by COHA Research Associates Robin Burnette and Sonja Salzburger
• A leader without a program holds back his nation
• Press freedoms continue to be limited
• Looming U.S. free trade agreement with Panama has not been earned by Martinelli administration
Since Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli began to face a wave of repercussions from a recent string of controversial political maneuvers, he has tightened his grip on the nation and turned his back on democratic behavior, silencing the press along the way. In early October, his highly disputed “Law 30,” also known as the “Chorizo Law,” was repealed in the face of ferocious national outrage and widespread political and economic pressure from abroad. The contentious—and, according to many, unconstitutional—piece of legislation left a number of critics questioning the legitimacy of Panama’s democracy. Martinelli’s strategy was to pack the major contents of nine existing measures into one all-encompassing piece of legislation. Among the existing laws replaced by the Chorizo Law were sections of the Criminal, Labor, and Judicial Codes.1 The law, which was hurriedly passed last June without due deliberation by the Panamanian Assembly, has been widely criticized for prioritizing questionable private interests over those of the public.2
The law’s initial passage predictably led to violent protests this past summer. The country’s two most important private-sector unions, the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union and the SITRAIBANA banana workers’ union, ordered nationwide work stoppages. During the protests, the Panamanian police shot and killed two demonstrators, and indirectly brought about at least two more deaths through the use of tear gas,3 in addition to wounding and arresting hundreds more.4 Despite heavy initial public opposition, the law’s revocation seemed all but unthinkable. In July, following ten days of strikes on the banana plantations of Changuinola in Bocas del Toro, Martinelli stood firm in favor of the new measure, stating publicly that “the law will not be repealed and it will be interpreted as indicated.”5 However, as Martinelli suffered a formidable wave of disapproval in his personal approval ratings in response to the law, it became increasingly clear that the new legislation was unsustainable.
The original passage of the Chorizo Law particularly unnerved Panamanian labor unions and environmental groups. With respect to labor union rights, while Law 30 authorized voluntary membership fees, it did not permit companies to actually collect them. Additionally, the law allowed for companies to hire non-union employees during strikes, effectively replacing the striking workers and, in doing so, jeopardizing the fundamental rights of labor unions. Furthermore, the law sets a precedent of immunity for police who have used excessive force against strikers and protesters, as the legislation stipulates that the police will not be held accountable in Panamanian courts in such cases.6 Moreover, Law 30 replaced professional environmental impact studies with industrial projects, which provide a faster, less regulated, and more easily evaded process. While these changes were popular with Panamanian business interests and those with close ties to Martinelli, they would have been profoundly detrimental to environmental and labor rights issues.7 More generally, opponents of Law 30 argued that its passage was a clear violation of National Assembly procedures, which ban legislation that addresses more than one topic per document.8
On October 11, following a flood of complaints and calls for negotiations from union leaders and civil society groups, Martinelli was finally forced to concede. He announced that the government would replace the Chorizo Law with six less controversial measures.9 Martinelli certainly waited until the last minute to make his move, however. He announced the plan in July, on the last day of a 90-day negotiation period that was designed to stifle a series of unnerving public protests against the grossly unpopular law.10 The six new pieces of legislation were sent to the National Assembly for approval, along with the official revocation of the original Law 30. The less divisive parts of Law 30, as they currently stand, will be debated in the National Assembly as separate pieces of legislation. Breaking up the Chorizo Law into its integral parts will also render moot an appeal of the law currently being deliberated in the Supreme Court.
These developments represent a significant victory for the labor unions and their allies; not only will they restore a worker’s right to strike without the threat of losing his job, but they also will reaffirm the legality of collecting contractual trade union dues.11 Although the section focusing on police impunity has not been repealed, the new proposal will most likely reestablish accountability for the police, who have lost the public’s trust by committing repeated acts of violence against protesters.12
Panamanian environmentalists, however, are not so sure that they can regard the repeal of Law 30 as an outright success. On one hand, the new bills do reinstate the requirement of professional environmental assessments prior to the start of an industrial project, which is an important green victory. However, it appears that smaller business ventures, that at first glance seem to cause only moderate environmental damage, will not be subject to these impact studies. Instead, they will be more or less regulated by a naive guideline of so-called good practices.13 Environmentalists are particularly incensed by the exceedingly vague language used in the new bill, which makes it impossible to predict exactly how this new legislation will be executed in practice.
