Panama is on fire. Massive protests are rippling across the country. Road blocks.
Unions on strike. School classes cancelled. Workers, teachers and indigenous groups are in the streets. They’re protesting the government’s approval of a renegotiated contract with a Canadian mining firm for the operation of Central America’s largest open-pit copper mine.
They say it’s a threat to the environment and an attack on Panama’s sovereignty. Political analysts say the issue is having such an impact, because of the country’s long history of foreign intervention in the country, and particularly the US control over the Panama Canal, which lasted throughout the 20th Century.
Videography/Production: Michael Fox
Post-Production: Michael Fox
Michael Fox (narration): Panama is on fire. Massive protests are rippling across the country. Road blocks. Unions on strike. School and university classes canceled. Workers. Teachers. Indigenous groups are in the streets. They’re protesting the government’s approval of a renegotiated contract with a Canadian mining firm for the operation of Central America’s largest open-pit copper mine. It’s a massive land concession, almost the size of the city of Miami. They say it’s a handout to a foreign company. An attack on Panama’s sovereignty. And a threat to the environment.
Cristel Jimenez: And as a Panamanian, I’m sad, because they are ruining our natural resources. Threatening the animals. We are not in agreement with this law and the president signed it without consulting the people. And sadly this is all that the people have left… to fight.
Michael Fox (narration): The people in the streets say they will not back down. They have just one demand: Revoke the new contract.
Juan Smith: While the government does not rescind this law, we will remain in the streets, united. Because a united people will never be defeated.
Michael Fox (narration): The copper mine is run by Canada’s First Quantum Minerals, with investors including the Chinese state, the U.S. Capital Group, Fidelity, Vanguard, and BlackRock, among many others. It has been in production since 2019, and extracting 300,000 tons of copper a year. But two years ago, Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that the state contract with the mine was unconstitutional, because it did not serve the public good. The contract was renegotiated. This one, government officials said, was a huge improvement, offering windfall profits for the state. Last week, it was fast-tracked through Congress and signed into law by the president. But not without resistance.
Walkiria Chandler: These protests are going to grow like the night, when the sun goes down and that’s what we’re seeing outside and across the country. Because this assembly and the government that controls the country have not wanted to listen to the shouts of the Panamanian people, who continue to say that Panama is not a mining country. And they don’t want this mining contract.
Michael Fox (narration): The government has celebrated the new mining contract. They say it’s a huge win for the country that will save 40,000 direct and indirect jobs and provide sizable profits from mining royalties to the state.
Federico Alfaro: The contract ensures a minimum payment to the state of $375 million dollars a year, for the next 20 years. If you can compare this with what the state was receiving before, which was $35 million a year, it’s a substantial improvement to the past.
Michael Fox (narration): In an effort to appease the growing unrest, president Laurentino Cortizo spoke to the country on Tuesday and announced that by next month his government would be using these funds to lift pensions for retirees to a minimum of $350 dollars a month, a 75% rise over the current minimum.
Laurentino Cortizo: Today, I’m announcing that as of November 20, this increase will be a reality for 120,000 retirees who receive less than that each month.
Michael Fox (narration): But it only fueled the fire in the streets. Most Panamanians saw the proposed measure as an attempt to buy off retirees, while ignoring the central demand of the protest. Roads and major portions of the Panamerican Highway remained blocked across the country.
Construction Workers Union, Suntracs: This is the handing over of our land and our country to a multinational company. We will be here, until the people who approved this law, roll it back. Because without a fight there is no victory! Fight. Fighting! This is not one person’s fight! This is everyone’s fight!
Michael Fox (narration): This sentiment that the contract is an attack on Panamanian sovereignty runs deep. And it’s an important reason why the protests have gained so much traction. Political analysts say that in order to truly understand why so much of the population is against this mining contract, you have to look to the past.
Claire Nevache-Weill: From 1903 to 1999, Panama had an enclave in the middle of its territory, which was the Panama Canal Zone. Throughout the 20th century Panamanian citizens fought to get rid of that enclave of the most powerful country of the world, which was the United States, which was stuck in the middle of Panamanian territory, where Panamanian citizens could not enter that area. Where they couldn’t manage the most valuable asset of the country, which was the Panama Canal and its geographical position. So this is something that is very, very present in the Panamanian psyche. All of this has been underscored in the public opinion, by the NGOs that are fighting against the contract, as a return to the 20th century. To the same struggles that Panamanians already knew. And which took so many years to free themselves from. So, for Panamanian citizens, this is impossible to accept. It’s humiliating and it’s a feeling of returning to a moment of neocolonialism in which part of the country is being sold again to a foreign power. And that is something that the majority of Panamanian citizens are not willing to accept.
Michael Fox (narration): There is no end in sight for the protests. And many say Panama could be looking at a repeat of last year, when widespread street demonstrations and road blockages shut down the country for three weeks over inflation and rising gas prices. Analysts say that in comparison, today’s level of discontent may be even higher and include an even wider cross section of Panamanian society.
Claire Nevache-Weill: Last night, for example, there were construction unions calling for marches in the street. There were environmental NGOs also calling for marches. There were students from public universities in the street. Today there were high school students on the street. Panama’s Evangelical Alliance issued a statement. Panama’s Episcopal Conference issued a statement. In the neighborhoods with the greatest purchasing power in the city, people were banging pots and pans, which is a style of protest that’s much more typical of the higher classes of Panamanian society. So there really seems to be quite widespread discontent.
Michael Fox (narration): And there has been repression by the police. Dozens have been arrested. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. At least one photographer lost an eye, when he was fired on by state security forces. The future is uncertain. This all comes only eight months out from Panama’s 2024 presidential elections. It’s still unclear the impact the mining contract and the protests may have. But for those on the streets, what matters right now, is that they’re not going anywhere and the country is expecting a prolonged fight.
Cristel Jimenez: The people need to unite so that we are even stronger than those people in the legislative assembly. Those people who approved this contract. We only have left to fight and not to be silent.