Something New Is Happening
Since 1993 Panamanian society has witnessed extraordinary experiences of cooperation among all sectors of the nation, all desirous of building a country where all have a place. The Catholic Church and the United Nations Development Program gave the first impulse, and the effort continues today.
Emerging from the shards of a fragmented history and a reality of inequities, Panama in recent years has been searching for and building paths to democracy and development. It is doing so against the backdrop of the return of the Panama Canal, demilitarization and the recovery of control over its geographic position, all of which offer the country unimagined opportunities.
After the national unity established by Torrijismo in the 1980s, the 1990s have been seeing the hammering out of sectoral agreements (indigenous, peasant producers, women, workers), national political agreements (an Electoral Ethics Commitment), political and social agreements (Bambito Meeting), agreements on the canal issue (Panama 2000 Meetings) and, most recently, broad agreement around a National Vision 2020. Some of these initiatives to achieve concertación—a minimal shared or negotiated consensus- building process—have failed and others have been successful, but all of these efforts open possibilities for a political culture of dialogue that allows for the development of truly national agendas.
A Thorny History Panama has lived a long succession of unstable governments and foreign interventions throughout its political history. One of the most dramatic moments occurred in 1968, when military officers led a successful coup against the recently inaugurated government of strong-man Arnulfo Arias Madrid, ushering in a contradictory process under the single command of General Omar Torrijos. In its first decade (1970-78) Torrijismo dismantled the existing political party system and the legislative body, replacing the latter with an assembly of local leaders. After repressing or neutralizing the opposition, it also carried out social reforms, especially in the labor and public health sectors, affirmed the country's transnationalization and convoked a national unity that allowed the negotiation and signing of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties. The key aspect of those treaties is that they established the return of the canal and the turning over of all remaining US military bases to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999.
Things changed radically in the 1980s: military reformism was exhausted, the United States interwove a democratization agenda into the canal negotiations and, with the death of General Torrijos on July 31, 1981, various Presidents and military leaders came and went, culminating with the dictatorship of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. Taking refuge in a nationalist discourse, he tried to wrest autonomy from the United States to guarantee his individual interests. He also annulled the May 1989 elections, which the opposition had won.
Besieged by the impact of US economic sanctions and domestic instability, the country suffered a direct US invasion on December 20, 1989, which destroyed the Panamanian armed forces and put in power the Civilist Alliance, the winner of the elections six months earlier. The popularity ratings of the new government of Guillermo Endara quickly dropped to very low levels, although the government did manage to structure an incipient formal democracy under US tutelage.
The crisis of the 1980s divided Panamanians' political values. The country was split between the nationalist discourse of the military officers and their various political parties—which stressed national sovereignty while severely downplaying political democracy—and the civilian opposition, which did the opposite. National sovereignty and popular sovereignty became separate and parallel discourses. Neither of them appeared able to integrate fundamental dimensions: the need for equity and social participation, especially by and on behalf of the vast excluded majorities.
Towards Democracy Four moments can be identified in Panama's democratic transition:
Authoritarian Transition (1978-89)
Between 1970 and 1978, the government headed by General Torrijos had hoisted the banner of nationalism and promoted a national unity pact that linked together the country's different economic, social and political sectors with the objective of signing new treaties around the Panama Canal, finally achieved on September 7, 1977. After the death of Omar Torrijos, an incipient process of transition to democracy began, though one stamped with instability.
In the 1980s this political instability was expressed in the endless change of heads of state: between 1981 and 1989 there were seven Presidents of the Republic, virtually one a year. There were also three different Commanders of the Defense Forces, the last of whom to fill the post, on August 12, 1983, was General Noriega.
Between 1988 and 1989, the United States engaged in a well- planned pressure campaign, at first using the media, then an economic blockade and finally military invasion. Civil society, weakened by that point, was polarized by the crisis, while the Panamanian government became more authoritarian, the US government more aggressive and the population poorer and more subjected.
Transition without Consensus (1989)
The hardening of the regime, the socioeconomic situation and the general deterioration led to collapse and opened the way to a dramatic event: the transition was ordained by an act of force. The US military invasion in December 1989 abruptly ushered in a democratic transition with high costs to the self-determination of a sovereign country.
A Possible Transition (1990-1994)
The first phase of this forced transition was characterized by the reorganization of the political system and the search for international legitimacy for the recently constituted regime. The second phase was characterized by the deterioration of the government's image and popularity; 1990 and 1992 were years of great social agitation. The third phase was marked by quasi-ungovernability. Despite that, the elections in May 1994 were the first ones free of military monitoring in 26 years and the first that, even with a polarization similar to that of the 1984 and 1989 elections, can be said to have demonstrated relative political maturity.
