Tuesday, November 09, 2010

TOP STORY > >Panama president ex-UofA roommate

By garick feldman
Leader executive editor

John Mason, a Jacksonville real estate broker, was in Fayetteville with his wife Ien for homecoming weekend on Oct. 30, when the Razorbacks played Vanderbilt.

The fellow who tossed the coin at the start of the game and crowned the homecoming queen was Mason’s roommate at the University of Arkansas and is now the president of Panama.

His name is Ricardo Marti-nelli, a 58-year-old supermarket tycoon, who was elected president last year as head of the Democratic Change Party. It came from nowhere in only a few years — it received just 5 percent of the vote in 2004—then five years later, Martinelli won in a landslide, receiving 60 percent of the vote.

You probably never heard of Martinelli because television doesn’t cover foreign news much.

Mason and Martinelli were good friends at the UofA and spent summers together on Mason’s family farm in Carlisle. They graduated together from the business school in 1973.

The president is down-to-earth and mingled with students and alumni during the homecoming game.
Chancellor David Gearhart hosted a dinner for him.

Mason and the president have kept in touch over the years. Mason often travels to Panama, where he helped set up the UofA’s international alumni association.

“He used to live with us during the summer in Carlisle while we were in college,” said Mason, whose family has for years farmed rice and soybeans on 2,000 acres. “We were like a second family to him.”

Martinelli also grows rice in Panama and owns the 35-store Super Mercados 99 grocery chain, the largest in the country.

The president is much admired in the U.S., especially in Arkansas and at the university, where he’s been a generous donor. The school will name the university guest house after him.

The Ricardo A. Martinelli Berrocal Scholarship at the university provides financial aid to students from Panama.

He has received the Distinguished Alumnus award, and Gov. Mike Beebe named him an official ambassador from Arkansas.

In last year’s election, Martinelli succeeded Martin Torrijos, whose father was the Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, who ruled Panama from 1968 until 1981, when he died in a plane crash.

The notorious Gen. Manuel Noriega, who took over in 1983 and probably killed Torrijos, was overthrown in 1989, when the U.S. invaded Panama.

Before he was ousted, he ransacked Martinelli’s supermarkets.

Noriega was flown to America — in one of our C-130s, I seem to recall — and sent to prison in the U.S. for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. He’s now in prison in France.

Everybody praises Martinelli for bringing reforms to Panama and cutting down on corruption and crime.

He’s reduced his nation’s deficit to 1 percent of its gross national product, or $250 million, compared to 14 percent, or $1.4 trillion deficit, in the U.S. — a staggering sum none of us can comprehend.

Remember the Panama Canal, which we handed over to the Panamanians in 1999? They’re spending $5.2 billion on expanding the canal to attract more shipping.

“In Panama, we are truly doing good things,” Martinelli said during his visit to Fayetteville.

Mason hopes the president will visit the area the next time he’s in Arkansas. No big canals here, but plenty of farming, fishing and hunting and Southern hospitality.

“He’s a standup guy,”  Mason said.