Feb 22, 2012

Local Sentiment re: Another Carnaval-Type Parade

Well, it seems my concerns about political incorrectness are misguided. I've spoken with a few Panamanian locals about the upcoming Jazz Festival parade during Lent, etc.  The overall response was that another parade and party-like celebration is just fine.   The best comment came from a Costa Rican man with a Chiriqui-born wife and children.  He said that religious matters were observed on Sundays, and that the only people who might take exception to the upcoming spectacle would be "a couple of priests and maybe a few old ladies."  It felt as though he were holding a mirror up in front of me!  But he had no idea what my personal views were and was just speaking off the cuff, so that's that....

I fear I'm turning into a grumpy old woman, and this is a wake up call.  Panamanians have their priorities right.  They like to party and they know how to enjoy life.   They don't take stupid stuff seriously and they try to be respectful of their fellow man-----unless their fellow man is a grumpy party-pooper.  In that case he's on his own.   Generally he's invited to join the festivities regardless.

Last Wednesday, there was a standstill in the negotiations between the Ngobe-Bugle community and the current political administration.  The Indians went back out and closed the Interamerican Highway at San Felix and one or two other spots.  Then a few people off the street were interviewed re: their reaction to the closures.  One woman said,  "I sympathize with the cause of the indigenous, as does most of the populace.  But the road closures at this time---just before Carnaval--is only hurting the populace.  The President and his cabinet all have money and can get around just fine.  It's the common man who is affected by the traffic jams.  It's the common man who won't be able to enjoy the Carnaval festivities."   Less than an hour later, the Indians opened up the road blocks and announced they would maintain a close vigil, but not interrupt traffic flow.  Negotiations would resume on 2/27/12, and if things didn't take a more positive turn at that time, they would react again with road closures. 

As I said, it's important to get your priorities straight.  I won't be at the pending parade, because I'm just not into acting silly that way.  But I've stopped worrying about being considered an ugly American.

Feb 12, 2012

Peaceful Protests in Boquete

Talks continue regarding mining and hydroelectric issues.  Yesterday's announcements regarding progress to date explained talks would be focusing on areas adjacent to the comarca borders,  which are home to many indigenous people, but considered unincorporated.  Below is a link to a short video regarding a peaceful demonstration held this afternoon in Los Naranjos, just outside downtown Boquete.


http://www.tvn-2.com/noticias/noticias_detalle.asp?id=68814

Feb 9, 2012

I Guess Rank Has It's Privileges...

I'm going to try to move away from political topics and get back into more mundane matters very soon.  But I've got a pebble in my shoe, so to speak, and need to get it out before doing so.  Below is a photo taken from one of the Panamanian online newspapers--- La Estrella.

It reveals a line of what happens to be 41 National Police officers, guarding one of Pres. Martinelli's  Super 99 Supermarkets on Tuesday, Feb. 7th.  The National Police also "protected" 4 other stores in Panama City that day.  They were deployed for this purpose following an indigenous protest the day before at a store in Calidonia. To the best of my research, the Calidonia store suffered no damage.




Naturally, there has been criticism of the matter.  Attorney Idalia Martinez, who is coordinator of the organization Justice and Liberty, and is also a member of the Human Rights Commission, was consulted about the utilization  of the national police for this purpose.  She asked, "What Article [of the law] is the basis for this action?" She  remarked that the Panamanian populace suffers significant safety issues, but the current administration doesn't even concern itself with appearances when demonstating just who in this country receives preferential treatment and privileges.  Another attorney (Ernesto Cedeno, no credentials cited), stated the action was perfectly legal.  A third attorney, Carlos Rubio, then remarked if the utilization of the national police in this fashion were legal, then the law is not equal because it provides treatment to the President that it doesn't provide regular citizens.    Interesting isn't it?  What I really enjoy about reading such news articles is the realization that freedom of speech is alive and well in Panama.  People aren't afraid to express their opinions.  Much different from experiences I've had in other Central American countries in the past.  And very different from the Manuel Noriega days, obviously.   

