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Panama's president-elect wants to close the Darién Gap to migrants. Will he?

A man in a blue shirt with his hands up in the air.
Matias Delacroix
Former Panamanian public security minister José Raúl Mulino celebrates his presidential election victory Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Panama City.

Panama elected a new, conservative president on Sunday — former public security minister José Raúl Mulino — whose promise to close the Darién jungle pass to migrants could affect Venezuelan and other families here in South Florida.

Mulino was originally right-wing former President Ricardo Martinelli’s running mate. But Martinelli was recently convicted on corruption charges stemming from his first presidency, from 2009 to 2014, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Martinelli was disqualified from running but has since taken refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City.

So the 64-year-old Mulino took over the Achieving Goals party ticket at the last minute — and won Sunday’s election with more than a third of the vote, 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Ricardo Lombana, despite the Martinelli controversy.

Or perhaps thanks to it in some ways, say Central America experts like Will Freeman, a Latin American studies fellow at the New York-based nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations. He points out Panamanians elected Mulino in large part because their economy today is in bad shape compared to a decade ago.

That, combined with concerns about the government's management of the Panama Canal during recent drought emergencies and the burgeoning influx of desperate migrants from countries like Venezuela, made many Panamanian voters nostalgic for the charismatic if corrupt Martinelli's leadership.

“Now, the Martinelli years are far enough away that people remember the good of that time — years of economic growth, construction of public transit — and the memories of the bad parts, the corruption and the ugly espionage against his rivals, have worn away a bit," Freeman told WLRN during a visit to Miami.

READ MORE: ICE detains sons of allegedly corrupt ex-Panama president in Coral Gables

Freeman, though, does not believe Mulino's campaign pledge to close off Panama’s portion of the often dangerous Darien corridor to migrants heading to the U.S. — foremost among them migrants from economically collapsed Venezuela, which continues to experience the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history as well as a repressive authoritarian regime — is any more feasible than closing off the U.S. border is.

“I can’t see how that would be possible," Freeman said. "Right now the status quo is for the Panamanian government to keep people in camps and then bus them to the border with Costa Rica. I think there’s every incentive for that system to continue.”

Mulino — who shouted "Mission accomplished!" to supporters Sunday evening in Panama City — has promised to revive Panama's slumping economy, but aside from the canal challenges, he also has to deal with the macroeconomic fallout from mass anti-mining protests last year that led to the shutdown of a large and lucrative copper mine.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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