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U.S. Diplomats Clueless on Alleged Chávez Plot to Kill the President of Panama

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A WikiLeaks cable shows the U.S. embassy knew of an alleged plot to kidnap or kill Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and did little to investigate.

Suppose Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez ordered the murder of the president of a U.S. ally. That would surely cause U.S. diplomats to reconsider the threat he poses to our security and interests, right?

Wrong.

According to a WikiLeaks cable released by the paper Panama America, the U.S. embassy was made aware of an alleged plot to kidnap or kill Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and did little, if anything, to investigate.

That cable informed Washington that the plot was a “hoax.” It reveals, unintentionally, that the embassy failed to conduct any serious inquiry into the incident, secure in the knowledge that no one in Washington would care about a Chávez plot to kill the president of a friendly nation, whose murder would have sowed chaos in the country that hosts the strategic Panama Canal.

The only apparent hoax exposed in the WikiLeaks cable is the notion that U.S. diplomats ever took this alleged plot seriously or will ever be capable of dealing with the grave and growing threat Hugo Chávez poses.

This fresh evidence of U.S. diplomats refusing to take the Chávez threat seriously compels me to reveal the information I have of this alleged plot. (I have never spoken publicly of this incident out of respect for Martinelli’s decision to handle the matter discreetly, but the leaked cable discloses my name.) In December 2009, a trusted confidante informed me of two frantic phone calls from a reliable source in Caracas that Chávez had ordered his sinister military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, to “eliminate” Panama’s then-new president. (Carvajal’s alleged involvement was no surprise: he is a powerful Chávez thug whose criminal activities landed him on the U.S. Treasury’s “drug kingpin” list in September 2008.)

On January 7, 2010, I passed this information to then-Panamanian Ambassador Jaime Aleman in a brief meeting in my office in Washington. When he told me a week later that he had briefed President Martinelli, I was relieved and assumed that was the last I would hear of the alleged plot. Not so. Several days later, Aleman called me to say, in an incredulous voice, “It’s true. Three suspects have been arrested, and the name they gave us was the name you gave me a week ago: Hugo Carvajal.”

Two associates of mine were in Panama several days later, and then-intelligence chief Olmedo Alfaro permitted one of them to read the suspects’ confessions. That colleague confirmed again this week that the handwritten declarations named Hugo Carvajal as the mastermind of the plot. He also recounted that Alfaro complained bitterly that the only word he had received from the U.S. embassy since the plot came to light was a call from a consular officer requesting a copy of the passport of the alleged ringleader, Puerto Rican Isaac Polanco, in order to protect his welfare as a U.S. citizen. I do not know if Alfaro’s complaints were fair, but my associate says that the official seemed desperate for help and appeared genuinely bitter that the U.S. embassy had not stepped up.

President Martinelli’s murder would have sowed chaos in the country that hosts the strategic Panama Canal and in the region as a whole.

Back to the U.S. embassy’s account of the incident: The secret message reassures Washington that the plot was “almost certainly a hoax,” citing Alfaro as its only source for that conclusion—the very official whose lack of professionalism is, quite literally, the subject of the cable. The cable conveys Alfaro’s purported conclusion that Polanco invented the plot and recruited the bodyguards so he could offer to sell information to Panamanian authorities. The U.S. embassy said that it shared Alfaro’s conclusion, but it goes on to suggest, with not the slightest bit of irony, that Alfaro is a scheming incompetent.

The cable raises more questions than it answers: How is it that I was told by a trusted source of the threat from Caracas weeks before the plot was revealed by a different person in Panama? How is it that the detained plotters named in their confessions the same Venezuelan official who was identified by my separate source? If Polanco recruited the Panamanians in a phony plot, then why did they not denounce him rather than the Venezuelan they presumably never met? If Panamanian authorities dismissed this as a hoax, why have senior officials of that government expressed their gratitude to me for revealing the plot months since the incident? And why on earth would Chávez risk an attack on Martinelli?

I cannot answer these questions. The problem is that U.S. officials in Panama and Washington never even bothered to ask them. That leads me to the unhappy conclusion that the only apparent hoax exposed in the WikiLeaks cable is the notion that U.S. diplomats ever took this alleged plot seriously or will ever be capable of dealing with the grave and growing threat Chávez poses.

Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001 to 2003 and assistant secretary of State from 2003 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC.

FURTHER READING: Noriega has also written “Obama in Latin America: Flipping the ‘On’ Switch,” “How Obama Can Make Cuba Freer, Faster,” “The WikiLeaker’s Friends in Latin America,” “Is There a Chávez Terror Network on America's Doorstep,” “Brazil Is in a Class By Itself,” and “Latin American Action Agenda for the New Congress.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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