A PRD billboard near the entrance from the Pan-American Highway to Playa Blanca plays to the annoyance of many whose routines were disrupted by road and street closures during the 2022 and 2023 strike movements. Most Panamanians sympathized with the strikers, but in May’s presidential election contest a majority is not required to win – just a plurality. The roadblock protest is a part of Panamanian political culture. An attempt to criminalize it by the Martinelli regime was not successful. Meanwhile, by making this a campaign issue Gaby Carrizo raises the subjects of the past two years’ strikes, political violence, the strip mining business and his ties to it, his behavior during times of crisis and the general economic conditions in Panama at this moment. People can turn those around, too.
Gaby turns the dismissal around – sort of
Photos and comment by Eric Jackson
The controversies leading up to and during last year’s strike coincided with Vice President José Gabriel Carrizo’s anointment as the standard bearer for the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and followed a 2022 strike in which Gaby Carrizo was acting president while President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo Cohen was in the United States consulting with medical specialists for his rare form of blood cancer. There arose among the ranks of striking teachers and construction workers on the barricades the dismissive Gaby, tu no vas – “Gaby, you aren’t going anywhere.” The saying caught on in wider social circles, aided by Carrizo’s goofy grin and maladroit campaign moves.
When, after the crisis, Carrizo emerged from his silence during the strike, he held a meeting in his home base of Penonome and declared that the election was shaping up as a two-front battle for the PRD, against the far left on one side and the would-be creole aristocrats popularly known as the rabiblancos – from the Panamanian Spanish word for the White-tailed Hawk – on the other side.
That formulation harks back to the days of the dictatorship that founded the PRD, when General Torrijos overthrew Arnulfo Arias and slapped down many of the privileges of the few wealthy families that dominated the Panamanian economy and on the other hand waged bloody warfare against those factions of the left that would not make peace with the dictatorship. The Moscow-line communists made their peace and accepted their patronage shares, but new left dissidents like teachers’ union activist Floyd Britton were treated much more harshly. He was snatched from the Coca-Cola Cafe in Santa Ana and imprisoned at the Coiba Island Penal Colony. On November 29, 1969 Britton was tortured to death and that date became part of the basis of the name MLN-29, the November 29th National Liberation Movement. It’s a semi-underground Marxist-Leninist political party to which a lot of this country’s labor activists, including the leaders of the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union and organizers of the CONUSI labor confederation, belong. The student organization affiliate of the party, the Revolutionary Student Federation (FER-29) is one of the main factions of campus radicals here.
A lot of history’s waters have flown beneath the bridge since the days of the military strongman who cared about Panama and cared about what people thought of him, as ruthless as he could be. Omar Torrijos is a revered figure to many Panamanians – unlike his successor Manuel Antonio Noriega, who led the country to disaster. Nostalgia for what was can be a tricky thing, but maybe not so much when a third of the vote could make somebody president in an eight-way race.
The cycles of Panamanian electoral politics, the habit of throwing the party that holds that special chair at Palacio de las Garzas out of the presidency in the next election, also work against Carrizo. So the “no vas” dismissal has caught on. Gaby has thus decided to respond and reformulate. “You’re not going to be shut in,” he promises, promising a law against the roadblock protests.
Variations on the theme include a billboard in Penonome proclaiming that you’re not going to see kids dropping out of school because there will be suitable classrooms. As if it’s all a matter of brick and mortar, and not a matter of classrooms with teachers who have been paid on time. But in both 2022 and 2023 teachers’ unions walked our because payment for many of their members was months in arrears.
Another variation, on a hillside in Arraijan Gaby promised passersby that you’re not going to receive less than $350 a month. Oh really? He’s going to establish a guaranteed income for the roughly half of economically active Panamanians working in the informal economy?
It’s a rough economy that prompts people to do this at a place where the traffic jams up in La Chorrera in order to put food on their table.
At a glance, and those glances do vary from place to place in the country, the national economy is a mess. Yes, blame assignment is part of the game. The COVID epidemic. The worldwide inflation caused when the Ukraine War interfered with established grain supply arrangements. The drought. The “wrong kind” of immigrants. Kids these days. Yadda yadda yadda.
Say what they may, it’s a bad economy for those running for re-election. Should we get mean about it? This government has blown a great deal of money on “decentralization” projects and has relatively little to show for the money, and meanwhile can’t pay its bills on time and faces an enormous looming debt crisis.
A lot can change in a little under three months, but it appears that Panamanians have had enough of the PRD for a while. Leave it to Gaby to be holding the bag.
Somehow we will get by. Panamanians always have.
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