Tuesday, September 07, 2010

[olympiaworkers] The Struggle of the banana workers in Bocas de Toro (Panama)

Libcom.org Sep 6 2010

An article written by the International Communist Current on the basis of
information received from comrades in Central America. This struggle seems
to have received no publicity in the official media. It is followed by a
statement of solidarity by LECO (Liga por la Emancipación de la Clase
Obrera), a left communist group in Costa Rica

The Struggle of the banana workers in Bocas de Toro (Panama)

Various comrades and groups have sent us information and comments on this
struggle that took place recently. We are deeply grateful to them for
their collaboration and encourage them to continue. We all know that the
media is not neutral and shamelessly serves its masters, the state and
capital, sometimes implementing a total black-out on workers' struggles -
particularly those that show clear tendencies towards solidarity, self
–organisation and militancy ..., and sometimes organising scandalous
campaigns of slander as was seen recently during the Metro strike in
Madrid. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the advanced
minorities of the class rapidly communicate valuable information about
workers' struggles to each other [1].

We are not talking about cheering ourselves up by only publicising the
positive bits of struggle. The working class does not need pats on the
back. We need truthful information and shouldn't be afraid of highlighting
weaknesses, obstacles and problems.

Referring back to the struggles in Panama, we want to underline that
despite the weaknesses and limitations that the workers' struggles still
suffer from today, we are nonetheless seeing one very positive aspect:
struggles are developing simultaneously in the so-called "rich" countries
(Great Britain, Greece, France, China, Spain ...) and in the "poor"
countries (Rumania, Panama, Bangladesh, India …). This is despite the fact
that there are still huge obstacles to overcome for the unity of the
international proletariat to be fully achieved in breaking down the
barriers between workers in the "rich" and "poor" countries that the
ruling class fully utilises for its own ends.

The strike erupted on July 1st in the banana growing province of Bocas de
Toro, bordering Costa Rica. Workers were demanding unpaid wages on the one
hand and, expressing their opposition to the problems posed to it by the
new law proposed by the Martinelli government, Statute 30, which "limits
the right to strike and collective bargaining, legalises the hiring of
'scabs' and grants the police immunity by giving it rights outside the
Panamanian Constitution "[2]. This Statute 30 also has articles that
cancel the automatic payment of union contributions by the bosses. It also
includes repressive measures such as the legalisation of spying, with a
decree of the Ministry of Public Security to legalise the figure of the
"secret agent" who has a free hand to spy on and accuse anyone "engaged in
activities that harm national security, State assets, social cohesion",
which means that anyone can be denounced.

The unrest that these measures caused led to more than 10,000 people
demonstrating on June 29th in Panama City. But the combativity of the
banana workers quickly reached the centre stage of the social situation.
The strike spread quickly throughout the province. "From July 1st more
than forty pickets blocked the twenty access points to Bocas de Toro,
mobilising a huge popular suppor; and groups of indigenous people from all
the estates in the area were quick to join the struggle begun by the
banana workers' union, gathering at the barricades the workers had
organised and in the occupation of the airport, which was completely shut
down." The workers assembled at the entrance to the main city of the
province, and then led a demonstration calling for everyone to join the
struggle. These actions quickly found an echo in the solidarity of the
population, clearly expressed in the demonstrations and daily support in
the assemblies. Following some brutal police attacks, barricades were
removed from both urban roads and rural pathways. Despite pressure from
the authorities, parents decided against sending their children to school
and, in the follow up, high school students expressed their solidarity
with the struggle, completely shutting down the educational
"In addition to indigenous and neighbouring groups, the strike of banana
workers quickly united the teachers and construction workers working on
the extension of the Panama Canal, opposed to cuts in their wages and to
some of the principal workers' leaders being sacked. Students at the
University of Panama also demonstrated, blocking the Transísmica Way in
support of the struggle of the banana workers and against Statute 30,
before also coming up against brutal repression that ended with the
detention of 157 students from the College of Arts and Crafts who joined
in blockading the Transísmica Way with students from the University of

