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Cablegate: Panama Evangelicals Seeking Political Power

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 001947

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/CEN
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM LABOR HUMAN RIGHTSPOLMIL
SUBJECT: PANAMA EVANGELICALS SEEKING POLITICAL POWER

REF: PANAMA 01591

SUMMARY
--------

1. (SBU) Two Panamanian Evangelical ministers plan to form
a political party (Partido Teologia) in 2007 with the goal of
electing a president and legislators in 2009. If nerve and
energy were the only prerequisites for political success,
these admitted political novices would surely win some
elections. Spouting a pro-business and pro-American
philosophy, they presented their plan with enthusiasm and
eloquence in a recent meeting with PolOff. Some 10-15% of
Panamanians are Evangelicals, but a similar effort to form a
Panamanian Evangelical Party in 1994 failed due to a lack of
funding. The two ministers hope to harness the potential
strength of this large group of voters but reject forming
alliances with existing political parties. Instead, they
seek a new approach to solve their country's poverty,
narcotrafficking, and political corruption. Although they
are inexperienced and somewhat naive, they could surprise and
become effective politicians if they prove good at
fundraising, a vital part of creating a new political party.
End summary.

Part time Ministers but fully committed
---------------------------------------
2. (SBU) Panamanian ministers Rafael Dyer Frank and Evans
Ellis are the driving force in a plan to organize an
Evangelical political party in Panama. Ellis works full-time
for the Panama Canal Authority in information technology and
part time for the Hosana Church. Dyer describes himself as a
part-time business consultant who also works for the Church
of the Miracles of Jesus Christ. Both Frank and Ellis are
Afro-Panamanians from the once-prosperous city of Colon. At
this time the party has 150 organizers, mostly church
leaders. Frank and Ellis claim a Panamanian economist
recently joined their ranks to provide advice to their new
political entity.

3. (SBU) Note: Colon prospered from the 1940s to 1970s
because of a large U.S. military presence that created many
relatively high-paying civil service jobs as well as
opportunities to work for American families as cooks,
drivers, maids, and gardeners. Colon began a rapid decline
in the late 1970s when a series of events -- U.S. military
base closings, closure of the Panama-Colon railroad, and the
decline of the oil refining industry -- helped tip the city
into a depression from which it has never recovered (see
REFTEL). Afro-Panamanians make up 14% of Panama's population
and are subject to racial discrimination and prejudice. Some
among Panama's elite blame the United States for bringing
West Indians to Panama to work during the construction of the
Canal and also blame the U.S. because those workers chose to
remain in Panama once the Canal construction was completed.
The descendants of the builders of the most important
economic asset in Panama are blamed for creating many of the
existing social problems in Panama. End note.)


Evangelicals in Social Distress
-------------------------------
4. (SBU) What motivates Frank is the social injustice and
suffering that he sees on every hand. Frank estimates 50% of
the Evangelicals in Panama are unemployed and told PolOff
many have taken to drug dealing to earn a living. Frank
cites unemployment (currently at 12.8%) in Panama as the
cause of delinquency and crime. He told PolOff about a woman
he knows who sells drugs to support her family and who no
longer attends church because of the work she has been forced
to pursue. The woman has told Frank that she would stop this
illegal activity if she could get any other type of
employment.

What about governing?
---------------------
4A. (SBU) Frank has a hazy idea about what the Evangelical
Party would do once in power. He would pursue an ambitious
and utopian social and economic agenda that would include
better salaries for police, less taxes on small businesses,
and incentives for investment in Panama. The newly elected
party would have close relations with the United States.
Frank believes only U.S. citizens are capable of helping
Panama to fight the problems of drug trafficking,
unemployment, and corruption within the Government of Panama.

5. (SBU) Frank is clearer about identifying problems than
identifying solutions. Frank described the current political
parties in Panama as "only helping the upper classes while
the rest of Panama grows worse." He blames much of the
unemployment in Colon on former President Guillermo Endara,
who he says stopped the sale of merchandise purchased from
the Colon Free Trade Zone, causing many people to turn to
drug dealing to support themselves. (Note: In this
situation, Frank clearly does not understand economic
fundamentals. The purpose of a special trade zone such as
Colon is to allow the tax-free importing of goods into a
country for tax-free export to a third country.) He views
Latin American political systems as ineffective and thus
seeks ideas from outside the region. Frank credits the
United States as "leaving Panama in better shape following
its withdrawal than other countries in the Caribbean" and
expressed interest in studying the economic growth achieved
by India and China.

