Panama is seeing a wave of massive protests sparked by the renewal of permits for one of the largest copper mining projects in the hemisphere. Tens of thousands have taken to the street to condemn the permit renewals, a result of embedded corruption in the Latin American country.
Protests erupted on October 20 after news broke of the approval of legislation that granted Canadian mining firm First Quantum Minerals the renewal of a license for twenty years—with an option to request an extension for an additional twenty years—for a controversial copper mining project on the country’s Caribbean coast. The mine has operated since 2019.
The law was quickly enacted by President Laurentino Cortizo on the same night that it was approved by the country’s congress, generating further anger across the country, which has seen growing political frustration in recent years.
The current mobilizations are the culmination of concerns raised across civil society, including from labor unions, Indigenous groups, environmentalists, and students. Quickly, demonstrators held massive marches and blocked roads throughout the country to condemn the renewal of the license, which protesters argue is threatening the environment and water resources.
“The people are in the streets in defense of sovereignty,” Saúl Méndez, a union leader, told the Associated Press following the approval of the renewal, “in the face of a contract that cedes self-determination by devastating the environment to steal resources.”
In response to the protests, Cortizo announced on October 29 that he was seeking a national referendum set for December to decide the fate of the mining contract, as well as requesting that the country’s congress pass legislation that would ban metallic mining nationwide. But Cortizo’s proposals aren’t enough to quell protests, as the size of the demonstrations is reflective of larger dissatisfaction with corruption and the political status quo.
In recent years, Panama has seen increased protests against corruption, such as in 2021 and 2022. Protests have centered around the rise in fuel prices and an increase in cost of food and education, but they quickly expanded to condemn political corruption.
“Politicians are worse than ever, corrupt in every way,” Serena Vamvas, a thirty-two-year-old environmentalist leader, told Mongabay in September 2023 during early mobilizations against the mining deal. “They sell our land for nothing. But what makes me feel hopeful is that we are starting to wake up.”
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Panama ranks 101 out of 180 in the perception of corruption, with 56 percent of Panama’s population thinking that corruption has grown worse in the last year.
But there have been some advancements in the struggle against corruption and impunity in recent years.
In July 2023, former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced to ten years in prison for money laundering as part of a scheme to use embezzled government funds to buy shares of the media conglomerate Editora Panamá América.
His conviction was praised by members of the international community, including the United States, as a step towards breaking impunity in Panama.
Just prior to the sentencing of Martinelli, the U.S. State Department sanctioned another former president, Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez, for “significant corruption.” According to the State Department, Varela Rodríguez had “accepted bribes in exchange for improperly awarding government contracts” while serving both as vice president from 2009 to 2014 and subsequently as president from 2014 to 2019.
“This designation reaffirms the commitment of the United States to combat endemic corruption in Panama,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated in the press release announcing the sanctions. “The people of Panama place trust in those who represent them.”
Blinken added: “If not addressed, corruption will continue to depress Panama’s prosperity, weaken its democracy, and prevent it from realizing its full potential.”
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