I've been somewhat negative in my accounts re: President Martinelli and thought it might be worthwhile to mention the advice of Don Ray Williams, a US expat who runs a well-read blog from his home in David, Panama.   I don't often agree with Don's views in political matters,  but he's been in the country for several years, speaks Spanish, socializes with Panamanians, and doesn't have the typical gringo habit of sticking with his own kind.   He cautions US expats against forming opinions and taking sides based on limited experience and/or knowledge of this country's history.  He recently posted a comment made by a respected Panamanian friend, and since it gives another side to President Martinelli, I thought in all fairness I should give that opinion equal time. I'm pasting the link to the full post in Chiriqui Chatter, but I'll cut and paste the Panamanian's comment following the link.


This is a long story, in fact too long to cover it here. I’ll try to squeeze the content in a few sentences. Martinelli is a rich man who turned against his own class supporting the humble social classes of Panama. This had never happened in this country since it was born. He has made made many enemies both from the right and from the left. The Panameñista Party is angry because he dismissed Juan Carlos Varela as the Secretary of State, many rich businessmen who paid no taxes, the PRD party which lost the last the elections, and the communist labor unions of Frenadeso and several Communist education unions.

The Ngnabe Buglé Indians have been manipulated by the radical left to topple Mr. Martinelli’s regime and take over the country. This has been organized for several years. The media has cooperated with them (TV-2, Canal 4, Telemetro, and La Prensa). They are constantly attacking the President. The owners of these communication companies were forced to pay corporate taxes. Some examples are Copa Airlines, the banking industry, the Colon Free Zone, the liquor industry and Bobby Eisemann an important stockholder of La Prensa.

Former governments received generous political donations from these strong economic groups and exempted them from paying taxes. Martinelli stopped this romance. If Martinelli is dethroned, I’m afraid Panama we go backwards at least forty to fifty years. All its gains will be lost and the Panama Canal could fall into left wing political parties hands. I’m closely monitoring the situation. It doesn’t look good. More riots are expected during the week.

This is my personal perspective of the situation and I don’t like it a bit.

I can't say I'm convinced, but it certainly is another perspective.  Saint or Sinner?---that's the question.   Mr. Martinelli has 2.5 years of a 5-yr term in office at this time.  In Panama there's no second term for presidents, and he will be out in the middle of 2014.  Thus far he isn't popular, but his legacy could be interesting.
And I think I'm going to go back to talking about birds, flowers, beaches and the weather.   Those are all happy things.  Friends are trying to form a group to go to the Pacific coast, trek into a desolate location, and meet with a man who protects sea turtle eggs and then releases the baby sea turtles back into the ocean when they are ready.  We would help him. That sounds like a lot of fun and I'm hoping to go in the next week or two......

Feb 8, 2012

This should go without saying.....

but apprently needs to be said anyway.  This blog is a private and personal account of my experiences and impressions of Panama, a country I hope to immigrate to upon retirement. My posts are intended for family and friends, and occasional others who might happen upon the site and be curious about my subjective views. 

It is NOT OKAY to cut, paste, or copy  portions of my posts, change wording, and redistribute my writing in a way that gives the impression the content is either yours or your reporting of facts.   

I am no expert on Panama and don't want to represent myself as such.  I'm just someone who loves  it and is thinking of retiring in Boquete if things work out.  I express my positive and negative views, and admit they are entirely mine.  My posts are not intended to accomplish anything more than provide me a creative outlet and share a little of my time with those I care about. 

Status Quo

Below is a copy of an announcement sent out to the expat community by Price Peterson, a long time resident of Boquete and warden to the US Embassy.  It is clear, concise, summarizes the current status quo in Panama, and addresses the unfounded fears of too many expats. 


