Tags: panama | gonzalez

U.S. Furious at Panama for Top Lawmaker

Thursday, 13 Sep 2007 09:53 PM

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U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said on Thursday the election to Panama's top legislative post of a man wanted by the United States in the killing of a U.S. soldier was a "problem" for the two countries as they seek to finalize a trade deal.

Asked whether Pedro Miguel Gonzalez should step down after being elected as head of the National Assembly earlier this month, Gutierrez said the issue was a "problem (that) needs to be addressed by the government of Panama."

Speaking during a visit to Panama, Gutierrez called Gonzalez's election a "problem that did not exist before."

Gonzalez, 42, was elected on September 1 as head of the National Assembly, with colleagues describing him as "distinguished" and a "great patriot."

The U.S. government -- which has an arrest warrant out for Gonzalez whom it suspects of gunning down Army Sgt. Zac Hernandez in 1992 despite his acquittal by a Panamanian court -- has said it was "deeply disappointed" by the election.

Without making a link between the two issues, Gutierrez said a long-awaited trade agreement with Panama might not be ratified before the end of the year, as previously expected.

He told a news conference all parties would strive to meet that deadline, but otherwise it would happen next year.

The U.S. Congress had been expected to approve the trade deal in the coming weeks.

Negotiations on the trade agreement wound up in August 2006 but ratification of the deal, as with similar U.S. accords with Peru and Colombia, has been delayed by demands from Democrats it include provisions to protect workers' rights.

As well as boosting trade, the deal would make it easier for U.S. companies to win contracts for the $5.2 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, which began on September 3.

Gonzalez -- speaking after a meeting with Panama's archbishop -- said his appointment was a matter for Panamanians and should not be the subject of foreign interference.

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