Panama's New Chief, Sworn In, Inherits a Diplomatic Tempest
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN and GINGER THOMPSON
PANAMA, Sept. 1 - Martín Torrijos, the son of a former dictator, was sworn in as Panama's new president on Wednesday and walked straight into a diplomatic storm.
Last week, Cuba broke relations with Panama to protest a decision by the departing president, Mireya Moscoso, to pardon four Cuban exiles who had been accused of plotting to assassinate President Fidel Castro during a visit here in 2000.
Ms. Moscoso said she had decided to pardon the men and allow them to leave Panama because she said she was concerned that Mr. Torrijos might have them extradited to Cuba or Venezuela, where, she said, "I am sure they would have been killed."
Three of the men flew to Miami. The fourth reportedly flew to Honduras.
Their release and Ms. Moscoso's remarks provoked outrage in Havana and in Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chávez, recalled his ambassador.
In his inauguration speech on Wednesday, Mr. Torrijos, 41, said that he would seek to repair relations with Cuba and Venezuela and he criticized Ms. Moscoso's decision to pardon the men.
"For me, there are not two classes of terrorism, one that is condemned and another that is pardoned," Mr. Torrijos said. "It has to be fought no matter what its origins."
Some political analysts said they saw the hand of Washington in Ms. Moscoso's actions. Florida, a base for Cuban exiles, is crucial for President Bush's re-election efforts.
So far, the Bush administration has not commented on the issue. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell flew here on Wednesday for the inauguration of Mr. Torrijos, but made few public remarks.
State Department officials said Mr. Powell wanted to use the visit to try to demonstrate the Bush administration's interest in Latin America.
While here, Mr. Powell metwith President Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, President Boniface Alexandre of Haiti and President Álvaro Uribe Vélez of Colombia, where the United States is spending more than $500 million a year to crackdown on illicit drugs.
The inauguration had particular significance for Mr. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the first President Bush sent American troops here to force President Manuel Antonio Noriega out of office in 1989. Last November, Mr. Powell attended the ceremony here for the 100th anniversary of Panama's independence.
Mr. Torrijos is heir to a political party that was built by military strongmen, including his father, Gen. Omar Torrijos, who ruled the country from 1968 until his death in 1981, and General Noriega.
During his election campaign, Mr. Torrijos embraced memories of his father as a champion of the poor and the visionary who negotiated the 1977 treaty by which the United States gave this country control of the Panama Canal. But he also capitalized on his youth to win support among the young and upper class.
Panama's economy has grown steadily in the last several months. However, Mr. Torrijos inherits a government barraged by accusations of corruption. Overspending by the government has pushed the country's pension system close to bankruptcy, and more than 40 percent of Panamanians live in poverty.
Miguel Antonio Bernal, a professor at the University of Panama, said of Mr. Torrijos: "There is no way he is going to be able to live up to people's expectations. He is going to have a short honeymoon."
Steven R. Weisman reported from Panama City for this article, and Ginger Thompson from Mexico City.