Protests against a privatization scheme in Panama’s second city, Colon, have resulted in many arrests and the death of a 9 year old boy and, according to some reports, two others.
Colon is largely Afro-Panamanian, and has suffered from a history of poverty and discrimination. However, it is also the site of a large free trade zone connected to the Panama Canal, which has given employment to many of its residents. Up until now, the land and the infrastructure of the free trade zone have been publicly owned.
However, Panama’s right wing president, Ricardo Martinelli, and the conservative coalition which dominates the legislature, have decided to privatize the free trade zone. Concretely, this means selling off the land and infrastructure, including cable and wireless services, with 30 percent of the proceeds to be put into a social welfare trust, the rest to go to the national treasury. The privatization law was passed earlier on Friday and immediately signed by Martinelli, without input from the residents of Colon.
The privatization scheme was immediately met with angry rejection from the parliamentary opposition, and also from ordinary residents of Colon, who fear that the net effect will be to lower incomes in the area and perhaps allow the zone to be bought up by transnational corporations. They demand, rather, that the government raise rents on companies currently leasing facilities in the free trade zone, to generate funds for human services. There are also complaints that the project is unconstitutional.
On Friday and continuing on Monday, large scale demonstrations took place in the streets of Colon, with police using harsh methods of repression in response. Scenes of police clubbing and kicking captured demonstrators have been circulating on the internet.
Martinelli was elected in 2009 when Panama, whose relative wealth among Latin American countries is based partly on its role as a regional financial center, was hard hit by the 2008 world financial crisis. He and his Democratic Change party ousted centrist President Martin Torrijos, son of the left-wing strongman Omar Torrijos, by a wide margin at that time. However, some “buyers’ remorse” may be setting in. Martinelli has pushed neo-liberal policies including a new “free” trade agreement with the United States which comes into force, some would say appropriately, on Halloween, October 31.
The Party of the People (Panama), which is Panama’s communist party, denounced both the privatization scheme and the repression, and published on its website a call by the Broad Front of [the people of] Colon for demonstrations all over the country to demand an end to the repression and a renegotiation of the privatization law so as to protect the interests of the people of Colon by preventing privatization of their resources.
Photo of the Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli. Luis Carlos Díaz // CC 2.0