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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 178 | Mayo 1996
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Promises Gone Up in Smoke

Electoral campaigns overflow with slogans and promises. In Panama many believed them. In just a few months they have all gone up in smoke.

Jaime Cheng

With almost a year and a half of Ernesto Pérez Balladares' government gone, the electoral promises made by his Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) under the broad slogan, "the people to power," would appear to have vanished. The much proclaimed "war against unemployment" has become unwinnable. The promises of million dollar investments still hang on not very encouraging expectations. The social deterioration affecting thousands of Panamanians continues to increase and the government has undertaken to fire public employees who served during Endara's regime, hoping by this to guarantee political space and jobs to loyal members of the governing party.

For the Elites

Balladares lives in Altos del Golf, one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods. According to the estimates of a local newspaper, the President's mansion is valued at over a million dollars, far more than a five story building housing middle class families would cost. Not far from him live the Vallarino, Canavaggio and Brostella families, members of the local oligarchy linked to the beer and liquor industry, and, in some cases by family ties, to Pérez Balladares himself.

In his campaign, Pérez Balladares talked about appointing people of grassroots origins as a key point of his adminstration. Today, many of his government's most important posts are in the hands of the oligarchy, including the ministries of planning, foreign relations and the presidency. This is only one aspect demonstrating that the phrase, "the people to power," has been forgotten. This administration's preference for elites and for figures linked to the ongoing capital accumulation process in Panama is all too clear.

For the Foreigners

Another key political point of the PRD's electoral campaign was the administration of the old Canal Zone, now in the process of reverting to the Panamanian government, in the most "collective" manner possible. Nevertheless, the government today maintains that its priority is to be able to offer these goods to large transnational corporations. It is promoting the most valuable lands and installations as an attractive offer to foreign, mainly US, investors. The idea is to convert what used to be the Canal Zone, occupied by US functionaries and military officers, into a zone where foreigners can even obtain property titles. Although the government has said that it will build housing for the grassroots sectors in the zone and sell some existing housing, the prices that have been mentioned for these houses lead one to suspect that they will end up in the hands of the privileged few.

For those Few

According to a report titled, "Public Policy for Social Development with Economic Efficiency," the richest 20% of Panamanians have incomes 45 times higher than the average income of the poorest. If we add the fact that 50% of Panamanian households are considered poor according to studies done in 1993 by a group of organizations that joined together to propose the National Women and Development Plan, it can be concluded that the survival capacity of hundreds of thousands of Panamanians is increasingly precarious.

To this panorama of utter crisis must be added the wave of layoffs in a number of state institutions. Even though Pérez Balladares promised not to lay off low income employees appointed during the Endara adminstration, he has not kept this promise and every day more Panamanians lose their jobs with no warning. The majority of functionaries who have been fired were appointed during the 1990 94 period and many earned between 150 and 200 balboas monthly, considered a very low salary in Panama.

No Criticism Allowed

The most recent pastoral letter of the Panamanian Bishops Conference criticized the lack of clarity in the government's social policy and expressed its concern that many see the policy as an easy way to take advantage of state resources, leading to illicit wealth. Government ministers and other officials questioned the bishops' declarations, which brought church state relations to a critical point. The archbishop of Panama, José Dimas Cedeño, even charged the government with preparing reprisals against the bishops because of their declarations.

According to Dimas Cedeño, the government excluded the Catholic Church from a number of public events. In general, the government has been intolerant of its critics from all social sectors. Its confrontation with the Church only confirms that.

Without Indigenous People?

Panama's current situation is also characterized by the concessions the government is attempting to hand over to transnational companies allied with local capital for the exploration and exploitation of gold, copper and other mineral deposits. All these deposits are located in peasant and indigenous communities with extremely precarious standards of living. The most important copper deposit found to date is in the area where the Ngóbe people live.

According to a conservative estimate, the multinational company Panacobre says that some 24 billion pounds of copper are hidden in the Colorado Hills. Copper's current value on the world market is about a dollar per pound, though it fluctuates according to specific demands and the market in general.

The Coordinating Group of Indigenous Peoples of Panama charged that the government has ignored the agreements contained in Executive Decree 208, passed on May 8, 1995, creating an intergovernmental commission to develop the Ngóbe Buglé region. In a clear alliance with transnational capital, the government has pushed a falsely developmentalist line, dubbing the indigenous groups as "sectarian and manipulated." Despite the many protests that have taken place, it does not appear that the government will retreat, even if it must use repressive measures.

This is a brief overview, etched in very broad strokes. What is clear at this point to many Panamanians is that, to the degree that social contradictions in the country are accentuated, Pérez Balladares leans towards those with greater economic resources, while his campaign promises go up in smoke.

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