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Panama Swears In President Martin Torrijos - 2004-09-01

Martin Torrijos, the 41-year-old son of former Panamanian strongman, Omar Torrijos was sworn in Wednesday as Panama's president. He faces enormous challenges that include the modernization of the Panama Canal.

The president's father, General Torrijos along with then-president Jimmy Carter signed in 1977 the Panama Canal treaties that turned over the administration of the inter-oceanic waterway to Panamanian control in 1999.

Mr. Torrijos is a graduate of Texas A&M University with degrees in political science and economics. Visiting presidents and dignitaries that included secretary of state Colin Powell and the heir to the Spanish throne joined thousands of Panamanians in the swearing in ceremonies held in Panama City.

President Torrijos inherits a government that is mired in accusations of malfeasance and corruption. Panama's foreign debt is among the highest in the world with 40 percent of the nation's three million inhabitants living in poverty.

Mr. Torrijos has promised to restart the economy, lowering the unemployment rate that is approaching 20 percent, while attracting foreign investment. He believes that tourism can generate thousands of jobs and that Panama's maritime sector can provide the incentives needed to pull the country out of economic depression. Political analysts point to the many challenges facing the Torrijos administration. Among them, the modernization of the Panama Canal, a project estimated to cost at least five billion dollars that will allow supertankers and large vessels to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Mr. Torrijos will also have to reform the country's social security system before it collapses. Fiscal deficits and uncontrolled government spending are threatening the retirement plans of thousands of Panamanians that look to social security as a safety net in their old age.

President Torrijos will also have to resolve the diplomatic crisis with Cuba, triggered by the pardon last week by outgoing President Mireya Moscoso of four Cubans convicted of attempting to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The pardon angered the Cuban government which severed its diplomatic relations with Panama. President Torrijos' father, the late General Omar Torrijos, was a close friend of Mr. Castro and it is expected that President Martin Torrijos will move quickly to restore diplomatic ties with the Cuban government.