Panamanian people temporarily defeat sale of Colon Free Zone land


Not even the heavy hand with which President Ricardo Martinelli governs Panama was able to stop The People there from protesting the sale of publicly owned lands. The strength of a movement supported by social and trade unions last week twisted the arm of the government and obligated Martinelli to reverse a law that sought to sell the lands over which Panama host its Colon Free Zone.

Panamanian authorities no longer promote the privatization of land in the Colon Free Zone (CFZ), which has offered trade tax exemption — the highest in America — for the past 43 years. The Colon Free Zone is  located in the strategic Caribbean end of the Panama Canal.

Despite the assurance from President Martinelli, who stated that Panama will not sell the lands, protesters decided to keep on watching any move that may hint the opposite situation from the part of the government. The protesters remain on the streets of the city of Colon, which is located 80 kilometers north of Martinelli’s offices. The strength of the opposition to the sale of public lands has already left three people dead.

A message sent through Twitter directly President Martinelli, attempted to ensure that the movement does not grow any larger, after protesters paralyzed the Free Zone in recent days. “If the people do not want the lands sold, the sale will be repealed,” wrote Martinelli on Tuesday night, after checking the ineffectiveness of the efforts of his ministers.

On Monday, part of the Panamanian cabinet failed in their attempt to negotiate with the protesters to stop violent clashes between activists and police. “Some people have died,” he said José Ricardo Fabrega, a Panamanian Minister when commenting on the impact of the conflict generated around the so-called Law 72.

Not even the curfew decreed by President Martinelli was enough to stop the people from showing their opposition to the sale in this port city, which is famous for its Free Zone, a market for foreigners in the middle of an environment of poverty that affects most of the the Panamanian citizens. As much as a third of the people in Panama are considered as living in poverty today.

Workers and residents shut down the dollars factory this week, which is a platform of foreign traders (Arabs, Lebanese, Indians and Venezuelans) who perform services for Colombia, Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean. The population of the Colon Free Zone knows of the coexistence with smuggling and that the biggest gains stay in private hands despite the fact that the economic activity in the region accounts for 7% of GDP.

Most of the 31,000 workers who run the Colon Free Zone come from the capital, but still defended it with ‘teeth and nails’. It was a chance to win a pulse against Martinelli and for that the people counted with the support from trade associations from all around the country. That support helped Panamanians succeed in the effort to avoid the acquisition of these public lands by foreign interests.

The 87 characters written by Martinelli, who was visiting Japan on the other side of the world, represent the surrender. This time it was not enough to have 42 congressional allies. Additionally, police repression and the use of military tactics did not work out either. In fact they only served to raise the anger of the protesters

The power of the business class became too small when compared to the popular response, which is driven by anger against the president. Some of the last polls show that as much as 75% of Panamanians believe that Martinelli is governing only for the rich classes and favoring foreign investors.

The damage done on Martinelli’s image is clear. The President is about a year and a half from leaving office, since the Panamanian constitution does not allow reelection. But despite the constitutional ban, builders’ unions and transporters, who are key parts of the Panamanian economy, remain alert.

College students went to the streets on Wednesday and blocked some major roads of the capital. Meanwhile, a new government delegation prepares to return to Columbus and negotiate with local protesters following the path laid out by Martinelli on his tweet.

The Free Zone was established in 1948 to commercially exploit the site of the Panama Canal. Since then, thousands of companies around the world have a base of operations there. The area receives over 250,000 visitors a year and has 1,751 companies.

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