Panama president celebrates legacy by inaugurating subway a month before election of successor

PANAMA CITY – Counting down his final weeks in office, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli on Saturday is inaugurating the most-emblematic project of a five-year term marked by fast economic growth and more than a hint of hubris — Central America’s first subway system.

The metro will surely alleviate the booming capital’s dreadful traffic. But critics say the $2 billion spent on the 9-mile (14-kilometre) rail line would have been better used building a higher-capacity surface transport network and expanded bus system.

The critics also are unhappy about what they consider Saturday evening’s over-the-top party, with a free concert, fireworks and a Chinese dragon dance, to celebrate the new subway. They call it a political stunt a month before Panama’s elections to drum up support for Martinelli’s preferred successor, former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias.

Trains themselves won’t start running a full schedule until Monday.

Martinelli, who leaves office July 1, isn’t fazed by the criticism. Notably brash with friends and foes alike, the 62-year-old supermarket magnate hasn’t tired of boasting that he has accomplished more in five years than was done in the previous 50. He has an approval rating of 60 per cent, and relishes the chance of getting his chosen successor elected, which no incumbent Panamanian president has done since democracy was restored in 1989.

“Many times I’ve been called crazy for wanting to do works like this, but here it is, and it is for the Panamanian people,” Martinelli said Saturday at the inauguration during which he danced calypso and conga along with some of his ministers.

Several thousand spectators, some waving Panamanian flags, gathered in front of a stage by the los Andes station north of Panama City for a concert featuring local acts.

Since Martinelli took office in 2009, Panama has spent upward of $15 billion on infrastructure improvements, including new hospitals, airports and 990 miles (1,600 kilometres) of highways. The subway is Panama’s second costliest project in the past century, surpassed only by the current $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal that began before he became president.

“Never has a government done so much for a country and its people,” proclaims a TV ad featuring the subway and a catchy, merengue-tinged chorus of “Promises Fulfilled.”

The government hasn’t announced how much a ride will cost. Instead, it is waiving fares for the first few months in what analysts say is a clear attempt to boost the candidacy of the little-known Arias, who holds a narrow lead in most polls over former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro.

Panama’s region-leading infrastructure is a point of pride for many of the country’s 3.4 million people, although the spending hasn’t been without controversy.

Vice-President Juan Carlos Varela broke with Martinelli in 2011 and later accused the president and his two sons of taking kickbacks from Italy’s state-controlled Finmeccanica in exchange for government contracts.

No charges were filed against the president, but the allegation has reinforced perceptions that the construction — which has propelled economic growth averaging 9 per cent a year since 2010 — is also fueling corruption and waste. Panama fell 20 places to 102nd in Transparency International’s latest annual ranking of 177 countries on corruption.

The subway cost 30 per cent more than the price budgeted when the contract to build it was awarded to Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht SA in 2010. Roberto Roy, the metro’s top executive, says costs rose because of design changes, including construction of two additional stations.

Martinelli’s penchant for self-promotion led to the two giant boring machines used to dig the metro’s more than 4 miles (7 kilometres) of tunnels being named Marta and Carolina, in honour of his wife and daughter.

First lady Marta Linares is Arias’ running mate, a sign that Martinelli will remain influential if his political disciple wins. The president was barred by the constitution from seeking re-election.

Carolina Rodriguez, who works as a maid in the downtown district of flashy, high-rise apartment buildings, doesn’t much mind the political overtones of the subway’s inauguration so long as the train reduces her pre-dawn commute and remains affordable.

“It’s all very pretty and Martinelli says the train will help us,” said Rodriguez, who spends 90 minutes every day commuting in from San Miguelito, a poor neighbourhood on the subway’s northern terminus. “Hopefully the train will relieve my daily headache.”


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.


Juan Zamorano on Twitter: