Conservative Varela surprises with progressive social agenda.

Elected in early May under the slogan “God bless Panama,” Juan Carlos Varela will take over as the next president of the southernmost country of Central America in July, having defied all predictions by beating the governing party contender, José Domingo Arias.

A bitter political enemy of outgoing president Ricardo Martinelli since he was dismissed from his role as foreign minister in 2011, 50-year-old Varela’s Partido Panameñista party won only 12 of the 71 congressional seats that were up for election. The governing Cambio Democrático holds 30 seats, suggesting that Varela’s first task will be to build alliances if he wants to rule.

Despite being a conservative, Varela campaigned against corruption and in favor of better income distribution. He proudly claims that his education—he was educated in a school run by the Society of Jesus—forms the basis of his social values. Before he and Martinelli parted ways in 2011, Varela proposed a plan called ‘’100 to 70,’’ under which citizens who are more than 70 years old and have no other source of income are given a monthly salary of 100 dollars; he also supported an increase in the minimum wage.

In the past decade, Panama’s economic growth has been one of the fastest in the region, with expansion in real gross domestic product averaging more than 8% from 2006 to 2012. The expansion helped cut the poverty rate from 48.5% in 2002 to 27% in 2011. But inequality remains high.

Married to a journalist, Lorena Castilla, and the father of three, Varela has a college degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Hours after the election he reiterated that one of the priorities of the new government is a decree to put the prices of 22 popular consumption goods under control, a move that, some noted, may damage outgoing president and supermarket tycoon Martinelli. Climbing food prices have been a source of complaint among the poorest families.