Panamanian pandemonium

Banana workers strike, receive tear gas.  Two killed in "shot-gun" clash.

U.S. Interventionism has helped shape the Republic of Panama. With the recent bloodshed at a banana workers strike, will "push-back" result in socialist unrest amongst the Panamanian people and will President Martinelli and his corporate-interest minions close Pandora's Box? History shall be our guide.

The history of collective bargaining and the formation of organized labor movements in the United States was a knock-down, drag-out fight, where corporate America ultimately proved unsuccessful in its bid to prevent the “unionization” of workers in several industrial sectors. While the U.S. federal government denounced meetings and rallies, a “popular uprising” shook the very foundations of capitalism’s strangle-hold over the impoverished working lower-class. Mass demonstrations of co-workers exploited by corporate overlords were able to channel their voices, combining tactical action with strategic inaction, so that the oppressive profiteers were forced to ameliorate protested grievances. After years of bloodshed and picket-lines, the rise of America's unionized labor force was rivaled only by the formation of a "middle-class" it is credited with helping .

What the purveyors of America's global economic dominance failed to realize was that during their full-throttled pursuit to denounce socialist propaganda in the early half of the 1900’s, by surrendering to the collective will that birthed the “organized labor movement”, the pressurized steam of popular socialism was released, so that the kettle of the working class wouldn’t boil over. The “red scare” was alleviated more by this domestic suppression of oppression, with its internally stabilizing increase in worker compensation and family-sustaining benefits previously not offered to the “average working stiff”. This “steam valve” method of appeasing the building-up of “subversive elements” preserved the American capitalist “free market” economic model, but investors continued to reap windfall profits by reacting with a shift toward import markets, “capitalizing” from the sweat and tears of “third-world” citizens.

Although the full story involves further complexities than this brief synopsis allows for, it directly correlates to the recent popular disturbances in the Republic of Panama. The U.S. government steadily subverted Panamanian "labor-force activism" for decades, unwilling to endorse the "unionization" that Americans had ultimately adopted for themselves. These “strong-arm”, state-sponsored business practices helped inflate the affluent elitist Wall Street moguls who have steered the “interests” of U.S. empire ever since.

The so-called “Banana Republics” of Central and South America are one regional example (of many) where American imperialism allowed U.S.-based corporations to wield unquestioned power and authority over entire populations, systematically backed by the U.S. State Department. American military might helped countless regimes gain, re-gain or maintain control over citizens that were democratically opting for new leadership; all this despite relentless U.S. rhetoric advocating the worldwide spread of democracy.

The history of U.S. interventionist policies in the southern hemisphere poetically served to produce the current uptick in regional socialism. One by one, each of these nations have struggled for self-determination; each in its own way, with its own unique brand of political, social-democratic evolution.

Panama has experienced the benefits and consequences of its geographical significance, located at the smallest pinch of the Americas, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are joined by this relegated “short-cut”. As Panamanians struggled for independence, this intrinsic “value” was seized upon by former President Teddy Roosevelt. (Speaking softly, but carrying a big stick) Roosevelt opted to establish a ten-mile-wide “zone” spanning the country by strategically “weaponizing”, then supporting, a dictatorial regime that would allow for this annexation. In stark contrast to the democratic wishes of the mass-majority of Panamanians at the time, a new day of domination for American trade relations had dawned, and U.S. sovereign control of the Panama Canal Zone would endure for nearly a century.

By the 1980's, CIA-influenced narco-traffickers infiltrating the ranks and ideologies of the historically corruptible Panamanian military resulted in the Reagan-endorsed dictator, Manuel Noriega, rising to a blood-stained throne of power. When Noriega declined to assist Oliver North with military support of the Nicaraguan Contras. Suddenly, his exploits of human-trafficking and money laundering became a bone of contention with the U.S. Justice Department. Once Reagan changed course with Noriega, the U.S. moved ahead with sanctions (serving only to further impoverish one of the poorest nations in the world), and eventually military assault when President G.H.W. Bush (formerly Reagan’s V.P.) launched Operation Just Cause.

Since the smoke has cleared from Reagan-era “interventionism”, Panama has undergone positive growth, acceptable to the current War Council in Washington. Former President Clinton would oversee the transition of sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone back into the rightful owning hands of Panamanians. This has given the country a running start at becoming a viable, self-governing democratic Republic.

Last year, sweeping into presidential victory on a media-blitzing platform of “hope” and “change”: No, not Barack Obama, but Ricardo Martinelli, the newly-elected President of Panama. This American-educated business-giant (still chairman of the Super 99 supermarket chain) maintains investing interests in several corporations both in, and outside of, Panama. He swept into victory with 60% of the vote, and saw his popularity rise steadily since taking office. Along with having the healthiest growing economy in Central America, Martinelli’s short reign prepares to oversee full implementation of the $5.25 billion Canal Zone Expansion Project, passed by the previous (Martin) Torrijos administration. This improvement project looks to create 7,000 to 9,000 new jobs through 2011.

Then, Martinelli, an ultra-conservative politician for traditional Panamanian standards, pressed for passage of his business-friendly, legislative super bill, notoriously known as “the sausage law” for its eclectic design affecting multiple, unrelated tiers of governance. What can only be viewed as a “sweetening” of Panamanian economic conditions, Martinelli and his Democratic Change party may be attempting to finalize the stalled-out U.S./Panama Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that never received the final nod from the U.S. Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives in ’07.

