What Do We Think Of The New Guy In Panama?
Last month, Panama elected a new president but not the guy everyone expected.
Until a few weeks before the May 4 vote, most of us in Panama assumed that current President Ricardo Martinelli’s guy, Jose Domingo Arias, would take it. But, as the election neared, friends began to suggest that the outcome was no longer so predictable. People were concerned that Martinelli and his party (which Jose Domingo also represented) were amassing too much power. Consolidated power makes people in this part of the world nervous.
So, indeed, on May 4, it was not Jose Domingo but Juan Carlos Varela who walked away with the vote. In the month since, every Panamanian I’ve spoken with has told me that he (or she) is happy with the way things played out.
“I didn’t vote for Varela,” one friend told me, “but I’m fine with him. Really, I was just voting against Arias. Anyone other than Martinelli’s guy was ok by me.”
Our point of view is that of the foreign investor and businessperson, not that of the Panamanian, of course. From where we sit, we have no beef with Martinelli. His policies, perspective, and practices were pro-business and pro-foreign investment. He invested heavily in infrastructure, from the expansion of Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport to the construction of a new airport nearer the Pacific beaches…from completely remaking the road systems in Panama City and building the first line of the capital’s new metro to expanding and improving the road from Panama City to Colon…and on and on.
Martinelli also instituted the new “Specific Countries” visa, which has made it much easier for us to hire the staff we’ve needed to grow our business these past few years.
I’ve written often of the downsides of living day-to-day amidst infrastructure work on such a colossal scale. The noise, congestion, traffic jams, dust, dirt, and flying concrete have been inescapable and sometimes overwhelming these past five years of Martinelli’s reign. We’ve had to remind ourselves often of the big-picture agenda the man was chasing. When he took office, Panama City’s infrastructure was head and shoulders above that of any other city in Central America…but it was not up to supporting the mega-growth this town was positioned for and continues to enjoy. (Panama’s economy has grown by an average of 8% per year for the past 6 years.)
Martinelli and his team sprinted out of the gate upon winning the vote five years ago, and they haven’t paused to take a breath since. Just watching them has been exhausting for us. I think maybe Panamanians feel the same way. Time to slow down a little…time to regroup.
New airports, roads, bridges, overpasses, government buildings, and cell towers were needed. Now they’ve been built. What next?
Varela says schools and hospitals. Makes sense to us. If Panama is going to sustain its recent growth levels, it’s going to need growing pools of educated labor.
No word from Varela yet on the Specific Countries visa enacted by Executive Decree from Martinelli. Typically in this part of the world, the new guy wants nothing to do with the policies of the former guy. We’re hoping Varela bucks that trend, as he has suggested he’d like to do.
P.S. We awoke this morning to the first pre-dawn storm of consequence this rainy season. The skies rumbled, roared, and shuddered. Rain fell in sheets and lightening shot through the gray in hot white bursts.
I pulled the sheets up tight and rolled over to watch out the window and take it all in, lingering in bed as long as I dared. Deadlines beckoned.
Thanks to the rains of the past few weeks, Panama is as green as Ireland and blooming. This country is home to more than 10,000 varieties of plants. Our current issue of the Panama Letter features a photo spread showcasing some particularly impressive blossoms. If you’re a Panama Letter subscriber, watch for it in your inbox this week.