Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 205 | Agosto 1998



Challenges Before 2000 A Dream for 2020

The social cooperation processes initiated in Panama in 1993 resulted in May of 1998 in a historical document entitled “National Vision 2020”, which describes the common dream of the country that everybody desires to have by that year. More immediately, in the next 18 months, four basic challenges face the people of Panama.

Raúl Leis

On December 31, 1999, according to the agreements signed by Panama and the United States in 1977, Panama will receive 34,000 hectares of land with 4,829 buildings, highways, ports, airports, green zones and fully equipped urban areas. This small country with only 2.5 million inhabitants will thus possess a crucial element for the stimulation of its economy and the creation of an integral form of development.

Converting lethal installations into living areas, contaminated firing ranges into woodlands and barracks into learning centers ("cities of knowledge") will be a tremendous challenge. Ensuring that the canal continues to function efficiently, but in benefit of a development project aimed at the whole population will be another. First-world facilities will pass into the hands of a third- world country which should put them to different uses, rather like the biblical quotation of turning swords into plowshares.

As in 1977, the canal issue once again represents a test of our capacity to be a nation and to become the subjects of our own development. The most recent of the consensus-seeking processes undertaken in Panama, which have had their ups and downs since their initiation in 1993, is based on these two aspects of the approaching devolution of the canal.

Sharing a Vision of Panama

The idea of this latest process was to involve everyone in rethinking how the country should be, to get us to jointly imagine the kind of Panama we would like to see in the year 2020. The goal was to provide the nation with a shared strategic objective in relation to the rest of the world. This objective would represent the widest sectoral interests, while at the same time allowing the political parties enough latitude to realize the nation's dream according to their own particular styles of government.

Four aspects were taken into account: the current changes affecting the world; the transfer of the canal, its assets and the surrounding areas from US to Panamanian hands; Panamanian efforts to consolidate the country's democratic system; and a firm conviction that all of the national actors can come to medium- and long-term agreements through dialogue.

As the idea of reconsidering the country from such a perspective developed, it raised the question of how this could be achieved while respecting the diversity of thought and actions among the political parties and within civil society. During a workshop held in June 1997, attending representatives of the political parties and civil society worked out a way to do this. Since it was decided to use a strategic planning methodology to promote this effort, a group of academic centers and another group of specialists and professionals were asked to draw up a proposal to be put before civil society, the political parties and the government for approval.

Debates Throughout The Country

The debate among the academic centers was intense during the preparation of the proposal as they sought to interpret the main causes of the nation's major problems. The result was the definition of five fundamental areas in the "national vision": democratic institutionality, self-determination, economic development, equity and sustainability. That was when it became obvious that a strategic planning process involving representatives from the political parties and civil society was needed in order to establish Panama's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and strategic objectives, as well as the main threats to the country. That process made it possible to identify the vision of the different participants. The fact that their vision generally coincided with the one already presented by the academics proved that the work was developing along the right lines.

The "national vision" established a long-term time scale (up to the year 2020), and was based on an objective analysis of present conditions as well as Panama's dynamic advantages over the rest of the world. Doing so made it possible to establish the country's real chances of turning the dream into reality. Realizing this long-term vision implies establishing jointly agreed-upon operational goals and objectives and, above all, a common commitment.

Putting aside their differences to endorse a joint vision of the nation, representatives from all of Panama's political parties and from organizations of civil society signed the document "National Vision 2020" on May 29, 1998. The document is now being discussed throughout the country in provincial and sectoral meetings, and there are plans to produce a subsequent document containing the contributions and suggestions made during these events. A group of professionals from academic centers is also drawing up a monitoring proposal sort of a "vision-meter" to allow concrete progress made in the "national vision" to be gauged, and to permit civil society to do a kind of social audit of the governments and politicians responsible for making that progress happen.

Will Panama Live Up to the Vision?

The country we would all like to see in the year 2020 as defined in the document "National Vision 2020" offers the following encouraging view of the future:
"Panama is a sovereign, democratic and multicultural nation that enjoys the full rule of law. As a geographical and biological bridge between the Americas, the isthmus is one of the world's most important epicenters of tropical, land and marine sciences and one of the most important centers of economic activity in Latin America. Panama has developed its competitive advantages in a sustainable way, based on education, health, employment and productivity, which has meant that its population has received adequate remuneration. People in vulnerable conditions receive fair attention and are treated with solidarity. Panamanian society has a high standard of living and maintains the wealth of its natural and cultural patrimony."

Panama's Comparative Advantages

As another part of the introduction to this historic document explains:
"The country has comparative advantages which allow it to advance with determination and energy as long as there is unity of purpose. The geographical position of the isthmus has always made it attractive for the investment of resources that generate employment and create wealth. Also, with the transfer of the Panama Canal, its assets and the surrounding areas, the opportunities for all sectors wishing to employ their creative energies will multiply.

"These advantages imply promoting a broad set of development policies to take advantage of international transport, shipping services, development of the ports, banking and tourism (both eco-tourism and other kinds), activities that are closely linked to commerce, agriculture and industry. This vision reinforces the idea of turning Panama into one of the most important centers of economic and human activity in Latin America."

