By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES – Large-scale open pit mining with its economic benefits and environmental destruction are face to face in Panama. A new long-term contract issued to First Quantum of Canada, approved by the National Assembly with little public consultation and quickly signed by President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo has once again led to a near standstill of transportation in Panama.
While unrest over the mine has simmered for about a month, the protests intensified over the past week. “Panama without mining” is the widely heard slogan at the different protest locations.
The huge mine and concession, located in Colon province about 65 miles west of Panama City, represents a tiny percentage of the country’s economic activity. Panama is mainly a service-oriented economy heavily dependent on foreign and national investment banking, commerce, insurance, container ports, and flagship registry, medical and health services, real estate, and tourism.
Rerun from last year
Back in July 2022, a similar nationwide protest occurred over numerous economic and social issues affecting different sectors of the population that paralyzed the country for several weeks. Like the present unrest, at first the government stonewalled but was then forced to hold national negotiations on gasoline and food prices and numerous other issues.
Fifteen months ago, little attention was paid in the international press during the first week of road and street blockades, then it became more widely covered. To reopen the country the government was forced to compromise on several points that at first it refused to discuss.
President Cortizo has once again ordered the police to shoot off tear gas this week to try and break up the protests, but the effect has been the opposite.
Over 50 protesters have been arrested in confrontations with Police. But as in the past, such repression only inflames the population.
One Issue but general discontent
This time the protests are on one specific issue the long-term mining contract; however, many observers see the growing unrest as a reflection of general discontent with the political class from the president on down. The disconnect between the legislature and the general population is widely observed.
Numerous workers organizations including construction workers, teachers, medical personnel, university students and indigenous groups are the leading forces behind the protests against the mining contract.
Some civic organizations oppose the concession due largely to concerns about the sprawling mine’s environmental impact, apparently of little concern to the legislature and the president who emphasize the economic benefits from taxes.
The protests are taking place in different points of the Pan American highway thus closing truck traffic, including the distribution of perishable foods grown in the western Chiriqui province and which the capital depends on.
Schools and universities have been closed all week with buses only operating on some streets.
On Thursday, for the second day in a row thousands of Panamanians marched in the early evening in the capital city where numerous highly trafficked streets and freeways are shut down.
Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal to declare the contract unconstitutional. Four such suits have been filed to the Court.