The government unleashed a savage crackdown. It was particularly brutal in
the town of Changuinola, at the centre of the strike in the banana
plantations. According to various sources, there were six dead and
hundreds wounded, shot by the anti-riot police ordered in by the President
of the Republic. They used pellets that caused serious damage to the eyes
of many protesters. According to one witness, "Children died in
residential areas suffocated by the tear gas. They are victims of
respiratory problems, according to the authorities who consequently do not
consider them victims of police brutality", which would add to the number
of dead. Another witness said that "the police went searching homes and
hospitals for the injured to imprison them. With no warrants of any kind
they carried out raids on the homes, and right up to the Presbytery they
have carried out arrests. They have tortured, beaten up, intimidated and
abused ...."

The unions workers stab the workers in the back

In the face of this brutal repression, the union leaders immediately
offered the government an olive branch. Negotiations between government
representatives and the union, Sitraibana [3] opened on the 11th. The
union called for the resumption of work under the terms of an agreement
whose only demand satisfied was the withdrawal of certain articles of as a
whole Statute 30, which would have abolished the employers' payments to
the unions! The union was shameless in looking after its own specific
interests and has disregarded the workers' demands and the violent attack
that Statute 30 represented!

Some sectors of workers have opposed a return to work and remained on
strike until July 14th, daily protests across the whole population were
not quashed, and on July 18th there were demonstrations across the country
as a sign of mourning for workers killed.

To calm the situation down, "Martinelli and Co have visited Bocas de Toro
as if they were still on the election trail, offering gifts, with false
promises and weak excuses without acknowledging the scale of government
responsibility for the massacre of people. The media did not broadcast any
more of the many demonstrations of popular protest against what was,
without doubt, an affront to the dignity of the people."

In addition, the President organised a Commission of Inquiry, composed of
government, employer, religious and trade union representatives, to "shed
light on what happened in the province of Bocas de Toro between 5th and
13th July, 2010" and a 'Round Table' was set up to "examine the working
conditions of workers in the banana plantations", which, as one of the
messages we have received says "is a commission of me and me."

By combining the carrot and stick, fierce repression with displays of
dialogue and parliamentary action, the Panamanian bourgeoisie appears to
have emerged victorious from this conflict, having toughened and degraded
working and living conditions and strengthened repression and the hand of
the bosses. Some dissident unions promised a "general strike" without
fixing a date.

Some lessons

Union control of the struggle led to the workers being served up with
their hands and feet tied. Initially, the Sitraibana has shown itself to
be combative and all the leftist organisations and unions cited it as a
"model". This "radical" reputation allowed its leaders to make a 180º turn
around and draw up an "agreement" with the government that demobilised the
workers despite some resistance having been expressed. This shows us that
workers, whether unionised or non-unionised, need to take collective
control of their struggles by wresting it from the hands of the
treacherous trade unions, and need massive assemblies open to others
workers, in order to monitor the day to day developments of the struggle,
the negotiations, the actions needed, etc.. These measures are vital so
that the solidarity, camaraderie, collective strength, heroism and the
consciousness that develop in the struggle are not wasted and lost,
causing disillusionment and demoralisation.

The fact that the province of Bocas de Toro is one of the poorest areas of
the country, inhabited by many indigenous oppressed and impoverished
tribes, has been a heavy burden on the struggle and has contributed to it
being led off course from a truly proletarian and autonomous struggle. The
strike was the signal for a major wave of popular discontent. This is
positive when the proletariat is able to channel this discontent onto its
own class terrain against capital and the state. However, it is negative
and weakens the proletariat as well as the emancipation of these social
strata, if - as happened in this fight – it becomes an inter-classist
mobilisation that emerges in favour of "restoring the democratic freedoms
under attack by Statute 30" and "the implementation by central government
of some investments in the neglected province" in order to give
"recognition to the ancestral rights of the indigenous peoples".

