By Luke Stobart
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Construction workers lead fight against police murder in Panama

This article is over 15 years, 11 months old
\"You were a good son, a good father, a good brother and a good husband. I only hope that you give strength to your brothers and sisters to keep fighting.\"
Issue 2091

‘You were a good son, a good father, a good brother and a good husband. I only hope that you give strength to your brothers and sisters to keep fighting.’

Those were the emotive words of a grieving mother speaking at the funeral of Al Iromi Smith, a construction worker recently killed by police in Panama.

Smith was a 28-year old activist in the Suntracs union in the city of Colón. He was shot in the back by police as he entered hospital after receiving a plastic bullet wound on a demonstration.

Suntracs is a radical and relatively strong union of 40,000 members. It had been protesting against the lack of safety on Panama’s construction sites – last year 25 construction workers were killed at work.

In response to Smith’s death, construction workers blocked the traffic across Colón. The police response was yet more repression.

Soon students from Panama State University joined construction workers in pitched battles against the police. Dozens of workers were wounded – by real and rubber bullets – and hundreds arrested.

Violent scenes showing construction workers and passers-by being subjected to savage attacks were broadcast across Panama’s TV stations.

Suntracs activists are not treating the incident as an isolated case of state violence. Two union leaders were murdered last summer by police officers and hired gunmen linked to business organisations.

Earlier this month the union publicly denounced a plot to ‘selectively kill’ union leaders – an echo of a common practice in neighbouring Colombia.

Union leaders say the violence is the product of an ‘increased militarisation’ of government under Matin Torrijos whose current cabinet includes several senior ex-military men.

The protests of construction workers represent much deeper concerns about the situation of workers in Panama, the fastest growing Latin American economy with an annual growth rate of over 11 percent.

Panama has benefited from a building frenzy, which involves the construction of an enormous urban centre around the Panama Canal area.

This is being developed by the British company London & Regional and will cost $10 billion. Panama is also the site of increasingly large numbers of retirement and second homes, bought mainly by North Americans.

Nevertheless the benefits of economic growth are far from being equally shared out. Panama is the second most unequal country in Latin America and inequality is rising.

Some 60 percent of the population live in poverty. Nearly half a million people out of a population of three million live on less than a dollar a day.

Worse still, the welfare state has come under savage attack from the neoliberal government of Martín Torrijos, which took office in 2004.

Torrijos has used the popularity of his family name – his father was the reforming nationalist dictator Omar Torrijos – to try and push through privatisation of pensions and health.

But his attempts have been met with an astonishing resistance that has often derailed his plans.

In 2005 Suntracsalong with the social security employees’ union led a month-long general strike against pension ‘reform’. They forced a 90-day suspension of the pensions package and major concessions on the retirement age.

This year a strike by doctors forced the government to back off from health privatisation.

Many recent protests have been coordinated through the united campaign group Frenadeso, the National Defence Front for Economic and Social Rights.

One of its leaders, Priscilla Vázquez, is president of the Social Security Employees’ Association. She says that the group’s strength comes from having a radical leadership but also involving reformist organisations.

The movement is also strengthened by the class solidarity and politicisation of the Panama’s trade unions. When Suntracs struck last summer in response to the assassinations of two of its leaders, several other major unions struck alongside it.

And Suntracs’ most recent protest did not just call for labour safety but an increase in the minimum wage, control of price rises and even the scrapping of environmentally damaging mining projects.

Frenadesco has called a national demonstration on 13 March, and Suntracs’ national union federation has threatened a general strike if its many demands are not met – including the sacking of the government minister responsible for law and order.

Frenadesco leader Saul Méndez says that the next step is to build ‘coordination and dialogue’ with ‘sectors of the people’ that are mobilising over education, health, mining and transport issues. There is currently a protest every two days in Panama.

Despite its recent growth, Panama is not a highly developed country. Half of its economically active population work in the so-called ‘informal sector’ – involved in small trading, street stalls or casual labour.

Yet the Panamanian experience shows that even in such contexts the organised working class is able to lead wider social forces and win significant victories.

Faced with increased violence by the state, the Panamanian unions deserve our wholehearted support.

Send messages of solidarity to [email protected] and for more information about Suntracs (in Spanish) go to »

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