How to be Competitive

The document continues:
"It is essential to promote profound transformations at all levels of the education sector. The national education policy combined with the project to create a "City of Knowledge" will turn Panama into one of the continent's main centers of human, scientific and technological education.

"To the above we can add the country's virtually unexplored capacity for scientific activities associated with its terrestrial and maritime tropical ecosystems. It is fundamental to develop Panama's particular natural advantages, training human resources and encouraging foreign scientists to come to our country.

"Panama must add its competitive advantages to comparative ones such as its geographical position. Competitive advantages are those that the country is capable of developing through a well- defined effort with established aims and goals. Increasing the education level among our youth and investing in scientific and technological production is the only way to establish a competitive base in the international arena. It is also necessary to organize our economic activity around those sectors with the greatest comparative and competitive advantages.

"If these objectives are to be met, it is essential to continue along the democratic path, improving the institutions, overcoming weaknesses in applying the law and providing the national and international community with the necessary legal security to consolidate the vision of economic and social development."

"A More Humane Society"

As the document explains:
"The above assumptions are based on the conviction that it is possible to achieve social development, understood as progress towards a more humane society, built around the principles of well-being, equity, participatory democracy and public responsibility. This vision, which mainly concerns itself with the Panamanian people, implies the need to overcome social ills and substantially improve the quality of the human resources. In other words, it means raising the standard of living of all citizens without discrimination of any kind. Promoting these changes is the best way to help improve the country's productivity indicators.

"None of these opportunities would be complete without a vision of sustainable development which enables growth to reach all of the country's sectors and areas in an equitable way. This means creating a new paradigm that transcends that of a liberal society reduced to a series of markets and a centralized state which blocks citizens' initiatives. This vision calls for a state and a civil society based on a model of market economics but which also guarantee the necessary transformations to consolidate democracy and develop economic strategies and environmental sustainability in a plan in which the state and the market help reduce the equity gap.

"According to this vision, both the state and the market have a role to play in development. It is considered that in 2020, Panama will have competitive advantages over other countries in education, health, employment and productivity, and that Panamanian society will enjoy a high standard of living with adequate remuneration and will maintain the balance of its natural patrimony."

What Came Before This Success

The contradictory results of an earlier consensus-seeking conference called Bambito III had made 1995 a good moment to evaluate what had happened. The general feeling in the country was that a new arena for national dialogue and exchange should be created, despite historical difficulties and the problems inherited from previous processes. There was a sense that a new consensus-seeking process was needed to decide which topics should be on the government agenda and which on the state agenda, and that they should be tackled realistically rather than an in over-ambitious way.

All of this led to the creation of a new systematic model of functional negotiation which took into account the demands that civil society, the government and the political parties expressed to a support group consisting of recognized Panamanian figures and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The support group then passed those demands back to the participants in an ongoing feedback process. That process made it possible to deal with the various situations, teasing out knots, relieving tensions and reducing possible conflicts.

Two work tables were created as part of that dynamic interrelation, one with civil society and the other with the political parties, thus establishing a mechanism of formal and informal consultation with the leadership of each social sector or political party. This guaranteed inclusion and consultation and the fundamental principle of openness in which the main objective was to create a climate of confidence that would allow opposing parties to sit down and talk to each other to iron out the nation's problems. The thematic agenda that was generated by this process was widely discussed against the backdrop of some very clear rules and a communicative strategy that involved rather than distanced the media throughout the rocess.

The main conflict during the preparation of the first "Panama 2000" Conference was the refusal of the Arnulfista Party, the biggest of the opposition groups, to participate. Its leaders thought the conference would be used for political ends, an attitude that isolated them from national public opinion and even from the rest of the opposition bloc, which questioned the party's absence. The openness of the process together with pressure led them to the wise decision to actively participate in the work tables and subsequent Panama 2000 conferences.

The UNDP Made Key Contributions

It should be emphasized that this and all of the consensus- seeking or "concertación" processes initiated in Panama since 1993 have received fundamental support from the international community. The UNDP has played a particularly key role, making crucial contributions to the preparation and realization of the five Panama 2000 Conferences (known also as Coronado meetings for the place in which they were held).

Through its mediation the UNDP contributed legitimacy to the call to social actors to come together, a functional and effective negotiating model, flexibility and accessibility, an accurate interpretation of the current situation and a subjective personal factor. It also contributed realistic state agendas, a vision of gradual progress from the simple to the complex and an ongoing consultation with all sectors. In addition, it kept the process in the public eye through its own representative and the mass media. All of this was crucial in ensuring that the will of the actors involved was expressed, and in demonstrating that it was possible for everyone to get together to resolve key problems.

One question now being asked is what role the UNDP will play in future consensus-seeking processes and what capacity its mediation has generated for internal forces to come together around new realities. Another question is the extent to which the processes of recent years have generated an appropriate thematic methodology. Among these experiences were sectoral processes and the "Ethical Electoral Commitment," where the central factor that brought the participants together was more internal, and the other conferences, including the one resulting in the Vision 2020, where the motivation came from the UNDP. There are no easy answers, so it is important for all Panamanians to help create a national capacity to resolve conflicts through discussed agreements.

