Panamanian civil unrest for travelers

by Eric Jackson

If you happen to be traveling to Panama this week, or if you have moved here and are not yet used to the customs, you may while driving happen upon a group of strikers or protesters blocking the road.

Or else you may be thinking about coming down here, but concerned about issues of "stability." The Panama News gets plenty of emails asking advice about such things.

Please understand that we have weak democratic institutions controlled by mafia-like political parties that are themselves manipulated by a very few wealthy families. Except for the occasional national referendum, our only recourse to the polls happens just once every five years. We have no citizen-initiative ballot proposals or recall possibilities. (If we had the latter, the people would have thrown the entire membership of the current National Assembly out of office by now.)

So what do Panamanians who don't happen to be millionaires usually do when they have a grievance with the government, or with a private concern that has the government's backing? They block major roads or city streets to protest. It's not just the political culture of the poor, but of the middle class as well.

The radical groups at the University of Panama and certain high schools are quick to use the street blockade, as is the coalition of unemployed and community groups that presses for economic relief in the city of Colon. Most Panamanians find this annoying, but a lot of the people who do would not themselves rule out participation in a street blockage if their water goes out for a few days or the street running through their neighborhood gets too dangerous.

If you happen upon one of these obstructions, just relax. This is nothing personal. In fact you may want to get out and talk to the protesters, or at least read their signs, to see what it's all about. Panamanians with a grievance that leads them to block the road are almost always eager to tell everyone, including visiting foreigners, about their story.

Do not try to run through the blockade in your car, because that makes you a participant and fair game. If you happen upon a scene where the police are actively trying to open the road --- you can usually tell this by the helmets and armor they will be wearing and the riot shields they will be carrying --- you will want to be in your car and if possible you will want to retreat from the scene in that vehicle. Even if you are not a target, not every student militant who throws a rock at a cop has the precision control of a Mariano Rivera and the police will not be able to guarantee that you won't get a whiff of the tear gas they use on the protesters.

(Understand, however, that standard police procedure is to send in traffic cops to get all bypassers out of harm's way before the riot squad moves in. In the capital you are thus far more likely to be sent on a detour around a blockade than to happen upon it, but along the Pan-American Highway in the country's Interior there tend to be no viable detours.)

From now until late October, and maybe beyond, the nation is and will be in a confrontational mood in which myriad grievances are going to be sucked into a political vortex swirling around a controversial plan to expand the Panama Canal. The vote is on October 22 and if the great majority of Panamanians accept its result as legitimate then things will calm down, but if there is a widely held suspicion of fraud things could get very ugly very quickly.

But even that is relative. Yes, over the 22 years of the dictatorship about 100 dissidents were made to disappear by the military regime headed for most of that time by the current president's father. But they didn't mess with tourists. Panama has its problems, but looked upon as a whole we are not very warlike and our society is less violent than the United States. This doesn't mean that you don't need to take reasonable precautions to protect yourself from crime, nor does it mean that you can inject yourself as a participant in a heated dispute among Panamanians and not run the risks of any other participant.

However, you should not be afraid to come down here for the October 21 Festival of the Black Christ in Portobelo, to see the November patriotic parades or to relax over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Panamanians on all sides of all our political divides want to see you come down here and have a good time, and to go back and tell your friends and family about it. That's one thing that almost everybody agrees is in the national interest.

There is, of course, a relatively tiny criminal element to whom the national interest does not occur. They are not interested in politics, but will take advantage of political turmoil to smash and grab, if they think they can get away with it. You have such people back home, and you ought to know how to guard yourself against them.

Don't go "slumming" on foot, or trying to buy drugs from strangers, or walking around the city with expensive gold or cameras dangling off of you and looking like you're lost, or staggering around town sloppily drunk. Duh now --- there are universal things you can do to make yourself the target for a mugging, and the "don't" list tends to include all of the things here as it does wherever you come from.

Come to Panama, don't leave your brain behind at home, and enjoy our people's hospitality. And if you happen across us sorting out our public disagreements in a different way than you do at home, take it as entertainment rather than a threat.



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