By Jack Gordon-Smith
Panama City settled down to a more than usually tranquil Saturday, October 27 with, from my vantage point, little traffic and no discernible marches or demonstrations.
Not so for the mother of the 9 year old boy who was shot dead by police and buried on Thursday; nor for the anguish suffered by another mother, standing vigil by the bedside of her 7 year old daughter, who caught a police bullet in the stomach last week.
Two further deaths are the price being paid by families in Colon for the creation and repeal of ill-fated Law 72, which allowed the government to sell off the land in the Colon Free Zone to those businesses which have hitherto paid rent.
In introducing law 72, President Martinelli was making good a promise made to the foreign businessmen who had given financial support to him in his successful election campaign of 2009. His promise to the people of Colon was that the money raised would be ring-fenced for their benefit and used to provide infrastructure and schools. The people of Colon were having none of it. They have long been used to suffering from the deceit of successive Panamanian administrations. They told him to repeal the law or else…
With traditional support from the construction union SUNTRAC, together with university students and the indigenous populations of the interior, Colon has experienced two weeks of civil unrest, during which time four people have been needlessly slaughtered by an over exuberant police, who are alleged to have randomly fired live rounds both in the air and indiscriminately into crowds. A special unit, who are nominally termed as police, but whose actions, observers say, are more akin to the military, wear balaclavas which ensure that no particular individual can readily be identified as being the cause of any innocent bystander meeting his end.
On Thursday the funeral took place of the 9 year old boy. A promise was made by the protesters that they would refrain from hostilities that day out of respect for the family. However, if action was not put in motion to repeal Law 72 by the end of that day, then Friday would see the fight being brought to Panama City and so it was.
I woke in the morning a little later than usual, due to the absence of traffic on Avenida Balboa and the Cinta Costera. A friend then rang to ask if I had looked out of my window. It is quite common to witness marches and protests at weekends, but most unusual on a normal working Friday. Looking towards Paitilla, it was possible to see the traffic being held back by the crowd, which seemed more and more vocal as they made their approach down Avenida Balboa and past my apartment block.
From my balcony on the 39th floor all seemed relatively peaceful, although I heard later that they had already ransacked a partially completed building opposite where my friend lives, next to Parque Urraca. However it was soon after they passed my building and turned right into Caledonia that the real mayhem broke loose. Television news footage later in the evening showed the mob throwing stones at the Assembly building, attacks being made on business premises and looting taking place. 200 arrests were made.
Meanwhile, I needed to establish whether it was safe to walk the 30 minutes to my monthly lunch appointment with other Commonwealth expats. I decided that as long as I made my way along Avenida Balboa, away from the direction of the mob before turning inland, I would be safe. As it transpired, there were just enough people on the street to make me feel completely comfortable.
During the course of the afternoon, while we were enjoying our ritual coffee and cigars, news came through that a curfew would be imposed commencing at 5.00. I don’t know if anyone actually made a decision to ignore it. Suffice to say it was already 4.00pm and the cigars still had a long way to burn down. In any event, the return journey to my apartment was as uneventful as was the outward.
One way or the other, the end result appears to have been victory for the protesters. In Panama, in order to repeal a law, a new counter law has to undergo the same process as the original. That process commenced and culminated over the weekend.
The end result is that President Martinelli has not come out of this debacle with anything to his credit. He had left the country as soon as this controversial Law had been enacted, with the intention of boosting Panamanian trade with Asian countries. Cynics will say that this is not the first time that he has turned up the heat and promptly deserted the kitchen leaving the sous chef with neither power nor instruction. He claims to be a businessman and not a politician. If his ill-advised words in Japan are anything to go by, he is not a diplomat either.
Finally, I would hate to give the impression that Panama City is an unsafe place to be. Quite the contrary; in my experience, as long as you either steer clear of or pay a bribe to the police, who as in many counties of the world, are often no more than belligerent, licensed bullies and cowards to boot; you should be just fine. The dangerous parts of the city; and every city has them; are not places you would be inclined to visit anyway.
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