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BTL 2022

Canadian mining and the uprising in Panama

The protests can be seen as a rejection of the US-Canadian economic paradigm that has been enforced in Panama since the 1990s

Indigenous PoliticsLatin America and the Caribbean

Protest led by the Panama is Worth More Without Mining Movement in Panama City. Photo courtesy Radio Temblor.

Since July 1, nationwide protests have rocked the Central American country of Panama, with diverse social groups calling for the neoliberal government of Laurentino Cortizo to guarantee the economic security of the population in the face of rising food and fuel prices. The protestors represent a broad coalition of sectors: teachers, students, trade unionists, farmers, Indigenous organization, and others. Amidst state repression, their program quickly widened beyond the present inflation crisis to include the government’s inaction on poverty, unemployment, housing, corruption, Indigenous rights, and more.

The People United for Life Alliance, an organization that unites some of the leading protest groups, has forwarded a list of thirty-two demands which address a wide range of economic, political, and social dilemmas, including:

freezing the price of fuel and basic commodities, a general increase in salaries and pensions, freezing the price of medicine and resolving the lack of supply, greater budget for public education and healthcare sectors, better working conditions in the education and health sectors, repairing of schools, hospitals, roads, and other public infrastructure, measures to combat corruption, rejecting the four bilateral US-Panama military bases, policies to support the Indigenous communities and ensure the respect of their autonomy, withdrawal of the austerity measures such as 10% reduction of the state workforce and a voluntary retirement program for public sector employees…


Overall, the ongoing protest movement in Panama represents a concrescence of diverse movements unified by an awareness of the untenability of the current political order and the government’s need to implement drastic changes to guarantee the basic needs of the population.

For ten days after the protests began, the Cortizo government spurned dialogue and relied on repressive measures, before finally assenting to negotiate with members of the People United for Life Alliance and the Construction Workers Union (SUNTRACS) on July 11. On July 15, these organizations announced that the dialogue process was nothing but a “show” and vowed to continue protesting. These groups and others are currently maintaining blockades on roads to Panama City and in provinces such as Colon, Chiriqui, and Veraguas. Additionally, Indigenous organizations and farmers are blockading the Pan-American highway in Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, Azuero, and Pacora.

On July 14, the US embassy released a “situational awareness” advisory for US citizens in Panama, warning them to stay away from large gatherings and saying that “unfortunately, protests and road blockages are a part of life in Panama” and that they “may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or…manifestations of anti-US sentiment.” The advisory states that police may deploy tear gas when “aggression is used against [them],” a statement that justifies police brutality while eliding the manifold material causes for the emergence of the resistance movement.

The embassy of Canada, a country that dominates the Panamanian mining industry, released a statement on July 15 advising that “Demonstrations have been taking place around Panama” and that “Canadians should remain vigilant at all times, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings.” Like the US statement, the reasons for the popular uprising are totally omitted.

In many ways, the protests can be seen as a rejection of the US-Canadian economic paradigm that has been enforced within Panama since the 1990s. Following the US invasion and bombing campaign of 1989-1990, which killed 4,000 Panamanians and removed Manuel Noriega from power (Prime Minister Brian Mulroney later commented that “the US was justified”), an economic shift toward neoliberalism occurred in the country. This shift, which began under the governments of Guillermo Endara (1990-1994) and Ernesto Pérez Balladares (1994-1999), saw increased investment from US and Canadian companies and deeper collaboration with the International Monetary Fund. Simultaneously, agricultural and mining exports grew and the Panamanian state relied more and more on international investors.

In 2009, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Panama City and signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Ricardo Martinelli government. It went into effect in 2013. The FTA was signed following the collapse of the North American-backed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005, an agreement which would have created a hemispheric free trade zone on the disastrous NAFTA model. With the FTAA’s collapse and the concurrent rise of left-wing governments across the region, Ottawa sought to secure its investment interests by solidifying bilateral rather than multilateral FTAs with Latin American countries. This strategy involved signing FTAs with Costa Rica, the murderous post-coup Honduran state, and Panama.

