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The Struggle of the banana workers in Bocas de Toro (Panama)

The Struggle of the banana workers in Bocas de Toro (Panama)

[Source – libcom.org]

An article written by the International Communist Current on the basis of information received from comrades in Central America. This struggle seems to have received no publicity in the official media.

The Struggle of the banana workers in Bocas de Toro (Panama)

Various comrades and groups have sent us information and comments on this struggle that took place recently. We are deeply grateful to them for their collaboration and encourage them to continue. We all know that the media is not neutral and shamelessly serves its masters, the state and capital, sometimes implementing a total black-out on workers’ struggles – particularly those that show clear tendencies towards solidarity, self –organisation and militancy …, and sometimes organising scandalous campaigns of slander as was seen recently during the Metro strike in Madrid. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the advanced minorities of the class rapidly communicate valuable information about workers’ struggles to each other [1].

We are not talking about cheering ourselves up by only publicising the positive bits of struggle. The working class does not need pats on the back. We need truthful information and shouldn’t be afraid of highlighting weaknesses, obstacles and problems.

Referring back to the struggles in Panama, we want to underline that despite the weaknesses and limitations that the workers’ struggles still suffer from today, we are nonetheless seeing one very positive aspect: struggles are developing simultaneously in the so-called “rich” countries (Great Britain, Greece, France, China, Spain …) and in the “poor” countries (Rumania, Panama, Bangladesh, India …). This is despite the fact that there are still huge obstacles to overcome for the unity of the international proletariat to be fully achieved in breaking down the barriers between workers in the “rich” and “poor” countries that the ruling class fully utilises for its own ends.

The strike erupted on July 1st in the banana growing province of Bocas de Toro, bordering Costa Rica. Workers were demanding unpaid wages on the one hand and, expressing their opposition to the problems posed to it by the new law proposed by the Martinelli government, Statute 30, which “limits the right to strike and collective bargaining, legalises the hiring of ‘scabs’ and grants the police immunity by giving it rights outside the Panamanian Constitution “[2]. This Statute 30 also has articles that cancel the automatic payment of union contributions by the bosses. It also includes repressive measures such as the legalisation of spying, with a decree of the Ministry of Public Security to legalise the figure of the “secret agent” who has a free hand to spy on and accuse anyone “engaged in activities that harm national security, State assets, social cohesion”, which means that anyone can be denounced.

The unrest that these measures caused led to more than 10,000 people demonstrating on June 29th in Panama City. But the combativity of the banana workers quickly reached the centre stage of the social situation. The strike spread quickly throughout the province. “From July 1st more than forty pickets blocked the twenty access points to Bocas de Toro, mobilising a huge popular suppor; and groups of indigenous people from all the estates in the area were quick to join the struggle begun by the banana workers’ union, gathering at the barricades the workers had organised and in the occupation of the airport, which was completely shut down.” The workers assembled at the entrance to the main city of the province, and then led a demonstration calling for everyone to join the struggle. These actions quickly found an echo in the solidarity of the population, clearly expressed in the demonstrations and daily support in the assemblies. Following some brutal police attacks, barricades were removed from both urban roads and rural pathways. Despite pressure from the authorities, parents decided against sending their children to school and, in the follow up, high school students expressed their solidarity with the struggle, completely shutting down the educational establishments.
“In addition to indigenous and neighbouring groups, the strike of banana workers quickly united the teachers and construction workers working on the extension of the Panama Canal, opposed to cuts in their wages and to some of the principal workers’ leaders being sacked. Students at the University of Panama also demonstrated, blocking the Transísmica Way in support of the struggle of the banana workers and against Statute 30, before also coming up against brutal repression that ended with the detention of 157 students from the College of Arts and Crafts who joined in blockading the Transísmica Way with students from the University of Panama.”

The government unleashed a savage crackdown. It was particularly brutal in the town of Changuinola, at the centre of the strike in the banana plantations. According to various sources, there were six dead and hundreds wounded, shot by the anti-riot police ordered in by the President of the Republic. They used pellets that caused serious damage to the eyes of many protesters. According to one witness, “Children died in residential areas suffocated by the tear gas. They are victims of respiratory problems, according to the authorities who consequently do not consider them victims of police brutality”, which would add to the number of dead. Another witness said that “the police went searching homes and hospitals for the injured to imprison them. With no warrants of any kind they carried out raids on the homes, and right up to the Presbytery they have carried out arrests. They have tortured, beaten up, intimidated and abused ….”

