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Interview: Mayor Daniel Cisneros, Salinas in Ecuador

Top Gun Trilogy (Part 3 of 3): Interview with the Mayor of Salinas, Ecuador, the Honorable Daniel Cisneros.

This is the third and final of a three-part series of interviews that have spotlighted each of the three Mayors, from the Cantons that make up the Province of Santa Elena, Ecuador: La Libertad; Santa Elena; and Salinas. We chose to do this on the eve of their first 100 days in office. The format will be our traditional open, free-form interview format, used in the Pirates of the Pacific articles. The articles are all translated from the original Spanish language.

Efficiency – first thing we noticed upon entering the government complex and then the office of Daniel Cisneros, Mayor of Salinas, Ecuador.  Why lead we that one word…efficiency? Because it is a key component of what has been lacking in Salinas, Ecuador for 20 years and in only the first 100 days, Mayor Cisneros has already created a streamlined, efficient and well-organized municipal complex, structure and citizen request processing system. The difference was night and day.  As such, we looked forward to entering the Mayoral office and meeting with Mayor Cisneros.  However, we had to wait our turn.  Efficiency, as citizen after citizen with prior scheduled appointments, was ushered into the Mayor’s office.  Volume…a great deal of citizen traffic volume was observed, even in our short wait.  We decided, then and there, given that it was already very, very late afternoon…we would make this interview as easy and brief on the Mayor as possible.  It was clear that he had earned that consideration for this day and likely all his days in office thus far.  Promptly thereafter, our name was called and we were welcomed into the office of Mayor Cisneros.

HGQ: Thank you for your time and the privilege of this interview, Mayor Cisneros.

DC: Thank you.

HGQ: Your time is valuable, so let us get right to it. How did your political career begin and what was the political trajectory that brought you to your current office as Mayor of Salinas?

DC: My life and priorities, much prior to the political aspect, began with my commitment to family.  Our family, like many here on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, had a shrimping business, dedicated to the processing and exportation of shrimp.  We owned shrimp labs and shrimp farms.  However, after the serious shrimping industry crisis of 2000, my father was encourage to relocate outside of Ecuador, in order to better ride out the difficult economic times.  I left with my family to the USA, where I studied, graduated and lived.  However, there was a always a longing to return to my native homeland of Ecuador.  A few years after, I elected to return.  Upon returning, I immediately took charge of my family’s shrimping business, which by then was a shadow of the former heights reached during the peak of operations, years before. Still, I improved the financial health of the business and then decided that rather than actively owning and operating the business, we’d be financially more profitable if we leased our operations and offered our expertise in the industry.  Given our track record of success, it was a fairly simple task to reposition the business successfully.

Once my task of repositioning the family shrimping industry was accomplished, I turned over daily operations and sought a new and exciting challenge.  I ended up working for 5 years with a quasi public-private entity aiming to improve Ecuador’s global relationships with the world.  We were able to successfully reach accords with notable organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and Plan International.  These allegiances helped generate benefits directly to Santa Elena Province and Salinas.  As examples, we helped 500 children economically throughout Santa Elena Province, constructed infrastructure improvements without tapping local government funds and providing countless jobs for the local labor pool in the Santa Elena region.  We were very proud of the community work and improvements that had been accomplished, and were further fortunate to receive the recognition, approval and support of the people of Salinas and Santa Elena Province, as a whole.

The net result of the previously cited endeavors was that I ended up serving in the General Assembly for 5 months, helping intiiate the Project of Laws legislation, as well as co-participating in drafting the Cycle of Life Code, offering basic human dignity and human rights protection to the general citizenry.  We also presided over and established several other committees, aimed at protecting citizen rights and well-being, all which remain active today.  I should mention that I spent a great deal of time, following up on the previous 5 years of work, on issues dealing with infants and adolescents in the region.  It is imperative to me that we create a social framework from which future generations can be guaranteed a minimum standard of dignity and are allowed an opportunity to partake in the progress that we see certainly coming to Salinas and Santa Elena Province.  I also spent a greta deal of time on issues dealing with the Comuna system, including the Law of the Comunas, which addresses an important population segment and one which directly oversees and control as much as 95% of the land bank in parts of Santa Elena Province.

We also have to remember that, essentially, Salinas and Santa Elena Province are fishermen regions.  The proud history of this area was built on the hard work, dedication and success of the fishermen population. As such, I focused on creating the Law of Fishing (Ley de Pesca), which recognizes the important role of the fishermen community and rewards them with access to medical insurance, electronic tracking chips to be placed on boats and reduce “boat theft” – something devastating to the fishermen – and, also, provides a host of other protections, rights and benefits to the fishermen community.  This was never codified before, despite the important role the fishermen play in our community and despite their significant presence as part of the Salinas and Santa Elena Province population.

