All’s Quiet On The Panama Front (Again)
Lief and I set out from our house in Marbella early Friday morning. We’d been warned. “There’s gonna’ be trouble,” our driver Alberto had told us the afternoon before. “Worse trouble than we’ve seen so far. You and Mr. Lief, you two should just stay home on Friday.”
Lief and I appreciated Alberto’s concern but decided that, rather than staying home all day, we’d leave early, before the “trouble” started. We weren’t early enough. We didn’t make it two blocks from our house before we were stopped. Calle 50, one of the handful of major arteries through the center of Panama City, was impassable.
A group of maybe 25 Panamanians was standing in the center of the road just down from where we’d turned on to it, shoulder-to-shoulder, from one side to the other, making sure no vehicle could get by. Ordinarily, this time of day, this road would be bumper-to-bumper, but, early Friday morning, we were one of maybe a half-dozen cars we could see in either direction. Human road blocks like the one we faced had been set up at regular intervals. Nobody was going anywhere on Calle 50.
Including us. We turned down a side street and traveled not two more blocks before encountering another bunch of Panamanians standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the street. We turned again and again and again, down side streets and alleyways, traveling as far as we could until another group of protesters blocked our progress. Finally, we made it back to our street and pulled back into our driveway.
Now what? We wanted to get in to the office, but we could work from home as easily. I went inside, booted up my laptop, and sent an e-mail to our staff. If you can’t make it into the office, don’t worry, I told them. Lief and I can’t either. Work from home. We’ll be online all day. Contact us via Skype or our cell phones if you need anything.
Then we decided to go for a walk, to see for ourselves what was what. We walked the few blocks from our house to avenida Balboa and the Cinta Costera, where we climbed to the top of the pedestrian flyover. From that vantage point, you can see all up and down the city, as far as Casco Viejo. Balboa, the city’s major thoroughfare along the bay, was a parking lot. Hundreds of vehicles were idling in both directions. They’d proceeded as far as the protesters would allow them, then they’d had no choice but to halt. We saw a taxi driver taking a nap. A woman painting her finger nails. A couple of dozen drivers had gotten out of their cars and were sitting on the curbs or wandering up and down the side of the road. Beside us on the flyover was a member of the Presidential Guard in full riot gear. He was sitting up straight and alert on his black ATV, watching. His fellows were spread throughout the scene below us. All watching. I took a picture from where we stood. This was the scene.
As Alberto had promised, the city was shut down. No one was going anywhere. But there didn’t seem to be any cause for worry. We lived in Paris for four years. Manifestations are a part of day-to-day life in that city. Roads get blocked. The Metro is shut down. Cars are set on fire. (For some reason I’ve never understood, the French like to burn cars whenever they decide they’ve got some point they want to make publicly.) But life goes on. We watched the scene on Balboa along with the police guards for a little while, and then we started home.
Alberto called. “Mr. Lief, you and Miss Kathleen, you’d better stay inside. Don’t come out for nothing or nobody. It’s going to be bad today. You call me if you have any trouble.”
“But we’ve been out, Alberto,” Lief explained. “We took a walk along the Cinta Costera. Lots of people stuck in their cars. You’re right about one thing. We’re not getting to the office today. We’ll work from home.”
At home, Lief turned on the television and found the local news. The protestors were on the move. They were walking from Balboa and Calle 50, where we’d watched them, to the National Assembly building a few miles away. I went downstairs to my desk and my laptop. Lief said he’d work in front of the television.
An hour later, Lief called to me to come back upstairs. On the television now we saw protestors throwing rocks at the Assembly building and at the policemen guarding it. The police responded with tear gas. And then the scene deteriorated quickly. Protestors and police battled, and it wasn’t long before looters were breaking into nearby shops and wreaking general mayhem.
Lief and I stood in front of the television for 15 minutes. We couldn’t take our eyes off the screen. The scenes we were watching were taking place just a few miles from where we were standing. Maybe Alberto had been right all along. Maybe we should have been more concerned. What should we do now?
“Let’s have lunch,” Lief suggested. “Then, after, I’ll take a walk back up to the Cinta Costera to see what’s going on.”
We ate and then I accompanied Lief on his reconnaissance stroll. Around our house now, traffic was moving normally, and on Balboa, too. Lighter-than-usual traffic, but it was flowing in both directions alongside the Cinta Costera. No signs of the protestors and their road blocks of a few hours earlier.
