PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panama's agricultural minister resigned Tuesday, accusing the United States of pressuring the Central American country to accept lower agricultural inspection standards during free trade talks.
Agriculture Minister Laurentino Cortizo quit as Panama and the United States held talks in Washington on a proposed bilateral free trade accord. The talks focused on removing tariffs and subsidies to agricultural products.
Cortizo said he stepped down over concern about "foreign pressure" to allow U.S. agricultural products into Panama, saying U.S. inspections are not adequate and would expose the nation to "catastrophic plagues."
He added that he resigned to "alert" his government to the gravity of the situation.
U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment.
Cortizo said the United States wants to "impose" the application of its health inspection measures on Panama, despite the fact that both countries agreed in previous talks to follow measures established by the World Trade Organization.
"Panama should not, under any circumstance, set the precedent of not applying our health inspection laws in force because another country wants to sell its products," Cortizo said in his resignation letter to Panama's President Martin Torrijos.
Cortizo said he told Torrijos about his position over the weekend and that the president "has been very respectful."
"I have been fighting with my conscience ... and I decided to resign to sound off some kind of alarm," Cortizo said in a news conference Tuesday. "The agricultural health inspection is the backbone of the agricultural industry and cannot be relaxed in this way."
He added that Panama is a kind of bridge in the center of the Americas, making it more important that it uphold high standards.
"Panama has a world renowned health inspection system and we cannot, by virtue of a trade agreement with another country, put it at risk," he said.
In his resignation letter, Cortizo asked Torrijos to not fall to the pressure and put Panama at risk of "catastrophic consequences of plagues and diseases."
"I am enormously concerned that the relaxing of health inspections puts at risk the health and life of Panamanians, the agricultural heritage of our country and the loss of current and potential business ties with other countries," Cortizo said in the letter.