As previously mentioned, according to an August 2010 poll released by Ipsos, Martinelli’s approval-rating had plunged to 40 percent, in stark contrast to the 90 percent approval rating he held at the start of his term in July of 2009.14 Surprisingly, another poll taken by Unimer in mid-October measured Martinelli’s approval rating at 69.4 percent.15 The Panamanian president’s rebound was most likely a reflection of his timely decision to repeal the much condemned Chorizo Law, as well as his popular move to pardon two journalists originally found guilty of defamation. A poll conducted by Dichter and Neira at the beginning of November (which did not offer a neutral position as an acceptable alternative) found that 73.1 percent of Panamanians questioned rated Martinelli’s job performance as good or excellent, whereas only 25.4 percent rated it as poor or horrible.16 As the respected Panama analyst and columnist Eric Jackson has pointed out, due to different methodologies, the exact numbers in polls conducted by different organizations cannot be easily compared. However, despite the variations in methodology, the most recent trends revealed by each of the polls appear to be the same, with the finding being that Martinelli has been able to restore his standing by backing away from unpopular prior positions.17
Martinelli Continues to Limit Press Rights
One example of the Martinelli administration’s repeated attempts to silence the press came on September 27, when a Panama City court sentenced two journalists from the television channel TVN Canal 2 to two years in prison or a fine of USD 6,000 for defamation of government officials. Additionally, they were banned from all journalistic activity for one year.18 The conviction came as a result of an investigative report released in 2005 concerning former members of the Panama National Security Council and their alleged involvement in a prostitution ring.19
Following an outburst of public outrage over the prosecution and conviction, Martinelli said he would pardon the two journalists, though he continued to defend his administration’s restrictive stance on press freedom. He announced “My government has a strong commitment to preserve, promote, and protect freedom of expression, and because of this, although we respect the separation of powers of the state, I decided to use my legal and constitutional powers to enact a presidential pardon.”20 Truly, George Orwell could not have phrased the script any better. Although the two press pardons were a welcome sign of the amelioration of the tensions that were afflicting the country, it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately have any impact on the country’s legal landscape. Meanwhile, the media is still protesting against the restrictive defamation measures that the government continues to enforce, but more discreetly and on a selective basis. Most recently, on November 19, the Martinelli government overtly threatened Omega Stereo radio station owner Guillermo Adames with unwarranted audits.21
Martinelli’s attack against freedom of the press has drawn deserved criticism from well-reputed journalist organizations around the globe. Reporters without Borders, a French organization that monitors press freedom performance around the world, initially found that “banning these two journalists from practicing their profession is a flagrant violation of the freedom to impart information and is tantamount to an act of censorship that is unworthy of a functioning democracy. Its effect is to prolong the existing regime of sanctions for press offences.”22
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also has cited cases in which Panamanian journalists have been detained on insufficient grounds, including the story of retired journalist Carlos Nunez. In June 2010, Nunez was arrested and incarcerated without reason for nineteen days because of an article that he had published twelve years before about environmental issues in Bocas del Toro. According to CPJ, the situation has now changed substantially, “Panama has partially decriminalized defamation: Under Article 192 of the Panamanian penal code, which came into effect in May 2008, libel and slander are not subject to penal sanctions in the case of public officials.”23 Although defamation has been partially decriminalized as it applies to the press, the regulations are still being used as a mechanism to silence journalists and intimidate those who are merely exercising the rights afforded them under the constitution.
U.S.-Panama Free Trade: Less Regulation, Less Labor Rights
In light of Martinelli’s precipitous fall in respectability and legitimacy in the eyes of his fellow Panamanians, the Senate would do well to consider postponing the ratification of the pending free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Panama, especially given the current authoritarian tendencies exhibited by Martinelli and his immediate circle. The proposed FTA between the United States and Panama would further threaten important strongholds for the Panamanian economy. Martinelli has been working tirelessly towards an FTA with the United States, in obvious disregard for the welfare of many Panamanians. If passed, it will go a long way to destroy the already now virtually gossamer laws protecting labor rights in the country. Martinelli’s efforts to limit labor rights should be a clear warning sign for U.S. trade unions and will certainly be a precursor for future damage to Panamanian workers’ rights. The FTA will cause more deregulation of business between the two countries, benefitting primarily U.S. big business interests, but leaving responsibility for guardianship regarding labor rights to the Martinelli administration’s uncertain mercy for working Panamanians.
Perhaps the White House and Martinelli would be prudent to avoid entering into a free trade agreement until such political scandals are settled and the Martinelli government displays a willingness to make dramatic reforms of its national labor law. Barring that, the U.S. could simply wait until Martinelli’s administration is succeeded by another hopefully less infamous for its corruption and its self-serving reputation. Ultimately, the U.S. must take into account the deterioration of democracy under Martinelli’s quasi-authoritarian rule before ratifying a free trade agreement with Panama.
Martinelli: No Sign of Letting Up
Time and again, President Martinelli has demonstrated a profound disrespect for his country’s democratic institutions. Past practice has established the fact that he is only willing to act democratically when his approval ratings plummet. In a similar vein, the Panamanian leader has backed down from his repressive measures only when alienated citizens take to the streets to reject his authoritarian actions. Amazingly, not everyone sees him for the incompetent and self-serving leader he deserves to be seen as. This is, perhaps, the result of the token measures Martinelli has taken in the last few months to quell public unrest.
Indeed, while Martinelli seems to have toned down his authoritarian style for the moment, he does not seem to be seriously committed to upholding genuine democratic ideals in the country. Panamanians can be expected to continue to rise up and express their discontent if Martinelli does, in fact, forge ahead with limiting democratic freedoms and silencing his critics. Clearly, Martinelli has felt some amount of pressure from the outside, but he is not taking seriously the consequences of his political actions—which, as of late, have had very little to do with Panama’s democratic values.
References for this article are available here