WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump and his Panamanian counterpart, Juan Carlos Varela, discussed on Monday the “common challenges” facing the region, including the Venezuelan situation and Washington’s new policy toward Cuba, expressing their support for building a “stronger” bilateral relationship.
Varela began on Monday an official four-day visit to Washington accompanied by his wife, Lorena Castillo, during which he will meet with members of Trump’s Cabinet, lawmakers and top officials with the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“We’re facing the same challenges in the region. Thus, the idea of this visit is to work together closely to deal with the same challenges we have in Central America, in Latin America and in our hemisphere,” Varela told reporters at the beginning of his Oval Office meeting with Trump.
According to officials with the Panamanian President’s Office, Varela wanted on Monday to relay to Trump that his country’s position is to work for “peace and democracy” in Venezuela.
Also on Monday, the foreign ministers of the Organization of American States member nations are meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss and approve a joint declaration on the Venezuelan crisis.
With regard to Cuba, after the US decision announced last week to close the door to more advances in the normalization process launched with the island in late 2014, Varela on Monday sought to speak with Trump about how to continue cooperating on that issue, according to Panamanian presidential sources.
In brief public remarks, Trump gave few clues about his meeting with Varela other than to say that there are “many things” to discuss and that the bilateral relationship “has been very strong.”
“We are developing new things to do and only getting stronger. And our ... friendship with (President Varela) is very, very good,” the US leader emphasized.
The US built the Panama Canal, inaugurating it in 1914 and managing it up until sovereignty was transferred to Panama in 1999.
Washington is also Panama’s main trade partner and in Fiscal Year 2016 was the main international customer using the Panama Canal, providing more than 65 percent of the waterway’s cargo traffic.
After their Oval Office meeting, Trump and Varela held a working lunch behind closed doors with several members of their respective Cabinets.
Varela is the fourth Latin American leader to visit the White House since Trump took office, after Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos.
With an agenda focusing on security, fighting drug trafficking and controlling illegal immigration, Varela is scheduled on Tuesday to meet with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg.