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Volume 16, Number 7
June 13, 2010


Also in the news section:
Encephalitis outbreak in Darien and Panama provinces
Chiriqui protests
Organized labor and its friends take to the streets
Panama's biggest-ever environmental protest
Labor seeks unity where betrayal and division have been the rules
Assembly passes nine laws in one
Rector gets fewer votes than his opponents, declares victory in university referendum
The endangered Tabasara River
The essence of libel

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page

Outside the cordon as Law 177 was being passed on third reading. Photo by José F. Ponce

With Martinelli out of the country, assembly passes nine laws in one
by Eric Jackson

Ordinarily, in Panama a proposed law addresses but one general subject.

In the US Congress, a favorite legislative tactic is to attach a "rider" --- something that the president may not particularly want appended to a piece of legislation that the administration really wants --- and thus push a law on an unrelated subject through the process. It's done that way at the federal level and in states where governors don't have line-item veto powers. But Panamanian presidents, unlike their US counterparts, can partially veto legislation and thus the rider strategem makes no sense here.

In Panama, unlike in the USA and many other countries, the legislature's committee structure, and the jurisdictions of its permanent committees, is set by a statute governing the body's internal rules. The one currently in effect dates back to Noriega times, in 1984. The norm has been that the president and cabinet limit the scopes of the laws they send to the National Assembly to subject matter within the competence of a single legislative committee.

Then, when one is in a special legislative session, Article 88 of the legislative rules provides that prior to the convening of a special session the assembly must be informed of the purpose for the session, while Article 149 of the constitution provides that the legislature may only consider what has been submitted to it by the cabinet and president.

Notwithstanding any of this, on June 7 the Martinelli administration called the National Assembly into a special session for the purpose of considering incentives for the promotion of commercial aviation, then in a brief discourse at the special session the following afternoon, announced a draft of a proposed Law 177 that does nine different things:
  1. Allows foreign airlines to qualify as Panamanian if they make a minimum investment that hires Panamanians and uses Panama as an air transportation hub, and provides a number of other incentives for pilot training and other airline activities in Panama, and for licensing procedures for airlines and pilots;

  2. Amends the Labor Code to allow the firing of strikers and hiring of scabs, to mandats the immediate sending of police to protect management and strikebreakers --- but not the lives of strikers against company goons --- in the event of a strike, to ban the mandatory deduction of union dues from paychecks, and to allow the president to choose organized labor's "representatives" before the International Labor Organization;

  3. Provides prison terms for altering any structure or vehicle for the purpose of drug trafficking;

  4. Provides criminal penalties for altering or falsifying Panamanian passports or drivers' licenses;

  5. Provides criminal penalties for human trafficking;

  6. Requires those accused of crimes to submit to DNA tests;

  7. Provides that police who commit crimes while on duty may not be jailed pending trial or face any internal discipline within the police force unless and until a criminal investigation and trial has runs its course and they have been convicted, and in case of a conviction they will not be held in prison but at a police station under conditions that the commander of that police station specifies;

  8. Requires the prompt moving or removal of utility cables and poles when this is required by developers; and

  9. Exempts those activities, works and government projects that are in the "social interest" from having to submit to the process of conducting environmental impact studies and getting them approved.

These disparate provisions would ordinarily fall within the statutory jurisdictions of seven different legislative committes: Government; Commerce; Public Infrastructure and Canal Affairs; Labor, Health and Social Development; Communication and Transportation; Population and Environment; and by implication because many of the projects contemplated are in the comarcas, Indigenous Affairs. The matter was assigned to the Communication and Transportation Committee.

The following morning the committee took up the proposal. It was not like a traditional legislative jam-through, however. This is the Internet age, and the work went out in overlapping concentric circles of those concerned about the issues touched between the afternoon of the 8th and the morning of the ninth. In less than 24 hours the following groups mobilized to express their opposition to the committee:
  • Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD)
  • Asociacion Agroambientalista Macho del Monte, Chiriqui
  • Asociacion Ambientalista de Chiriqui (ASAMCHI)
  • Asociacion de Derecho Ambiental
  • Asociacion de Agroproductores Agroecologicos La Amistad, Chiriqui (ADPAELA)
  • Asociacion Ecologista Panama
  • Asociacion National para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza (ANCON)
  • Asociacion Oceanica de Panama (AOP)
  • Asociacion para la Conservacion de la Biosfera, Chiriqui (ACB)
  • Asociacion Panameña de Ejecutivos de Empresas (APEDE)
  • Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM)
  • Centro Misionero de La Concepcion, Chiriqui
  • Colectivo Voces Ecologicas (COVEC)
  • Colibri Asociacion Ecologista de Panama, Chiriqui
  • Comite de Defensa y Proteccion de la Naturaleza en Gualaca, Chiriqui
  • Comite Pro Defensa del Rio Gariche, Chiriqui
  • Comunidad de Quebrada Caña, Chiriqui
  • Comunidad de Santa Marta, Chiriqui
  • Coordinadora Nacional de Unidad Sindical (CONUSI)
  • Consejo Nacional de Trabajadores Organizados, (CONATO)
  • Congreso General Ngobe-Bugle
  • Conservation International (CI)
  • Fundacion Albatross Media
  • Fundacion Almanaque Azul
  • Fundacion MarViva
  • Fundacion Natura
  • Fundacion para la Desarrollo Integral del Corregimiento de Cerro Punta, Chiriqui (FUNDICCEP)
  • Fundacion para la Proteccion del Mar (PROMAR)
  • Grupo La Zapatilla Verde, Chiriqui
  • Human Rights Everywhere / Comuna Sur (HREV)
  • Junta Administrativa del Acueducto Rural de Santa Rita, Chiriqui
  • Junta Administrativa del Acueducto Rural de La Victoria, Chiriqui
  • Justicia, Paz e Integridad de la Creacion / Misioneros Claretianos de Centroamerica
  • Movimiento Campesino en Defensa del Rio Cobre, Veraguas (MOCAMDERCO)
  • Red Nacional de Defensa de los Rios, Tierras y Comunidades
  • Sociedad Audubon de Panama