In any case, I got a bit off the main subject as to how I became Mayor. Ultimately, after the rather short, but successful, period in the Assembly, I was asked to consider a run for the position of Mayor in Salinas. It was a push from political activists, but it was also a groundswell push from the citizens of Salinas.  It was a difficult and painful decision, but I acquiesced and ran for Mayor, believing that a critical and essential component for this region, like Salinas, needed renewed leadership and direction. We cannot forget that Salinas is the focal point for regional tourism, along with Montañita.  I think the results of the multi-candidate election truly show that the groundswell of support I mentioned, demonstratively existed.  The election polling results showed me with 52% of the vote and the nearest opponent held 14% of the vote.  I was pleased with the support and the margin of victory was greater than most had predicted.

HGQ: That really is quite a story for trajectory to the position of Mayor in Salinas, Ecuador.  So, now you are Mayor and you inherit, what most have described as a pretty difficult financial situation. What do you do? How do you proceed?

DC: Well, yes. We essentially inherited a municipality teetering on bankruptcy, with an excessive debt.  It does limit what one can initially ideally do, but the citizens of Salinas did not elect me to provide excuses, they looked to me for solutions.  Therefore, we have already begun work on the long overdue overhaul of the Salinas Malecón.  With the help of ESPOL (Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral), we are working together to try and find a permanent funding solution, so that we may complete the Malecón of Salinas project as we fully and ideally designed.  Our targeted design, quite candidly is a costly and extensive labor.  However, we believe it is a genuinely necessary and justified one, if we are to assure that Salinas remains the coastal resort capitol of the region.  We are leaving no options on the table in order to finance and complete this project.  In addition to welcoming the assistance of ESPOL, we have opened a dialog with the National government, in order to request funding assistance from them. President Correa has always seen Salinas as vital to the growth of Ecuador, especially in light of the strong campaign to welcome global tourism into Ecuador.

Additionally, we are actively seeking out the right site and, yes, additional funding, to create a Convention Center in Salinas. I can think of no better spot in Ecuador to hold a business or industry convention than right here in Salinas, with the ocean, weather and great food.  In the past, most major projects were funded solely on reliance from the National government.  As already mentioned, we have no hesitation in asking for assistance from Quito…on some things…not for everything. Therefore, we are looking at enticing private sector capitol to the Salinas area, especially when it comes to funding the Convention Center. We think we can provide an exceptional set of incentives and winning opportunity for all parties involved.  However, our vision for Salinas is much broader and we need to dramatically expand the tourism industry base to reflect present day realities. That will require additional funding that we, again, hope will largely come from private sector entrepreneurship. The municipalities need to get more creative and find new solutions for economic development projects, not just always requesting aid from the National government level.

Also, we cannot overlook, as I already mentioned, the still ongoing importance of the fishing trade. In the Canton Salinas, we have one of the most important ports in all of Ecuador. We need to take advantage of that reality and maximize its utility.  We need to think differently and act proactively.

HGQ: Well, especially under the circumstances you inherited, this has been an ambitious first 100 days.  From this point forward, what is your future vision for Salinas and how do you plan on achieving that vision?

DC: Well, the first answer is…having already mentioned it…tourism.  However, we must put aside regionalist sentiment and I am happy to report that my fellow Mayors in the region feel the same. So, a first step to maximizing the promotion of tourism is to create a multi-jurisdictional Tourism Consortium, working with the Mayors of Canton La Libertad and Canton Santa Elena.  We have advanced this project and it is essential if we are to bring a well-organized and uniform quality and brand of tourism to the region. Otherwise, you have chaos, disorganization and conflicting policies and initiatives, which do little to create the desired tourism public image we seek.

HGQ: Sorry, to interrupt, but what has that cooperation garnered thus far?

DC: Well, our model and initiatives have attracted the attention of even National government authorities, to the point that the State Bank of Ecuador is shortly scheduling representatives to come down to the region, in order to initiate a dialog on how they can best assist us financially to make the Consortium a model of success for tourism in Ecuador.  We have attracted similar positive response from the National Department of Tourism and the National Transit Board.  We are pleased with this level of attention, but recognize that there is much more left to be done than what has already been accomplished.  The solution is in regional cooperation, but it would be a mistake to understate the importance that Salinas plays, as it has always held an emblematic role in defining tourism on the coast of Ecuador.  Salinas must be a focal point of any long-standing tourism solution, in terms of attracting conventions, festivals and community events. This despite the reality of our less than ideal current financial situation.  This despite the reality that we are fighting 25 years of opportunities lost and mismanaged.  Regardless of all that, we must continue the fight to create opportunities for the citizens of Salinas and to move our wonderful Canton forward.

HGQ: You touched on private capital.  How is your government of Salinas moving forward to attract both domestic and foreign capital into Salinas?  What initiatives, if there has even been time for any, have you started?

