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'Nito' Cortizo: cattle rancher and veteran of Panama politics

3 min
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Panama City (AFP)

Social democrat Laurentino Cortizo, who won Sunday's presidential election in Panama, is a veteran politician and former agriculture minister of the small Central American country.

The 66-year-old businessman and cattle rancher, popularly known as "Nito," will serve a single five-year term as head of state of a nation famed for its canal but also notorious for its financial sector which is accused of providing a haven for international tax evasion.

The terse and stern-looking Cortizo, who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, has said he wants to "rescue and transform Panama" and leave a legacy untainted by graft.

He briefly served as agriculture minister in the government of president Martin Torrijos (2004-2009).

Corizo resigned after just 15 months in the government because he opposed concessions to relax health standards during negotiations for the US-Panama free trade agreement, which was signed in 2007.

Passionate about improving cattle breeds, he is known for his hand-on approach, helping with milking, vaccinating and tending to his herd.

Cortizo, who focused his campaign on the fight against inequality, is praised by supporters for his humility and social sensitivity.

Opponents however accuse him of being surrounded by lawmakers embroiled in corruption scandals.

To them, Cortizo insists that no one will be "untouchable" during his term in office.

"Listen to me (...) we will (govern) without stealing," he said during the two-month campaign.

- Fight against inequality -

In 1994, Cortizo won his first term as MP for the province of Caribbean coastal province of Colon and did not hesitate to travel by horseback or in a dugout canoe to meet voters.

He later became president of the National Assembly in 2000-2001. "Nito" maneuvered skillfully to convincingly win the primaries of his Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), observers say.

"Cortizo, without being a member of the PRD leadership, has confronted the structure (of the party) and, without dividing it, has managed to become the presidential candidate" of the PRD, says James Aparicio, editor of the Metro Libre daily.

The party was founded by his mentor Torrijos, to whom he bears a striking resemblance.

Cortizo has promised to improve the education system, reform the state to make institutions more transparent, develop the economy and fight poverty and inequality.

He also pledged to create ministries of culture and women, to make agriculture an affair of state, and to punish companies guilty of corruption.

"I want to leave a legacy" in the history of Panama, says Cortizo, who managed to return the PRD to power after 10 years in the political wilderness.

Of Spanish and Greek origin, the new president studied international trade in the United States, where he worked a period for the Organization of American States.

It was there that he met his wife Yazmin Colon, with whom he has two children.

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