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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 strike.

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 base.

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 and sticks.

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 Changuinola.”

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 country.”

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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