Central America on the move: uprisings in Panama

For almost a month Panama was semi-paralyzed. Protests by various workers and popular sectors cornered the Cortizo government. Due to a series of concessions made by the mobilization, this phase is coming to an end that leaves conclusions and opens hypotheses for all of Central America.

By Mariano Rosa

Since his electoral triumph in 2019 President Laurentino Cortizo of the pro-Torrijos Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) faced union and popular protests. The vanguard has been the teachers’ sector with the National Union of Educators of Panama (UNEP), which brings together more than ten unions of educators nationwide, backed by the combative Association of Educators of Veragüense (AEVE) and the National Association of Teachers (ASOPROF), which staged a huge protest in 2019, presenting the new president with a ten-point list of demands, highlighting the budgetary claim of compliance with 6% of GDP for the sector. In 2020 and 2021, under pandemic conditions, teachers returned to the streets demanding measures regarding covid to the national government. In July of this year the teachers’ union, faced with Cortizo’s silence in the face of a list of demands against price increases and the high cost of living, marked a turning point in the political situation with an active and powerful 72-hour strike. The president then resorted to Threatening to propose cutting social spending in order to meet the teachers’ demands. The usual maneuver of pitting people against people. The leadership of AEVE rejected this extortion, and called to radicalize and amplify the measures. In a few days the health workers and the powerful construction workers union (SUTRACS) joined the movement, and a few days later, the native communities joined with roadblocks. Thus, a general state of mobilization was completed, which in fact transformed the protests into a sort of general paralyzation of activities, although without a unified leadership of the general process.

In the following weeks, the government deployed two tactics to try to defeat the process of struggle:

It repressed some localized protests and saturated some roadblocks and mobilizations with police troops.

It called for “dialogue” in three separate instances with the sectors in struggle.

It failed in both attempts: it did not succeed in intimidating or dividing the movement.

For this reason, in the end he had to yield partly and accept a unified negotiating table with representatives of all the sectors in struggle.

Huge mobilizations with teachers and construction workers at the forefront.

International economic and political trends reflected in Panama

Panama used to have the highest relative standards of living in Central America. However, the world economic crisis, pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, including the international effects of the war in Ukraine, hit it hard. Its service-based economy collapsed in terms of employment and wages. Local businesses and multinationals adjusted profitability with price inflation and the jump in fuel prices to almost 4 dollars a gallon, thus triggering an escalation of protests. In addition to this, there were budget cuts on the part of the State and social programs were affected, which ended up detonating the social bomb. This country is subject to the ups and downs of imperialist policy and its mechanisms for transferring the consequences of crises to the periphery. It presents an economic-productive matrix totally dependent and foreignized, organically and historically linked to the US (the Panama Canal, cause of coups and gringo military interference and the dollar as official currency). At the same time, in the political-social sphere, the world tendencies towards polarization were also expressed in their maximum tension in Panama. A country with a strong accumulation of experience in trade union and popular struggles, as well as a powerful anti-imperialist tradition. This episode of protests, which is beginning to end, leaves the Cortizo government very weakened and poses a correlation of social forces in favor of the sectors that mobilized. It is the first chapter with derivations in Central America.

Is Panama a trend-setter in the region?

Central America is a country artificially divided by imperialism and the regional bourgeoisies. There are historical communicating vessels that make it qualitatively different as a region from the rest of Latin America. Indeed, the balkanization into six countries fragmented what in fact constitutes a single nationality. Therefore, any analysis of the regional panorama requires, for a complete integral vision, to have this framework as a reference. Nothing that happens and shocks, economically, socially and politically, any of the six countries of the subcontinent is indifferent to the rest. Of course, governments, union bureaucracies and bourgeoisies allied to imperialism act to confuse, isolate and divert the positive resonances of, for example, rebellions like the one in Panama. But it is almost inexorable that the shock wave of triumphs or defeats spreads across porous national borders. That is why Panama, a point of support for U.S. imperialism in the region to act on the whole area, has staged a national revolt of such a scale, tipping the Central American balance and encouraging tendencies that have been expressed as positive symptoms in favor of the peoples, and against governments, regimes and imperialism in the area. The final result of this movement, with several concessions wrested from Cortizo, with the defeat of all attempts to intimidate or divide the movement, is a partial but important triumph for the mobilized people. It is partial because although the price of fuels and the freezing of almost a hundred basic products of the food basket was achieved, the generalized wage increase did not materialize as an axis. Now, what remains to be done is to ensure that the agreements are complied with and to strengthen the grassroots organization of the mobilized sectors. And, on the other hand, to follow the rhythms of popular mobilization throughout the region. In Honduras, the triumph of Xiomara Castro a few months ago expressed, in the distorted way in which the states of consciousness of the majorities are reflected in the ballot boxes, a search for change towards the left. This was a symptom. In El Salvador, there were huge mobilizations in favor of the reestablishment of the pension system, even with Bukele’s high levels of popularity. At the other pole, even in Nicaragua under the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship, there were expressions of protest in Sébaco and Matagalpa in the face of a new repressive scale of the FSLN in power.

The government’s dialogue table with the sectors in struggle.

That is to say: with Panama as the highest point, with Nicaragua at the other pole, but with a tendency that is equalizing with the Latin American and world situation, Central America seems to be moving. We are betting on that, supporting the just causes of the peoples in struggle and we propose the need to build truly anti-capitalist, socialist and internationalist leftist alternatives for the unity of the Central American homeland. The militancy of the International Socialist League moves forward in this way.