Workers strike against corruption and inequality in Panama

In Panama, 5000 construction workers working on the massive expansion of the Panama Canal  walked of the job on November 24 and joined campesinos, indigenous people, educators, and other social justice activists in a 24-hour national strike.

The strike was called by the National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (FRENADESO, the Spanish acronym) to protest a number of social grievances including systemic corruption in the courts and other government bodies, the lack of access to drinking water for many Panamanians, a proposal to increase the eligibility age for social security benefits, and anti-union policies of the government and the country’s business class.

Saul Mendez, a leader of SUNTRACS, the construction workers’ union, which describes itself as a class conscious, revolutionary union, told Agence France Presse that the strike shut down 90 percent of the work being done on the canal’s expansion.

Mendez also said that the strikers were demanding justice for two SUNTRACS leaders shot and killed by members of the National Police in 2007 and 2008.

The police officer who killed SUNTRACS’ Osvaldo Lorenzo in 2007 was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 20 years in prison but was set free by the courts without having to complete his sentence.

In 2008 Al Iromi Smith, another SUNTRACS’ leader, was shot in the back by a member of the National Police as Smith was helping comrades get medical attention after they were wounded by police during a union protest.

In October, Smith’s assailant was acquitted even after he admitted to Smith’s slaying.

SUNTRACS’ leaders blame a corrupt court system that fosters collusion between the courts and the police for the court’s failure to punish Smith’s and Lorenzo’s killers

But judicial corruption in Panama runs deeper than that.

According to Transparency International, Panama’s judicial system “faces serious challenges to its integrity.”

Researchers at Council of Hemispheric Affairs report that Panama’s former president Ricardo Martinelli, currently under criminal investigation by Panama’s anti-corruption prosecutor, stacked the country’s with judges loyal to him rather than to the rule of law.

Some of these appointees have been using their positions for self enrichment.

In May, the former president of Panama’s Supreme Court, Alejandro Moncado was found guilty of taking bribes. Another Supreme Court justice Victor Benavides has been suspended from the court and is under investigation for taking bribes.

Moncado was also implicated in a scandal involving Martinelli, who, among other things, is being investigated for skimming millions of dollars from the country’s national food assistance program.

While Moncado has been enriching himself through bribes and embezzlement, many Panamanians lack the bare necessities of life such as access to drinking water.

According to the University of California Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies, in a country of 3.8 million people, 840,000 Panamanians lack 24-hour access to drinking water, and 600,000 have no access at all.

The lack of access to potable water is particularly acute in rural areas where campesinos (farmworkers and small farm owners) and indigenous people live.

The widespread lack of access to potable water persists despite the fact that Panama’s economy is growing at one of the highest rates in the world.

The World Bank reports that between 2001 and 2013, average annual GDP growth was 7.2 percent, “more than double the regional average.” In 2014, the Panamanian economy grew by 6.2 percent and should be only slightly lower in 2015.

Despite this growth, 22 percent of the population still lack full-time access to drinking water.

The skewed benefits of the country’s growth, the widespread corruption, and the disregard of basic labor rights fueled the outrage that led to the November 24 strike.

The question now is what comes next?

Protest like the November 24 will likely continue. Telesur reports that FRENADESO plans another strike on December 4 “against neoliberal policies initiated by the government.”

FRENADESO also is building a political movement.

On the day before the strike, FRENADESO leaders presented a resolution to the country’s Electoral Tribunal aimed at getting its political arm, the Front for Democracy (FAD), on the ballot for the 2019 elections.

La Estrella de Panama reports that the Electoral Tribunal recognized FAD as a political party.

Genaro Lopez, a leader of FRENADESO and a former leader of SUNTRACS, was FAD’s presidential candidate in 2014. The party disbanded after Lopez received only 1 percent of the vote.

But FAD has reconstituted itself and will now try to build a base among people disenchanted with the country’s corruption and lack of equality.

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