Good morning EX-pats,

 Below you will find the normal message from the US Consul regarding problem areas. Several folks have asked for a little more explanation, so I shall try. 
The agreement reached yesterday was two things ; (1) that there would be no reprisals against the Ngobe-Bugle protesters and (2) the two sides would continue meeting. You will recall  that the issue here is that the Ngobe want included in the new mining law, clause #5 which prohibits both mining (especially open pit) and new hydroelectrics within comarcal (reserve) areas. In a statement following yesterday’s meeting, the Minister of the Presidencia (Sr. Fabrega) asserted that the government would not yield on their freedom to build new hydroelectrics and implied that they were fine with the prohibition on mining. It should be kept in mind that Mt. Fortuna, within the comarca, has one of world’s largest copper deposits.
Now what happens. Remember, we went through all this a year ago – agreements were reached, etc., but when it came to legislation the process has been very slow and, according to the Ngobe, promises have been broken. It is doubtful that the Ngobe will accept government promises again. Thus, the Nacional legislature has declared itself in permanent recess  until an agreement is reached. This is a tacit acceptance that nothing will happen, legislatively, until not only an  agreement is reached, but that it is enacted into law.
            Meanwhile the Ngobe will be very much on a standby basis and  ready to go back to protest if they feel additional pressure on the government is needed. I would urge the ex-pat community to focus on just what it is that the Ngobe want. You will note that their targets have been passive civil disobedience on the roads or aggression against government offices – police stations, corregidurias, etc. Last night in Boquete, in recognition of this, the fire department moved their vehicles  up to the alto and out of harm’s way, only the Banco Nacional boarded up, and the police did whatever they could to defuse things – not confront. These protests, as in the past have been very TARGETED and the Ngobe have no argument with the civil or ex-pat society. The small amount of looting that occurred in Volcan was apparently local characters taking advantage of the situation and not including the Ngobe movement. 
In summary, my message would be that you have little to fear –this is not rich vs. poor or military vs. civilian. It is   Ngobe-Bugle vs. the President. We’ve lived with the Ngobe for many years and they are very slow to rile, but once riled, they are persistent. As was pointed out re; the ‘occupy ‘  movement, when they occupy, they are here to stay!
 Regards,
Price
Price  Peterson
Hacienda La  Esmeralda
Boquete,  Panama

Feb 7, 2012

It's a Truce, not a Resolution

The expat community in Boquete, as well as many  Panamanians, are of the impression that an agreement was reached today that resolves the dispute between the indigenous peoples of Chiriqui and the Panamanian government.  Oh, if it were only that simple...  What did occur today was an agreement that the Indians would stop protests and begin negotiation if  the government met specific baseline conditions.  Below is my  translation of an article published by TVN-2,  Panama's national news station.

The Indians and the government reached an agreement today that puts an end to the protests begun by the Ngobe Bugle community more than a week ago.  The mediator, Montsignor Lacunza read  the Ngobe demands which are now part of that agreement.  Among these were the immediate release, without charge, of those persons detained and held in custody during the protests,  a return to their baseline status, urgent attention to those Ngobes who were injured or affected during the clashes, and permanent indemnification to the family of Jeronimo Rodriquez, who was killed during confrontations.   (My comment: Jeronimo Rodriquez is the 26 yr old man who was shot in the left chest.  In prior posts I wrote that his name was Guillermo Moctezuma and later Jeronimo Montezuma, because that's what the television stations originally reported.  Somewhere in the mayhem, his name was changed or corrected to Jeronimo Rodriquez.)  The Indians also demanded cessation of repression and persecution of the demonstrators, the Indian chiefs,  and members of the office of the National Coordinator.  This also included the dismissal of cases that were forwarded to the Public Ministry and dismissal of indigenous prisoners.   Petition was made for the re-establishment of cell phone service, immediate withdrawal of the riot squads,  and implementation of a thorough investigation by human rights organizations regarding what occurred during the demonstrations.  Additionally they want to maintain the Catholic Church as the mediator and have as observing parties the Evangelical Church, the Rector for the University of Panama, Gustavo Garcia de Paredes, and the United Nations representative.

Before signing the document, the chieftess Silvia Carrera,  expressed her gratitude to Montsignor Lacunza, who functioned as mediator in this conflict, and implored the government to keep it's promise regarding the pact. 

For his part, the Minister to the Presidency, Demtrio Papadimitriu, assured that the government will take measures to compensate the family of the deceased Jeronimo Rodriquez, and reiterated the disposition of the government for dialogue.   