An attorney for the airline pilots' union tells the committee that although the people whom he represents approve of the provisions relating to the airline industry, they oppose the law as a whole because they consider its social effects to be detrimental. Photo by Claudia  Figueroa

The turnout at the meeting, however, was limited by the short notice, did not include many of the activists at the University of Panama (who were busy with a campus referendum happening at the same time), and took a moribund PRD opposition by surprise. To nobody's surprise, the committee approved the measure on a party-line vote, with Panameñistas Luis Eduardo Quirós and Francisco Ríos (the latter the suplente for Manuel Cohen) and Cambio Democratico's Marcos González and Carlos Afú hijo (the latter the suplente for his father, Carlos "Tito" Afú) voting in favor and the PRD's Freidi Torres opposed, with fellow oppositionists Denis Arce and Gabriel Méndez absent.

(The sending of alternates, or suplentes as they are called here, to vote for important legislation is a time-honored practice of Panamanian politicians who think that they can credibly claim that they did not support an unpopular measure when they later run for re-election. This ploy rarely works in practice.)

Architect and environmentalist leader Raisa Banfield testifies before the committee. Photo by Claudia Figueroa

As the rapid jam-through unfolded, more groups, individuals and institutions entered the fray. The Chamber of Commerce issued a statement complaining that the procedure used in pushing Law 177 through the committee "did not permit proper participation of those who are interested and affected in the debate." The Panamanian Business Executives Association (APEDE) was more substantive in its oppostion.  The business group supported the aviation and labor provisions, but rejected the environmental impact study provisions as a move toward arbitrary rule that will be used to stifle free competition, and the provisions about police who commit crimes for "generating a perception of impunity." APEDE also expressed concern about the possibility of violent protests against Law 177.

In a statement to El Panama America former Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) director Jaime Abad blasted the notion that a trigger happy cop could shoot somebody, escape both prison and internal discipline and remain on street duty during a long investigation, saying that it was "playing with fire" to modify the law regulating police in this way.

Law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal told The Panama News that Law 177 marks the start of a frightening new period of violent political repression and public corruption with impunity.

The groups that had protested at the committee hearings put out a call for people to come to the Justo Arosemena Legislative Palace the next day.

Police block access to the legislature. Photo by Claudia Figueroa

The following morning, as debate started before the full legislature, the public was barred from entering the legislative palace. But meanwhile, the PRD had come to its senses about how broadly unpopular Law 177 was, and began to raise objections. Opposition deputies began to raise the specter of death squads in their speeches. The PRD's secretary general, Mitchel Doens, denounced President Martinelli's "authoritarian egocentrism" and warned that Law 177 would be "destabilizing."

As a token gesture of compromise over business concerns with the package, the Panameñista - Cambio Democratico alliance allowed an amendment to the package. The promoters of those development projects that would not be officially called "of social interest" would also have the possibility of avoiding environmental impact studies. In those cases, the amendment provided that "[t]he activities, works or projects that must be submitted to a process of environmental evaluation may opt for Guidelines of Good Environmental Practices which shall be applicable, so long as these have been approved by the executive branch...." To environmentalists, this made the package far worse.

And while most of the protesters were kept out by police, several PRD deputies smuggled a group of environmentalists into the legislative palace.

In retaliation, the majority caucus fired all PRD members who work for the National Assembly. It is unconstitutional to fire a public employee for his or her political affiliations, but a PRD press release noted that under the Martinelli administration "the constitution had become a dead letter."

Law 177 passed on second reading with the full support of the pro-administration coalition but with about one-third of the opposition absent.

The following day, the condemnation of Law 177 was yet more widespread, now including most of the nation's daily newspapers. Protesters were again called out, but this time the police perimeter encompassed a six-block area and no opponents were able to come within one block of, let alone get into, the legislature's building. The deputies rammed home Law 17 then drove away in their SUVs, under heavy police protection.

Meanwhile, organized labor is divided among the CONUSI militants and the less combative and less effective CONATO unions about when and for how long a general strike should be called, but that sort of labor action is in the cards in coming days. The confrontations over strip mines and hydroelectric dams, particularly in Chiriqui and particularly in the indigenous areas, are about to intensify. And now the Martinelli adminisration has its laws in place to respond with mass arrests and the shooting of protesters.

Labor militants' vigil outside the legislature. Photo by CONUSI

Environmentalist and feminist protesters. Photo by José F. Ponce 

Also in the news section:
Encephalitis outbreak in Darien and Panama provinces
Chiriqui protests
Organized labor and its friends take to the streets
Panama's biggest-ever environmental protest
Labor seeks unity where betrayal and division have been the rules
Assembly passes nine laws in one
Rector gets fewer votes than his opponents, declares victory in university referendum
The endangered Tabasara River
The essence of libel

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