President of Panama Speaks at Harvard, Meets with Bacow

Juan C. Varela
Juan C. Varela, the President of Panama, speaks at the IOP about transformations that his country has undergone.

President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela spoke at the Kennedy School's Institue of Politics and met with Harvard faculty and students from Central America — as well as University President Lawrence S. Bacow — Thursday.

Before the Forum event, President Varela met in “a closed door session” moderated by History of Science Professor Gabriela Soto Laveaga with Central American students and faculty at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, according to Paola Ibarra Deschamps, the assistant director of programs at the David Rockefeller Center. Varela also “met briefly” with President Bacow, according to University spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson.

Varela was joined on his visit by Emanuel Gonzalez-Revilla, the Panamanian ambassador to the U.S., Melitón Alejandro Arrocha Ruíz, the Panamanian ambassador to the United Nations, and Luis Alejandro Posse, the consul general of Panama to New York.

This is Varela’s first visit to Harvard since taking office in 2014. Varela, a Georgia Tech trained engineer, won the election against the handpicked successor of former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is now awaiting trial for charges of using his office to enrich himself and wiretapping his political opponents.


In his speech at the Forum, Varela emphasized his dedication to advancing anti-corruption and transparency within the government.

“At night, when I was announced the winner of the elections, I promised myself and made a commitment to work towards two essential goals  — first, transforming the use of politics as a business to politics as a service and rebuilding our democracy, making it functional for future generations with power only to use to serve the people and not ourselves.”

He described his last four years as president as “a complicated surgical procedure to remove the tumors of corruption” from Panama.

“We fought the infectious corruption — at the same time protecting 40,000 jobs and more than 10 million dollars invested in public works by recovery of over 500 million dollars from stolen money without hurting the innocent,” Varela said.

Varela also spoke about his life in Boston 30 years ago as a student learning English and experience a vastly different system of government from Panama's dictatorship.

“I would take the red line train from my little apartment on Beacon Street to come to Harvard Square,” Varela recalled. “I saw people’s freedom to express their opinions, enjoy freedom of the press and open criticism of the government — something that at that time, was punished in my country.”

Varela did not mention President Donald Trump in his speech or in an interview with student media before the event, but he said in the interview that Panama has a “good relation with the United States institutions, all of the agencies” but that the countries “could coordinate more in specific areas.”

“It is a friendship of 115 years,” Varela said.

Gabrielle Salvado ’22, who asked Varela the last question of the night, said she could relate many of the topics she is learning about to the president’s speech.

“I was also really happy that I got to ask my question because I actually ended up skipping my gov section for this, and so I’m writing an essay relating this to my American foreign policy class,” Salvado said. “He actually had a lot of very interesting strategies that had to do with engagement and things like that that I could draw back to my class, which was really cool.”

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez


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