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Panama's president an unlikely champion for clean government

Published:Thursday | April 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela


President Juan Carlos Varela is an unlikely champion of clean government in Panama.

He is the leader of the oldest political party in a country long perceived as one of Latin America's most corrupt. And he served as vice-president in the free-spending, scandal-ridden government of his predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli, opening his mouth to publicly criticise the now disgraced former leader only when he was pushed aside by his one-time ally.

Yet, since Varela's surprise come-from-behind election victory last year, the scion of one of Panama's richest families has deftly ridden a groundswell of popular rage with politics as usual.

Driven by a steady flow of media leaks and confessions by former officials, prosecutors have opened corruption investigations against more than 12 Martinelli aides and allies. Several have already been jailed and Martinelli himself has fled the country while the Supreme Court weighs lifting his immunity from prosecution.

Panamanians, who since General Manuel Noriega's dictatorship have grown accustomed to seeing elected officials raid government coffers, have been cheering the new emphasis on probity. They have rewarded Varela with a 60 per cent approval rating, the highest of any head of state in Latin America and almost double the level of support he got in narrowly winning the presidency.

"For us politics is service, it's not business," Varela said in an interview at the presidential palace Tuesday, two days before he plays host to US President Barack Obama and some 30 other regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas. "The people gave me the opportunity (to lead) because they knew we are here to serve them and not to use them."

Varela assures that the house-cleaning is motivated by a desire to restore Panamanians' faith in institutions. He says the corruption under Martinelli that is coming to light is on a grander scale than he or anyone else had imagined, and he insists that anyone in his government caught stealing will also be punished.