First Woman Takes Panamanian Presidency

Friday, September 03, 1999
Panama's first woman president was due to take power last Wednesday, four months before the tiny nation takes control of one of the world's most important waterways, the Panama Canal. Mireya Moscoso, the 53-year-old widow of three-time Panamanian President Arnulfo Arias, won the May elections with 45 percent of the vote, throwing her predecessor, Ernesto Perez Balladares, out of power and pledging to fight poverty and unemployment in the country of 2.7 million people. Moscoso, a teacher's daughter from the agricultural heartland, has never held elective office. But since her husband's death in 1988, she assumed increasing prominence in the Arnulfista party named for her late husband. She was a dark horse candidate for president in Panama in 1994, coming in second with 28 percent of the vote. She then dedicated herself to preparing for her successful presidential bid in May of this year. Moscoso assumes power at a critical time for Panama internationally, as the U.S. withdraws its military from the country and hands back the Panama Canal on Dec. 31, as agreed in a 1977 treaty. The zone around the canal, which connects the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Caribbean to the Pacific, has been under U.S. control since 1903, after the U.S. backed Panama's bid for independence from Colombia. The canal transfer was expected to present Moscoso with some of her stiffest challenges on the international front. While the international community will closely watch how Panama runs the canal, the U.S. in particular is likely to pay as much attention to Panama's ability to police its southern frontier with Colombia, where guerrilla incursions are frequent. Sources in the military say the U.S. anti-drug effort is also suffering with the closure of Howard Air Force Base. Negotiations with the outgoing administration to establish a multilateral anti-drug center fell through. Moscoso says she will not accept a reopening of U.S. bases, but there have been suggestions she might.
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