Building a better Panama

SOCIETY Magazine spoke with the Ambassador of Panama to Austria, H.E. Dario Ernesto Chiru Ochoa, about topics like the Panamanian-Austrian relationship, post-COVID-19 recovery and renewable energy.

Since July 5, 2021, you are Ambassador of Panama to Austria. What are your main objectives for your current term?

Our main priorities are to strengthen and intensify the bilateral relationship with the Federal Government, the constituted authorities and Parliaments in the regions, as well as to enhance the common interests between the two countries. Furthermore, we want to explore the best ways to implement cooperation programs and facilitate the exchange of technologies and training as well as to promote the Austrian and Panamanian business sectors.

Also, we are committed to make the best use of the benefits and opportunities offered by the Association Agreement between the EU and Central America and to enhance the logistics hub of Panama as a base for commercial exchange, investments and business with Austria.

What connects Panama with Austria? How would you describe the current relations between the two countries?

Panama and Austria established diplomatic relations on January 15, 1904, which means that we have already enjoyed more than 117 years of diplomatic relations.

Both countries share a foreign policy characterized by neutrality – Austria through its 1955 Declaration of Neutrality and Panama through its 1977 Panama Canal Neutrality Treaty.

The Republic of Austria is represented by an Honorary Consulate General in Panama. In 2016, the Republic of Panama moved from the area of jurisdiction of the Embassy of Austria in Mexico to the Embassy of Austria in Colombia.  

Just like Austria is known as the logistics center of Europe, Panama is the logistics center of the Americas, thanks to its geostrategic position. There is potential for both countries to develop business together, as Panama is one of Austria’s most important economic partners in Central America. Bilateral trade volume is still small, but it has good growth prospects.

In which areas would you like to further strengthen the cooperation?

We have just signed an agreement on air transport which, in the future, may allow direct cargo or passenger flights. We will work on promoting the interests of small and medium-sized Austrian companies with recognized potential for the transfer of innovative technologies, industrial, agro-industrial and high-tech models of interest to Panama, to examine business opportunities in Panama, on their own or through Joint Ventures with Panamanian SMEs.

We are also working on the development of contacts and relationships with universities and innovation centers in Austria in order to promote collaboration and exchanges of academics, teachers, and students in the framework of training programs as well as scholarship programmes.

Panama has been one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America over the past decade. What impact did COVID-19 have on Panama’s economy and what are the measures being taken by the government to cushion these effects?

Panama had one of the strongest growth rates in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) before the COVID-19 crisis. The country’s economy grew by an average of 4.7% between 2014 and 2019, while LAC grew by 0.9%. But Panama also suffered one of the most severe COVID-19 outbreaks and economic descents of LAC. Panama’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted 17.9% in 2020. Panama responded to the COVID-19 crisis by maintaining approximately the same levels of investment as in 2019, while expanding social spending, despite a large drop in revenues of 21.2% in 2020.

The National Government presented the Economic Recovery Plan for the reactivation of the Panamanian economy. The plan contemplates actions aimed at the immediate, short and medium term, which includes programs such as: Opportunity Banking, support for micro, small and medium enterprises, Guarantee Fund, Panama Agro Solidarity Program, Recovering My Neighborhood Plan, reinforcement of the Housing Solidarity Fund and the Special Fund for the Strengthening of Credit.

Recently, Panama’s energy Minister Jorge Rivera stated that he wanted to advance a clean energy push by embracing ethanol as a source of gasoline and end the use of heavy fuels and coal for power plants by 2023. Why is it important for a country but also for the whole world to strive for an environmentally friendly energy policy?

There is a need to strengthen national, regional and global measures to reduce the impacts of climate change.

The project mentioned by the Minister includes objectives regarding electric mobility, distributed electricity generation and energy efficiency. Panama aims to partially replace hundreds of thousands of barrels of fuel per day (mostly imported by the United States) with biofuels, and make greater use of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind. Panama is committed to strengthening strategies to face disaster risk reduction and to promote human, social and economic development, thus contributing to strengthening capacities to make communities, governments and institutions better prepared for the effects of climate change.

The Cabinet Council by Cabinet Resolution No. 93 of November, 24, 2020, approved the Strategic Guidelines of the Energy Transition. This document specifies that the Panamanian government seeks to make an energy transition that is just, inclusive, and equitable with a view to building a better Panama.

Photo: SOCIETY/Karakan