Building bridges

Panama punches above its weight on the world stage so it’s fitting that the country’s new Ambassador to London Daniel Fábrega enjoys a few rounds in the boxing ring.

Entering the diplomatic ring, the Ambassador brings to the job solid business credentials, having marketed and promoted Panama’s main spirits in 35 countries for almost 17 years, taking on huge multinational brands. Fábrega’s experience will be invaluable in promoting Panama in London’s overcrowded diplomatic market place.

Privileged position
But his country has valuable assets. “Panama has a privileged geographical position, linking continents and hemispheres. We are the gateway to the Americas,” he says.

The glittering skyscrapers in Panama City are a sign of the prosperity powered by the famous Canal – an engine of growth that is set to accelerate once the widening of the canal to accommodate super containers is operational.

But Panama is not simply a connector of continents and trade routes, the Ambassador points out. “We are a bridge, socially, politically, diplomatically.”

Panama’s ability to bring the Americas together will be showcased at the Summit of the Americas in April, in Panama City. And for the first time in history Cuba and the USA will be seated at the same table, a diplomatic coup.

“We are a facilitator of dialogue, and President Varela was clear that the Summit of the Americas should include the participation of Cuba. We wanted to mark the start of a new era of relations between the US and Cuba.”

Prosperity with equity
The Summit’s ambitious theme is ‘Prosperity with Equity’ – to bridge the gaping social divide among the peoples of Latin America. “Our aim is to renew commitments of countries in the region to achieve greater reconciliation between the peoples of the Americas,” he says.

Over the past eight years Panama’s GDP has doubled yet even with impressive growth rates of 8%, the country’s prosperity has not effectively reached Panama’s poorest, admits the Ambassador. “We have got people out of extreme poverty but there is still the struggling class and any downturn in the economy could send them back to poverty so we are looking at long-term sustainable poverty reduction.”

This was the hallmark of the presidential campaign of President Varela, who came from behind to win the hard-fought elections last year. Balancing pro-poor and pro-business policies will be the theme of his term in office.

A whopping 56% of the government’s $19.5 billion budget (2015-2019) has been allocated to social investment that will build the foundations for sustainable growth. This will include a substantial house-building programme – with a total of 125,000 new homes built across the country and a $500 million investment in the regeneration of the City of Colon to upgrade the world’s second largest free zone. There are also projects to provide basic sanitation and primary healthcare to all Panamanians.

To bridge the skills gap, the government will build 10,000 classrooms and 50 vocational and technical schools. “This is to level the playing field and give all Panamanians equal opportunities,” says the Ambassador. Panama is also training 10,000 teachers in English “the language of the 21st century” 20% of which will be coming to study in the UK.

“We strongly believe that investing in our youth goes a long way in ensuring a bright future for our country,” says Fábrega.

For these capacity building projects Panama will be looking for foreign investors including those from Britain. On welfare programmes, the Ambassador will also be seeking British expertise in areas such as healthcare provision, public-private partnerships and building institutional capacity.

Ensuring accountability and transparency are two key objectives of President Varela’s term. “This is for the benefit of the people,” stresses Fábrega. “This is about a transparent government that will serve the national interests. The message for investors in the UK is: the government and the people of Panama will welcome you with open arms.”

“Transparency extends to taxation and the banking sector is strengthening its already reputable standing”, adds the Ambassador.

Another priority will be to create a safe, stable and secure environment. Coupled with sound infrastructure and promising development programmes this provides a propitious trade and business environment.

And for those British investors looking at Panama, there are plenty of opportunities – in logistics, infrastructure, renewable energy and low-impact mining to name a few.

Panama’s natural beauty is still an untapped and valuable business opportunity although it is becoming a magnet for eco-tourists. (Panama has the largest rainforest in the Western hemisphere after Brazil). In this respect, Fábrega wants to boost British tourist numbers and has set himself the goal of attempting to secure direct flights from London to Panama.

There are also plans to re-invigorate Panama’s neglected agricultural sector to spread prosperity to the interior.

On top of this busy pro-business agenda, Ambassador Fábrega will keep an eye on the Maritime Industry as Panama has the largest shipping registry in the world.

It’s a lot to take on for a small mission but clearly the Ambassador is fighting fit and up for the challenge.

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Panama on 3 March