Panama’s Workers Forced the Government to Negotiate Live on TV. What Was the Point?

They state is abandoning its promises.

by Octavio García Soto

19 June 2023

A woman wearing a white short-sleeved blouse, a white facemask and red headband holds a brown placard on which the country of Panama is sketched out with the word 'Corrupcion' (Spanish for 'Corruption') written above it
A demonstrator holds up a placard during a protest to demand the government steps to curb inflation, lower fuel and food prices, in Panama City, July 2022. Erick Marciscano/Reuters

In June 2022, shortly before all of Panama’s teachers, small farmers, students, Indigenous peoples and trade unions blocked the streets demanding price cuts to fuel, medicine and food, a video of congressmen partying with expensive wine had gone viral.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, Panama is Latin America’s second most unequal country and the world’s sixth. One in every three Panamanian children lives in multidimensional poverty (meaning they lack access not only money but education and basic infrastructure services). Water is difficult to come by in many regions; most public schools suffer from a lack of resources and staff;; and the social security system is in crippling debt. The protests were in some ways entirely unsurprising – although in others, quite astonishing. “It was a social explosion,” Maribel Jaén, national director of the Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian organisation, tells Novara Media of last year’s protests.

The protesters blocked Panama’s artery for travel and commerce, the Pan-American Highway. They shared food, some slept in barricades. Police repression followed swiftly, but the protesters held on.

Panama’s president Laurentino Cortizo, a member of the Democratic Revolutionary party (PRD), tried to divide the social movements through separate negotiations, but they refused, insisting on negotiating together. After holding out for 15 days, the government agreed. With the Catholic church as mediator, an agenda was set on food, medicine and gas. As different social movements joined, areas such as education, energy prices and social security were added. On 21 July, the Mesa Única de Diálogo (single dialogue table) began its first session.

Between 1992 and 2022, Panama had 21 high-profile dialogues, which generally included government, civil society and businessmen. The topics ranged from women’s equality to the Panama Canal and poverty reduction. Speaking to Novara Media, Panamanian businessman Temístocles Rosas says he takes pride in this tradition: “We have participated for more than 50 years in dialogues.” Rosas is president of the Panamanian Business Executives Association or Apede. Apede was present in the Bambito and Coronado dialogues, crucial for establishing the neoliberal order after the fall of Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship in 1989.

As a member of the Catholic church, Jaén has been part of previous dialogues and helped establish the current one. For her, they lack the necessary confrontation of political agendas that ushers change: “After 33 years, impoverishment is still growing for the majority of Panamanians,” she tells Novara Media. “These dialogues are more of a shock absorber from which to make diagnoses and objectives.”

Maribel Gordón, a Panamanian economist and trade unionist, describes the dialogues to Novara Media as a “me and me” conversation between elites: “They impose their methodology, their agenda, the participants, moderators, and solutions. They bring a prefabricated scenario”.

Unlike those before it, workers set the terms of the latest dialogue. They came to the table with three main conditions: one, that they would negotiate as a unit; two, that there would be no corporate representatives in the negotiations; and three, that the talks would be broadcast live on public television.

Class war live.

“We as the private sector were excluded,” Rosas said. “The talk was more about introducing a leftist economic model.” It’s true that talks veered towards condemnations of Panama’s economic system. In a viral speech, leftist activist Maribel Gordón said: “What are the interests of the producers you’re defending? Ask the small producer how much are they getting paid for a field of produce? And for how much it is sold? … This country’s commercial structure is profoundly oligarchic.”

The government pressured the workers to include businessmen, as negotiator Carlos Carcache effectively admitted: “Businessmen are also part of the Panamanian people, if we’re going to talk about that, we’re going to have to expand the table.”

As agreements were reached, barricades started being taken down; strikes were called off. A price cap for medicines and a basket of basic goods was set by government decree and enforced immediately, while 6% of GDP was allocated to education by 2024. But as negotiations went on, social organisations accused the government of non-compliance: most of the items from the basket of basic goods were out of stock, while fuel stations flouted with price caps.

Things fall apart.

On 16 September, after 57 days of talks, the Mesa Única ended its first phase. Its second was due to start in October, with participation from the private sector – but October came and went without any talks. In February this year, the government was supposed to formally invite the UN to provide technical assistance in the negotiations; to date, it hasn’t. By April, the church announced that it would withdraw from moderating duties; social movements accused it of surrendering to state and corporate pressure. The private sector started to lose interest, too: “No one wanted to be at the table,” says Rosas. “There were 21 groups influenced by the forces of the Panamanian left and just three government negotiators. … For us, it’s over.”

Jaén agrees there was disinterest, but locates this in the state and private sector: “Businessmen call for an equal number of workers and of the corporate sector to be in the negotiations,” she says, “but we know how states are sequestered by the economic elites. There’s no way you can compare the power of the popular movements to the power of the economic elites. It’s just a lie.”

Social movements insist that many of the agreements have still not been honoured, and continue to take the streets in multiple parts of the country demanding clean water, better infrastructure and more teachers. APEDE has condemned these blockades, because “they weaken our country’s competitiveness to make business’”.

A new hope?

“The movement coalitions are coordinating on actions to guarantee the agreements are met,” says Gordón, who could likely be standing for president in 2024 on an independent ticket. “But there have to be other horizons for the struggle, such as the electoral one”. Electoral politics have been rough for the left in Panama’s recent history – though Gordón could be about to change that. In the last elections, trade unionist Saul Méndez won only 0.69% for the now defunct Broad Front for Democracy party – 13,540 votes. Gordón currently has more than 130,000 signatures nominating her as a presidential candidate.

If Gordón does win the nomination, she’s likely to be running against six contenders, two of them former Panamanian presidents: the far-right Ricardo Martinelli and social democrat Martín Torrijos, both members of Panama’s political elite. “It’s been difficult on such uneven ground, in a system full of clientelist politics,” she tells Novara Media. “But the worst fight is the one that’s never waged”.

In the meantime, many in the social movements trust that the Mesa Única’s second phase will happen, but Jaén is sceptical: “I don’t think so. We’re going to keep getting social explosions, because there’s no channel for the people’s frustration”. If the negotiations fail and Gordón’s candidacy collapse, there’s no telling where those frustrations may lead.

Octavio García Soto is a Panamanian-Chilean journalist who has written for outlets including La Tercera, Taz in Germany and Jacobin.

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