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Panama Awakes



Panama Awakes*

By José Alcoff

altAntonio Smith, a 25-year-old “bananero” or banana worker, hailed from the modest Panamanian town of Changuinola, smack in an expanse of tropical flatlands bordering on Costa Rica and the Caribbean Sea. A leader in the Banana Industry Workers’ Union (Sitraibana), Smith and his fellow workers, mostly indigenous, were veterans of street actions to defend gains they had won in wages and working conditions over the years. Smith was also a member of the Cambio Democratico party and campaigned for Ricardo Martinelli in his successful bid for the presidency in 2009.

This past June 12, Martinelli’s government pushed Law 30 through the National Assembly after just four days of deliberation. Named the Chorizo Law, it mashed together parts of different bills that outlaw union shops, eliminate environmental impact surveys for industrial projects, make it more difficult to hold police accountable for abuses and killings and allow the permanent replacement of striking workers.

Observers claim Martinelli’s government is trying to undermine Panama’s labor laws to help win passage of the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2007 but has been stalled in the U.S. Congress. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, “Panama’s relatively high labor costs (for the hemisphere) and inflexible labor laws can be a frustration if not an impediment to U.S. foreign direct investment.”

The Chorizo Law’s impact was immediately felt in Changuinola, home to the Bocas Fruit Company, a subsidiary of the notoriously anti-labor Chiquita Brands. Bocas announced days after the passage of Law 30 that it would no longer collect union dues from workers on its huge banana plantations, violating its contract with Sitraibana. All 4,200 bananeros at Bocas, including Antonio Smith, launched a 48-hour strike on July 2.

With the support of the Labor Ministry, Bocas declared the strike illegal and docked the workers’ pay, including two weeks of back pay. This only inflamed the protest in Changuinola as banana workers extended their strike, joined by 3,000 more bananeros affiliated with a cooperative; students walked out of local public schools; and trees were felled across streets to hinder riot police being flown in. Demonstrations grew further as members of two indigenous communities, the NgaÅNbe and Naso, streamed into the town to protest evictions by Martinelli’s administration, which wants to build hydroelectric dams on their lands.

On July 8, bananeros marched on a local highway. National police arrived in armor, on foot and in a helicopter and began shooting teargas and buckshot into the crowd. Dozens fell. Antonio Smith took his last breath. Another bananero, Virigilio Castillo, was shot, handcuffed, beaten and executed by police, according to a report by Human Rights Everywhere. The government admitted two bananeros were shot to death, and human rights investigators said three young children and an elderly protester died of asphyxiation from tear gas. Hundreds were wounded, including 47 people who lost one or both eyes.

Arrested Movement

In the ensuing days, mass protests shut down towns in Bocas, and the national police arrested 300 union leaders and activists from around the country; some were snatched while meeting to plan a response to the killings. Militants from unions and the left burned down a local bank, blockaded more streets and took captive three police who were released within days.

Martinelli cancelled plans to fly to the World Cup in South Africa, and his government announced on July 11 that provisions in Law 30 relating to labor, the environment and police would be suspended for 90 days while it convened a “national dialogue.”

Not one to back down, Martinelli told the media the same day, “We will not allow the banana industry in Changuinola to disappear, thanks to union leaders … who have no idea of what democracy is in a country and who want to end the rule of law.” Panama’s two main labor federations held a successful nationwide general strike on July 13, and battle lines were drawn.

“This is war. Anything can happen now,” says Cesar Santos, an activist based in Chiriqui, just south of Bocas del Toro province, where Changuinola is located.

Martinelli Comes to Town

A white, ultra-conservative grocery chain magnate, Martinelli seemed an unlikely candidate to capture the presidency in a historically rebellious country of 3.3 million people, nearly 90 percent of whom are of African, indigenous or Asian descent. Martinelli campaigned in favor of a flat tax and neoliberal policies opposed by most Panamanians. He was nicknamed Loco because of his hot temper and a rumored bipolar disorder. His supporters adopted it as a badge of honor with shirts and bumper stickers declaring “Los Locos Somos Más” (The lunatics are more).

Martinelli found an opening in the perennial issues of crime and corruption and by opposing legislation by his predecessor, President Martin Torrijos, to militarize security forces and increase surveillance.

altWhile the Panamanian left is active, it has no electoral organ. All the major parties are on the right. Relative to these, Torrijos’ party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PR D), is on the left. The party of the former military regime, the PR D pushed through the free-trade agreement, favored privatization, kept a tempered foreign policy and was socially moderate. But it began to re-militarize the national police and coast guard in a country whose constitution, imposed by the United States after it invaded in 1989, forbids a military. Toward the end of its administration, the PR D alienated some supporters by killing three members of Suntracs, the Marxist construction union.