The Lessons Learned

We have learned many lessons and assimilated many realities during these past five years of concertación processes.

> We know that Panama, based on a contradictory process that culminated in the US invasion in 1989, is currently undergoing a transition from a hegemonic political regime to the consolidation of democratic politics.

> This transition also involves changing from a colonial canal enclave to a country whose national state is gradually taking possession of the canal's territory, functions and assets, a process due to be finalized at midday on Friday December 31, 1999.

> While governments promote structural adjustment measures aimed at cutting their own capacity, the dynamics of such market-based adjustments hamper their ability to manage the challenges related to sustainable development.

> Relations between the different social actors are often conflictive and the adjustment model brings the government into conflict with small-, medium- and large-scale national producers, and with workers and public employees. This obstructs the development of common agendas, with the exception of the canal question and a women's agenda.

> The framework and the most crucial area of these processes is the very development model that continues to be socially exclusive, income- concentrating and environmentally depredating, even though it has undergone certain modifications.

> We have discovered that it is difficult to sustain democracy against a backdrop of inequality. Under the current inequitable model the devolution of the canal will further limit the country's capacity to achieve integrated and balanced development, both at particular levels of society and in various regions of the country. We also know that, in a consolidated political democracy that encourages consensus building and participation, national control over resources can lead to the creation and advancement of a more equitable and sustainable model.

> We also now know that it is essential to have a state agenda in order to promote sustainable development. This agenda must include national control over resources (the canal assets); the consolidation of political democracy to create an increasingly democratic society; a capacity for democratic governability; and the promotion of a proposal for economic growth with social, multicultural and environmental equity. Panama appears to be gradually moving towards controlling its own resources and consolidating its democracy. However, its development in governability terms is only average and it is lagging behind with respect to the proposal for growth.

The Canal Will Be The Real Test

We know that the use made of the transferred assets and the new management of the canal could end up being based on the current depredating and inequitable model, thus helping to accentuate regional inequalities and widen the gap between rich and poor. But if an integrated development proposal for Panama's population can be achieved, it would be possible to take a very different path. The agenda of the social movements and of civil society in general is crucial to the elaboration of a national agenda for development, the environment and democracy.

This involves creating a new way to manage economic activities politically and socially, one that breaks with the idea of a liberal society reduced to a series of markets and of a centralized state reduced to a policing role. It involves shaping a state that can guarantee the transformations needed to prepare the long-term investments and environmental sustainability that would help close the equity gap.

The changing times are also challenging us to make room for a multicultural society where we can move sensitively and with an open mind toward an interaction of cultural dynamics with their many complicities and seductions. Democracy and development can also be redefined as arenas in which particular traits can be rescued and pluralities and cultural diversities encouraged and appreciated.

Four Challenges In 18 Months

Throughout this long process, we have discovered that the nation's needs require that the channels used for consensus- building contribute to the creation of a new vision of how power in this deeply divided country should be administered. There is a growing feeling that, in order to function adequately, the government, political forces and organized groups (labor, grassroots, civic, social and religious groups) in a polarized country such as Panama need to form a pact on democratic governability. This pact should be based on a consensus about what structural reforms the country needs and should lead to the preparation of a development strategy or national project; a basic agreement between political society, the market and civil society concerning the country that belongs to all of us. Concertación processes already experienced prove that the development of tolerance, the keeping of promises, a vision of the state and a capacity for dialogue are key elements of a new political culture.

Such pacts are urgently needed because Panama is experiencing a growing social crisis caused by inequality, which is eroding the standard of living of the majority of its citizens. At the same time, a national identity crisis is weakening the nation's ability to provide answers and proposals that collectively respond to the need for greater democracy, more development, a better environment and an increased capacity to put the canal assets transferred to Panama to good use.

The present scenario is not an easy one. In the next 18 months (leading up to December 1999) the country will face four fundamental decision-making processes:
1. The August 30, 1998 referendum on presidential reelection, as President Ernesto Pérez Balladares looks to extend his period in office by ten years;
2. The referendum on the Multilateral Anti-Drugs Center, which will decide whether or not US soldiers will be based in Panama after the year 2000 (no date has yet been fixed for it);
3. The May 1999 general elections; and
4. The transfer of the canal and all of its military and civilian assets to Panama (December 31, 1999).

All four will put the consensus-making processes started in 1993 to the test and will indicate to what extent they have had a positive influence on the political maturity of the Panamanian population.

Next year will be a historic one for Panama as it takes full advantage of its geographical position with the transfer of the canal and its assets and the foreign military presence comes to end. Before that, the general elections in May should further consolidate Panama's transition to democracy. With the coming of the new century and a new millennium we will face the challenge of promoting equitable economic development in a country with one of the continent's worst income distributions. It will be impossible to meet this historic challenge unless we all participate in building our future, thus creating a "high-intensity" citizenship, both politically and socioeconomically speaking.

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