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Friday, July 12, 2024

Mulino Assumes Panama Presidency Amid Economic and Migration Challenges

The right-wing José Raúl Mulino assumes the presidency of Panama this Monday with the promise of stopping, with the help of the United States, the passage of migrants through the dangerous Darién jungle and revitalizing the Panamanian economy dependent on the interoceanic canal.

This 65-year-old lawyer, known for his strong temperament and authoritarian reputation, will be sworn in for a five-year term in the afternoon at the Atlapa Convention Center in Panama City.

He comes to power riding the popularity of the controversial former president Ricardo Martinelli, whom he replaced as a candidate in the May 5 elections, as Martinelli has been in asylum since March in the Nicaraguan embassy due to a nearly 11-year sentence for money laundering.

Rebecca Bill Chávez, president of the analysis center Dialogue Inter-American, said that “distancing” from Martinelli—sanctioned by the United States for “corruption”—and “his proposal to close the passage through the Darién” would favor Mulino’s future relationship with Washington.

“Panamanians are interested in improving the economy and having jobs,” said Anthony Buenaventura, a 25-year-old logistics student.

Overwhelmed Migration Crisis

On the eve of his inauguration, Mulino met with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, with whom he will sign an agreement on Monday to repatriate migrants crossing the Darién jungle, bordering Colombia. Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who is attending the inauguration, discussed the migration crisis with Mulino on Monday, according to an official report that did not provide details.

More than 200,000 people, the vast majority Venezuelans, have passed through the Darién gap so far this year, where criminal gangs operate, kidnapping, robbing, and raping migrants. Many die in this inhospitable jungle. A migration agreement with Panama is “perfectly timed” in an election year in the United States, but the border “is very porous” and repatriations “require multilateral collaboration,” said political scientist Sabrina Bacal.

Showing the importance he gives to the migration issue, Mulino visited the Darién province on Friday, three days before his inauguration, 250 km from the capital. This crisis “has gone over the fence,” he said at a migrant center.

Longed-For Prosperity

Mulino succeeds Laurentino Cortizo, of the social-democratic Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), from whom he inherits a country with a fiscal deficit of 7.4%, a public debt of $50 billion, and a collapsed social security system. After his electoral victory, he announced that he would make decisions “without fear” to recover the economic prosperity of his “friend” Martinelli’s government (2009-2014).

He urgently needs to find a project to ensure the water supply for the Panama Canal, the engine of the economy (6% of GDP), which in the past year had to reduce ship traffic due to a drought exacerbated by climate change. “The lack of access to water for the canal is perhaps the most dangerous threat to the Panamanian economy,” said Luis Botello, president of the Media Foundation for Democracy in the United States.

Martinelli and Governance

The future of Martinelli and the role he will play in his government is a complete mystery. “Mulino has hinted at his interest in developing his own political identity, independent” of the billionaire former ruler, Chávez opined. “Mr. Martinelli’s situation does not pass through me as president,” Mulino recently stated when asked if he would grant him a safe-conduct or pardon.

On Monday, Martinelli was visited by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada in his refuge at the embassy, according to a photo he posted on Instagram showing them shaking hands.

Mulino will govern with a Congress (71 seats) where independents are the largest force, but his Realizing Goals (RM) party, founded by Martinelli, controls the board of directors and its 13 deputies could dominate parliament in alliance with traditional parties.

King Felipe VI of Spain and Presidents Rodrigo Chaves (Costa Rica), Xiomara Castro (Honduras), and Luis Abinader (Dominican Republic), among other dignitaries, are also attending the inauguration.

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