State repression awakens worker resistance in Panama
WW interviews union leader
Published Jul 14, 2010 7:58 PM
Panama’s right-wing government of President Roberto Martinelli is ending
its first year in office by passing reactionary anti-labor laws on behalf of
the oligarchy and transnational corporations and killing six Indigenous
protesters. The Panamanian working class is resisting with a July 13 general
Martinelli’s regime is allied with the criminal, paramilitary
administration of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia. It has opened 11 air bases to
the U.S. military under the pretext of combating drug trafficking, but they are
in fact poised against its progressive neighbors to the south.
On July 1 a law took effect increasing taxes on goods and services from 5
percent to 7 percent. This hits poor families hardest in a country where the
neoliberal policies of this and past administrations have increased
unemployment, underemployment and poverty.
On June 16 Martinelli imposed Law 30, commonly known in Panama as “Ley
Chorizo” (sausage law), which alters three codes and six national laws.
Using the pretext of improving commercial air transportation, this law destroys
unions, prohibits strikes, facilitates the destruction of the environment, and
threatens civil rights by allowing total impunity for police actions.
To pass this law without public scrutiny, the National Assembly held three days
of extraordinary meetings — behind closed doors — with no public
hearing and guarded by the National Police.
Martinelli said, “The laws passed will impact and have great repercussion
on national life.” He admitted that if the bill had been debated
publicly, “it is probable that many of the articles of Law 30 would not
have passed.” (rebanadasderealidad.com.ar/)
In anticipation of resistance, in April Martinelli enacted the “Ley
Carcelazo” (jailhouse law), which mandates arrest and jail terms for
protesters who close or blockade streets.
As June ended, outraged workers resisted with several protests. Unions issued a
call for the July 13 general strike and joined other organizations to challenge
Law 30 with at least two lawsuits demanding its repeal.
Indigenous people lead resistance
In Changuinola, a district of the Bocas del Toro province on the northern
Atlantic coast of Panama, the mostly Ngäbe Bukle Indigenous people gave
the Panamanian working class a lesson in struggle. This region’s
inhabitants are mostly Native people.
Changuinola is the home of banana production, which provides 50 percent to 60
percent of the jobs. But it is also one of the poorest regions in Panama.
According to a Panamanian state study, the Indigenous regions in the country
suffer from 96.3 percent poverty. (telemetro.com)
More than 5,000 workers from the Bocas Fruit Company, a Chiquita company, began
a 48-hour work stoppage on July 2. The company had quickly used Law 30 to
eliminate union dues and thereby eliminate the union’s financial
The workers, represented by the SITRAIBANA union, were principally demanding
repeal of Law 30 and that the company reestablish union dues. They were also
protesting Martinelli’s recent changes to the Charter that permit the
violation of Indigenous labor, environmental, cultural and social rights.
Lacking a response from the company and the national government, the workers on
the second day declared the strike would last indefinitely. Since then, other
banana workers have joined the strike. The community supports the strike and
the whole region has been paralyzed. Parents have not sent their children to
school. Other Indigenous people have come to Changuinola in support of their
sister and brother workers.
The state responded with repression, sending thousands of armed riot police to
squash the resistance. The workers replied by blockading all roads leading to
the region. They set offices on fire, including the Global Bank branch and the
headquarters of the police for minors, capturing four police for several hours.
Workers also seized the Changuinola airport and answered police fire with rocks
Unions say that six people were killed; the government reports only two deaths.
Hundreds were injured, dozens shot in the eye with pellets. The injured had to
be taken to hospitals in Panama City.
At the same time, 1,200 workers who had been widening the Panama Canal also
went on strike, demanding better working conditions.
As these actions unfolded, the regime opened a campaign of repression,
arresting hundreds of workers and activists.
WW interviews union leader
On the eve of the general strike, Workers World spoke with Alejandro John,
general secretary of the union that represents the workers of Coca-Cola and
other beverage companies. John is also on the board of Unity in the Integral
Struggle for the People (ULIP) and is part of the Council of Organized Workers,
one of the broad workers’ federations in Panama.
John summarized the general situation as of July 12: “I am very worried
because there is a police state and state terrorism. The government has charged
several union leaders. Many have been arrested during this weekend, including a
professor from the University of Panama, Prof. Juan Jovane. [Police] tried to
take him out of his home yesterday and arrest him. It was a man in civil
clothing without identifying himself as police. There might be more than a
dozen union leaders arrested. Some had to go underground for fear of being
arrested without cause.”
This worry, however, has not in any way diminished the will to struggle and the
preparations for the general strike. John continued: “The general strike
is still on, more important now because of the repression in the Changuinola.
We are not going back.
“The strike tomorrow is a way to clearly let the state know that we
disagree with their behavior. They are not trying to negotiate, to try to find
a solution. Instead, the state is shooting at the demonstrators, a brutal
repression. This reinforces the solidarity with the comrades from
WW learned that there was some kind of last-minute settlement in the banana
strike in Changuinola, postponing for 90 days Law 30. We asked John what this
meant, who made the agreement, and how the people were responding.
John reported: “There has been a postponement of Law 30 for 90 days but
only on the labor aspects of it. But our position in ULIP, the Coca-Cola union,
and others [is that] we are demanding the complete repeal of the total law L30,
not only the postponement of the labor aspects of it. Besides, the president
and the banana workers reached an agreement that does not include the repeal of
the L30 and that has created a dissatisfaction in the region. Apparently they
have blockaded the roads again sporadically in the Bocas del Toro province.
“The situation in Bocas del Toro now is unstable. There is no certainty
that the strike has been lifted and that the workers have returned to their
jobs. Things are not clear since today is the first day that the agreement has
been known. However, what is a certainty is that there are least 20 victims who
have been seriously injured, particularly eye injuries, and they had to be
transferred to a hospital in Panama City.”
John added: “I do not think this situation will have an easy solution, in
spite of some accords. This situation has not been solved, in the region
[Changuinola] or for the rest of the workers in the rest of the
Alejandro John finished with an appeal to the workers and unions in the U.S.:
“We want your solidarity, and above all that the Free Trade Agreement
between the U.S. and Panama not be ratified, because union freedom, freedom of
association and individual rights are under attack in our country. We need that
your unions question our government about these issues, that union freedom be
respected in Panama.”
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