New Directions

New airs of diplomacy

Nito Cortizo's domestic policies will be focused on fighting inequality and corruption, but what is his stance on foreign policy?

PANAMA HAS BEEN STRUGGLING with the aftermath of at least two international scandals: the Panama Papers and the Odebrecht case. Meanwhile, the country has been suffering from the usual cases of bribery and nepotism/cronyism at different levels. As such, the Panamanian general election of 2019 was more than anything driven by a national desire to end corruption. And though all candidates came prepared with promises of change, it was Laurentino Cortizo’s words that the nation took seriously. This was in part due to the fact that Cortizo himself has a clean record, though people’s frustration with the then-ruling Panameñista Party must have played a role, too.

On May 5, 2019, more than 2.7 million citizens cast their votes to select not only the next president, but also the country’s legislators and a number of local officials. Cortizo—or simply Nito—from the Democratic Revolutionary Party, who is a former cabinet minister and businessman, came out victorious. This came as no surprise, as he had maintained a lead in most polls.
Indeed, most analysts were expecting a larger share of votes for him and his party than the approximately 33% achieved. In any case, Cortizo will be the biggest decision maker in the country for the next five years.

Cortizo’s presidential campaign was more concentrated on Panama’s domestic issues than global concerns. However, while fighting corruption and fixing Panama’s internal problems, Cortizo’s administration will inevitably have to adopt a foreign policy and set the country’s diplomatic tone over the next five years. When it comes to foreign policy, some accuse Cortizo of being anti-American or being xenophobic in general. Such accusations are mainly based on his resignation as the Minster of Agricultural Development in 2006 in protest at a trade agreement between the US and Panama. He found the deal harmful to local farmers. Many of Cortizo’s predictions came to pass after his resignation and the signing of the deal.
This, however, hardly makes Cortizo anti-American. Having attended Norwich University and the University of Texas in the US, Cortizo has an excellent understanding of American culture and politics. He also has some diplomatic experience as well as a history of doing business internationally. Nevertheless, his administration will almost certainly have conflicting views with the US on issues such as the Venezuelan crisis and the presence of Chinese businesses in the Americas.
The issue of corruption had become so intense during Cortizo’s presidential campaign that it overshadowed important foreign policy matters, such as China-Panama relations.

Panama, like many other developing nations, is strengthening its diplomatic and economic ties with China. Former president Juan Carlos Varela cut ties with Taiwan in 2017 in order to direct Chinese investments to the country. China has taken a particular interest in Latin America, finalizing Belt and Road infrastructure deals with 19 South American and Caribbean nations.
Cortizo is unlikely to differ from his predecessors on the issue of China. A free trade agreement with China and Beijing’s participation in Panama’s infrastructure projects could put an end to many of Panama’s woes. However, the US may not like the idea of a strong Chinese economic presence in Panama, given the Panama Canal’s important role in global maritime transportation. If nothing else, the US will definitely take offense at any Chinese involvement in the operations on the iconic American-built canal. Though Panama will probably be the scene of rivalry between the US and China during President Cortizo’s term in office, the country can still be on the lookout for investment from other sources, including the EU and US allies in Asia and the Middle East. For this to happen, however, Panama needs to restore the world’s faith in its corruption-stricken bureaucracy. Cortizo has promised to set up a new office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep foreign diplomatic missions and investors updated on the new establishment’s fight against corruption. 2019 will see how this measure and Cortizo’s fight against corruption will play out.

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