The “sausage law”, officially dubbed “Law 30”, is a nine-part reversal on many young Panamanian laws. It side-steps environmental impact studies for agribusiness developers to tread more heavily in pursuit of profitability. It removes the federal mandate for union employees, so that paying applicable dues becomes voluntary. It contains “anti-strike” provisions that remove employment protection for striking workers, and does not render the business “closed” due to the strike (an expectation traditionally providing the only leverage strikers had against corporate improprieties). It overturns a 13-year-old law regarding “preventive incarceration” for police officers accused of brutality and/or excessive force. It forces anyone in opposition to “public bids” to initially lay down 15% of said bid in before legal proceedings can advance questioning the legitimacy of the contract. It also rewrites code enforcement for fraudulent passport production and use; undeniably all over the place with regards to customary law-making practices in Panamanian parliament.

And with that, banana growers went on strike in the city of Changuinola, province of Bocas del Toro. These were employees of Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, the regime-shifting power-wielding conglomerate that shaped governments (with U.S. backing) and prevented democratic endeavors throughout Central and South America for much of the 20th century. United Fruit was the company at the center of the famed “Banana Massacre”, where up to 4,000 striking locals were slaughtered by Columbian military forces at the behest of Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover.

A dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Columbia, where the attacks occurred, sent to Stimson revealed disappointment for the contemporary “liberal media” that was “spinning” the state-sponsored act of terrorism for what it actually was.

“Although the thinking people of the country realize that it was only the Government's prompt action that diverted a disaster, this insidious campaign of the Liberal press will undoubtedly work up a great deal of feeling against the Government and will tend to inculcate in the popular mind a belief that the Government was unduly hasty in protecting the interests of the United Fruit Company,” reads the wire transmission, telegraphed December 11, 1928. “The Conservative journals are defending the Government's course but I doubt that their counter-fire will suffice to do away with the damage the Liberal journals are causing.”

Now, in Panama, a near repeat of the Banana Massacre more than 80 years later, as Panamanian forces opted to open-fire on scores of unarmed protesters. Government soldiers used shotguns filled with bird-shot, sometimes at point-blank-range. Two union members were killed, indicated by Panamanian spokespersons as “accidental” incidents, as the intent was to injure, but not fatally wound. Along with these two senseless acts of “accidental assassination”, as many as 30 people were blinded and maimed by such shootings. Martinelli blamed Panamanian media for "a campaign of disinformation" which led to the large group protests.

Some members of Martinelli’s government expressed immediate remorse for “mistakes” that were made, while others defended the actions of militant “crowd control” in response to collective-bargaining acts of non-violent, civil disobedience. What Martinelli received as a reaction to the state’s “over-reaction” was a national, general strike of July 13th, looking to cripple the construction projects in the “canal zone”, as well as across Panamanian urban centers. He also witnessed a 12-point drop in his previously swollen approval ratings. Panama's National Front for the Defense of Social Rights (FRENADESO) claimed a 95% effectiveness for its strike across the board, insisting their aims were achieved, while the government of Panama maintains that all sectors survived the incursion unscathed.

Secretary of State Clinton may have a lot to say and do about these recent developments. Again, it was former president Clinton who administered the transition of the Canal in 1999 over to Panamanian authorities, honoring the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of ’77. Despite the deafening silence put forth by the Obama administration over the incident, Hillary will have Bill in her ear more so than Barack with regards to Panama, and Clintonian initiatives may incentivise her diplomatic treatment of the matter in the coming months. Whether or not “the sausage law” is a requisite for the currently neutralized FTA pact to get back off the ground remains to be seen.

One “change” we can “hope” for: state-sponsored murder will have to subside for the U.S./Panama FTA to advance itself from its frozen legislative status in the U.S. Senate.

Will President Martinelli back down from his “sausage law”, having incited labor groups throughout the country into civic action and commercial paralysis? Or, will the level of brutality authorized by the Martinelli government increase in defense against the democratically natural push-back of the Panamanian people. These are the apprehensions the Martinelli administration tries to navigate as the first-year president attempts to stabilize the capitalist backbone of Panama's constitutional republic, surrounded by a region dominated by surging Socialist movements?

Pending investments by foreign bankers poised to explore Panama’s economic potential, including the multi-billion-dollar canal-expansion bids, all hinge on a peaceable outcome presenting itself at ground-level. More crucial to Martinelli’s fledgling coalition government is for it to avoid re-hashing Socialist sensibilities in a nation self-determined to become a free-market player, replete with support from the World Trade Organization, as well as the World Bank which funds the viral trend of globalization.

Martinelli’s minions may ultimately heed the lessons learned from the history of collective bargaining in the U.S. itself, allowing the Panamanian people the “steam release” needed for its workers to thrive awaiting the presumed emergence of that elusive “middle-class”. Meanwhile, concern for the plight of the Panamanian worker yields itself to corporate interests, opting to “go bananas” with their attempt to seize “control” of the disenfranchised working class. It isn’t the first time such an egregious and inhumane miscalculation was made by the benefactors of Imperialism, and likely not the last.