Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal (born March 11, 1952) is a Panamanian businessman serving as 49th President of Panama since 2009. He is a Panamanian of Italian descent from his father's side.
Born in Panama City, Ricardo Martinelli is the son of Ricardo Martinelli Pardini and Gloria Berrocal Fabrega. He completed his secondary education at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia in the United States. In 1973, he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Arkansas. He earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the INCAE Business School in 1977, graduating from its campus in Nicaragua.
Martinelli is the chairman of the board of Panama's Super 99 supermarket chain, and of two other companies; he sits on the boards of at least eight other companies.
During the presidency of Ernesto Pérez Balladares, Martinelli served as Director of Social Security from 1994 to 1996. From September 1999 to January 2003, during the presidency of Mireya Moscoso, he served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Panama Canal and as the Minister for Canal Affairs.
Martinelli is the president of the Democratic Change party, which was founded in May 1998. He led the party and was the presidential candidate during the 2004 general election, when his party came last; Martinelli received 5.3% of the vote and came in fourth place in the election.
Martinelli was the leader of Democratic Change and presidential candidate in the 2009 general election. He made promises to cut political corruption and reduce violent crime and spent an estimated $35 million on promoting his campaign. By election day, Martinelli was the favourite to win the election, with opinion polls gaving him a double-digit lead over the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)-People's Party coalition. He had the support of the Alliance for Change, a group of political parties which includes his own Democratic Change party, the Panameñista Party, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement and the Patriotic Union Party.
His main opponent was PRD candidate Balbina Herrera. Though initially the favorite, she was damaged in the election by her links to former military ruler Manuel Noriega and by the perception that she was a "Chavista", a supporter of leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Martinelli was also helped by strong support from the business community.
On May 3, 2009, Martinelli won the national election by a landslide, with over 60% of the votes compared to Herrera, who received about 36%. Former president Guillermo Endara finished a distant third. This was the second-largest majority in Panamanian history, and the largest since 1989. Martinelli's victory was an exception to a trend of victories for left-leaning Latin American candidates. He was sworn in on July 1, 2009.
Martinelli introduced a number of measures designed to alleviate poverty, including a $100 monthly pension for the elderly, an increase in the minimum wage, and subsidies for students to meet the cost of uniforms and supplies.
Twice during his first year in office, Martinelli proposed and signed into law tax reform to simplify filings, reduce rates and improve collection. The numbers of income brackets were reduced from 5 to 2, the corporate rate was cut to 25% and delinquent collection was outsourced. A spokesperson for Fitch Group stated that the tax reform "underpin[ned] the government's commitment to sustainable fiscal policies."
As of 2010, Martinelli's administration also planned to spend $20 billion over the next four years on infrastructure designed to enhance Panama's role as a global logistics hub and increase foreign direct investment. The plan includes greater investment in roads, hospitals, sewers, schools, and a Panama City metro. Fitch Group called the "ambitious public investment program" part of "Panama's highly favorable investment cycle."
Martinelli also oversaw the final approval of the Panama–United States Trade Promotion Agreement, which was signed more than two years before he took office but had not been finalized. Martinelli had designated the completion of this agreement as his top priority upon taking office. The agreement was ratified by the US Congress on October 13, 2011.
In 2010, Panama's sovereign debt rating was upgraded to "investment grade" by Fitch, Moody's, and Standard & Poor's. Fitch had upgraded Panama twice since Martinelli took office, and Standard & Poor's followed their upgrade with a revised "positive" outlook. The Fitch's upgrade was described as "a victory for conservative President Ricardo Martinelli, who has pushed two tax reforms through Congress since taking office". In 2011, however, The Economist described the foreign investment as still hurt by "doubts about the rule of law", citing suspected corruption in the bidding for the metro contract and the flooding of a wealthy Panama City neighborhood with sewage due to a lack of enforcement of planning laws.
Martinelli was criticized during his presidency for authoritarian tactics. He sought to reduce the time period before the president could run for re-election, and was accused of tampering with the Supreme Court. In August 2009, US Ambassador to Panama Barbara J. Stephenson wrote to the US State Department that Martinelli had asked her for wiretaps on his political opponents, and she complained of his "bullying style" and "autocratic tendencies". A copy of the cable was released in December 2010 by WikiLeaks. Martinelli's administration stated after the leak that "help in tapping the telephones of politicians was never requested" and that Stephenson was "mistaken" in her interpretation.
Initially popular, Martinelli's approval ratings fell by 2012. In December 2011, former military ruler Manuel Noriega was extradited from France to Panama by Martinelli's government. Critics charged that Martinelli had requested the extradition to turn public attention away from administration scandals, an accusation denied by the French and Panamanian governments. A May 2012 poll by Unimer reported that 55% of Panamanians rated Martinelli a "bad" or "very bad" president, a record low. His popularity had been harmed by corruption scandals, including a claim that he had taken bribes from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's aide Valter Lavitola.
On February 20, 2010, the University of Arkansas established the Ricardo A. Martinelli Berrocal Scholarship to provide financial aid to prospective University of Arkansas students from Panama. He was also presented with the Citation of Distinguished Alumnus award, and made an official ambassador of the State of Arkansas by Governor Mike Beebe.
In 1978, Martinelli married Marta Linares, with whom he has three children: Ricardo Martinelli Linares, Luis Enrique Martinelli Linares and Carolina Martinelli Linares.
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