The Harper government also attempted to negotiate a joint “Central American Four” FTA with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but the countries were unable to reach an agreement. The Nicaraguan Minister of Industry and Commerce Orlando Solorzano cited an “imbalance” in the positions of negotiators and explained that talks fell apart because “Canada would like to take full advantage of the market, but we see too weak a compensation not only for Nicaragua but for other countries in the region.” Meanwhile, Enrique Mejía Ucles of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council stated that “it will be difficult to land an agreement with Canada…they want everything just for them.”

One of the most important Canadian investments in Panama is the Cobre Panamá mine. The mine accounts for around 3.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Cobre Panamá⁠—which was owned by the Toronto-headquartered Inmet Mining until the company was acquired by Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals in 2013⁠—moved to the center of national politics in 2011-2012 amidst attempts by the Martinelli government to limit the rights to autonomy and self-government of the Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé nation, a move that would allow greater mineral exploitation on their territory. During the same period, the Panamanian government repealed a law that prevented foreign governments from investing in the mining sector. This repealing was central to the development of Cobre Panamá, since at the time, Inmet Mining was seeking financing from the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore and South Korea.

Cobre Panamá, a large open-pit copper mine in Panama, located 120 kilometres west of Panama City.

Protests continued through 2011 and into 2012, with social movements demanding the annulment of mining and hydroelectric concessions on Indigenous territory. Martinelli dispatched the riot police, killing one protestor, injuring thirty-two, and detaining forty. Protestors responded by blockading the entrances to Cobre Panamá and another mine owned by the Canadian company Petaquilla Minerals. During all this repression and popular resistance, no official in the Canadian government offered a single statement. Ultimately, the social mobilization was so powerful that Martinelli agreed not to sanction mining projects on or near Ngäbe-Buglé territory.

Nevertheless, the problem of mining on Indigenous land remains relevant to Panamanian politics, especially since current president Laurentino Cortizo revealed his intention to reform the mining code. Furthermore, Panama suffered one of the worst COVID-19 recessions in Latin America, and Cortizo has stated that the country’s post-pandemic recovery will rely on mining investment. However, Jen Moore of the Institute for Policy Studies writes that, “Given the prevalence of corruption and the constant violations of environmental regulations and the Constitution by mining companies in Panama, citizens see this mining stimulus plan as the government aiming to enrich itself and its cronies.”

The Panama Worth More Without Mining Movement (MPVMSM) arose in opposition to government plans to continue the development of the Canadian-owned Cobre Panamá mine. In April 2022, the group released a report that found over 200 “serious” breaches of environmental commitments by the project managers, including “the felling of 876 hectares…in an area of high biodiversity and international importance,” inaction on the promised reforestation of 1,300 hectares, and “the discharge of waste from the tailings tank into natural bodies of water without official endorsement.”

The group notes that the damages caused by the mine in the social, political, and economic spheres far outweigh its benefits. Even the 2022 “mining risk index” published by Americas Market Intelligence notes that “large-scale mining projects like Cobre Panamá, once operational, don’t tend to generate much local employment.”

The current uprising in Panama is also a challenge to the US government’s geopolitical agenda in Central America. Shortly before the outbreak of protests in early July, Panama formed the Alliance for Development in Democracy with Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, “an informal association which aspires to promote a better communication and comprehension between our countries and strategic partners [such] as the US.” The three member countries plan to “work together to court trade and investment from the United States, Europe, and Asia…and promote democracy and human rights in international forums—especially regarding [Daniel Ortega’s] Nicaragua.” Indeed, outgoing foreign minister of Costa Rica Rodolfo Solano explained that “this effort will involve seeking actors who could help mediate with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega” in order to “extract concessions” from the socialist-oriented US enemy.

Despite being a key member of a supposedly pro-democracy alliance that claims to be challenging regional authoritarianism, evidence has shown that “upwards of 60 percent of Panamanians support [the Panama Worth More Without Mining Movement]’s aims,” and yet, the government is continuing with the development of Cobre Panamá, a clear infringement on the popular will and the rights of the Indigenous people. Furthermore, if Panama was a true democracy, the state would engage with the broad coalition of protestors whose direct action has currently brought the country to a halt, instead of relying on the repressive measures and aversion to dialogue that has made the country such a strong ally of the US and Canada.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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