rest of his weekend here visiting Nicaragua’s Pacific coast tourism developments, including Guacalito de la Isla in Tola.