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Panama president: Trump company letter on hotel a mistake

April 14, 2018

Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Westin Hotel in Lima, Peru, Friday, April 13, 2018. Varela is in Lima to attend the Summit of the Americas. (AP Photo/Juan Pablo Azabache)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela says Trump Organization lawyers erred by sending a letter to his office directly appealing for help in a fight over the control of a luxury hotel in what experts say was a flagrant mixing of the U.S. president’s business and government interests.

In Peru for the Summit of the Americas on Friday, Varela told The Associated Press that he does not believe Donald Trump was directly behind the letter nor did he feel any added pressure to get involved in the dispute.

But without specifically mentioning Trump, Varela noted that he believed it was important for leaders to build a wall between their own private interests and those of the public when they enter office.

“That’s a wall that must be built,” he said. “You have to leave your private interests aside and focus on the interests of your people.”

The letter from a Panamanian law firm for Trump’s company arrived at Varela’s office after months of bitter dispute over a Panama hotel property and provided concrete proof of the sort of conflict experts feared when Trump refused to divest from his sprawling empire of hotels and other interests in more than 20 countries.

The Trump Organization contends the owners of the seaside hotel property in Panama wrongly terminated their management agreement, citing damage to Trump’s brand and maladministration by officials.

In March, Panamanian judicial officials sided with the majority owner and a justice of the peace backed by police officers ordered the Trump management team to vacate the property. In video broadcast around the world, workers scrubbed Trump’s signage from the hotel and gave it a new name.

Varela said he first heard about the letter when he saw a headline in the newspaper and that he never read the contents.

In the March 22 letter to Varela, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, lawyers for the Trump Organization “URGENTLY” requested the Panamanian leader’s influence to help reverse the company’s acrimonious eviction as managers of the 70-story luxury high-rise.

The letter never mentioned Trump or his role as president but did state that the organization was aware of “the separation of powers” in Panama and essentially asked Varela to intervene in the judicial process anyway.

It went on to state that the eviction violates an investment treaty signed between both nations and suggests the Panamanian government, not the hotel’s new management, could be blamed for any wrongdoing.

Varela said the letter had no influence on him nor would it impact relations between the U.S. and Panamanian governments.

“I think the lawyers made a mistake by sending that letter,” he said.

The Panamanian president is in Peru for a regional gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders that Trump was initially slated to attend. Trump canceled what would have been his first trip as president to Latin America three days before the start of the summit in order to manage the U.S. response to an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.

Varela has been at the front of a growing chorus of leaders in Latin America looking to join the U.S. in pushing Venezuela’s socialist government to end its crack down on opponents and halt upcoming presidential elections widely seen as a sham.

Recently it blacklisted President Nicolas Maduro and dozens of top officials, considering them a “high risk” for laundering money. The move, which drew high praise from the Trump administration, sparked a quickly escalating feud that led Venezuela to respond by barring dozens of Panamanian business leaders and companies from operating in its borders. Panama pulled its ambassador from Venezuela in retaliation.

Varela said he hoped international leaders could use the summit to build consensus in urging President Nicolas Maduro to dialogue with the opposition, an approach he said he favors over instituting further sanctions.

“If we keep putting more sanctions and hurting innocent people,” Varela said, “that’s a problem too.”

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