Last month, Panamanians ushered in a political change for the country with the election of a new president, Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo. Only time will tell what the new president will accomplish, but such a change is an exciting opportunity for the country as Panama continues to make its mark in the global sphere.
Cortizo beat his competitors with support from his party, The PRD, winning 33 percent of the vote. While throughout much of the election Cortizo was far ahead of his competition in most polls, the final ballot counts ended up making it a much closer race than anticipated. In the end, Cortizo finished only two points ahead of the other frontrunner, Romulo Roux.
Citizens and residents of Panama likely want to know all there is to know about Cortizo and his plans for the country before he takes office on July 1. This is especially true for those working in business sectors that could be affected by new laws or policies. Read on as we get you caught up on the facts so that you can form your own opinions and make your own projections about what this change means for Panama.
Experience and Background
Cortizo was born in Panama, but attended college in the United States, studying both at Norwich University and the University of Texas at Austin.
After working for many years in Washington D.C., he returned to Panama.
In Panama, he was a member and eventually president of the National Assembly, and held the position of Minister of Agricultural and Livestock Development. In 2006, Cortizo resigned from his post as minister in protest over concessions that were made in the negotiations of the US-Panama Free Trade Agreement.
Cortizo has been married for 32 years and has two children and two grandchildren. He is a self-proclaimed aficionado of both soccer and football.
As a member of the centrist Democratic Revolutionary Change party, Cortizo rallied support mostly with his promise to the public to combat inequality, an issue that many citizens are concerned with.
While Panama’s economy has seen growth over the past several years, the benefits of this growth have not been equally distributed amongst all residents. In many cases, Panama’s economic boom has left the rich richer and the poor poorer. As a result, Panama continues to have one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America. This unequal distribution of wealth is especially evident in indigenous rural areas, where as much as 86 percent of the population is said to be living in poverty.
In his campaign, Cortizo promised to work tirelessly to rectify this inequality. He vows to build a University of Panama campus in the impoverished comarca of Ngabe-Bugle along with several public institutions aimed at improving education, employment opportunities, health care, and public services in Ngabe-Bugle and other marginalized communities.
Cortizo also campaigned on a promise to rid Panama’s political system of widespread corruption. Panama’s current president, Juan Carlos Varela, and his predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli, have both been involved in corruption allegations, with the latter currently serving jail time. Such allegations along with news regarding the Panama Papers and tax evasion by the hyper-wealthy have left many Panamanians wary of politicians and governmental institutions altogether.
During his campaign, Cortizo aimed to build trust with the public by taking a firm stance on institutional corruption. He did so by proposing reforms such as a removal of the statute of limitations on corruption-related charges. He also promised to bar companies with alleged corrupt practices from receiving government contracts.
An uphill battle
While these ideas may sound good on paper, Cortizo will face an uphill battle in attempting to convince the general public, especially those who did not get his vote, that he is different from his most recent predecessors who have given politicians a bad name. Nonetheless, many of his supporters lauded his transparency and concrete ideas to improve Panama during the election.
Cortizo went so far as to release a simplified list of 125 priority actions to improve Panama that he plans to execute once he takes office. These prioritized actions are organized into four categories pertaining to improving the government, legal systems, the economy, and combating poverty and inequality.
Apart from the plans discussed earlier to rid the government of corruption and reduce poverty and inequality, Cortizo also has a robust economic plan for Panama that is focused on continuing to spur growth while generating more jobs for Panamanians. He has proposed a learn-by-doing initiative that will support young people with job training and incentivize businesses to hire young workers and support them in developing marketable skills.
As far as investments go, Cortizo plans to invest in science, innovation, and technology, aiming to bring total investments in these areas up to 1 percent of the total GDP by 2024.
Additionally, Cortizo has big plans for construction and infrastructure across the country. His plan includes proposals to build up to 100 bridges across the country to improve accessibility for remote communities.
Within the capital, Cortizo wants to improve the quality of roads and add additional infrastructure for the Metrobus. All of these initiatives are aimed at tackling two issues: improving Panama’s infrastructure, and generating jobs across the country as these new projects come to fruition.
Looking Toward the Future
Although Cortizo won the election, he only earned votes from one-third of Panamanians. His ability to gain support from a wider swath of Panama’s population will depend on his ability to make good on his campaign promises. Given recent corruption allegations and widespread discontent with the government, many members of the public are feeling disillusioned with government institutions and politicians altogether.
While there is certainly hope that Cortizo is the leader who will be able to make Panama a more just and prosperous nation for all, only time will tell if he will be able to rebuild Panamanian faith in government by fulfilling his many promises. We’ll have to wait until July 1 to find out!