Panama's New President Vows Drastic Migration Policy Shift

Jose Raul Mulino, Panama's new president, vows to revitalize the economy, tackle public debt, and halt irregular migration through the notorious Darien Gap.

Published July 03, 2024 - 00:07am

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Jose Raul Mulino, who won the May 5 elections, was sworn in as Panama's new president on Monday. At the swearing-in ceremony held at the National Assembly, Parliament Speaker Dana Castaneda presented the presidential sash to Mulino. In his acceptance speech, Mulino pledged to revitalize Panama's economy, combat public debt, and stem irregular migration through the Darien Gap.

'We want to leave a strong Panama where future generations will have more opportunities,' Mulino asserted. He emphasized, 'We will not allow illegal entry into our country. Panama cannot continue financing the economic and social costs that illegal immigration generates.'

Mulino, a graduate in maritime law from Tulane University in New Orleans, promised the Panamanian people a return to economic prosperity and high employment. Having previously served as justice and public security minister from 2009 to 2014, his experience is expected to be instrumental in his efforts to combat criminal organizations and secure the border.

Addressing the pressing issue of irregular migration, Mulino announced last week during his visit to the Darien Gap that he would seek an agreement with the United States to facilitate the deportation of migrants. The U.S. role would largely involve covering the cost of deportation flights. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who attended Mulino's inauguration, signed a memorandum of understanding confirming that the U.S. would shoulder these costs.

'I won't allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by international organizations related to drug trafficking and human trafficking,' Mulino declared.

Over half a million people traversed the Darien Gap last year, with another 190,000 already having crossed this year. The migrants, predominantly from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and China, often face perilous conditions. Mulino's new policy marks a significant shift from the previous administration, which facilitated the quick and orderly transit of migrants across the country to the Costa Rican border.

Michael Shifter, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, commented, 'The new president appears to be supremely committed to ending irregular immigration through the Darien Gap. However, it won't be easy to carry out this policy, as various groups and interests can be expected to oppose it.'

Panama's active efforts to stop and deport migrants represent a massive policy shift. The outgoing government sought to manage the influx by helping migrants cross the country swiftly. By contrast, Mulino's administration will undertake rigorous measures to prevent illegal crossings, potentially reducing the number of migrants reaching the U.S. border – at least temporarily. However, experts warn that this could force migrants to seek even riskier routes, potentially benefiting smugglers.

In addition to migration, Mulino faces several other significant challenges. He must manage the Panama Canal, which recently limited traffic due to persistent drought. Moreover, he has to address a budgetary shortfall caused by the cancellation of a major mining concession following public protests.

Mulino criticized outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo's administration for leaving an economy in a precarious condition with high public debt. 'I will have an administration mainly focused on resolving the problems of the great majority of Panamanians,' Mulino stated. 'That doesn't mean getting rid of wealth, but rather combating poverty.'

He also promised to launch programs aimed at youth employment and to undertake efforts to rebuild the country's infrastructure, particularly its roads and highways.

Internationally, Mulino's stance on migration and his agreement with the U.S. have implications for regional geopolitics. The support of the U.S. in managing deportations underscores the interconnected nature of migration issues within the Americas.


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