This interview was originally published on July 2, 2019, when Diego Contreras was still a candidate for mayor. A couple of weeks after the publication of the special project about the evangelical influence in politics, the candidate resigned alleging health problems.
Diego Contreras was one of the first candidates for National Restauration (Restauración Nacional in Spanish) to announce that he would seek to become mayor in Guanacaste. He’s a pastor and evangelical singer in a church in Villareal, Santa Cruz. He says he has no experience in politics nor a degree backing his abilities to manage, but as God gave wisdom to Salomon (a biblical figure) he will give it to him to govern.
He and Edka Contreras, who is running as deputy mayor, met with The Voice of Guanacaste in May. During the interview, we talked about their proposals, their candidacies and the way election politics and religion relate in their case. This is an extract of the conversation, slightly edited for space and clarity’s sake.
Political and evangelical leaders reveal how they mix religion and politics in Guanacaste, where 25 percent of the citizens are evangelicals.
How did you get interested in a position like mayor?
All of us on this team have a dream. I’m an evangelical pastor and I base myself on the Bible where God says ‘write your dream.’ I can’t come and improvise for you, or Santa Cruzians. I’m not a politician because politicians improvise. I don’t improvise anything. I have my dreams written here.
Did you have political experience?
I can say yes and no at the same time. Politics hasn’t moved me much. What moves me is my heart. If I tell you that politics moves me, I will sound like any other politicians. I have the heart of a dreamer, like all dreamers. That’s what motivates me to be here.
Did you seek it out or did someone propose it to you?
They sought me out. I love the National Restauration movement, I’m fascinated by it. All parties have their history. What isn’t said of National Restauration? I have good expectations for National Restauration. Without trying to offend, the other parties don’t have what Restauration has.
What makes National Restauration different?
I like that they work for their principles and values. Nowadays, values and principles have gotten lost.
What principles and values?
Family and social. The principles and values that we should all have. Today the Costa Rica we have isn’t the same. They aren’t the times we used to live in. There is no security, the social aspects have been lost. Thank God I know where God saved me from and I know what my purpose and path are.
Tell me about your non-political career. I understand you are a pastor and a singer.
I sang with national groups. I sang with the ex-Brillanticos, Piquin and the Nueva Setima, with Tinta Negra, Dimensión Costeña from Portegolpe… I spent 17 or 18 years singing secular music. Some 20 years ago I sought out the ways of the Lord. I’ve been a pastor for nine years.
If God allows me to be elected mayor, I won’t negotiate my principles and values for a plate of lentils. That’s why I want to tell all Santa Cruzans who read this, I will never negotiate nor throw away what God has given me, which is integrity and loyalty to Santa Cruz.
Could you expand on that some? What do you mean by principles and values?
We are made up of principles. One of those principles is to be honorable. You’re not worth what you have, you’re not worth your pretty eyebrows, your car. We are worth our name, and we have to take good care of our name. When I am in city hall they are going to say, take this, take that, but I am not going to think of myself. I am going to think of all Santa Cruzans.
Are you a pastor right now and will you continue to be a pastor if you are elected?
I will continue. If I am elected, I am going to continue. I will never quit that job. My job is serving God because things come and go, city hall isn’t forever. Juan 1, 2:15 says “all that which follows God’s will remains. The world goes by. City hall comes and goes, but God never leaves.
If I had to choose God or the city hall I would forget about city hall and go with God. City hall won’t give me what God gives me. If we read the Bible, the men who governed well was because they were with God. We can’t remove God from the middle of government, I have always said so.
Rigoberto Vega told me that the Evangelical Alliance Foundation will make a statement to not mix politics with religion. He told me that they are going to recommend that pastors quit being pastors if they are involved in politics. Would you change your mind with that statement?
I haven’t heard of that statement. My priests know about it (the candidacy) and the national president of the God Assembly (Ricardo Castillo) was in my house and we prayed for this project. He told me, ‘Go for it.” So I’m not aware of that information. And if it were to happen we would have to analyze it because we are autonomous. You understand? We are an association. The Church has an ID number, we are registered, there is no disorder.
After economic scandals and political breaks in National Restauration, the Evangelical Alliance president says he wants his church to walk away from partisan politics.
How will you make that separation? How will you prevent mixing your services as a pastor and the campaign for mayor?
I don’t mix the two. I have a Facebook page for the church and I never make any statements about my candidacy because I understand that they are two different things. I can’t mix the church with legal matters. When I leave the city hall, I’m a pastor. I pray for everyone, but when I am in city hall I am mayor. Why? Because the church is one thing, city hall is another. That’s why God allows this to happen in my life because, thank God, I have learned to differentiate the two things. I have always said that legal matters are legal matters and spiritual things are spiritual. You understand? So you won’t make campaign statements during your sermons?