Papadimitriu explained that today's agreement pertains to dialogue begun this morning   regarding the Mining Law as based on last year's agreement in San Felix relevant to the prohibition of exploration and exploitation of mineral and water resources on lands of the Indian comarca

The Minister also assured that they will proceed with the liberation of the Indians detained during the confrontations in David, Santiago, and Panama

For their part, the Indians promised to end the protests currently being organized.

Essentially what has been agreed upon is a "cease fire" while negotiations continue.  This initial agreement couldn't have come at a more opportune time.   The Boquete police had been forewarned that barring some kind of agreement today,  there would be another demonstration in Boquete center and the target would be the Boquete Police Station.  Several of the businesses in the area, including Banco Nacional,  boarded up windows and doors.  The police moved all equipment, records, desks and furniture from the police station to the Feria Building in preparation for the event.    What I found most interesting was that the required agencies and personnel were forewarned in Boquete, unlike what transpired in Volcan.    Panamanians have told me they believe the additional consideration shown to Boquete reflects an improved relationship the community has with the indigenous.  Volcan is a large agricultural area and the indigenous are farm laborers for agrobusinesses.  In Boquete the Indians are better assimilated. 

It remains to see what will happen regarding the issues at hand.  As I've previously mentioned, the Panamanian populace has been unhappy with the current administration for awhile now.   It's amazing what the indigenous have been able to accomplish with so little arms and so few numbers.   Tomorrow's scheduled Day of Protest would have been interesting  because it would have included many organizations and groups sympathetic to, but not part of, the Ngobe community's goals.  My guess is the current administration would rather this not be blatantly revealed.  It is also my guess that the result of future negotiations will be much more transparent this time around.    Hopefully they will go smoothly. 

Dialogue begins....



Much awaited talks began today at 12:30 pm in San Lorenzo at the Abel Tapeiro Miranda Professional and Technical Institiute.  President Martinelli was not there.  Present were Montsignor Jose Luis Lacunza acting as mediator,  the Minister of the Presidency--Demetrio Papadimitriu---, Minister of Government, ---Ricardo Fabrega---, and Secretary of Communications for the State, ---Luis Eduardo Camacho.  Also reportedly present were national assembly deputies  Jose Munoz (Cambio Democratico) Osman Gomez (Panamenista) and Crispiano Adames, Elias Castillo, and Crescencia Prado (PRD).

Representing the indigenous people were chieftess Silvia Carrera, and Rogelio Montezuma representing the coordinator,  among others.

At the present time there is no news regarding any resolutions or outcome.

And it goes on....


According to the mid-day news, there are continued protests in Panama City and the surrounding areas.  Attention in these areas is being given to not disrupt traffic or business activities.  Demonstrators include students from the University of Panama, whose classes remain closed, teachers from the teachers union, and varied labor organizations.  Teachers and professors in Santiago, Chitre,  Arraijan, and La Chorrera are also protesting.  Everywhere people are imploring President Martinelli to meet with the indigenous to resolve the issues at hand.  At one gathering a speaker commented that there are currently more than 10,000 indigenous people protesting, and more than 25 areas effectively closed down by the movement.  Cell phone service still has not been restored to the indigenous areas, and this is a bone of contention regarding negotiations and dialogue.  The catholic church, in particular two priests, have been recruited as mediators, and they spoke on national television to implore the President to meet with the indigenous who aren't satisfied to deal with emissaries.

The areas north are most affected currently.  Altamirante has been out of electricity for 36 hours,  and water and cooking gas supplies are dwindling.  An official from the electric company stated that 12 electrical posts have been downed and damaged, some irreversibly, and this is the reason electricity hasn't yet been restored. 

Some government officials are in David currently in preparation for the onset of dialogue.  Two others, Papadimitriu and Quijano are enroute.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be a serious day of protest, and today has already shown great public sympathy and solidarity with the indians.   The country still waits to hear the outcome of dialogue and negotiations. 