Like all Panamanian politicians, Martinelli’s campaign against corruption meant cracking down on past corruption so his cronies could have a freer hand to skim the treasury. Low voter turnout and an alliance with personality-based far-right parties secured his election victory.

And the man who owns a stable of racehorses was off, bickering with Venezuela, sending Cuban doctors who provide free medical care packing and supporting the coup d’état in Honduras. Martinelli has also come under fire for trying to appoint partisans to the Supreme Court and reneging on promises to demilitarize the police and because many political appointments and handpicked candidates have been mired in corruption scandals.

Many Panamanians were especially upset when, in a meeting with Obama last year, Martinelli opened four naval bases to the Pentagon. U.S. forces first landed in Panama in 1846 and were only forced out in 2000 after decades of struggle.

The Chorizo Law

Lenin Montilla, a law student in the capital of Panama City, says chorizo “may be needed for a lot of recipes, but you never really want to know what went into it.” That’s how the opposition characterizes two new laws passed in June by the National Assembly after being ground and molded together by Martinelli. Few legislators bothered to read them, and the government tried to bury the official publication in an obscure document.

Law 30 begins with reforms of the civil aviation industry and segues to measures such as:

  •     • Ending environmental impact studies on projects that are in the “social interest,” whether public or private, such as highways, hydroelectric dams, and strip mines.
  •     • Banning mandatory dues for workers in union shops, which makes union-busting much easier by allowing employers to pressure workers individually to drop out of the union.
  •     • Allowing employers to fire striking workers and permanently hire scabs. Employers and scabs are then granted police protection during strikes.
  •     • Criminalizing street blockades, which are a daily occurrence in Panama.
  •     • Protecting police from prosecution or pre-trial incarceration for murder and other charges.

Law 14 was next, offering concessions for mining companies and requiring nonprofits to conduct monthly audits online, which could force many small NGOs that lack internet access to shutter.

The laws have led Panama’s leftist social movements to overcome some of their differences. Thousands of environmentalists hit the streets in their biggest protest ever, accompanied by union workers, students and indigenous activists. Radical unions of the CONUSI labor federation and the rank and file within the moderate CONATO federation organized further protests, accompanied by environmental and feminist groups.

On June 28, a general strike and large marches were held with different unions organizing their own actions. Suntracs workers constructing new locks in the Canal Zone went on strike, and the government pressured the Spanish-led consortium of corporations there to fire 48 strikers. The multinational worked out a settlement and rehired all the workers, but Martinelli’s government has since announced a deal with the Honduran government to import 5,000 construction workers, who may be used to replace the militant Suntracs workers.

Two days after the massacre in Changuinola, 300 movement leaders across the country were arrested, from radicals like the leader of Suntracs to moderates in the social security union. Many were arrested in hospitals after being wounded in protests. Most were released within hours, but some were held for a week. Suntracs Secretary General Saúl Méndez was among 18 unionists served with warrants for incitement.

“Martinelli has alternated between carrots and sticks since the massacre,” says Federico Escartín, one of those arrested during the round-ups. The government began distributing toys and food to indigenous communities around Changuinola after the killings, but at the gravesides of Antonio Smith and Virgilio Castillo thousands gathered chanting, “We don’t want bikes or sacks of rice, we want justice!”

After the banana workers ended their strike on July 11, CONUSI and CONATO organized a general strike on July 23 that shut down the education and construction sectors completely, and idled most other industries except manufacturing. The two federations have organized a boycott of Martinelli’s Super99 grocery chain and the Valera liquor brands owned by his chief legislative ally.

While Martinelli’s administration called for a national dialogue, it all but uninvited CONUSI. The National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights, an umbrella group that includes CONUSI, also stayed away, pointing to the governmentpicked moderates and businessmen who dominated the meeting. Unity of the Integral People’s Struggle, a moderate coalition present at the talks, stated that Martinelli’s negotiators offered no concessions to unions and environmentalists.

In addition, the government is supporting the Chiquita Brands subsidiary in denying pay for striking bananeros. It is also trying to push through a bill that would give Martinelli the power to appoint the leaders of the Ngäbe indigenous autonomous zone, where most banana workers are from.

Opposition to Martinelli and other tycoons is pouring out, with even some business owners opposed to the anti-labor and anti-environmental laws. The resistance to Martinelli, who is eyeing changing the constitution to give himself a second term, is uniting often disparate elements. With the government relying on an iron fist, a growing movement says it will not back down.

*SOURCE: (José Alcoff is a Panamanian-American freelance reporter)

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