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Cablegate: Panama Pushes Disabled Rights Under the Torrijos

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 PANAMA 003034

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/CEN
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PREL ELAB PM LABOR HUMAN RIGHTSPOLMIL
SUBJECT: PANAMA PUSHES DISABLED RIGHTS UNDER THE TORRIJOS
GOVERNMENT'S NEW SOCIAL AGENDA


-------
SUMMARY
-------


1. (SBU) In his first hundred days in office, President
Torrijos has moved quickly to deliver on campaign promises to
280,000 disabled citizens and their families to create
practical and inclusive institutions to boost compliance with
Panama's disability laws. The president's personal interest
has raised disabled rights on the national agenda and bodes
well for improving the plight of the disabled.
Paradoxically, despite a new constitutional amendment
prohibiting discrimination against the disabled, the
president's personal involvement in the new institutions may
decrease their future chance for survival. President
Torrijos has a disabled child and his strong push for
disabled rights could be viewed as a purely personal crusade.
On the other hand, his new initiatives will create a
constituency for disabled rights which future politicians may
be loath to try to dismantle. This is the first report in a
series on the Torrijos administration's social agenda. End
Summary.


------------------------------------
TORRIJOS PLEDGED TO INCLUDE DISABLED
------------------------------------


2. (U) Prior to the May 2nd election, President Martin
Torrijos stood out in the 2004 campaign for actively courting
the disabled vote. In March 2004, Torrijos signed a pact
with a local disabled rights group and the Ombudsman's
office, promising to increase compliance with Panama's 1999
disability law, to create an office to channel government
resources to the disabled, and to develop a national policy
for disabled rights. Prior to taking office, Torrijos
initiated a constitutional reform package that included
articles prohibiting discrimination against the disabled
population and that raised the Ombudsman's office to the
constitutional level. Similarly, First Lady Vivian Torrijos
repeatedly stated that disability issues were her top
priority.


-------------------------
NUMBER IMPACTED UNCERTAIN
-------------------------


3. (U) While the 2000 census counted 52,197 disabled
Panamanians, activist groups estimate the actual figure to be
closer to 280,000, citing World Health Organization and
Pan-American Health Organization estimates that 10% of the
global population is disabled. Disabled rights activists and
NGOs note that five times that number are impacted as family
and friends of disabled people.


-------------------------------
FRUSTRATION WITH LOW COMPLIANCE
-------------------------------


4. (SBU) The disabled constituency was frustrated with
Panama's dismal compliance with its 1999 disability law. The
comprehensive law provided for mainstreaming disabled school
children, the right to rehabilitation services, mandatory
employment of 2% disabled personnel, and accessible new
public construction. Nonetheless, since then the Ministry of
Public Works has continued to build public schools
inaccessible to disabled children; only some disabled
children received special education; nearly all disabled
children attending school were separated from other children;
and health centers did not provide rehabilitation services
outside of the capital. The 2% employment requirement was
not implemented and the government took no steps to train
rehabilitation professionals to attend to its disabled
citizens.


---------------------------------------
TORRIJOS CREATES INCLUSIVE INSTITUTIONS
---------------------------------------


5. (SBU) The Torrijos administration acted quickly to form
inclusive institutions to address disability issues.
Immediately upon taking office, Torrijos created by decree
the National Secretariat for the Social Integration of the
Disabled. Located within the Ministry of the Presidency, the
Secretariat coordinates and provides technical assistance to

SIPDIS
government and civil society efforts to integrate the
disabled within Panamanian society. In October 2004, the
Secretariat installed the Council for the Social Integration

SIPDIS
of the Disabled, over which President Torrijos presides, with
the First Lady's Office playing a key role. The Council
supports the Secretariat by involving civil society and
government ministries in the formulation of policy for
disabled residents. For example, in consultation with
disabled rights groups, council representatives advise the
ministries they represent on accounting for the disabled in
their budgets. The Council also charges its members with
boosting ministerial compliance with the 2% employment
requirement.


--------------------
A PRACTICAL APPROACH
--------------------


6. (SBU) The Secretariat is taking a practical and
inclusive approach to promoting disabled rights. For
example, the Secretariat's campaign to increase voluntary
compliance with Panama's disability law uses a "friendly"
approach to business compliance. The Secretariat is also
working with a civil society group that raised $3.5 million
in a December 17-18th telethon for disabled children,
including $260,000 from Cable and Wireless. The telethon
sponsors will provide the funds to construct and equip four
disabled rehabilitation centers in provincial cities and the
Torrijos administration will provide the land and personnel.


7. (SBU) The Secretariat freely acknowledges the existence
of substantial discrimination against the disabled in Panama
and the government's current inability to comply with its
1999 law. Moreover, the Secretariat employs technical
specialists who understand disabled rights issues and budget
realities. The Secretariat even uses Power Point to explain
its national disability plan to aid in seeking international
and civil society partners.


8. (U) In December, the Ministry of Education's (MEDUC's)
Director of Special Education announced that the GOP's
centralized school for the disabled (IPHE) would work with
MEDUC to permit 3,000 of the 8,000 current IPHE students to
be mainstreamed in 65 schools throughout Panama in 2005.
IPHE personnel will prepare teachers at the schools to work
with disabled children.


--------------------------
A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
--------------------------


9. (U) In November, the constitutional reform pushed by
Torrijos's PRD party took effect, making discrimination
against disabled persons unconstitutional and raising the
Ombudsman's office to constitutional status.


-------
COMMENT
-------


10. (SBU) Torrijos's courting of the disabled vote and his
activist policies have demonstrated the importance of
including the disabled and their families in the national
agenda. Nonetheless, disabled rights are a personal issue
for both President Torrijos and First Lady Vivian Torrijos,
who have a disabled child. Their personal commitment and
experience augurs progress for disabled Panamanians over the
next five years. Indeed, the Torrijos administration's focus
on this issue has already increased national awareness of
disabled rights. The Secretariat's coordinating and
technical assistance function was sorely needed to increase
even government compliance with Panama's disability law. The
Secretariat's practical and inclusive approach is

SIPDIS
encouraging. Nonetheless, providing services to the disabled
in Panama's remote areas remains an expensive and ambitious
proposition. The rural poor are probably too marginalized to
participate in the Council.


11. (SBU) The President's and First Lady's heavy personal
involvement with the Council and the Secretariat also calls
into question the sustainability of the new institutions
under future administrations. The Secretariat and Council
are not government ministries and do not have permanent
status. Moreover, because they resulted from presidential
decrees, the institutions may lack widespread political
backing or could be viewed as merely Torrijos's personnel
crusade. Finally, with the Secretariat located in the
Ministry of the Presidency and the President heading the
Council, the new entities could quickly become mere shells
under a chief executive with little interest in disabled
rights. Nonetheless, improved rights and benefits for
disabled Panamanians over the next five years through
inclusive institutions could strengthen the disabled rights
interest group to the point that future administrations will
need to pay attention.


WATT

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