Confrontation in Volcan

A photo I can't manage to upload has been circulating in the Panamanian press.  It's  of the current President, Ricardo Martinelli, with a long pointed nose that seems to be growing.

Below is a link to a video showing highlights of today's confrontation in Volcan.  It's not pretty, and many Panamanians have denounced the destruction and disregard for property.  But these same  people acknowledge that there is even more than the mining interests involved with this crisis.   

The Panamanian populace seems disenchanted with President Martinelli. He's now viewed as an ambitious politician who has little regard for the common man. His campaign was based on exactly the opposite premise. "Ahora le toca al pueblo" (It's now the people's turn) was his slogan. Instead one of his first actions in office was to raise the sales tax from 3% up to 7%. And rumors circulate that it will increase to 8% before his term ends.   He's also perceived as a bully who pushes his own agenda despite widespread conflicting opinion . He's rumored to be heavy-handed with people who criticize him, and hypervigilant of those who work with or for him.  With the current crisis, he's also viewed as being someone who doesn't keep his promises.  I haven't met a Panamanian recently who admits voting for him or states they like him (But I'm located in Chiriqui province, which is where most of the conflict is taking place. They may feel differently in Panama City.)   Instead people here feel he presented one agenda when campaigning for election, and implemented another once in office. Many people have told me he's trying to turn the country into a dictatorship and they've even compared him to the recently returned ex-dictator Noriega. This is very far-fetched, in my opinion, but people do worry and seem very open about expressing these fears. 

The photo below, taken from a local TV channel's website, states, "Promise Kept, Mr. President" and represents a coffin for the indian man who was shot on Sunday---presumably by a police bullet, though the police are stating the bullet was not from a police issued weapon. 


The Panamanian police are now seen as an extension of the President, his policies, and his disregard for the plight of the average citizen, whose financial situation has significantly worsened since President Martinelli came to office.   Keeping that in mind, the video below takes on a different slant. It shows the indigenous people wrecking and burning the police station in Volcan.  

Although the actions of those involved in the confrontation in Volcan is condemned by most people, it has finally pushed both sides to the negotiation table.  Unfortunately, President Martinelli continues to avoid meeting with the protesters in Chiriqui, but he has sent his Minister of Government, Jorge Ricardo Fabrega, to initiate contact with the Ngobe Bugle leaders and dialogue to end the protests.  I read somewhere that the indigenous leaders expected President Martinelli to meet with them in the center of the blocked highway near San Felix, around a card table, with the indigenous community surrounding them.  Speculation is that security and safety matters  may have affected the President's decision to refuse this arrangement.  (do you think?)

It will be very interesting to see the outcome of the meeting with Mr. Fabrega, whenever it occurs.  Hopefully some type of agreement can be reached that might be more long-lasting than the one implemented last year around this same time. 

Feb 6, 2012

Border Closure

The demonstrations continue in Panama City and Chiriqui.  The Costa Rica-Panama border crossing at Paso Canoas has been closed to emmigration from Costa Rica for all but Panamanian citizens.  This is being done at the behest of the Costa Rican president as a safety measure for citizens of that country and for citizens of other foreign countries until the riots and unrest is resolved.       

The US embassy in Panama also issued an emergency warning to US Citizens as follows:

The U.S. Embassy in Panama City alerts  U.S. citizens to continued disruptions and demonstrations along the Pan-American Highway near the San Felix area in  Chiriqui (Ngobe Bugle region) and elsewhere in Panama.   There  are reports of violent confrontations between the Panamanian police and protestors in the San Juan, San Felix, Horconcitos and Vigui areas.
While the Pan-American Highway is reported to be open, protesters continue in their attempts to  block it with rocks, trees, and burning tires at various points between Chiriqui and San Felix.  Protesters have been reportedly throwing rocks at passing vehicles.  GOP Security Services continue to use tear gas and other riot control measures.  There are further reports of additional demonstrations in the areas of David and Changuinola, and of  possible demonstrations in the Panama City area beginning on Monday, February 6, 2012.  American citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, to defer traveling to and within areas known to have current protest activity, and to exercise caution in any area of confrontation between police and protestors. 
Other protests on this or other issues may occur with little or no warning.  The Embassy continues to caution its employees and all U.S. citizens to exercise heightened security awareness and avoid crowds and any areas  where there are demonstrations or where confrontations could occur.

