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Ex-First Lady of Panama Sworn In as President : Politics: Mireya Moscoso, elected on promises of change, becomes the country’s first female chief executive. Detractors question her qualifications.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mireya Moscoso, a secretary who married a three-time Panamanian president, became president herself Wednesday, four months before the United States is to turn over the Panama Canal to her nation.

Elected on a promise of change, Moscoso emphasized how different she is from her aristocratic predecessor, Ernesto Perez Balladares, by shunning the formality of a ceremony in the National Assembly auditorium and taking the oath of office in Panama’s new 20,000-seat baseball stadium.

Accompanied by her 7-year-old adopted son, Ricardo, Moscoso was greeted by a cheering crowd waving Panamanian flags. “I promise today that together we will wipe out poverty in our Panama,” the 53-year-old leader said as she began her five-year term. “I know quite well that it will not be easy . . . but we also know that we have the Panamanian people on our side!”

Her inauguration recalled the style of her late husband, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who was sworn in at the old national stadium. Panama’s first female president has ably played up both her husband’s populist legacy and the contrast with Perez Balladares, whose free-market economic reforms and attempts to cling to power left him tremendously unpopular.

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Moscoso proved herself a relentless campaigner in two runs for the presidency, walking the neighborhoods of every province to ask for votes. But detractors question whether a degree in interior design from Miami-Dade Community College--earned during a 10-year exile following a 1968 coup that overthrew Arias--qualifies her to be president.

“Whatever preparation she has is a mystery to me,” said Ricardo Arias Calderon, a longtime leader of the Christian Democratic Party. “Her supporters claim that she had personal university training through her husband, but that’s mystical, not academic.”

Promises to Improve Education, Health Care

Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats on Monday joined a coalition that Moscoso cobbled together, giving her a one-vote majority in the Legislative Assembly, essential for controlling key posts as she begins to govern. Many Panamanians saw the coalition as evidence of her political acumen.

“Her greatest asset is the surprise factor,” said Roberto Eisenmann Jr., president of the Foundation for the Development of Citizens’ Liberty, a Panamanian civic organization. People do not realize how forceful and pragmatic she is, he said.

Shortly after Moscoso’s resounding May 2 victory, Eisenmann walked into her campaign office just as a supporter shouted euphorically, “The people are on our side.”

He remembered that she replied, “We have the people today, but we could lose them tomorrow if we don’t respond to their needs, so sit down and let’s get to work.”

Moscoso has promised to improve education, health care and housing for the 36% of Panama’s 2.8 million people who live in poverty. She also has vowed to generate jobs to reduce the 12.8% unemployment rate. Because farmers have been unable to compete with imports, Moscoso--a cattle rancher and coffee grower--has said that she will raise tariffs to the maximum permitted by the World Trade Organization, the association that regulates international commerce.

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She also intends to halt the sale of the government-owned water company to private investors. Sales of the public telephone and electric companies have resulted in higher bills for consumers.

“It just gives me goose bumps,” said Nelly Ramirez as she watched the inauguration. Ramirez works for a hotel here, at a 50% pay cut, after losing a housekeeping job at Ft. Howard when the U.S. base closed earlier this year.

“She very faithfully represents the Panamanian people,” said Jose Manuel Baeza, one of the few wealthy supporters drawn early on to a politician who has emphasized her humble, provincial background. “We have to improve the standard of living of poor people because, if not, there are going to be problems.”

Volunteer in Arias’ Presidential Campaign

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Moscoso is small and slender, in contrast with Perez Balladares, who is known as “Bull” for his stocky frame. While he belongs to the elite Union Club and graduated from Notre Dame University, she was the child of a school principal in the village of Pedasi, in the agricultural province of Los Santos.

Moscoso took business courses in high school and became a secretary in a government office. She volunteered to work in Arias’ 1968 presidential campaign.

Their relationship became public when she joined him in exile after the October 1968 coup. They were married shortly afterward, when she was 23 and he was in his late 60s.

“I have great respect for the United States because it took in my husband, Dr. Arias, and me,” she told reporters in a pre-inaugural interview. Despite that respect, Moscoso emphasized that she will not allow any U.S. military bases to remain here after Dec. 31, when the canal is turned over to Panama under the terms of a 1977 treaty.

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Moscoso used the exile to learn English and study computing as well as interior design. She seldom expressed a political opinion then, according to people who knew her. Further, when a coalition of parties opposed to Gen. Manuel A. Noriega offered her the presidential nomination in 1989, a year after her husband’s death, she adamantly refused.

She later told Eisenmann that she was afraid she would be manipulated because of her lack of political experience. In addition, Arias had left her in debt. She had to make the long-neglected family coffee plantation and cattle ranch profitable. Once she had repaid her creditors, she entered politics to rebuild the Arnulfista Party, which was named for her late husband.

Moscoso remarried briefly but separated, political analysts said, when her new husband proved a political liability. She narrowly lost to Perez Balladares five years ago. The next day, she was out campaigning again, said Eisenmann, who has agreed to be part of her kitchen Cabinet.

In May, she carried all but two of Panama’s electoral districts. Still, her campaign promises to improve the lives of the poor have generated expectations that she will have a difficult time fulfilling, warned a U.S. political scientist who follows Panama closely.

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“What she wants, she’s going to have to get in the first year,” the analyst said. “The length of time that she is going to have for change just isn’t going to be long enough.”


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