May 7, 2014

Panama Has a New President


The above photos were copied from BBC News and TVN-2 Panama websites to show candiate Juan Carlos Varela, who won Panama's presidential election on May 4, 2014 with 39% of the popular vote.  He won over candidates Jose Domingo Arias (Cambio Democratico) and Juan Carlos Navarro  (PRD).  

Since the announcement of his victory, Mr. Varela has been quite strong in his comments on how the government he leads will differ from that of the current administration.  I liked what he said during his campaign, and still find most of his remarks palatable.  I was secretly hoping he would win the election.
However, I spent the evening watching the election results at the home of Panamanian friends who either supported Jose Domingo Arias outright, or who voted for him as the least of of three evils. All were very outspoken about Mr. Varela.   Several in the group of 14 individuals said they didn't trust him and considered him the worst choice of the three major candidates.  They believe they know something I don't.

I watched current President Ricardo Martinelli when he appeared at the Cambio Democratico headquarters following announcement of a Varela victory, and was reminded of a comment he once made about a year ago on the national TV channel that "Varela isn't what he appears to be."  I simply don't know enough to venture any guesses.  Had I been able to vote, Juan Carlos Varela would have received my vote.  I suppose the old adage,  time will tell,  works here.   

So far, the President Elect has stated that he will work for Panama, and that he is interested in putting party preferences aside and improving the quality of life for all Panamanians. He has said no one should fear a loss of their employment or business as a result of  political party affiliations, and he makes no demands that people consider changing their allegiances. He has promised that the first thing he will do, the same afternoon he takes office, is sign a document freezing the prices of 22 Panamanian food staples  (known as the Canasta Basica).  These price freezes will affect meat, dairy, vegetables, rice, legumes, and other staples. The freeze will allegedly save each family a cost of $58 per month for basic food items. It may not seem like much, but to many families who subsist on around $500 monthly income or less, this is a big deal. Economists and business leaders all say this is a dangerous move to make, and caution the public to consider the measure temporary---a short range plan while implementing more realistic long term measures to improve internal agricultural production.  They also maintain the prices will not decrease, but instead will simply stabilize for the time being. The President Elect has stated that his government will immediately change from a business-centered approach to a public service one and it's focus will be to serve the people of Panama and improve their lives.  He promised during his campaign to bring water to all homes and to implement bilingual education in all schools.  After securing the election one day ago, he called for the resignations of the current government comptroller, the attorney general, and  the public prosecutor, whose administrations have been questioned by diverse sectors. He went as far as to say "they shouldn't be in office on July 1st" when he assumes power.  He suggests opening a re-investigation of alleged corruption charges against the incumbent President.  

All of this sets fine with me, but then suddenly, I feel a bit  unsettled with Mr. Varela's position regarding Venezuela.  President Nicholas Maduro, apparently an old friend, was one of the first international leaders to congratulate Mr. Varela on his win, and the President Elect has invited the Venezuelan dictator to attend his inauguration in Panama on July 1st.  Apparently their friendly relationship developed while both served as Chancellors for their respective countries during prior administrations.  Mr. Varela claims he is able to speak directly and truthfully with President Maduro and will send an emissary to that country shortly to evaluate what is going on there.  He says he will maintain Panama's position regarding social peace, human rights and liberty of expression, but Mr. Varela does seek to restore diplomatic relationships with this country, following Maduro's severence of ties due to Panama's condemnation of human rights abuses that came to light in February of this year. Varela also expressed agreement earlier this year that Cuba possibly be allowed to participate in some continental forums, such as the Cumbre de las Americas.  

And so things are getting interesting.  The Cambio Democratico's candidate did not win office this term [in my opinion] due to popular concern that President Ricardo Martinelli was overstepping his boundaries and trying to maintain control over the country in direct defiance of Constitutional policies regarding successive presidential terms.  The fear was he could turn himself into a benevolent dictator and run the country through a puppet candidate and his wife in a Vice Presidential role.  People feared allowing the Cambio Democratico party to remain in power an additional term was dangerous to their democracy.  

Candidate Varela maintained a healthy silence regarding the political unrest in Venezuela. President Martinelli was the only Latin American president to condemn Maduro's actions regarding the political demonstrations in Venezuela.   It cost Panama diplomatic relations with Venezuela, but showed a strong stand in favor of human rights, which is quite admirable.    So now, in the course of three months, Venezuela's president may be coming to Panama to celebrate the inauguration of this country's newest president.  

Ricardo Martinelli is reported to have said in response to hearing the news of Varela's victory,  " I know the candidate, and really, may God help us!"   I was watching on TV when he said, that in light of Varela's success in the election, he would change his plans about enjoying life and instead dedicate himself to opposition work.  

As crazy as it sounds, I find this somewhat comforting. Perhaps it will provide a good set of checks and balances, as long as projects can be completed and things can still get done. I'm becoming intrigued.