We’d been planning for a couple of weeks to go to the beach this weekend, leaving Friday afternoon. “What do you think? Should we still go?” I asked Lief.
Alberto called again. “Mr. Lief, you and Miss Kathleen, you’d better not go out to the beach. You’d better stay home. Stay in your house all weekend.”
“But, Alberto, we’re out waking around right now. And we’re not the only ones. There are lots of people on the streets, walking and driving. People are moving around as normal. I think we’re going to pack up and head out to the beach as we’ve planned.”
“OK, Mr. Lief, but you call me if you need anything. I’ll race out there. You just call me.”
We packed, loaded ourselves, the kids, and all our beach gear into the car, and started out for the beach. To get from where we were to the Pan-American Highway leading to the beach where we were headed, we had to drive near where all the trouble had been all morning. I admit it. I was nervous. Lief didn’t admit it, but I think he was, too. Maybe we were being foolish. No weekend at the beach was worth whatever trouble we might encounter along the way. Alberto seemed pretty sure in his warnings, and he wasn’t the only one issuing them. Others were e-mailing photos of horrific scenes. Giving us play-by-play of horrific-sounding events. Maybe loading up the car with our children and driving in the direction of where all this was reported to be taking place was about as stupid a thing as we could possibly do at that moment.
But activity on the streets all around us was normal. And it continued to be the entire two-hour drive to Buenaventura, where we’ve spent the weekend.
As we approached Buenaventura Friday afternoon, Alberto called again. “Miss Kathleen, you can go out now. It’s ok. Everything has been resolved. They’ve signed the first pass of the repeal of the law. They’ll sign the second pass after midnight tonight. Then they’ll sign the third pass on Sunday. Martinelli is due home Sunday. He’ll sign the repeal on Monday. Everything will be ok. You go on out to the beach as you planned and have a good weekend.”
“We’re already there, Alberto,” I explained. “We left the city about two hours ago. Thanks for the update. I’m very glad to hear that everything has been worked out finally.”
The root of the trouble Panama has suffered the past couple of weeks and that reached its climax last Friday was the passing of a law by Panama’s President Martinelli that would have allowed the state to sell off government land in the Colon free-trade zone. This land historically has been rented. The back story goes that the land in question is rented to foreign business people who helped to finance Martinelli’s presidential campaign. In return for their campaign support, Martinelli had promised them that he’d allow them to buy the land they’d been leasing for so long. Now, the story continues, he was following through on that promise.
Only the people of Colon were having none of it. You can’t sell our land to those people, they decried. But the proceeds from the sales will be invested in Colon, Martinelli had promised, in infrastructure, schools, etc. The people of Colon didn’t buy it. They have a long-standing mistrust of Panama City politics. They were adamant. You cannot sell any land in Colon, they told Martinelli. Repeal the law that says you can. Or else.
Martinelli didn’t repeal. Colon followed through on its or else. At first, the trouble was centered in Colon, where the situation so deteriorated that three people were shot and killed, including a 9-year-old boy. That city has been shut down, out of business, for the better part of the past couple of weeks.
This past Thursday was the funeral for the little 9-year-old boy who’d been shot by police in the heat of one of the battles. The leaders of the Colon protestors called for a day of mourning and of peace. But, they promised, we’ll be back with a vengeance on Friday if the law hasn’t been repealed by that time.
President Martinelli, meantime, has been out of the country, on a tour of Asia. Very unfortunate timing for the man. Further complicating matters, it seems that, in Panama, a law can’t simply be passed (or repealed). It must be voted on in three stages, over at least three days. Martinelli out of the country, the remaining government body unable to organize itself in time, the repeal process for the law in question wasn’t begun by Friday. So the folks from Colon traveled down to Panama City, where they hooked up with the construction workers’ union (this part of the story escapes me…what stake did the construction workers have in all this?), blocked the roads, and generally got up to no good until, finally, pass one of the repeal of the offending law was signed Friday afternoon.
Alberto called us again this morning. “Mr. Lief,” he said, “all’s quiet. All over Panama, all’s quiet. The law is being repealed, and everyone has gone home. You come on back home to Panama City whenever you’re ready.”