It’s an exciting time in Panama as we welcome our new President, Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo; elected May 5th to serve a five-year-term, beginning July 1, 2019.
This will be Cortizo’s only term as president, since Panamanian law prohibits anyone from succeeding themselves. Cortizo is the seventh democratically elected president after the fall of dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989 and with this election, Panamanians have illustrated they are becoming more at ease with their rights of demanding accountability from elected officials.
Panamanian voters can and will surprise you! In 2014 they elected Juan Carlos Varela who was thought to be an outside dark horse. This year Cortizo, who was predicted to enjoy a landslide victory, squeezed out a nail-biting win by less than two percentage points. Voters seem to be sending a strong message to candidates that they are being watched and they need to deliver on campaign promises.
Cortizo ran a campaign promising better economic times for all Panamanians. Ricardo Martinelli, the president prior to Varela, delivered explosive growth for the country sometimes outpacing the per-capita growth of China and always coming in much stronger than every other Latin American country. That growth slowed dramatically under Varela—from over 11% annually to somewhere around 3%—and Panamanians have felt the economic squeeze. Varela will leave office with only a 15% approval rating and Cortizo knows he needs to focus on the economy.
The 66-year-old cattle rancher says he wants to start developing a better relationship with the United States as well as continuing Panama’s newly focused partnership with China. “We need, and we have asked, the United States to look toward the region more — the region, not just Panama,” Cortizo he said in an interview with Reuters before voting on Sunday. “The United States is our strategic partner, our main strategic partner, but this relationship has to improve,” he continued. He also noted that China, while important to Panama, “must realize “the relationship (between China and Panama) must be one of respect.”
Cortizo was educated in the United States, primarily at the University of Texas, receiving both an MBA and Ph D. After his studies in Austin, he remained in the United States working in Washington DC. There he met his wife, a native of Puerto Rico, who was studying literature. They have been married for over 34-years and have two grown children, both of whom carry US Passports. Consequently, he feels a strong relationship with the United States and recognizes having the United States as a strong partner is vital to rapidly growing Panama’s economy.
Additionally, Cortizo looks to improve the education system for all Panamanians, reform government organizations by making them more transparent, eliminate corruption, grow tourism, generate more employment, attract investments and fight poverty and inequality. He also pledged to create ministries of culture and women, to make agriculture an affair of state, and to punish companies guilty of corruption. To accomplish everything on Cortizo’s list will be an amazing feat, but according to him, each one of his initiatives will build on the next agenda item.
For example, Panama has wonderfully varied vacation options—from all-inclusive luxury hotel packages, costing less than $1,500 per person for food, accommodations, drinks, golf and even air fare from the US and Canada, to ultra-lux accommodations costing more than $1,500 per person a night, just for a bungalow over the water. But, the majority of Americans don’t think about Panama as a vacation destination. In a recent study, over 86% of vacationers from the US reported they “knew almost nothing about Panama, other than there was a canal.” Cortizo’s team promises Panama will be appropriately marketed to the US and there will be an influx of vacationers driving as much as $500 million to the Panamanian economy.
According to Cortizo’s team, the tourism industry is just one example of how he plans to bring explosive growth back to Panama. Tourism is expected to grow rapidly and create more than 6,000 new jobs in the first year alone. When new jobs are generated Panama’s economy grows, more funding is available for education and new investments in large-scale municipal projects are funded.
It’s an exciting time in Panama and it looks as though the explosive growth, which we have not seen in several years, may be back on the horizon. I’ve watched Panama go from a dependent country, to a strong global leader and I now expect, in the next five years, there will be even more exciting things for all of Panama.