A Few Personal Details
Juan Carlos Varela, 50, is from one of Panama’s richest families. The family owns and operates the country’s biggest liquor producer, Varela Hermanos S.A., which was established in 1908.
Varela graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1985 with a BA in industrial engineering.
He is married to the journalist Lorena Castillo and has three children.
Varela has been on the board of the family business since 1985 and was executive vice president of the company until 2008.
He started in politics in the 1990s. In 1994 he become chief of political campaigns for the Panama’s 2nd largest party, the Panameñista Party. In 2006 he became the head of the party and then the Panameñista Party’s 2009 presidential candidate.
In a bold move, Varela withdrew his 2009 presidential candidacy to throw his conservative Panamenista party’s support behind Martinelli. He did this in exchange for becoming Martinelli’s vice-presidential candidate. It was a successful move. On May 3, 2009, was sworn in as Vice-President of Panama.
As Vice President, Varela was the architect of the government’s popular “100 for 70″ program. The program gives $100 monthly to Panamanians over age 70 who do not receive any other pension or retirement benefits.
Foe of Martinelli
But the political marriage didn’t last. In 2011, Martinelli stripped Varela of his role as foreign minister for refusing to back a plan for a referendum to allow president’s to serve consecutive terms. (Note: Panama law requires that a president cannot run for president again until 2 terms (10 years) have passed since he or she last held office.)
Since that rupture, Martinelli and Varela have been fierce critics of the other. Varela has accused Martinelli of many corruption charges including taking kickbacks for a government radar system contract with Italy’s Finmeccanica.
2014 Election & Martinelli’s Fight To Retain Power
The win is being interpreted as a rebuke to Martinelli.
Verela was sworn into office for a 5 year term on July 1, 2014.
Martinelli’s initial reaction was, “May God help us”. Since then he has calmed down and mouthed all the usual and expected political niceties.
While Varela won the presidency, his party did not win the legislature.
He takes office with a legislative minority. This will make it harder for him to pass free-market legislation. He will have to negotiate with the centrist and center-left politicians that currently dominate Panama’s Congress.
Panama’s Future With Varela
Varela promised upon taking office to take immediately steps to reduce violence and control the price of food.
He did both. On Induction Day, he signed into law price controls on 22 common food items such as rice, milk, and beef. The controls start today, July 7th, and last for 6 months.
He has also granted a one month amnesty for gang members to allow them to turn in their weapons.
During his campaign Varela has vowed to continue Martinelli’s drive to improve Panama’s infrastructure. Continual progress in improving infrastructure was the most cited reason for President Martinelli’s 60 percent approval rating.
But he also vowed to boost transparency. It is a common perception that much of the $15 billion spent on infrastructure upgrades was lost to corruption and poor planning.
Of course he has also committed to maintaining the country’s record-low unemployment rate and strong economic growth. Growth that has averaged over 8 percent in recent years.