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Unexpected Rise to Power: The Unorthodox Journey of Panama’s New President, José Raúl Mulino

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Just over six months ago, José Raúl Mulino was practically retired from politics. But in a historic and tumultuous election, the 64-year-old lawyer has emerged as the new president-elect of Panama, poised to lead the Central American nation through a challenging period marked by political tensions, economic struggles, and a migrant crisis. Mulino’s unlikely victory is a testament to the power of political connections and the enduring influence of his former mentor, the disgraced ex-president Ricardo Martinelli.

Martinelli’s Protégé Takes Center Stage

Mulino’s path to the presidency was anything but straightforward. Initially tapped by Martinelli to be his running mate, Mulino found himself thrust into the spotlight after the former president was disqualified from the race due to a money laundering conviction. Despite facing constitutional challenges to his own candidacy, Mulino ultimately prevailed, securing over a third of the votes cast in the election.

The Influence of a Disgraced Leader

Martinelli’s shadow loomed large over Mulino’s campaign, with the former president actively campaigning for his protégé from the Nicaraguan embassy, where he had sought political asylum. The firebrand politician’s popularity and the economic boom seen during his administration proved to be a powerful asset for Mulino, who acknowledged Martinelli’s role, saying, “When you invited me to be vice president, I never imagined this.”

Mulino’s candidacy was initially challenged on the grounds that he had not won a primary vote or selected his own running mate, as required by Panamanian law. However, a last-minute Supreme Court decision validated his bid, paving the way for his victory.

Addressing Panama’s Pressing Challenges

As the new president-elect, Mulino faces a daunting array of issues that will test his leadership. From a slowing economy and a debilitating drought to historic levels of migration and deep-rooted corruption, the challenges ahead are formidable.

Reviving the Economy

Panama’s economy has been lagging in recent years, with GDP growth forecast to slow from 7.3% in 2023 to just 2.5% in 2024. Mulino has promised to reignite economic prosperity, playing up his connections to the Martinelli era, when the country experienced a infrastructure boom and economic expansion.

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Tackling the Drought Crisis

One of the most pressing concerns is the severe drought that has handicapped the Panama Canal, a crucial component of the country’s economy. The canal, which handles about 6% of global maritime trade, has seen a significant reduction in traffic due to the lack of water. Mulino will need to find innovative solutions to address this crisis and ensure the smooth operation of this vital waterway.

Addressing the Migrant Crisis

The Darien Gap, the perilous jungle region between Colombia and Panama, has become a flashpoint for the region’s migrant crisis. Last year, more than half a million undocumented migrants passed through the area, often facing abuse and exploitation. Mulino has vowed to tackle this issue, though experts question the viability of his plans given the sheer scale of the problem.

Combating Corruption

Corruption has long been a thorn in Panama’s side, and the outgoing administration of Laurentino Cortizo was marred by allegations of widespread graft. Mulino’s own ties to the disgraced Martinelli regime have raised eyebrows, and he will need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to rooting out corruption if he hopes to restore public trust.

Mulino’s Background and Political Trajectory

José Raúl Mulino’s journey to the presidency has been a winding one, marked by his involvement in both the private and public sectors.

From Private Sector to Public Service

Mulino first made a name for himself as a maritime law attorney and a participant in the civil movement against the dictatorship of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. He later served in various government roles, including as vice minister of foreign affairs and minister of the interior and justice under Martinelli’s administration.

Securing the Darien Gap

As security minister, Mulino was credited with “recovering” the Darien Gap, a region along the Colombia-Panama border that had been under the control of drug-trafficking guerrillas. This achievement, though controversial due to the heavy-handed tactics employed, has become a key part of his political narrative.

Navigating the Challenges Ahead

Mulino’s tenure as president will be marked by the need to address the country’s deep-seated issues. With a slowing economy, a crippling drought, a migrant crisis, and lingering corruption, the new leader will have to navigate a complex and treacherous political landscape. His success or failure will not only shape the future of Panama but also have far-reaching implications for the broader region.

The Uncertain Future of Panama under Mulino

As Mulino prepares to take office on July 1st, the future of Panama remains shrouded in uncertainty. While he has promised to revive the economy and tackle the country’s pressing challenges, his close ties to the disgraced Martinelli regime have raised concerns about the potential for continued corruption and cronyism.