The movement seems to be gaining momentum. The Panamanian public is sympathetic to the indigenous issues as well as against mining and hydroelectric activities in general.  The police are being viewed as repressive and the show of force has prompted more organizations to rally in support of the movement.  Educators, labor unions, syndicates and attorneys have expressed opposition to strong arm tactics and are pushing for dialogue and negotiation. 




There was a new confrontation this afternoon along the road from Boquete to Volcan.  Indians who were part of the highlands industrial and agricultural sector proceeded to take control of the area.  Police attempted to disband them, but ended up having to flee when the crowd turned on them with sticks and stones.   They burned the building housing the police station, and dismantled cars, as well as police motorcycles, to use as shields. 

Feb 5, 2012

Panama's President responds via Twitter

President Martinelli reportedly returned to Panama from the US this afternoon due to the escalation of civil unrest.   His last tweet to followers one hour ago is as  follows: 

El problema con los indigenas es que NO quieren que haya mas hidroelectricas en Panamá. Esto encarece todo y nos emprobrece aun mas
Trans:  The problem with the indians is that they don't want more hydroelectric plants in Panama.  That makes everything more expensive and creates even more poverty.

Martinelli and his family/friends are accused of having business interests in the foreign hydroelectric projects.  I don't know how to confirm or disprove this.

A copy of the original agreement signed with the indians in 2011 has surfaced.  The second point in that agreement clearly states:  The creation of a law explicitly prohibiting the exploration and exploitation of mining on Ngobe Bugle lands and the protection of water and environmental resources in the Comarca.    This is the self-same legislation that is currently being cited as the basis for protest.  The Martinelli administration apparently is forging ahead without acknowledging it, claiming instead that the indigenous groups are demanding more than was originally agreed upon.  Having seen a copy of the document,  this doesn't appear to be the case. 

The news stations are once again broadcasting.  There are demonstrations occuring in Panama City at the presidential headquarters.  Since the escalation,  39 people are reported injured,  including 7  police.  41 persons have been detained, two of them allegedly minors.  The minister of security,  who for me lacks credibility, is claiming that the bullet that killed Guillermo Montezuma does not come from standard issue police weaponry.  Mr. Montezuma was shot in the left chest. 

Lastly, the University of Panama announced it is suspending all administrative and academic activities for all branches in the country and calling a Academic Council meeting at 9 am tomorrow.  They encourage open dialogue to resolve the issues related to the indigenous rejection of mining  on their lands.

A few minutes ago I happened upon a volunteer  blog with an article by a woman who spent time last year in the indian comarca.  She has succinctly summarized the  issues fueling the current protests and the history behind the movement.  I am pasting the link below for additional reference. 

 http://intercontinentalcry.org/broken-promises-fuel-a-new-wave-of-anti-mining-protests-in-panama
 

Starting to feel like a Dictatorship

The government has shut down all TV stations due to ongoing coverage of the civil unrest in Chriqui. Internet signal is weak and intermittent.  There's supposed to be a press conference with President Martinelli going on at this very minute, but no one can watch it because of the suspension of TV transmissions by his administration.   Apparently some news is getting out to the states, but it's hard to track from here.

Radio reports indicate the Interamerican highway has again been closed by protesters.  The Organization of American States has been apprised of the unrest and is inquiring into possible human rights violations, according to newspaper articles.  It's really hard to tell how serious things are at this point.  The government seems to be running roughshod over indian protests re: governmental violation of  promises and agreements to cease strip mining on their territories.  But government spokesmen  state the indians are trying to change the original terms and are being manipulated by other groups. 

With no television coverage it's hard to sort things out.  I start to get suspicious when free press is denied.  UPDATE:  Radio Chiriqui transmissions were suspended mid-broadcast and haven't been restored.  The press conference has been moved to 5 pm, but President Martinelli is refusing to take part, deferring to his ministers instead.   Hopefully telecommunications will be restored by then.  The only information being disseminated right now is against the protest movement.

