Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli has promised to give in to the Colon protestors’ demands. He will shelve plans to sell state-owned land in the Colon duty-free zone. Martinelli had previously stated that the sale of the land would be for the benefit of the region; however, there was outrage in Colon upon the announcement.
The demonstrators demanded that, instead of selling the land, the government raise the rents on the land to generate funds that would then be put back into the region. They believed that selling the land would be a disaster for the local economy. After five days of violent protests, late Tuesday night, Martinelli issued a statement via Twitter saying, “If the people of Colon don’t want the sale of lands in the Free Trade Zone, the sale will be repealed.”
The city of Colon is one of the largest free-trade ports in the world, in operation since the 1950s. It is located at the end of the Panama Canal on the edge the former Panama Canal Zone. There are currently 2,000 companies operating in the profitable free-trade port area. Unfortunately, unlike Panama’s capital city, Colon is burdened by high levels of crime and poverty. Although Panama has experienced huge economic growth in the past few years, the people of Colon have seen very little of this new wealth.
The government’s land sales plan was expected to result in US$2 billion in revenues over 20 years, four times what would be earned during the same time in rents. The government insists the new law was created with the best intentions for Colon. As Martinelli explained during the height of the protests, “Colón deserves better days. This has always been our intention. Dialogue fixes everything.” However the people of Colon weren’t buying it. They have rejected this proposal many times before believing that it would damage local businesses, reduce local income, and cost jobs.
“We do not want the land to be sold because these are assets that belong to Colon,” said the head of the Colonense Broad Movement, Felipe Cabezas, during Friday’s rally. “Why sell if the country is not going through economic problems?” he added.
The protests started peacefully on Friday, but clashes between police and protestors followed over the weekend. The highway from Panama to Colon was blocked, at Bervena, after protesters placed barricades. Riot units arrived in the area to clear the road. Police have fired into to the crowds to disperse the protests, and three people have been killed in the crossfire, a 9-year-old child, a 29-year-old man, and, most recently, a 27-year-old woman. As of Tuesday, the police have arrested 275 people, and more than 20 people have been injured by gunfire.
The protests had spread to Panama City, where workers marched on the National Assembly. Similar demonstrations involving indigenous Ngäbe Bugle occurred in Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro, and Veraguas. President Martinelli has received criticism for not cutting short his official trip to Japan to attend to this domestic trouble.