(Courtesy: Gisela Sanchez)

(CNN Español) -- A black-and-white photo stands out in the history of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) that registers its website. Its first executive president, Enrique Delgado, signed the agreements for the implementation of the entity in 1961, which had as its framework the General Treaty of Central American Economic Integration, signed a year earlier.

From that date until today, no woman has led the executive presidency. But that will change as of December 1 when Costa Rican Gisela Sanchez takes office for a period of 5 years. She will be the first woman in 63 years and 15 executive presidents of CABEI since its origins.

Sánchez, a 49-year-old industrial engineer with a master's degree in Business Administration, has forged her career in the private sector, serving, among other positions, as president of Nutrivida; regional director of strategy at the financial institution BAC Credomatic; regional director of corporate relations for the Costa Rican firm Florida Ice & Farm Company; and president of the board of directors of the Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), also the first woman in the latter position.

The Government of Costa Rica nominated her on September 12 and CABEI's Board of Governors elected her to the position two months later, on November 17. The institution reported that it did so after "an exhaustive and transparent competition process" by the firm Heidrick & Struggles, with 243 applications and a final list of six applicants.

The assembly is the highest authority of the bank and each member country appoints a titular governor and an alternate who may be the Minister of Economy, the Minister of Finance, or whoever is represented according to the domestic law of each country.

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The bank has 15 partners: five founders (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica); three non-founding regional institutions (Belize, Panama, and the Dominican Republic); and seven extra-regional (Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Cuba and South Korea).

Sánchez obtained 11 votes in favor, two abstentions (Honduras and Cuba) and two votes against (Guatemala and Taiwan). The latter two gave their support to the Bank's current executive vice president, Guatemalan Jaime Díaz, who was also a candidate for the position. Currently, Guatemala and Belize are Taiwan's only diplomatic partners in Central America.

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Interview with CABEI's next Executive President

In an interview with CNN, Sanchez said that his proposal on the transformation required by CABEI was what convinced the board of governors. He added that his vision is based on maximizing not only the financial impact of the bank in the region, but also social and environmental impact, with greater emphasis on vulnerable populations.

"It is a bank that has a great trajectory, representing 47% of the resources that have arrived in Central America in the last 18 years (...) And I'm committed to doing things right, ethically, transparently, and accountably."

According to CABEI, historical loan approvals in 63 years total US$ 51,994. It is led by the founding partners, Costa Rica with US$12,256, followed by El Salvador with US$9,495, Honduras with US$7,664, Nicaragua with US$7,237 and Guatemala with US$7,237. CABEI's press office in Costa Rica explained that these amounts may include loans that were approved but not executed. Most of the projects are mainly related to road and hospital infrastructure, water, sanitation, energy and climate change, among others.

In announcing his appointment, Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves said he represents the country's values. What does it mean?

For me, purpose and values are the most important thing. The purpose, of course, is to maximize value and the way in which we serve Central America and other countries in three dimensions: economic, social and environmental as well. I come from a humble family. And if there's one important thing I can offer, it's not my knowledge or experience but the transparent way I'd like us to work.

Opponents of Daniel Ortega's government have accused the current president of CABEI of supposedly being the support of the regime, which the current executive president of Dante Mossi has denied. Do you plan any changes, do you have a special mandate from partner countries?

I would say that our commitment, with this issue, is to strengthen everything related to compliance, to ensure that resources reach all member countries, and that includes Nicaragua. They are founding countries, partners of the bank, and I think there is a great opportunity to strengthen policies and controls to ensure that resources are used in the most appropriate way possible. My main goal in the first 100 days is going to be to work on strengthening policies and controls.

The current president of CABEI, Dante Mossi, told CNN in a telephone conversation that there is a lack of knowledge about the way CABEI works. He added that loans to any member country are approved by the board, made up of representatives of the nations that are part of the bank, and not by the chief executive, a position he has held for the past five years. "The bank is a cooperative of countries and we are obliged by our statutes to respond to requests as long as they make sense," Mossi said.