The unions workers stab the workers in the back

In the face of this brutal repression, the union leaders immediately offered the government an olive branch. Negotiations between government representatives and the union, Sitraibana [3] opened on the 11th. The union called for the resumption of work under the terms of an agreement whose only demand satisfied was the withdrawal of certain articles of as a whole Statute 30, which would have abolished the employers’ payments to the unions! The union was shameless in looking after its own specific interests and has disregarded the workers’ demands and the violent attack that Statute 30 represented!

Some sectors of workers have opposed a return to work and remained on strike until July 14th, daily protests across the whole population were not quashed, and on July 18th there were demonstrations across the country as a sign of mourning for workers killed.

To calm the situation down, “Martinelli and Co have visited Bocas de Toro as if they were still on the election trail, offering gifts, with false promises and weak excuses without acknowledging the scale of government responsibility for the massacre of people. The media did not broadcast any more of the many demonstrations of popular protest against what was, without doubt, an affront to the dignity of the people.”

In addition, the President organised a Commission of Inquiry, composed of government, employer, religious and trade union representatives, to “shed light on what happened in the province of Bocas de Toro between 5th and 13th July, 2010” and a ‘Round Table’ was set up to “examine the working conditions of workers in the banana plantations”, which, as one of the messages we have received says “is a commission of me and me.”

By combining the carrot and stick, fierce repression with displays of dialogue and parliamentary action, the Panamanian bourgeoisie appears to have emerged victorious from this conflict, having toughened and degraded working and living conditions and strengthened repression and the hand of the bosses. Some dissident unions promised a “general strike” without fixing a date.

Some lessons

Union control of the struggle led to the workers being served up with their hands and feet tied. Initially, the Sitraibana has shown itself to be combative and all the leftist organisations and unions cited it as a “model”. This “radical” reputation allowed its leaders to make a 180º turn around and draw up an “agreement” with the government that demobilised the workers despite some resistance having been expressed. This shows us that workers, whether unionised or non-unionised, need to take collective control of their struggles by wresting it from the hands of the treacherous trade unions, and need massive assemblies open to others workers, in order to monitor the day to day developments of the struggle, the negotiations, the actions needed, etc.. These measures are vital so that the solidarity, camaraderie, collective strength, heroism and the consciousness that develop in the struggle are not wasted and lost, causing disillusionment and demoralisation.

The fact that the province of Bocas de Toro is one of the poorest areas of the country, inhabited by many indigenous oppressed and impoverished tribes, has been a heavy burden on the struggle and has contributed to it being led off course from a truly proletarian and autonomous struggle. The strike was the signal for a major wave of popular discontent. This is positive when the proletariat is able to channel this discontent onto its own class terrain against capital and the state. However, it is negative and weakens the proletariat as well as the emancipation of these social strata, if – as happened in this fight – it becomes an inter-classist mobilisation that emerges in favour of “restoring the democratic freedoms under attack by Statute 30” and “the implementation by central government of some investments in the neglected province” in order to give “recognition to the ancestral rights of the indigenous peoples”.

When the struggle sinks into this populist quagmire, there is just ONE WINNER, CAPITAL. It never declares its real interests for what they are – its own selfish interests at the expense of the vast majority – but dresses them up in the false disguises of “the people” and “citizens”, of “social rights” and other meaningless drivel. These deceptions take away the proletariat’s identity and class autonomy and thus succeed in disarming it and all the oppressed population along with it.
ICC (July 27, 2010)

[1] We warmly welcome the ESPAREVOL Forum (in Spanish), which makes a significant effort to gather news and find press releases on workers’ struggles. See http://esparevol.forumotion.net/noticias-informaciones-y-comunicados-obreros-f9/

[2] The quotations are from information received from different comrades.

[3] Sitraibana: Trade union of workers in the banana industry.

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