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Real estate shouldn't be the only thing politicians can't cede

by Eric Jackson

In 1903, Panama's leaders entrusted this country's dealings with the United States to a French hustler named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, and he promptly violated every fiduciary duty he had and gave the United States the right to govern part of this country "in perpetuity." The Panama Canal could have easily been built without the colonial experiment known as the Canal Zone. The Americans wanted to build, operate and defend a canal, but Bunau-Varilla ceded much more than that.

"Perpetuity" lasted a little more than 75 years, plus a couple of decades for a phased transitional process to run its course. In the meantime, Panama adopted a Constitution that prohibits the cession of any part of the nation's territory to a foreign government.

The precise meaning of this clause is subject to debate. On the fringes of the political spectrum, there are those who argue that the maintenance of the American cemetery in Corozal is both unconstitutional and wrong. On the other hand, there are plenty of Panamanians who are amenable to the re-establishment of US military bases here (which isn't going to happen), but most of them would agree that the Constitution would have to be amended to do this.

However, this nation's sovereignty is not just about real estate. Our legal rights and vital economic interests go much farther, higher and deeper than territorial assets.

This reality was barely discussed the last time that Panama ceded a major aspect of national sovereignty, by way of concessions granted as part of joining the World Trade Organization. The subject was broached, albeit in shallow and stereotypical terms, when some Panamanians objected to the Moscoso administration's agreement to allow US law enforcement and military forces to conduct anti-drug operations in Panama.

We need to debate the matter anew, as negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas begin to get serious.

To join the WTO, Panama ceded major parts of our sovereign rights to set our own import duties and to regulate international trade. We gave up important parts of our rights to pass our own property laws, to the extent that Panamanians died of AIDS because we accepted foreign patents that made anti-HIV drugs unaffordable, to the extent that the cost of doing business here was increased because we accepted foreign computer software copyrights.

The concessions that were made in order to join the WTO weren't necessarily unwise, but Panama went further than it had to go. In this day and age we can't get away with being a base for intellectual property piracy, and we shouldn't try to do so. However, we didn't need to let drug companies set our national health policies or allow Microsoft's monopolistic practices to go unchallenged. The previous administration also didn't need to lower certain agricultural import tariffs well below WTO requirements, with disastrous results for many Panamanian farmers.

And now, an administration that has just made ruinous concessions to foreign port management companies in the name of "equalization" is in a position to jump on Bush's fast track express. I fear that the president will agree to a series of concessions that benefit US-based corporations and just about nobody else. She had an Enron guy in charge of Panama's relationship with privatized utilities. Members of her cabinet sit on the Cable & Wireless board of directors and partake in the phone company's abuse of Panamanian businesses and consumers. She brought cigarette maker Phillip Morris into the public schools to tell kids that smoking is an adult thing to do. Given her sordid record, this president can not be trusted to protect Panamanian sovereignty and economic interests in the negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

George W. Bush wants a free migration of capital throughout the Americas, without a corresponding freedom of migration for working people like that which exists in the European Union. He wants to smash labor unions, eliminate environmental laws, and force Latin American farmers to compete with subsidized US agricultural exports. He wants regional economic integration on the model of NAFTA, rather than in the image of Europe --- that is, without any democratic institutions. If the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations culminate in an agreement on George W. Bush's terms, Panama ought to reject it.

On the other hand, if Latin America and the Caribbean stand together and negotiate a better deal than the United States is likely to offer, we ought to consider it.

Even the best free trade deal would entail a cession of many of Panama's sovereign rights. Really, all treaties are agreements by which nations give up certain of their rights. In this case, however, the contemplated transfer of powers from the elected Panamanian government to an international organization would infringe the nation's sovereignty far more than the creation of a few foreign military bases.

It may not directly affect land titles, but a free trade pact could profoundly affect Panamanians' ability to profitably farm the land, or to make a living by extracting and processing minerals from the land. Depending on its terms, such a treaty could turn middle class homeowners into landless paupers, or give those currently unemployed and marginalized the possibility of good jobs and homes of their own. It could void Panamanian laws that restrict the poisoning of our land, or supercede them with international laws that are even stronger.

That's why any proposed free trade deal ought to be submitted to the Panamanian people for approval or rejection in a referendum. That's why any new constitution ought to require voter approval of any treaty or law of such a far-reaching nature.

© 2002 by The Panama News
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