According to the Bank's organizational chart, the Board of Directors is the body responsible for CABEI's management. On its website, the institution explains that it exercises all the powers delegated by the Board of Governors, for example, it defines operational and administrative policies, approves the budget, as well as short-, medium- and long-term plans and active and passive operations.

CNN asked CABEI if it has an institutional position on the issue, but no response has been obtained.

The former representative of Costa Rica to CABEI from 2018 to 2021, Ottón Solís, said that he denounced internally privileges of officials. Do you have a policy regarding this?

Absolutely. In addition to the issue of governance, which needs to be significantly strengthened, the other issue I would like to work on has to do with efficiency. The bank has grown a lot in terms of collaborators in recent years, the budget has also grown and I believe that one of the main points that I will have to deal with as a responsibility is to evaluate that budget and the way in which the resources are used, starting at home.

Of course we have to be more efficient in the use of capital externally, but as you said – and I agree with that too – in efficiency internally, in how resources are invested within the bank. We must be efficient under international standards, it is clear that we have it, but it is also one of my commitments to seek more austerity, to look for where we can be more efficient and this is going to be my task in these first weeks, to understand well how the budget is constructed.

CNN also asked Mossi about this issue and he said that the Bank's budget is approved by the board, "Everything is submitted to the board, Mr. Solis was even part of it when he was the representative of Costa Rica before the entity." The official stressed that some decisions are made unanimously and others by majority. "I can bring an initiative to the board, but it is the board that approves," he insisted.

CNN asked CABEI if it has an institutional position on the issue, but no response has been obtained.

You will be the first woman to preside over the bank, what will this mean for your management?

I believe that women have, within our capacities, in addition to multidimensional thinking, also that special connection with social issues. The bank has a great opportunity to work more on gender equality, to offer opportunities and improve the quality of life, health, education, food and security.

The mandate is not only development and economic integration, but also social progress, the inclusion of the most vulnerable people and, of course, care for the environment.

The bank's current portfolio dedicates approximately 8% to specifically environmental projects, I think that can be enriched. We can work more on projects that bring prosperity to people. And I think that if there is something that implies a commitment for me, it is to work on issues of environmental impact and, of course, social impact.

As of December 1, Guissella Sánchez Maroto, a prominent Costa Rican, will assume the Executive Presidency of the #BCIE for the period 2023-2028.

More information: https://t.co/pJ5jnSE7Va pic.twitter.com/zo5CVCBdqU

— CABEI (@BCIE_Org) November 17, 2023

What role does Taiwan play, now that practically in Central America only Belize and Guatemala remain as direct allies?

I believe that the bank has a great responsibility and commitment to Taiwan. It was, after the founding countries, the first to join CABEI, it has a significant shareholding, I believe that there are many opportunities to strengthen the relationship we have, to work hand in hand. There are practices, for example, of improvement in technology, that can come from there, so I see it more as an opportunity. Politically, the relationship with China has expanded further, including countries like Costa Rica, but this does not mean that we cannot strengthen ties with Taiwan. Personally, I think the bank has to be very grateful for the impact that this country has had on the institution.

What are your main challenges in a region that is not uniform, affected by poverty, at high risk from climate change and natural disasters?

I would love to think that we can minimize poverty, it takes time to do that and it should be a priority. This has to do with equity and opportunity, we have a large migration from our countries to the United States and we are losing that talent. If we manage to improve job opportunities and quality of life, we will undoubtedly have a prosperous and inclusive region.

On the environmental issue, we are one of the regions in the world that is facing the effects of climate change most aggressively, I believe that it is something that has to permeate all activities and all credit operations; make sure they are made in harmony with the planet. Climate change is a priority, without neglecting comprehensive waste and water management. Hopefully we can work on projects with an impact on economic integration, as a region we are stronger than as independent countries.

What is your message to Central Americans?

First, thank you for the opportunity to serve the region and I hope to do so ethically and transparently, with accountability and with great humility. Because I'm a woman, you're ready to serve, and I think that's what we're here for. Above all, my message is for people who live in vulnerability, for those who have fewer opportunities. I hope that the bank will become a catalyst of value for them, for those who need it most, and that we can really have a positive impact on the lives of many Central Americans.

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