It’s prohibited by the party. The party doesn’t mix. You can’t have meetings or do political campaigns inside the church. Political campaigning like entering a church and saying, “Aaah, National Restauration,” no, I can’t do that. But the churches are autonomous. There is a leader that defines things. For example, I can talk to a pastor. I can converse with a pastor. I can talk with the brothers. But I can’t go into a church with campaign signs because I respect that and I know how things are.
When you say talk to them, what are you referring to?
For example, if you talk to me about politics and you are part of a church, I can talk to you about politics, but respecting the congregational area. Structure. But if I go into a church and the pastor says to me that I can announce that I’m running for mayor, I can announce it and nothing more. I can’t go in with signs or anything like that. I can announce that I’m a candidate for mayor, which isn’t a sin and doesn’t put the church in a bad position. But campaigning inside a church or using a church where I am to deliver a campaign message, that’s….right now there is no law that says it’s prohibited, but in terms of us, internally it doesn’t make us feel right. In the church where I preach, I haven’t said anything. I don’t use the church for political propaganda.
How are you financing your campaign right now?
Right now the party is doing the procedures. They are looking for financing. There is a percentage for all that. So the party is working with the Supreme Elections Court.
And the meetings, how do you….?
(Edka speaks) Those of us who are on the ballot are withdrawing for some things.
So, you are using money from your own pockets to pay for this….
(Diego) Some things, yes.
(Edka) Either we all win or we all lose. If, at some point, someone says, “I am going to donate this much” they have to join the party.
(Diego) We can’t lose sight of that.
The party guidelines are for the funds to go into the party base or can they go directly to you?
(Edka): They have to go to the party, if it’s money. If we are going to organize a meeting and someone pays for food, that obviously doesn’t go to the party.
(Diego): We are always going to respect due process. We don’t want someone to come out tomorrow and say ‘I donated this to you and you owe me this.’ If you say to me, ‘I want to lend you my house to use,’ then it all has to be reported to the party. Always. Whether it’s coming in or going out, the party has to know.
Let’s talk about the party again. How did they choose you as a candidate?
Good question. You’ll have to ask the party. I am friends with the majority of lawmakers. I know the party. Partly, because my boss Carlos is a great person and we have a good friendship. Carlos Avendaño. I imagine they measure you up to see if you meet the conditions. They called me and I said, ‘of course’.
What type of training have you had?
I went to San José for a meeting. They trained is on all the dos and don’ts, how to manage city funds. Different questions come up and as questions come up we ask them.
How are you training to be able to manage a framework as complicated as a municipality?
We have pending training. We can’t train ourselves, we are trying to get the people on the ballots together. It’s premature. We are trying….
But you as a person, what experience do you have managing that you feel capable of managing a municipal government?
Well, that’s why you have people. For my part, I can’t say I have a degree, but I have identified people, the people I trust that has a lot of experience, people with public management experience because that’s very important. You can never think that you’re going to be able to do everything, besides the advice you are going to get from the party.
How would you tell people that you are trained for this job?
How would I tell people that I am trained for this job? That’s a very good question. You know that, during this whole deal, I have seen people who are well trained. I have seen people well trained to manage a municipality or a company. But the training hasn’t turned into more. You know? I think that, first, I need to get there, because I can tell you how I am going to manage in administration if I don’t know what’s there. People tell me, ‘how are you going to manage city funds?’ We have to see what funds there are. I might get to city hall and find nothing. What am I going to manage? You know? So, until you are there you can’t really say how you are going to manage things.
Right now, I prefer to get to city hall in order to be able to sit down and see what’s there. I am going for a mayorship. I have never been a mayor. I believe that God, and I’m going to involve God because sometimes you can say God isn’t going to manage you. You must always have God first, may God give us wisdom. When God made Salamon govern, Salamon didn’t know anything. And when Salamon became king, the only thing he asked of God was to give him wisdom. God gave him wisdom until the princess of Sheba got in line ver to meet that wise man. You understand? So, I ask God for wisdom for all things, to manage a fund, a fund that belongs to Santa Cruzans, the city, and how to do it will.
Who is your biggest political inspiration?
It’s hard for me to answer that question because I’m not a politician. I don’t want to work in politics, I want to work with my heart. I prefer to not speak well or ill of any mayor because my work is going to be different. I’m not going to speak poorly of the current mayor nor future ones. I know that the majority of candidates try to destroy each other, but that’s not my idea. You know?
Do you have a proposal to improve tax collection?
We are going to see when I become mayor which areas are being affected. We have seen that the maritime-land zone has been affected. You see evictions and constructions. We are going to verify.
Santa Cruz has the longest commercial coast in Guanacaste, but it’s not seen in towns. How will you take better advantage of this commercial coast?
It’s the same. We have to get there and see what can be done. It’s four years of government, but it becomes three. (The first year) you have to follow the government plan that is already made and see what can be included. You can desire a lot of things.