Panama’s new president Laurentino Cortizo took office on Monday faced with the task of sprucing up his corruption-tainted country’s image and reviving a floundering economy.
Cortizo was sworn in at a ceremony attended by Latin American leaders and Spain’s King Felipe VI at a Panama City convention center overlooking the Pacific.
A 66-year old Social Democrat, Cortizo narrowly won the May 5 presidential election against right-wing candidate Romulo Roux.
Cortizo used his inauguration speech to announce he would later this month create a special unit to “coordinate all actions to remove Panama from and keep it off” corruption and money-laundering watchlists.
He also pledged to “consolidate us as the best business, services, and logistics center in Latin America.”
“This is a new beginning, to rescue Panama,” he said.
“Our country has been disrespected and mistreated so far, until now, until today.”
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — an international body that fights against money-laundering — last month placed Panama back on an international watchlist after a gap of three years, saying not enough had been done to halt corruption.
Cortizo succeeds Juan Carlos Varela, whose popularity waned with a sharp decline in the Central American country’s economy, rising living costs, corruption scandals and crises in the health and justice sectors.
The Central American country has struggled to shed its image as a money-laundering paradise following the Panama Papers scandal three years ago.
And the economic downturn has seen GDP growth halved from 6.2 percent to 3.1 percent in five years.
“Better days are coming for Panama. We are going to build a better future with effort, hope, pride and heart,” he said on Twitter.
Ahead of his inauguration, Cortizo said he had seen “very positive signs” from potential investors since his election victory.
The new president will have to navigate between Chinese ambitions in the region and the United States, which jealously guards its traditional sphere of influence and the strategic Panama Canal through which around five percent of world trade passes.
A Chinese delegation attended the inauguration, led by Agriculture Minister Han Chang-Fu. The US was represented by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Among the Latin American leaders present were Colombia’s Ivan Duque, Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales, Peru’s Martin Vizcarra, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras.
Panama’s constitution limits presidents to a single five-year term.