Tuesday, July 20, 2010
INTERNATIONAL POLITICS PANAMA:
PANAMA - THE GOVERNMENT VERSUS THE PEOPLE:
A little more than two weeks ago the government of Panama introduced what might be the grandmother of all omnibus bills, Bill 30, the so-called "sausage law" (maybe because it slices Panamanian society into a thousand pieces). The overall intent of the bill is to make any opposition to the business interests that the government hopes will flood in with a US/Panama free trade deal difficult to impossible. To add to this the government expects the people to pay for this giveaway of their country by a 40% increase in consumer taxes. This is both insult to injury and further injury to injury.
The reaction was swift. Labour unions called a national strike. Ordinary people demonstrated in the street. The government's reaction was equally swift and much more brutal as a wave of oppression swept across the country, killing six so far and imprisoning many more. The people refused to back down, and as we speak the Panamanian government is at least partially backtracking. Here's an explanation of what is happening down canal way. I originally saw this item on the Libcom website, but I've later learned it was originally published in The Examiner.
U.S. Interventionism has helped shape the Republic of Panama. With the recent bloodshed at a banana workers strike, will "push-back" result in socialist unrest amongst the Panamanian people and will President Martinelli and his corporate-interest minions close Pandora's Box? History shall be our guide.
The history of collective bargaining and the formation of organized labor movements in the United States was a knock-down, drag-out fight, where corporate America ultimately proved unsuccessful in its bid to prevent the “unionization” of workers in several industrial sectors. While the U.S. federal government denounced meetings and rallies, a “popular uprising” shook the very foundations of capitalism’s strangle-hold over the impoverished working lower-class. Mass demonstrations of co-workers exploited by corporate overlords were able to channel their voices, combining tactical action with strategic inaction, so that the oppressive profiteers were forced to ameliorate protested grievances. After years of bloodshed and picket-lines, the rise of America's unionized labor force was rivaled only by the formation of a "middle-class" it is credited with helping .
What the purveyors of America's global economic dominance failed to realize was that during their full-throttled pursuit to denounce socialist propaganda in the early half of the 1900’s, by surrendering to the collective will that birthed the “organized labor movement”, the pressurized steam of popular socialism was released, so that the kettle of the working class wouldn’t boil over. The “red scare” was alleviated more by this domestic suppression of oppression, with its internally stabilizing increase in worker compensation and family-sustaining benefits previously not offered to the “average working stiff”. This “steam valve” method of appeasing the building-up of “subversive elements” preserved the American capitalist “free market” economic model, but investors continued to reap windfall profits by reacting with a shift toward import markets, “capitalizing” from the sweat and tears of “third-world” citizens.
Although the full story involves further complexities than this brief synopsis allows for, it directly correlates to the recent popular disturbances in the Republic of Panama. The U.S. government steadily subverted Panamanian "labor-force activism" for decades, unwilling to endorse the "unionization" that Americans had ultimately adopted for themselves. These “strong-arm”, state-sponsored business practices helped inflate the affluent elitist Wall Street moguls who have steered the “interests” of U.S. empire ever since.
The so-called “Banana Republics” of Central and South America are one regional example (of many) where American imperialism allowed U.S.-based corporations to wield unquestioned power and authority over entire populations, systematically backed by the U.S. State Department. American military might helped countless regimes gain, re-gain or maintain control over citizens that were democratically opting for new leadership; all this despite relentless U.S. rhetoric advocating the worldwide spread of democracy.
The history of U.S. interventionist policies in the southern hemisphere poetically served to produce the current uptick in regional socialism. One by one, each of these nations have struggled for self-determination; each in its own way, with its own unique brand of political, social-democratic evolution.
Panama has experienced the benefits and consequences of its geographical significance, located at the smallest pinch of the Americas, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are joined by this relegated “short-cut”. As Panamanians struggled for independence, this intrinsic “value” was seized upon by former President Teddy Roosevelt. (Speaking softly, but carrying a big stick) Roosevelt opted to establish a ten-mile-wide “zone” spanning the country by strategically “weaponizing”, then supporting, a dictatorial regime that would allow for this annexation. In stark contrast to the democratic wishes of the mass-majority of Panamanians at the time, a new day of domination for American trade relations had dawned, and U.S. sovereign control of the Panama Canal Zone would endure for nearly a century.
