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Panama's newly-elected presidents vows to tackle economy and migrant route


Panama has elected a new president. Jose Raul Mulino prevailed in a field of eight candidates. He won Sunday's election with 35% of the votes. Panama is one of the most stable countries in Latin America, but discontent has been growing with the nation's democracy. Many voters perceive it as corrupt and out of touch with people's needs. Manuel Rueda has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Mulino, Mulino, Mulino.

MANUEL RUEDA, BYLINE: Hundreds of people turned out to cheer for Mulino on Sunday night at a fancy Panama City hotel. Giant screens showed the incoming election results, and the DJ played reggaeton music.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

RUEDA: Mulino is a former security minister who ran for Realizing Goals, a party with a conservative platform. He takes over at a time that has been fraught with economic uncertainty and growing worries about corruption.

JOSE RAUL MULINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RUEDA: "I don't smile much," he says in his victory speech, "but I know how to get things done." And he's got big challenges ahead. Mulino has promised to boost investment in infrastructure projects, build a new university and construct a train line that crosses much of the country. It's an uphill task for the nation of 4 million people, says Orlando Perez, a Panama expert at the University of North Texas.

ORLANDO PEREZ: It's expected that the economy will grow maybe 2% the next year. And so financing all of these mega infrastructure projects is going to be a significant challenge.

RUEDA: Last year officials shut down a copper mine that produced 4% of Panama's GDP. That decision followed massive protests by environmental groups and others who were frustrated with a contract that renewed the mine's concession for two decades.

MIGUEL ANTONIO BERNAL: All kinds of people went to the protest during three weeks continuously.

RUEDA: Miguel Antonio Bernal is a political analyst in Panama City. He says the protesters saw the contract as a corrupt deal that benefited the mining company at the expense of local water sources.

BERNAL: What we have here in Panama is a heavy concentration of economic power, heavy concentration of the political power and a social situation that hurt a lot of people in this country.

RUEDA: This frustration with the political system was echoed by many people outside a voting center in Panama City on Sunday. Dilan Figueroa, an engineering student, says he supported a youth movement called Vamos, which won a quarter of all congressional seats.

DILAN FIGUEROA: We are tired. We're so tired of corruption. We need people that defend the interests of the people, not the interests of all the elite.

RUEDA: Another issue that surfaced during the elections is immigration. Panama has become a major transit route for thousands of refugees and migrants who are heading from South America to the United States through the treacherous Darien Gap. Mulino has said he will shut down the route, a promise that has alarmed humanitarian groups.

JUAN PAPPIER: It will force migrants to take even riskier paths.

RUEDA: Juan Pappier is the deputy Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

PAPPIER: Organized crime will profit even more. And Panamanian authorities will have even less control of the transit movement of people across their border.

RUEDA: Mulino is an unexpected winner. He was only nominated by his party after its original candidate, a former president, was disqualified over a money laundering conviction. Now the 64-year-old will prepare for a job he has described as an honor that puts enormous weight on his shoulders. For NPR News, I'm Manuel Rueda in Panama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Manuel Rueda
[Copyright 2024 NPR]