Pedro Gerardo Brenes had no way of knowing what was coming as he bounced along the back roads of northern Panama with a bus load of women and children.
On their way back to Costa Rica from a three-day shopping tour in Bocas del Toro, Brenes found himself suddenly blocked by tree trunks laid across the highway by some local residents.
“They told us to turn around as soon as possible and look for refuge because things were going to get ugly where we were,” Brenes said.
He and another bus driver, along with close to 80 passengers, retreated to a nearby poverty-stricken town in search of shelter. They stayed there for three nights, sleeping in the bus and in a local church, bathing in the ocean, and relying on residents for food.
“The children were getting sick and it was tough on the older passengers,” said Brenes, 34, who leads the tour at least five times a year for the Transnúñez transportation company. “We are not accustomed to seeing this in Costa Rica. Helicopters circling overhead, soldiers; that’s not normal for us.”
Brenes and his tour group had unknowingly stumbled upon a small civil struggle, fought far from the political circles of Panama City in the banana plantations of Changuinola, a transit point for the international tourist destination of Bocas del Toro.
Two people were killed and 100 more injured during the 10-day strike was spurred by cries that the Panamanian government is restricting workers’ rights.
A Conflict Out of Context
Perhaps the battle would have been better- staged in the chambers of the country’s National Assembly, where a controversial labor law received little dialogue or action, other than the thud of a rubber stamp.
Critics labeled it a “Ley Chorizo,” or a “sausage” law, as it’s stuffed with projects on the environment, the airport and other unrelated points that mask its true intent.
The law makes union dues voluntary, allows businesses to hire temporary workers during strikes, and permits the government to use police to control strikes.
The new law is not outside the bounds of the United Nations’ International Labor Organization standards, said Heather Berkman, analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Eurasia Group. It simply aligned Panama’s legislation with international standards, she said.
Bocas Fruit Company, however, took the law to mean it could withhold the portion of employees’ salaries that normally goes to union membership dues. Union leaders, in turn, used the company’s action as a platform to confront Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli.
The Martinelli administration called the move a “poor interpretation,” saying, “It is not in the power of this business, nor any other, to retain workers’ salaries, because that constitutes a violation of workers’ rights.”
Public Relations Shortfall
Already slightly anti-union, Panamanians could have been rallied behind the law. However, Martinelli failed to gain popular support for the law before it passed, Berkman said.
“This administration is not particularly labor friendly, but the real problem is that it is unwilling to open up a discourse with society,” she said. “This last law was hammered through Congress with little dialogue.
“If the law does in fact match ILO standards,” she added, “why wasn’t there a PR campaign to promote that?”
Even Martinelli – among the few conservative presidents in Latin America – admitted a lack of communication.
“The problems in Changuinola are the product of misinformation and a series of lies,” he said in a press statement issued last Sunday. But he deflected the blame for poor communication onto union leaders. “The intransigence of a group of trade unionists cannot bring down the banana industry in Changuinola.”
Instead of conversing with opposition leaders in the capital, Martinelli let the battle explode 132 kilometers from Panama City, where angry union leaders used a fruit company’s labor violation as a springboard for a national campaign.
“The law violated every legislative process and lacks respect for citizen participation and the labor movement,” Panama’s Citizens’ Alliance for Justice, an umbrella for government opposition groups, said in a press release. “After the regretful events in Bocas del Toro that left an undetermined number dead and more than 100 injured … we reiterate our call to the national government to return to the path of calm, respectful and constructive dialogue.”
Perhaps this lack of dialogue and transparency led to Martinelli’s 14-point drop to 56 percent in a recent public opinion poll by the Central American polling firm Dichter & Neira.
But Martinelli is trying to make amends. In an agreement signed last Sunday, which he claimed would end unrest in Changinola, he pledged more dialogue.
He won’t revoke any of the recent labor reforms, according to Panamanian news sources. The reforms will be implemented within a 90-day period.