By the 1980's, CIA-influenced narco-traffickers infiltrating the ranks and ideologies of the historically corruptible Panamanian military resulted in the Reagan-endorsed dictator, Manuel Noriega, rising to a blood-stained throne of power. When Noriega declined to assist Oliver North with military support of the Nicaraguan Contras. Suddenly, his exploits of human-trafficking and money laundering became a bone of contention with the U.S. Justice Department. Once Reagan changed course with Noriega, the U.S. moved ahead with sanctions (serving only to further impoverish one of the poorest nations in the world), and eventually military assault when President G.H.W. Bush (formerly Reagan’s V.P.) launched Operation Just Cause.
Since the smoke has cleared from Reagan-era “interventionism”, Panama has undergone positive growth, acceptable to the current War Council in Washington. Former President Clinton would oversee the transition of sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone back into the rightful owning hands of Panamanians. This has given the country a running start at becoming a viable, self-governing democratic Republic.
Last year, sweeping into presidential victory on a media-blitzing platform of “hope” and “change”: No, not Barack Obama, but Ricardo Martinelli, the newly-elected President of Panama. This American-educated business-giant (still chairman of the Super 99 supermarket chain) maintains investing interests in several corporations both in, and outside of, Panama. He swept into victory with 60% of the vote, and saw his popularity rise steadily since taking office. Along with having the healthiest growing economy in Central America, Martinelli’s short reign prepares to oversee full implementation of the $5.25 billion Canal Zone Expansion Project, passed by the previous (Martin) Torrijos administration. This improvement project looks to create 7,000 to 9,000 new jobs through 2011.
Then, Martinelli, an ultra-conservative politician for traditional Panamanian standards, pressed for passage of his business-friendly, legislative super bill, notoriously known as “the sausage law” for its eclectic design affecting multiple, unrelated tiers of governance. What can only be viewed as a “sweetening” of Panamanian economic conditions, Martinelli and his Democratic Change party may be attempting to finalize the stalled-out U.S./Panama Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that never received the final nod from the U.S. Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives in ’07.
The “sausage law”, officially dubbed “Law 30”, is a nine-part reversal on many young Panamanian laws. It side-steps environmental impact studies for agribusiness developers to tread more heavily in pursuit of profitability. It removes the federal mandate for union employees, so that paying applicable dues becomes voluntary. It contains “anti-strike” provisions that remove employment protection for striking workers, and does not render the business “closed” due to the strike (an expectation traditionally providing the only leverage strikers had against corporate improprieties). It overturns a 13-year-old law regarding “preventive incarceration” for police officers accused of brutality and/or excessive force. It forces anyone in opposition to “public bids” to initially lay down 15% of said bid in before legal proceedings can advance questioning the legitimacy of the contract. It also rewrites code enforcement for fraudulent passport production and use; undeniably all over the place with regards to customary law-making practices in Panamanian parliament.
And with that, banana growers went on strike in the city of Changuinola, province of Bocas del Toro. These were employees of Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, the regime-shifting power-wielding conglomerate that shaped governments (with U.S. backing) and prevented democratic endeavors throughout Central and South America for much of the 20th century. United Fruit was the company at the center of the famed “Banana Massacre”, where up to 4,000 striking locals were slaughtered by Columbian military forces at the behest of Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover.
A dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Columbia, where the attacks occurred, sent to Stimson revealed disappointment for the contemporary “liberal media” that was “spinning” the state-sponsored act of terrorism for what it actually was.
“Although the thinking people of the country realize that it was only the Government's prompt action that diverted a disaster, this insidious campaign of the Liberal press will undoubtedly work up a great deal of feeling against the Government and will tend to inculcate in the popular mind a belief that the Government was unduly hasty in protecting the interests of the United Fruit Company,” reads the wire transmission, telegraphed December 11, 1928. “The Conservative journals are defending the Government's course but I doubt that their counter-fire will suffice to do away with the damage the Liberal journals are causing.”
Now, in Panama, a near repeat of the Banana Massacre more than 80 years later, as Panamanian forces opted to open-fire on scores of unarmed protesters. Government soldiers used shotguns filled with bird-shot, sometimes at point-blank-range. Two union members were killed, indicated by Panamanian spokespersons as “accidental” incidents, as the intent was to injure, but not fatally wound. Along with these two senseless acts of “accidental assassination”, as many as 30 people were blinded and maimed by such shootings. Martinelli blamed Panamanian media for "a campaign of disinformation" which led to the large group protests.