A pyramid scheme?
-----------------
5A. (SBU) Frank described a simple plan to organize his
political party using existing church memberships. According
to Frank, Evangelical churches in Panama have 450,000 members
over age 18 who are able to vote. Each member of the church
will be required to recruit two other persons for the party
enabling the Evangelicals to elect a president along with
members of the National Assembly, Panama's legislative
branch. (Note: the two people to be recruited would have to
be non-members of the Evangelical churches. End note.)
Frank told PolOff "there is no way we cannot win with this
strategy."

The Dutch Connection
--------------------
6. (SBU) The Evangelicals are hoping to lure support from a
Dutch banker who plans to open a bank in Panama in 2006. The
new bank would make loans to start small businesses such as
restaurants, hotels, handicraft shops, internet cafes, and
computer assembly plants to fight the unemployment, drug
abuse, and poverty that bedevils Panama's poor. Since
Evangelicals live in all parts of Panama, Frank believes the
whole country would benefit from this program. Frank
foresees ten percent of the profits from these businesses
would help establish an Evangelical Party in 2007. Frank and
Dyer estimate they will need at least $1 million dollars.
The profits generated from the businesses they hope to start
would help finance their political campaigns in 2009 when
Panama will elect a new president, vice president, and
legislative assembly. (Note: Forming a political party in
Panama is difficult and expensive. One must submit a
petition signed by 50 persons in each of Panama's nine
provinces and five comarcas (Indian territories) and recruit
60,000 members, a figure derived from 4% of the total votes
in Panama's last election in 2004. End note.)


The Grand Tour
--------------
7. (SBU) Frank plans a trip to the Netherlands and other
countries in Europe paid for by his Dutch banker friend. (He
did not want to disclose his name or the name of his bank.)
Frank is planning to study economics and finance while
touring schools, businesses, and factories. His stated goal
is to observe the political stability and economic prosperity
of Europe and learn how it could be applied to make Panama a
developed country.


U.S. Connection
---------------
8. (SBU) Frank said he has acquaintances active in an
Evangelical church in North Carolina. He also spoke about
visiting Evangelical groups in Colombia and the Dominican
Republic to study their political movement. Frank also
believes he will receive financial support from the
Panamanian expatriate communities in the U.S., many of whom
are Evangelicals. Frank has also met with leaders of the
Mormon church in Panama which has an estimated 16,000 members
as well a missionary presence. Members of the budding
Evangelical Party also want to meet with Catholic leaders to
solicit their possible support in forming a new political
party.

Comment
-------
While it is easy to dismiss the Evangelicals' plan as
unrealistic, the proposed Evangelical Party may just reflect
what many Panamanians already think: income disparities are
growing worse, employment prospects are not improving, and
the Torrijos administration, now one year old, has done
little to improve the life of the average Panamanian. In a
Gallup poll recently conducted in Panama, 64% of Panamanians
reported no preference for any political party while the
ruling PRD garnered only 23%. Although the Evangelicals are
pro-business and pro-American, they could be a precursor for
other groups with an agenda less-favorable to U.S. interests.
Successfully forming a new political party and winning
legislative seats, let alone the Presidency, would be a
formidable task for Panama's evangelicals. Winning some
seats in the National Assembly, Panama's legislative body, is
a more realistic goal as would forming a political bloc to
deliver their votes to one of Panama's presidential
candidates in 2009 in exchange for new economic and social
programs. However, the Evangelicals do not want to work with
political parties who they believe have not fulfilled
promises in the past. Their unwillingness to form a
coalition with other parts of Panamanian society may prevent
them from achieving political success despite enthusiasm and
commitment. The emergence of politicized Evangelicals could
also foster reform movements in Panama's existing political
parties to win the votes of this sizable minority.
ARREAGA

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