When right-wing billionaire Ricardo Martinelli was elected Panama’s president in May 2009, political commentators heralded it as a sign that Latin Americans were becoming disillusioned with the “pink tide” of progressive and leftist governments.
But one year later, the Martinelli government is facing a wave of resistance to its anti-labour and anti-union laws. Resistance has grown in the face of deadly repression.
With 60% of Panamanians saying they would not vote again for Martinelli, about the same percentage that voted for him, a La Prensa editorial, published same day as the July 13 general strike, warned the government it was “playing with fire and now facing the consequences”.
The trigger for the recent protests was the June 12 approval by the National Assembly, behind closed doors and under heavy police protection, of the anti-worker Law 30.
Handed down by the executive, Law 30 is commonly referred to as the “sausage law”. It is ostensibly a law to reform the civil aviation sector, but is packed full of anti-union provisions implying big changes to the labour law and penal code.
This includes dramatic restrictions on the right to strike, provision of payments for strike-breakers and the ability to fire striking workers, the elimination of obligatory payment of union dues, and immunity for the police to use force against strikers.
Another recent law penalises workers that take part in street protests with possible 2-5 year prison terms.
These new laws have given bosses a green light to drive down wages and conditions.
This comes as the government is pushing to further hand over more of Panama’s natural resources to transnationals and carry out neoliberal education reforms — moves which have ignited popular anger.
The first sign of rising anger was a 10,000-strong march on June 29.
On July 2, 4500 mostly indigenous workers belonging to the powerful Banana workers union (Sitribana) began a strike at the Bocas Fruit Company in the province of Bocas del Toro.
Workers from nearby farms quickly joined the strike. Other workers set up road blockades and occupied the airport. Employees on the project to widen and deepen the Panama Canal also downed tools.
In response, the government mobilised 1500 police to brutally repress protesters.
The deadly repression left at least 11 people dead and more than 200 injured. The National Front for the Defence of Economic and Social Rights (Frenadeso) said on July 16 that, “following the clashes, corpses were found in rivers and farms”.
“There is talk of at least two children dying due to respiratory problems caused by the large amount of tear gas canisters fired. In the Changuinola morgue, it is still unclear whether some of the corpses there are of citizens who died during the protests.”
The repression continued with the arrest of 30 construction unionists, as well as Professor Juan Jovane, a key left-wing leader.
Protesting students at the University of Panama (UoP) also faced repression, with 157 students detained.
This did not dampen the July 13 general strike, which was called by various union confederations that caused an almost complete paralysation of the construction sector and schools.
Also, workers at UoP, Coca Cola, and many other factories achieved between 50-100% adherence to the strike, a statement from the left-wing Popular Alternative Party (PAP) said.
There were also worker and community protests in Colon, Santiago, David, Aguadulce, Chitre and Changuinola — where the banana workers strike continued. There was also a march of 4000 indigenous people in San Felix.
The strike forced a partial backdown from the government, which established a roundtable to revise some of the more contentious articles in the new law.
Some sectors have criticised the stacking of the roundtable with organisations allied to the government. Many insist the fight is far from over.
The PAP said Martinelli “hopes to suffocate all the democratic institutions of the country in order to impose the interests of the oligarchic, financial and commercial elites that control our economy”.
Further proof came with government attacks on journalists and civil society organisations such as Pro-justice Citizens Alliance. The leaders of this human rights group have been persecuted and had their phones tapped over the past few months.
The Martinelli government “aims to impose an economic model like that of Singapore, where workers lack even the most fundamental democratic and union rights and even the right to protest.
“Panamanian democracy is in danger.”
But the PAP said the government’s attacks and the resistance they have inspired from workers “implies a big rupture of the population that voted for Martinelli a year ago”.
It added: “The struggle has not finished, we must sustain the levels of unity and coordination achieved by the popular and union movement.”