Updates

Things appear to be winding down.  25 ambulances have been dispatched to Chiriqui.  One death has been confirmed.  The deceased is Guillermo Moctezuma, and no further comments have been made regarding whether or not he is one of the indigenous chiefs.  One report indicates an autopsy will be done to determine cause of death, but other reports confirm a gunshot wound.  Two confirmed injuries---one a bullet to the gluteus and the other an injured finger due to being struck by a rock.  Another indian chieftess was located by a TV chanel  and indicated there were "many injuries and many deaths" but she was unable to confirm or provide numbers because she couldn't communicate with her people or the areas affected.

***********************************************************************************

Things started changing as I was writing this.  Veraquas has been restored, according to the governor of the province,  and Tole is clearing,  but areas further north are reacting.  Altamirante, Miraflores, Changinola, and Bocas del Toro sectors are getting involved and closing roadways.  Trees are being fallen to block the road and people are throwing rocks at cars traveling the roadway.  The last caller indicated the roadway is very unstable at this time.  The security minister continues to insist the television transmissions are false.  The television station admitted that images being transmitted were made yesterday when the last fly over of the area was permitted by the government.  The air space to the affected areas has been closed since.  The press has been unable to corroborate much received information due to government suspension of telecommunications and air space.

***********************************************************************************

A citizen of the town of San Felix called the television station to indicate that two young people on a motorcycle were critically injured along the roadway and that police are indiscriminately throwing tear gas bombs in the town center, affecting children, old people, and other non-involved residents.  He begged the station to implore the government to stop.  He had to leave the area to call in and stated that townspeople are fleeing San Felix.

***********************************************************************************

A police chief from Los Ruices was interviewed and stated the police did not and aren't permitted to use firearms against the crowd and that the protestors are delinquents.  (The TV images taken yesterday and  transmitted this morning showed policemen firing toward the crowd.)

***********************************************************************************

A TV reporter in San Felix indicates that tear gas bombs are continuing to be fired in the town center, by the bank, health center, and school, despite denials by politicians and the security minister.  The TV announcer requested a response from the security minister, who hasn't yet called in.  Activities continue re:  blocking the roadway further north.  Blockages have been effected at the Changuinola bridge.

Additional Disturbances & Uncertainty

According to reporting on the internet,  things turned violent during the night.  Panamanian police have moved in and cleared the interamerican highway.  There is no telephone or cell phone communication in the affected areas, so the indigenous are crippled in their communications regarding what's actually going on.  Reports indicate the police have killed one of the prinicipal indian chiefs and thrown tear gas everywhere, affecting even people who are doing nothing but staying in their homes.   The catholic priests in the affected areas are being called upon to help.  Images shown on television are of police firing on unarmed indians who are shielding themselves with pieces of roofing zinc.  The Panamanian minister of security called into the TV station and reported that images being shown are not those of what's actually happening at this time.   He kept reassuring the public that there is no chaos and no danger in the area.   He also admitted he wasn't in the area and had no plans to travel there.   Someone else called in to report that the two buses with Costa Rican travelers have been forcefully pulled out of Viqui and are heading for Santiago.  From there the tourists will be flown to the David airport,  and then from David to Costa Rica.  People who have been delayed along the roadway were interviewed by a local reporter.  All have indicated they are in agreement with the opening of the road after five days without money, food, or other necessities.  However, they are also stating they sympathize with the indians and are in disagreement with what is happening in Panama.  Even the reporters are irritated and slanted toward the indigenous cause.  Communication with the indian leaders can't be implemented due to government suspension of telecommunications to the affected cities of Viqui, San Felix and Tole.
Will post more when things get cleared up. 

Feb 4, 2012

Major Unrest in Panama

A dispute between the Panamanian government and the Ngobe Bugle indian nation has paralyzed  the only major thoroughfare connecting the major cities of this small country.  The traffic interruption has been going on for 5 days now, and persons and goods are not being allowed through from Panama City to Chiriqui province and vice versa.    Gasoline and food, in particular, are dwindling down or in short supply currently.   Not being particularly politically active,  I hadn't been following the issue closely.  But, as matters seem to be escalating, I'm trying to become better informed and will explain things as I understand them.


