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.