Farm politics and a move to flip them
by Eric Jackson
The little disturbance in Divisa on December 18 is long on the background story, which is selectively recounted. The Minister of the Presidency Jorge González, it’s mostly about demagoguery on the part of PRD presidential standard bearer Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo. Without naming names, González went on television and said “Let’s remind adverse political groups that votes are won with proposals and not by inciting violence in the streets.”
It’s quite the low blow to accuse any party of incitement of this sort, but let’s look at how the main parties line up in the Interior in general and with the farm sector.
President Varela’s Panameñista Party has its roots in Cocle province with the Arias Madrid brothers, Harmodio and Arnulfo, coming from Penonome. That movement’s original rallying cry was racism, as in proposals to sterilize or expel those of Afro-Antillean, Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, Christian Arab or Sephardic Jewish ancestry. They eventually calmed down about that stuff but the core of the party’s identity is a cholo cultural nationalism, wherein, for example, Mireya Moscoso sniffed about how the Afro-Cuban salsa that Rubén Blades revolutionized isn’t really Panamanian like the cumbia stuff she likes. The central provinces and farmers were always central to the Panameñista base.
Panamanians never elect a ruling party to back-to-back terms anyway, but the farm economy has been in a prolonged funk and the various organizations’ proposals have been blown off as impossible under international agreements to which Panama is a party. The president’s party has nominated Panama City mayor and attorney José Isabel Blandón Figueroa as its presidential candidate and in the first poll published since the Supreme Court struck down the ban on publishing polls StratMark found Blandón a distant third with 13.4 percent support. As in, a collapse of the party’s traditional support.
In second place and like Blandón dogged by Odebrecht corruption questions comes the Cambio Democratico candidate, Rómulo Roux. He’s a city slicker, a corporate lawyer and the subject of prosecutors’ attempts to lift the immunity from criminal charges that candidates get. Cambio Democratico was founded by the jailed ex-president and supermarket baron Ricardo Martinelli — one of the major food importers whom farmers claim are putting them out of business. CD does have its base of support in the Interior, including a sector of the rural poor. Those votes are mobilized by gifts, not by farm development programs. The StratMark poll as Roux in second with 23.1 percent support.
Then there is the PRD candidate the front runner who registered at 44.5 percent in StratMark’s mid-December survey.
Cortizo, after some years in the legislature served as Minister of Agricultural Development in the PRD administration of Martín Torrijos. However, he resigned that post when his boss opted for a free trade pact with the United States. Cortizo was and is not against trading with the Americans or anyone else in principle, but he warned that the terms of this particular deal would ruin the nation’s farmers. The matter was not immediately put to the test, as the pact was not ratified for several years owing to US demands on who could and who could not preside over Panama’s legislature that delayed action by Washington.
If one wants to get into Cortizo’s roots, they are with the young business class that accepted the offer of General Omar Torrijos to set aside labor/management warfare and extreme partisanship for a time so as to unify the country in order to get the Panama Canal and what was the Canal Zone in Panamanian hands. A businessman whose activities have included cattle ranching and construction. Cortizo was part of the following of the late Gabriel Lewis Galindo, and in the Solidaridad party before he was PRD.
In any case, Cortizo has not called for violence and he does have some proposals. In this particular controversy, he’s a free trade skeptic. The farmer groups have a set of nine demands, none of which the current agriculture minister would address. ANAGAN, the National Ranchers Association, is perhaps the biggest and most powerful of the 29-group coalition that took to the streets, not just in Divisa, on the 18th, quite specifically calls for a review of all of Panama’s free trade agreements.
This gets us to the matter of who or what incited the latest round of protests. The simmering anger about promises made but not kept are but a context. What made it boil over was Varela’s and Xi Jinping’s December 3 declaration that Panama and China “will dedicate themselves together to achieve a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement” — the details of which farmers likely won’t know until it’s at the point that they will be accused of trying to disrupt a done deal.
More than anything, it was the prospect of yet another free trade deal made without consulting farmers who would be affected that incited this latest wave of protests.
An agriculture minister who is by vocation a food importer, and who was sent to talk to farmers with nothing but “let’s continue to talk” so say to them? That’s just gravy. The sauce, in turn, was spiced by the police stopping various farmers from getting to Divisa to take part in the protest, in order for it to appear that an unusually unanimous farm sector’s opinion was just the demand of a noisy little fringe group.
~ ~ ~
These announcements are interactive. Click on them for more information.