In that same phase, various sectors of civil society managed to consolidate coordination at a national level and contribute proposals to the prevailing protests. In those years the following groups were formed: the Association of Small and Medium Producers (APEMEP), the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (CONAPIP), the Forum of Women and Development and the Labor Foundation.
The Orderly Transition (1994-1997)
Several issues essential to the nation's future were on the electoral agenda in 1994: the transition to political democracy, the return of the Panama Canal and of the US civilian and military installations, and the need for a national sustainable development strategy to promote growth with equity and thus drastically reduce the enormous social problems and poverty suffered by over half of the population.
Sixteen political parties with seven presidential candidates at their head, as well as many hopefuls for legislators, mayors and municipal representatives competed for the vote of the million Panamanians who went to the polls on election day in May 1994. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) won those elections with the same third of the votes that had cost it the 1989 elections. It won because the incumbent party was fragmented and rejected by voters for its public administration, and because a candidate does not need an absolute majority. The new force on the scene was the Papa Egoro Movement, whose presidential candidate was internationally popular Salsa singer Rubén Blades. It won third place in the elections.
The electorate preferred the PRD's experience, which seemed more innocuous with the disappearance of the military as a determining force in the country. When the new government took office in September 1994, its major challenge was to generate confidence in its ability to build alliances that could resolve serious national problems.
Concertación: A New Path The experience of that prolonged crisis, the international situation and the development of political maturity led to the forging of some political agreements that allowed for the successful 1994 electoral process. For the first time in Panama's political history, opposing and even antagonistic forces were able to converse and agree on enormously important issues, though in some cases this was influenced by electoral interests. Forged agreements like the Electoral Ethics Commitment of Santa María de Antigua, supported by all political parties, played an important role in this success, as did agreements such as the National Women's Plan, supported by the Women's Forum of the Political Parties; the multi-party declaration in defense of the environment, the social concertación meetings sponsored by the United Nations which produced the Bambito Declaration, and other unifying events.
One factor that collaborated to create new conditions was the progressive demilitarization of society. The national army was institutionally destroyed during the invasion—and afterwards deleted from the National Constitution— so it no longer oversaw the spheres of political decision-making.
The direct presence of the United States was also relatively diminished, with the gradual retirement of the invading army that had occupied the country and with the reduction of its military bases. Both features were expressions of world demilitarization and of the Canal Treaties.
Civil Society: A Lost Decade The balance is clear. After the national concertación process around the Canal, promoted by the contradictory political process of the 1970s, the following years were a version of civil war—albeit less cruel than those of other Central American countries. It was marked by the decomposing of the reformist process, a hardening of authoritarianism, the external political and economic encirclement and the trauma of the invasion. During those years, and in that context, there was no concertación. Quite the opposite: there was only the entrenchment of civil society into two opposing camps. It was a lost decade for civil society.
Now in the 1990s, the democratic transition process has allowed two important moments: civil society's sectoral concertación and a process of overall concertación around national development (the Bambito meetings), the canal and the return of goods (Panama 2000) and our joint vision of the country (National Vision 2020).
Electoral Ethics Commitment This rich dialogue process was first triggered by the upcoming 1994 elections. On May 18, 1993, after three months of efforts, all of Panama's political parties signed on to the Electoral Ethics Commitment of Santa María la Antigua—named for the university where the work sessions were held. They also established dialogue sessions that went on uninterrupted for over a year. That concertación had been convoked by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church. Given the fear that the elections would upset the fragile social peace and incipient democratic transition, the church had decided to create an informal space for a dialogue on ethics. The initiative was received enthusiastically by Panamanian political leaders, who demonstrated the same concern.
The phenomenon of a political concertación that brought together all the parties was unheard of in national political history and was a key factor in the success of the general elections of May 1994. The parties expressed their shared support for institutionalizing democracy, defending and strengthening the independence of the Electoral Tribunal, monitoring to assure that no judicial institutions or any other state body be used as mechanisms of persecution or repression and their commitment to a frank, harmonious and peaceful transition to whatever government was elected.
It is not unfair to say that the Catholic Church has played an important role in building Panamanian democracy. Its accompaniment during the Noriega government crisis was critical. This has placed it in first place of credibility among national institutions. Public opinion perceives it not only as an ethical enterprise but also as a guarantee of democracy.