Martinelli’s Continued Influence

Many Panamanians believe that Martinelli, who remains a popular figure despite his legal troubles, will continue to wield significant influence from behind the scenes. Mulino has sought to distance himself from this perception, declaring that “he is not the puppet of anyone.” However, the extent to which he will be able to chart an independent course remains to be seen.

The Challenges Ahead

Mulino’s presidency will be marked by a daunting array of issues, from the need to restore public trust and revive the economy to addressing the devastating drought and the migrant crisis. His ability to navigate these challenges will be closely watched, both within Panama and on the international stage.

The Implications for the Region

The outcome of Mulino’s presidency could have far-reaching implications for the broader region. As a key player in Central America, Panama’s political and economic stability are of vital importance. Mulino’s success or failure in addressing the country’s challenges could reverberate throughout the region, with potential impacts on issues such as migration, regional security, and economic cooperation.

The Enduring Legacy of Ricardo Martinelli

Despite his legal troubles and the controversy surrounding his administration, Ricardo Martinelli remains a towering figure in Panamanian politics. His influence on Mulino’s rise to power is undeniable, and the new president’s ability to distance himself from his mentor’s legacy will be a crucial test of his leadership.

Martinelli’s Enduring Popularity

Martinelli’s popularity among many Panamanians, particularly those who fondly remember the economic prosperity of his administration, has been a significant factor in Mulino’s victory. The former president’s active campaigning for his protégé from the Nicaraguan embassy has further solidified his continued relevance in the country’s political landscape.

The Specter of Corruption

However, Martinelli’s legacy is also tainted by allegations of widespread corruption and abuse of power during his time in office. Mulino’s ties to his former mentor have raised concerns about the potential for continued cronyism and a lack of genuine commitment to addressing the country’s deep-seated corruption issues.

The Uncertain Path Forward

As Mulino assumes the presidency, he will need to navigate the delicate balance between capitalizing on Martinelli’s enduring popularity and establishing his own independent identity. The new leader’s ability to distance himself from the controversies of the past and chart a course that prioritizes transparency, accountability, and the well-being of all Panamanians will be crucial in determining the long-term success of his administration.

The Implications of Mulino’s Victory for Panama and the Region

Mulino’s unexpected rise to power has sent shockwaves throughout Panama and the broader region. The new president’s tenure will have far-reaching implications, both for the country’s domestic affairs and its international standing.

Domestic Challenges and Opportunities

Domestically, Mulino will face the daunting task of addressing Panama’s pressing economic, social, and environmental challenges. His ability to revive the economy, tackle the drought crisis, and combat corruption will be closely watched by the Panamanian public, who have grown increasingly disillusioned with the political establishment.

Regional Implications

On a regional scale, Mulino’s presidency could have significant implications for issues such as migration, security, and economic cooperation. As a key player in Central America, Panama’s stability and the new leader’s approach to these challenges will be closely monitored by neighboring countries and the international community.

The Geopolitical Landscape

Mulino’s ties to Martinelli and his perceived closeness to the Nicaraguan government, which granted the former president political asylum, could also have geopolitical ramifications. The new president’s foreign policy orientation and his ability to navigate the complex regional dynamics will be a crucial factor in determining Panama’s standing on the international stage.

Conclusion: Navigating Uncharted Waters

José Raúl Mulino’s unexpected rise to the Panamanian presidency has captured the attention of the nation and the broader region. As he prepares to take office, the new leader faces a daunting array of challenges that will test his leadership and his ability to chart a course that balances the country’s pressing needs with the enduring influence of his former mentor, Ricardo Martinelli.

Mulino’s success or failure will not only shape the future of Panama but could also have far-reaching implications for the region as a whole. His ability to address the country’s economic woes, tackle the environmental crisis, combat corruption, and manage the migrant crisis will be closely watched by both the Panamanian people and the international community.

As Mulino navigates these uncharted waters, he will need to demonstrate a steadfast commitment to transparency, accountability, and the well-being of all Panamanians. Only then can he hope to overcome the legacy of the past and chart a new course that secures a prosperous and stable future for the nation.


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