Some members of Martinelli’s government expressed immediate remorse for “mistakes” that were made, while others defended the actions of militant “crowd control” in response to collective-bargaining acts of non-violent, civil disobedience. What Martinelli received as a reaction to the state’s “over-reaction” was a national, general strike of July 13th, looking to cripple the construction projects in the “canal zone”, as well as across Panamanian urban centers. He also witnessed a 12-point drop in his previously swollen approval ratings. Panama's National Front for the Defense of Social Rights (FRENADESO) claimed a 95% effectiveness for its strike across the board, insisting their aims were achieved, while the government of Panama maintains that all sectors survived the incursion unscathed.
Secretary of State Clinton may have a lot to say and do about these recent developments. Again, it was former president Clinton who administered the transition of the Canal in 1999 over to Panamanian authorities, honoring the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of ’77. Despite the deafening silence put forth by the Obama administration over the incident, Hillary will have Bill in her ear more so than Barack with regards to Panama, and Clintonian initiatives may incentivise her diplomatic treatment of the matter in the coming months. Whether or not “the sausage law” is a requisite for the currently neutralized FTA pact to get back off the ground remains to be seen.
One “change” we can “hope” for: state-sponsored murder will have to subside for the U.S./Panama FTA to advance itself from its frozen legislative status in the U.S. Senate.
Will President Martinelli back down from his “sausage law”, having incited labor groups throughout the country into civic action and commercial paralysis? Or, will the level of brutality authorized by the Martinelli government increase in defense against the democratically natural push-back of the Panamanian people. These are the apprehensions the Martinelli administration tries to navigate as the first-year president attempts to stabilize the capitalist backbone of Panama's constitutional republic, surrounded by a region dominated by surging Socialist movements?
Pending investments by foreign bankers poised to explore Panama’s economic potential, including the multi-billion-dollar canal-expansion bids, all hinge on a peaceable outcome presenting itself at ground-level. More crucial to Martinelli’s fledgling coalition government is for it to avoid re-hashing Socialist sensibilities in a nation self-determined to become a free-market player, replete with support from the World Trade Organization, as well as the World Bank which funds the viral trend of globalization.
Martinelli’s minions may ultimately heed the lessons learned from the history of collective bargaining in the U.S. itself, allowing the Panamanian people the “steam release” needed for its workers to thrive awaiting the presumed emergence of that elusive “middle-class”. Meanwhile, concern for the plight of the Panamanian worker yields itself to corporate interests, opting to “go bananas” with their attempt to seize “control” of the disenfranchised working class. It isn’t the first time such an egregious and inhumane miscalculation was made by the benefactors of Imperialism, and likely not the last.
The Panamanian strike and the government's reaction to it has brought forth expressions of solidarity from across Latin America and Europe. Here's one such example reprinted from the Anarkismo website.
All our support to the struggles of the Panamanian people!
We express our total rejection of the Panamanian government and our unconditional support to our working class comrades in Panama, following the appalling acts of bloodshed and repression carried out by the government of Panama led by Ricardo Martinelli against the Panamanian people and, specifically, the persecution, killing and imprisonment of leaders of the Frente Nacional por la Defensa de los Derechos Sociales (National Front for the Defence of Social Rights - FRENADESO) and the Sindicato Unico Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construcción y similares (Single National Union of Construction Industry Workers - SUNTRACS).
This wave of repression has resulted in six deaths, 150 injured and hundreds arrested. There have also been the very selective arrests of comrades such as Jaime Caballero, Assistant General Secretary of SUNTRACS, who was arrested in Chiriquí and transferred to the capital (where he is still confined in La Joya prison). Also incarcerated at the same time were FER-29 leader, Kuna youth leader and member of the FRENADESO Noticias alternative media site, Ronaldo Ortiz, together with Alexis Garibaldi of the SUNTRACS trade union.
SUNTRACS leaders Genaro López and Saúl Méndez are now in hiding, along with other comrades, as a result of a warrant being issued for their arrest. It has been revealed that the authorities intend to send them to La Joya and La Joyita prisons, where they would be killed by common criminals under the orders of the State security forces.
According to official data, it is estimated that nearly 20 union leaders have had arrest warrants issued against them. Besides those already mentioned, also in the firing line are comrades Andrés Rodríguez, Mario Almanza, Marco Andrade, Gabriel Castillo, Dalia Morales, Yaritza Espinoza, Juan Saldaña, Ariel Rodríguez, Gloria Castillo, Juan Carlos Salas, Carlos Obaldía, David Niño, Eustaquio Méndez, Marco Guzmán, Maribel Gordón, Cristian Díaz, Cle Osvaldo Gómez, Juan Ramón Herrera and Juan Jované, amongst others.