The UNDP and Bambitos This experience of concertación that accompanied the 1994 elections stimulated the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to convoke concertación meetings on social development, known as the Bambito meetings—named for a hotel located in the Chiriquí mountains where the participants met. Bambito I and II were held before the elections; Bambito III afterwards.
The first of these meetings was held on August 2-3, 1993. All legal political parties participated, as did representatives of the government, business and workers, the Catholic Church and the university sector. Also invited were former Presidents Belisario Betancur (Colombia) and Julio Sanguinetti (Uruguay). The objective was to consolidate confidence in the development of the democratic process, promote a formal and informal meeting of Panamanian political leadership, establish trust in the handling of the electoral process, project an image of confidence in political democracy, and attempt to establish a state agenda.
Bambito I achieved its goals. The members established priorities: the strengthening of national independence and democracy, Panamanian administration of the Canal, socioeconomic development, the modernization of health and development, concertación for an adequate integration of the returned areas adjacent to the Canal, and for improved administrative efficiency and judicial independence.
Bambito II took place a month before the elections. Five of the seven presidential candidates participated, as did the Labor Foundation, the Catholic Church, the national government, university rectors and invited guests. It followed up on the first meeting and was designed to confirm everyone's adherence to already formulated and signed principles and accords.
Bambito III: Tensions Arise Bambito III, the post-election meeting, took place on December 4-6, 1994, after the successful culmination of the electoral process. In addition to the political parties, the national government, the Labor Foundation, the Catholic Church and university rectors, there was greater representation from civil society: the Women and Development Forum, the Association of Small and Medium Producers (APEMEP) and the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (CONAPI). The meeting received support from Belisario Betancur and Jimmy Carter.
The objectives of this forum were to institutionalize political dialogue as an ongoing process led by Panama's political and social organizations, and to reach government-civil society agreement on certain social policies. The results were marked by contradictions: a recently elected government that was just beginning the decision-making process around its own agenda; an opposition that had still not recovered from its electoral loss; an ambiguous proposal, in which the new government confused an issue from its own agenda—the labor-capital-government relationship, put on the floor to carry out Labor Code reforms— with what should be a state agenda.
For many, the conflict that later caused tensions in the country around precisely these reforms grew out of the failures of Bambito III. Whether or not such a cause-and-effect relationship can be determined, it is clear that, even though the third meeting was organized around the same premises as the previous two, the political moment was very different. Proof is that only some of the participants signed the final declaration, which established a permanent forum of dialogue and agreement-reaching, or concertación.
The Coronados After carefully systematizing its constant consultations and realistic planning, the UNDP called for a new concertación, this time centering on the issue that has historically brought Panamanians together: the canal and its areas to be turned over to Panama. New meetings were held in 1996 with this focus, known as the Panama 2000 Meetings, Coronados I, II, III, IV, named for the beach and hotel where they were held. A broad range of representatives of civil and political society met around issues as substantive as the Canal Authority Law, the Universal Canal Congress and soil use plans in the canal areas being returned by the United States. Those meetings were preceded and overlapped by various workshops held in Panama City, where two bills were agreed to and later passed by the Legislative Assembly in 1997.
The starting point was Coronado I, the first of the Panama 2000 meetings, which was held on May 26-28, 1996. It sought to legitimize the proposals of the meetings to follow, placing the Canal issue as part of the state agenda. At that event—as well as at the following ones—the participants were the political parties, the national government and 14 civil society representatives: the Women and Development Forum, the National Council of Organized Workers (CONATO), the Labor Foundation, canal workers' unions, the National Private Enterprise Council (CONEP), Women's Forum of Political Parties, CONAPIP, the Ecumenical Council of Churches, the Catholic Church, APEMEP, the Council of Rectors, academic groups, the National Council of Cooperatives and the Association of Social Communications Media. The key moderator in this and all the meetings was Belisario Betancur.
The final document of that first Panama 2000 meting lays out the concept of a society based on a development that seeks equality, equity and the fight to eradicate poverty. At the same time, it affirms democracy and the rule of law, key tests of which will be a pristine electoral process in 1999, demilitarization and transparency in the public and private spheres.
The Canal Joins Us Together The issue of the canal and returned areas was set within that framework, establishing that this patrimony should serve to promote integral and national development. It was noted that canal assets pose the challenge of maintaining and improving the interoceanic route administration, and that it is critically important to exclude political party or sectoral interests in canal decisions. It was agreed that the board members of the canal should be named based only on abilities, merit and honesty, and that it is important to guarantee the labor conditions and the rights of the human team, to train the necessary Panamanian personnel and to increase women's participation at all levels of canal administration. Environmental preservation of the interoceanic region was considered a vital factor.
