“My main goal is to have the Panama Free Trade Agreement approved by Congress,” says Alemán, who assumed his position last August. “We are working on the necessary amendments to Panamanian law in order for the U.S. Congress to submit the treaty for ratification.”
The treaty would significantly liberalize trade of goods and services, including financial services, between the U.S. and Panama. Signed by the two countries’ presidents in 2007, the treaty addresses concerns relating to customs administration, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, investment, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental protections.
In support of the cause, Alemán spends his days networking in a relentless schedule of official meetings and social events. He says his immersion in diplomacy has been fascinating. “In a way it is like going back to school,” he says. “I am learning so much.”
Alemán was 12 when his father, Roberto, was appointed special ambassador of Panama to the U.S. for negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaties, which would give Panama control of the Panama Canal while preserving the right of the U.S. to defend it from threats to the free passage of ships.
His father returned to Panama in 1970, but Alemán remained at school in Washington. He later earned a degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame in 1975 before attending Duke Law. After three years in the legal department of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, he finally returned to Panama to join his father’s firm.
Like his father’s, Alemán’s career as a lawyer has been punctuated, at intervals, with periods of public service. In addition to serving briefly as legal counsel to President Nicolás Ardito Barletta, he took a temporary leave of absence from the firm he founded in 1985, Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, to serve as minister of Government and Justice for Barletta’s successor, President Eric Arturo Delvalle. He accepted that post on Feb. 25, 1988, during a 4:30 a.m. phone call with Delvalle.
“‘I feel a moral obligation to do this, having myself encouraged you,’” he recalls telling Delvalle. “‘I will accept the appointment to serve as your minister of Government and Justice, and I will sign the order to remove Manuel Noriega from his post.’”
The decision to relieve the general and military dictator of his duties was historic and risky; earlier that month, Noriega had been indicted on drug charges by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, but retained control of the General Assembly. When Alemán decided he would sign the order, he arranged for his wife and two small children to leave the country immediately. He, too, went into hiding after signing the order — he later joined his family in Miami — and the General Assembly removed Delvalle from power the following day.
Noriega retained power as head of the nation’s armed forces and de facto head of state, but public confidence in him began a precipitous decline, and the door to the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was opened.
When he returned from exile in December of 1988, Alemán rejoined his law firm, focusing his practice on trusts and financial structures for private clients. Today, his firm is one of Panama’s most prestigious — he calls building it “one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.”
Now, back in Washington, Alemán muses on how his life has come full circle. His father died just one month before Alemán returned to Washington as ambassador, “immensely proud” that his son would be assuming the position he once held. “I feel this is literally a continuation of my father’s life,” Alemán says. “I feel his presence everywhere. I sit at his desk, I live in the residence where I grew up with my brothers and parents. In that sense, it is a realization of a life’s dream and a reconnection with my past.”
To the list of the loves of his life — family, country, law practice — Alemán also adds Duke. An honorary life member of the Duke Law Board of Visitors, he has been a staunch financial contributor — the Law School’s main reception area is officially named the Jaime Alemán Welcome Center — and he follows Duke basketball with zeal. “I fell in love with Duke the day I set foot on campus,” he says. “I feel at ease there, even now. The camaraderie of the students when I was there had a strong impact on me. I made many good friends. It was a springboard to my success.”