On Jan 14th, 2011, the then Panamanian Minister of Commerce and Industry,  Roberto Henriquez,  presented to the National Assembly a bill reforming the Panamanian mining code.  There was a lot of disagreement with the bill and many demonstrations.   There was a brief debate amongst official deputies on Feb 1st, 2011.    A week later, there was a second and third debate.  Despite widespread opposition to the reforms, the Panamanian President, Ricardo Martinelli, sanctioned the bill and it became law.  The rapid approval of the controversial law incensed much of the Panamanian public, especially the indigenous people in the provinces of Veraquas and Chiriqui---notably the cities of Viqui and San Felix.  Demonstrations were staged on Feb 15, 2011 and lasted several weeks.  People were injured, arrested, and detained.   The tense situation obliged the Panamanian government at the end of February 2011 to abolish the law and to initiate dialogue regarding consensus for new mining reforms. Changes were made to the law that met with majority approval, but specific articles proposed by the demonstrators were excluded.  This is what the press is stating is the cause of the current unrest.  The press is also stating that there is disagreement  amongst the various factions of the indigenous community as well.   How true the reports are is unclear, because rumor has it  the government is strong-arming journalists who report anything negative about the President or his administration.   

The crux of the matter centers on the prohibition of mining exploration and exploitation in the indian territories.  Last February, a pact was allegedly reached between the indigenous peoples and the current administration guaranteeing no such activities on indian lands. 

From here things start to get fuzzy.  The indigenous have resumed protests regarding the matter.   Some news sources report the government has not respected the agreement reached last February and that the indian lands are being destroyed to allow foreign companies to begin building hydroelectric projects.  Public sentiment is very strong in favor of the indigenous sector.

The Panamanian government claims the original pact signed last February did not include hydroelectric projects and that the current demand regarding the abolishment of hydroelectric projects is an attempt to extend the original agreement and ban the development of hydroelectric projects not only on indigenous lands but in all of Panama as well.   The government has no intention of agreeing to this measure.  Getting to the actual Panamanian law and the original agreement is not easy, despite this internet age.   What is known is that the current political administration sold rights to foreign companies to construct numerous hydroelectric projects in Panama.  This was the gist of the original mining reform bill and cause for the ensuing demonstrations.  The foreign company projects will provide electrical power to the Central American grid.  They won't specifically benefit Panama.  Work has already begun to divert rivers, control water supply, and clear lands for these hydroelectric projects.  Suspicion is high that members of the current administration are personally benefiting from the sale of the land rights.  Little concern is being shown for Panamanian ecology.

There is high public support of the indians and their struggle.  However, the inconveniences caused by the road blockage is taking its toll.  Tourists are stranded in places not on their itineraries.   A busload of Costa Ricans returning to their country from Panama City has been waylaid on the highway for several days and people are without the day to day conveniences of food and lodging.   Sick people requiring medical care, medicines, and treatments in Panama City are unable to travel to their medical appointments.  Just today, other organizations have joined in the effort.   The  Costa Rican border was closed and shipments of supplies are not being allowed into the country. 

The Panamanian government is taking a laid back approach.  Rather than feed into public empathy  by overpowering the indians and forcing the opening of the roadway, the government is hoping to shift support away from them by allowing the inconveniences to wear on the public.  The administration has demanded the assistance of the national airline,  COPA, to create an "air bridge" from Panama City to David.  Five flights daily are taking people with medical and health needs free of charge from one location to the other.   Both sides of the dispute are posturing regarding dialogue.  One side agrees, then the other refuses, and vice versa.    I'd give anything to have local TV right about now.  Unfortunately, I cancelled cable several weeks ago due to long-standing poor service quality.  Haven't gotten around to finding a new vendor...There are some live feeds from the internet, and radio and  newspapers, of course.  It will be interesting to see what develops.  Going to try to add pertinent updates here.