All of this led to a commitment to put the canal issue on a strategic state agenda and not on a limited government one. Participants pledged to promote communication and educational processes that orient and educate the population around the canal and other returned areas. The document also noted the need to create a permanent interactive dialogue forum linked to the prompt holding of four meetings preceded by a series of workshops.
The Canal Debates And Commentaries The second meeting (Coronado II) was held on July 29, 1996, to share information from the Universal Canal Congress. The results were optimal, especially in the suggestions made and the closer contact between Congress promoters and representatives from participating parties and social organizations.
Before August 25-27, the date of Coronado III, on the Canal Authority Law, four workshops were held on specific themes: environment, labor, and operational and administrative aspects. The media was given access and covered the entire process. In addition, civil society organized its own workshops to unify criteria. The results of this third Panama 2000 Meeting were 34 agreements about the Canal Authority bill, which were reached in a climate of maturity and participation, with no prohibition of heated discussion and debate.
Coronado IV, the goal of which was to discuss and analyze the General Plan for Soil Use and the Regional Plan for Interoceanic Region Authority, was held on September 22-24. It was preceded by three workshops on economic-social issues, the environment and urban development. Due to its complexity—given the technical aspects of these issues—there was more controversy. The final declaration established "concern for the human being as the center and objective of social and economic development in the interoceanic region, for the interests of the inhabitants of said region; for ecology and the environment...."
The fifth Panama 2000 meeting is still pending. It will address the most controversial issue of all: the future of the US military bases. Even though the previous meetings reaffirmed civilian use of the territory and its demilitarization, and the Panamanian government has even announced that the departure of the military bases is non-negotiable, it has also proposed the installation in Panama of a Multilateral Anti-Drug Center (CMA), which to many means the veiled possibility that the military installations will stay. The activation of this fifth meeting is in the government's hands, and the government has promised to submit the controversial CMA project to a popular referendum.
Exceptional Opportunity From the economic point of view, Panama has an exceptional and unique opportunity in the Third World, because in the coming years it will receive a series of assets—valued at some $30 billion—which, if well used, can be a major boost to economic take-off and could speed our steps toward social and economic development. The term "well used" is an important caveat because, in the neoliberal context, the assets could be used simply to reinforce the exclusion of the majority. Both the recently concluded plans to orient the use of the assets and the diverse partial studies done since 1977 demonstrate that civilian use of the returned areas is more productive for Panama than their military use and that an appropriate civilian conversion of the military bases will generate more jobs and income than leasing them for continued military use. This has already been demonstrated in bases that have been returned and converted in other parts of the world.
Continue with Military Bases? From the perspective of the country's security, continuation of the US military bases represents various dangers for Panama. One danger is that, by weakening the necessary neutrality of the canal, the country would continue to be seen as a potential military objective in case of conflagrations and wars that Panama has no part in. There is also the danger of potential environmental contamination generated by military areas and the constant presence of ships, submarines and airplanes full of arms and lethal materials. A third danger would be the permanent presence of a foreign army in a country that doesn't have or even want to have a national army.
The polls point out that 70% of the population approves the negotiations to continue the military bases, although this percentage drops by half when it is made clear to those polled that the United States wants to maintain its bases but is unwilling to pay rent for them. By their response, the people are simply expressing their disenchantment with their government's slow and inefficient utilization of the already returned assets, and the absence of a plan to make use of them for social and economic development.
Civil Society Becomes Visible The four Panama 2000 Meetings so far, which touched on the transcendental canal issue, served to demonstrate potential possibilities of coordination and the capacity for fuller interlocution among the diverse bodies of civil society. In these meetings, Panamanian civil society managed to see itself and make itself seen by putting forward its own proposals. Environmental, social, gender and labor issues were the ones most heard from civil society.
A Civil Society Assembly was formed at the last meeting. Although it is focused only on the canal issue, it is an important step in the right direction.
Various factors limited civil society's participation and representativity. Youth were not brought into the process because they lack coordination bodies. Educators were not incorporated either, in their case because of the heterogeneity of their organizations. There was also no adequate articulation between the information levels and decisions made by the representatives and those of the people they were representing. Thus, despite the broad dissemination of the meetings' results, there was a need for an educational and communications campaign to transmit what was happening and allow more grassroots representation.
This series of experiences has permitted people to see the possibility of initiating a new "concertación" experience, this time around the image of what kind of country we want and can have, the Panama we dream of and the Panama that is possible.