The shrine is up, the main facts are known, but larger questions remain
by Eric Jackson
On the afternoon of March 5 a bus carrying men from the Bocas del Toro part of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca went off the road near the maternity and infant clinic in Anton and fell 30 feet into a creek. The crash instantly killed 16 people, including the driver. Two others died shortly thereafter. Another 36 were badly injured enough to be hospitalized. The bus had been chartered by the La Faustina farm in the Coronado area of Chame, to bring in laborers to pick watermelons. The less severely injured have started to go home at government expense, there is already a cross erected near the bridge and ravine into which the bus crashed and investigators have more or less embraced the theory that the driver fell asleep at the wheel toward the end of a long day’s drive.
The farm, owned by Omar Estrada, appears to have been operating according to laws and regulations. The law provides a $1.76 per hour minimum wage for farm laborers and Estrada’s business was paying $1.80. The farm provides lodging and cots for its seasonal workers. Meals for the workers are partially subsidized. The bus ride, on a vehicle that normally plies the Panama to David and back route but was specially chartered, was also at the farm’s expense.
Once upon a time the exportation of watermelons was looked upon as a big opportunity for the Panamanian economy. “Free trade” agreements were supposed to boost this “non-traditional export” — the “traditional” ones being mostly coffee and bananas — and build the local economy. However, melon exports have been less lucrative than expected and La Faustina is one of the survivors among yesteryear’s more numerous watermelon farms in Chame. Some of the phenomenon may be a consolidation of agriculture into larger operations, but mostly it’s about a Panamanian farm sector that is ailing across the board and producing less.
Farm labor is dirty, dangerous and poorly paid everywhere. For many years in many countries the Catholic Church has championed the cause of farm workers. But although it’s a wealthy institution if one looks at its total assets, the Church lacks the economic and political power to change the basic math of farm labor.
The Archdiocese of Panama’s indigenous mission quickly issued a statement that asked a number of pointed questions. They also objected to the notion that the accident was an act of God: “We don’t believe in ‘these terrible days,” nor do we believe in a predestined future.” The statement argued that when such tragedies fall mainly on the poor it’s the product of human actions, of social and economic disparities to which Catholicism objects.
Later, on March 10, the Holy See extended its condolences to the victims and their families through a note to Monsignior Aníbal Saldaña, the bishop of Bocas del Toro. That missive, in the parts that were reported in various Panamanian media, was not about social analysis but about sympathy and Catholics rendering such assistance to the injured and the families of those killed as can be mobilized.
Will insurance have covered some or all of the economic losses suffered in the crash? Perhaps there was a policy for the bus. Panama does have various public subsidies for widows, orphans and the disabled, which aren’t very substantial. On paper Panamanian labor law seems generous, but in practice those injured on the job or on the employer’s bus on the way to or from the job are usually more or less left to their own devices.
President Varela went to the hospitals where crash survivors were taken to be advised of the situation and to express his sympathy and concern. Flags were flown at half-mast the following day. But among the political caste the hard and dangerous lives of farm workers are not a topic of much discussion.