All the above events are connected with a series of demonstrations that have carried out by the workers and the Panamanian people against the recent onslaught from the government of Ricardo Martinelli at the behest of the bosses, forcing on the people things such as changes to labour legislation (designed to curtail unionization and strikes), the passing of three executive orders and Law 30 (known as the "Sausage Law"), as well as an increase in consumer taxes of almost 40%, which has had a violent effect on the cost of living for Panamanian people. Finally, the government has passed a Prisons Law that criminalizes social protest.
At this stage it is essential that the support and solidarity of our class goes to the Panamanian people and social activists, who are aware that such an abuse of authority cannot go unpunished. We therefore demand the release of all political prisoners and the trial and punishment of these tyrants.
For workers' unity and organization!
Long live those who struggle!
Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción (SINTEC), Chile
Translation by FdCA International Relations Office
1. The "Ley Chorizo" is a mish-mash of reforms to 9 different laws, including big changes to labour laws (giving bosses the power to fire striking workers, for example, or removing the obligation to pay union rates), criminal laws (criminalizing protest, obligatory DNA testing of anyone under police investigation), environmental laws (exempting projects considered as being of "social interest" from having to provide environmental impact studies) and immigration laws. The law is very unpopular among large swathes of the Panamanian population as it also provides the police with almost total impunity.
There is an excellent source (in Spanish) from Panama itself on events in that country. See the FRENADESO site, dedicated to social and ecomomic rights in that country. A very useful corrective to at least one of the stories circulating about the 'anarchonet' these days, seemingly claiming in triumphalist fashion that the protests were entirely successful. In actual fact all the government has done is to delay the implimentation of the Bill and agreed to strike only three clauses from the numerous provisions of the bill. NO, this is hardly anything near the total victory that the following, also from Libcom (but reproduced elsewhere) seems to claim. Exaggeration is in the end no service to the cause it promotes. What this is, at best, is a temporary truce. The struggle is far from over, and no victory is assured.
Panama: strikes and protests force climbdown on anti-strike laws
A ten-day strike by banana plantation workers in Panama has come to an end after the government agreed an package of concessions that included the suspension of its anti-strike legislation, Law 30.
The strike by over 4000 banana plantation workers began on July the 2nd after workers at the Bocas Fruit Company had the portion of their pay used to pay their union subs withheld by the company in line with the recently introduced law. As the protests spread, they were joined by around 2000 independent banana growers.
Protests by plantation workers in the Bocas del Toro province on the 9th of July led to street fighting with police, who were ordered in by president Ricardo Martinelli. Demonstrators burned down a bank and several other businesses were attacked, while roadblocks were set up around the Atlantic city of Changuinola. The rioting has led to the death of two workers at the hands of police – named as Antonio Smith and Fernán Castillo - and the wounding of more than 100 more. Over 115 workers were arrested, while demonstrating workers took four police officers hostage. Union official Rafael Chavarria has claimed that the situation is much worse than the government version of events, and that a further four protesters were killed.
A parallel strike by construction workers on the Panama Canal ended today following concessions by managers on working conditions. The action by employees of the international consortium Grupos Unidos por el Canal halted work on the Panama Canal expansion project at the Gatun zone on the Panamanian Atlantic coast . The workers were reportedly demanding facilities to cook their own food, wash their clothes, and for management not to interfere with the construction workers' union SUNTRACS. National police and canal security agents arrested five reported strike leaders in the course of the dispute. According to a communique by the banana workers' union FRENADESO, “more than 70 workers striking for salaries, working conditions, and against Ley 30 were fired. Police took the workers off the bus, handed them termination papers and gave back the petitions that workers had given to the “United for the Canal”.
Meanwhile officials and members of SUNTRACS - Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Similares - were arrested by police who raided a union meeting at a hotel in Panama city which passed a resolution calling for a general strike. At the time of writing, they are still being held.
Around 50 students at the University of Panama set up a roadblock on one of the main roads at the university in solidarity with the strikers, leading the government to order the cancellation of all classes.
Law 30 limits the right to strike action, union membership and freedom of association. Moreover, it outlaws workers' ability to organise street protests in the course of industrial conflicts, with the associated criminal offence carrying a penalty of two years imprisonment. It has been introduced alongside another law, Law 14, which creates new criminal offences relating to the blocking of roads by demonstrators.