DC: That’s a challenging question in some respects. Before we can shine in the realm of either domestic or international capital investment, we have to clean our own house and find local solutions to some challenges, most notably getting the municipality back on the firm footing of financial health.  To us, Salinas is the product and the domestic and international financial markets are the buyers. We, first, have to make our product, Salinas, as attractive as possible.  Again, 25 years of mismanagement and nearly bankrupt coffers, is from where we start.  So, the first initiative we have undertaken is the first truly comprehensive mapping of, quite literally, all the real estate in Canton Salinas.  We have to identify the accuracy of parcel data, determine who is current and delinquent on tax payments and enforce a uniform collection policy.  The days when folks paid real estate taxes, if they wanted to pay, need to end.  We are definitely not looking to raise real estate taxes, but we are certainly looking to ensure that the citizens of Canton Salinas rightfully receive all the revenue that is legally due to them, under the current terms.  I doubt that has happened for a very, very long time.  Also, the real estate mapping will better identify all government owned parcels of land. We may have to sell or joint venture, with the private sector, some of those parcels, in order to stimulate much needed revenue for the municipality.  We can’t do any of that…can’t get our house in order…until the mapping is complete.

HGQ: When is that projected to be completed?

DC. April 2015, but it is an extensive project.  My response is that it cannot be completed soon enough.  In any case, when the mapping is completed, we will also better be able to identify ideal locales for public-private partnership ventures that can create “impact projects” – those of $100 million or more – that can really transform Canton Salinas and the region as a whole. Obviously, this is a process not generated in 1, 2 or 3 years.  Not if it is to be done correctly. We are just getting started. The opportunities will come and the local economy will be reenergized.   It is a process and I want to be clear about that. We clean ur own house, we create private capital incentives, major projects come to the region, jobs are created and dynamic economic growth is experienced. That economic growth allows us to responsibly put more money back into the needs of the local community.  The problem was created in over two decades. Solutions will not be found in two months.  That’s not a realistic promise to the good citizens of Canton Salinas. We are working hard to bring this success to the region, as promptly as possible.

HGQ: We have spent a great deal of this discussion on matters of investing in the region. I think it is appropriate, because it is a topic very much on the minds of the local populace, from what I have observed.  How is Canton Salinas promoting its desirable and attractive location to investors, domestic or foreign based?

DC: I think this goes back to a previous reply, for a candid answer to this question. We are new at this. This isn’t going to be the same Salinas of the previous 25 years.  As such, we are restructuring and reorganizing a great many things.  Because of that, we have to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves. We need to make sure we put our best foot forward. For now, we have to be very careful how public we go in promoting ourselves to the broader investment community. More like taking advantage of isolated opportunities, for now, until everything gets more settled. As an example, we had to relocate our entire government offices. I am stating all governmental operations. How many administrations face that challenge.  The previous government building was a health hazard. Decades of mismanagement and disrepair led to extensive decay.  I get elected Mayor and all of a sudden I have to deal with, “Where does the public come to meet me and my administration?”  Through charitable assistance, for which we are very grateful, a rapid solution was found.  Still, when as a Mayor you are facing such basic challenges, we can’t afford to let the investors in the door too soon and lose our momentum and opportunity.  Another quick glimpse, the municipality, as I inherited it, was a technological backwater. We’ve had to implement a completely new technology system to adequately service the municipality and its citizens. Most government vehicles were in disrepair or completely unusable.  We’ve had to seek a fleet of cars, simply to meet our citizens out in the community.

HGQ: Mayor, I understand. Challenging, at best.

DC: I think once these rudimentary items are addressed, we will come out strong and readily identify the projects ripe for expansion in the Canton.  At that point, we will initiate a more aggressive campaign to attract both domestic and foreign capital. When that capital sees the scope of our vision, I think they will readily invest, thus creating development, economic opportunity and better wage jobs.

HGQ: Well, you alluded a bit to this, but let me be more direct.  Do you feel that Canton Salinas can count on support from the National government and President Correa?

DC: Yes, we do. From President Correa, to the National government, to the Provincial government, to the local Assemblies and the Parochial Comunas. We feel very fortunate that we feel a unified sense of support and good will.  In this office, there are no political party banners, no political party colors, no political party patronage…here, we are all a unified Santa Elena Province. Here, we are all a unified Canton Salinas. We serve all the citizens and our combined community needs.  Of course, my primary interest is in moving the Canton of Salinas forward, but we are all working towards moving the entire nation of Ecuador forward.

HGQ: What is next for you, after political life in Canton Salinas?

DC: Well, someday, as with anything, my political tenure in Canton Salinas will end. However, for now my focus is the more immediate future. I hope citizens will remember my tenure and administration as once where the basic policies, procedures and political structures were laid in place to create an economically resurgent Canton Salinas, where families can live in tranquility, harmony and financial security. Whenever another administration received the office of Mayor of Salinas from me, I hope to leave it in a more adequate position than that which I received, regardless of the political party affiliation of my future successor, whenever that might be.  I am not looking beyond my current term and the many things we still need to accomplish.  I am not looking passed my commitment to the people of Canton Salinas to create something better for their families.  I just hope that future prosperity will exceed current prosperity, whether we are recognized for bringing that change or not. What matters most is the well being of the citizens of Canton Salinas.

HGQ: Mayor, I very  much appreciated your time.

DC: I very much appreciate the opportunity to present Canton Salinas to a global audience.

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