The Miami Herald
Thu, Sep. 02, 2004

2nd Torrijos vows closer ties to Cuba

The new president of Panama, Martín Torrijos, said he will work to increase the number of jobs, improve ties to Cuba and widen the Canal.

Associated Press

PANAMA CITY, Panama - Martín Torrijos, the son of a former dictator, took office as Panama's president Wednesday, promising jobs, better relations with Cuba and a referendum on a proposed $8 billion expansion of the Panama Canal.

Torrijos said Panamanians should decide on the proposal to widen the canal for a new generation of bigger ships because of its high cost for this poor nation, where 40 percent of the people live in poverty.

He also promised an investor-friendly government that is concerned for the poor. ''Doing business in Panama has become a headache,'' he said.

Torrijos had tough words for his predecessor, Mireya Moscoso, calling her term ``five years of wasted opportunities.''

''We receive a country full of youth without hopes,'' he added.

He also criticized Moscoso for last week's pardon of four Cuban exiles who had been accused by the Cuban government of trying to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro at a summit in Panama in 2000.

''For me, there are not two classes of terrorism, one that is condemned and another that is pardoned. . . . It has to be fought no matter what its origins,'' Torrijos said.

A Texas A&M graduate with a degree in economics, Torrijos promised an austere, honest government and said public finances were ``in a deplorable state whose magnitude we have not yet begun to discover.''

He cautioned, however, that ``we are not going to satisfy all of the expectations of the people immediately.''

The inauguration was attended by officials from around the world, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian.

Torrijos' late father, Gen. Omar Torrijos, signed a deal with then-President Carter that led to the hand-over of the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian authority and many Panamanians remember him fondly for that achievement.

''He showed us that it was possible to achieve independence with dignity and bravery,'' the new president said of his father.

Like his father, Torrijos faces key negotiations with the United States, this time talks on a free-trade agreement started by Moscoso. He said he favored free trade but promised to consult with groups worried they might lose out in a treaty.

Torrijos said he would seek to improve relations with both Cuba and Venezuela, which were angered by Moscoso's pardon of the Cuban exiles. Castro's government broke off relations, and Venezuela recalled its ambassador.

Moscoso said she pardoned the four to prevent the new government from extraditing them to Cuba or Venezuela, where she said they would be killed.