When the struggle sinks into this populist quagmire, there is just ONE
WINNER, CAPITAL. It never declares its real interests for what they are –
its own selfish interests at the expense of the vast majority - but
dresses them up in the false disguises of "the people" and "citizens", of
"social rights" and other meaningless drivel. These deceptions take away
the proletariat's identity and class autonomy and thus succeed in
disarming it and all the oppressed population along with it.
ICC (July 27, 2010)

[1] We warmly welcome the ESPAREVOL Forum (in Spanish), which makes a
significant effort to gather news and find press releases on workers'
struggles. See

[2] The quotations are from information received from different comrades.

[3] Sitraibana: Trade union of workers in the banana industry.

Solidarity with the workers of Panama: Statement by LECO (Liga por la
Emancipación de la Clase Obrera) , Costa Rica

We want to salute and give our support to the struggle that workers in
Panama have recently developed. The unity of the different sectors shows
that the workers recognised that this is where their strength lies; it was
an effort by the working class to free itself from the framework imposed
by the unions and the organisations of the left of capital. The unions
play the role of negotiators, which is the reason for their existence, and
workers are the victims of this. But this does not mean that the
proletariat is defeated: it is taking up its international experience in
order to know how to confront the bourgeoisie and its agents with
accuracy. The unity in struggle that the workers of Panama have shown is
being accompanied by a resurgence of solidarity on the part of the working
class in different struggles. For some time now atomisation has reigned
and, although the efforts to overcome this have been isolated, they are
nonetheless important since they show the road that the struggle has to
Thus spreading these struggles will be a step forwards for the working
class by bringing together different sectors, such as the banana workers
and students in Panama, and showing that workers in all sectors and all
countries are carrying out the same struggle with the same interests.

The banana workers
The banana workers are hit very hard by the most disgusting conditions of
exploitation. Here in Costa Rica they are subjected to all kinds of
pesticides, even including those that are illegal, and they have to work
in dangerous working conditions, such as with the threat of being bitten
by poisonous snakes. It is the same for the pineapple workers. The attack
on living conditions carried out by the bourgeoisie in Panama is the same
as that carried out in the rest of the world increasingly threatened by
the crisis. Faced with this the banana workers have carried out a struggle
that is valuable for the whole class.
The unions and organisations of the left, compromised on all sides by
parliamentarism and capitalist democracy, have ended up burying the
working class' efforts to develop its struggle. Thus, when there are no
movements, they call for strikes and demonstrations in order to be able to
undermine general discontent, and when struggles try to spread beyond one
sector, they take control of it. The unions as much as the leftist groups
call for calm and for democratic and 'peaceful' solutions that imprison
the workers on the terrain of the bourgeoisie, from whom these
'representatives' get a slice of the cake.
In Costa Rica, as happened in Panama, the negotiations in 2000 to end the
struggle against the "electricity Combo" took place when the leaders of
the unions and leftist groups became part of the negotiating commission
and thus prevented the workers developing their own autonomous mechanisms
of struggle and cleared the way for the police and their repression. A
struggle that the unions initially wanted to carry out for their own ends
was put under pressure by the workers when they took to the streets
demanding much more and calling on everyone to struggle. Many workers took
part independently of the unions; the neighbourhoods were self-organised
and there were confrontations with the police. The unions had to run to
catch up in order to control the strikes and to bring 'democratic' calm to
the country again and to try and erase the consciousness of hundreds of
thousands of workers and exploited people who had supported the strikes
and had shown that this protest movement had succeeded in spreading beyond
sectional interests.
Today all those leaders who supported the negotiation of the struggles
through a commission and called for peace and democracy are participating
in bourgeois elections and looking for parliamentary and union positions
in order to survive as part of this class, as its 'practical' layer. The
same story is repeated whenever there are efforts to develop struggles
that really defend class interests, as with May 68. Therefore, we must
unite our struggles beyond borders in order to be able to develop them and
in order that workers can discuss and gain the experience of the whole

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