Can Panama’s civil society actually win battles?

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Minister Mulino called activists "maleantes de mierda"

Our racist ("we don't need Africans here") minister of government and justice, Raul Mulino, threw a fit last week when confronted with members of labor union SUNTRACS blocking Avenida Balboa, calling them "maleantes de mierda" which means as much as "thuggish pieces of shit". This is good news. It means the SUNTRACS tactic of having small groups block traffic at various points in the city is working.

But that's no guarantee for final victory. Most protests and activist campaigning in Panama is done in a way that will never obtain any results. MarViva for example, now has billboards up at bus stops and the like that only display its logo, the purpose of which is a mystery to us. CiamPanama, a group against bad mining companies like Petaquilla, does explain on its billboards why they are against these mines, but not what the public can do about it or how they can help the organization, or even what they plan to do about these mines themselves. Much of FRENADESO's campaigning efforts are done in small corners of the internet and almost all of it is in fact preaching for their own parish: They mostly communicate with people who already agree with them. Other groups, like the Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia, Transparency Intl. and the new Cruzada Civilista, are elitist and/or don't campaign at all.

For civic groups to accomplish their goals takes more than this. It's like running an insurgency. And here are, from expert John Robb, the Ten Commandments of running such an insurgency, adapted to activism/organizing:

1. Break Networks.
This is what SUNTRACS and FRENADESO are already doing with their roadblocks; they're breaking the road network. This could be expanded with more mobile groups hitting at different spots and a web of informants to stay ahead of police movements. Also, a mine like Petaquilla depends for its supplies (fuel, equipment, food, etc.) on just one road. Panama City has only three access points. This tactic, if persistently applied, works. It's what made Morales president of Bolivia. Disrupting networks isolates the government, instills doubt and uncertainty and reduces their legitimacy as they are unable to provide basic services like, in this case, mobility and transportation.

2. Grow Black Economies
This shouldn't be taken as it's mentioned on Robb's site, with insurgent groups getting into drug trafficking and whatnot to fund their operations. But a civic activist group will need money to operate, and they could do so by engaging in the "drop-out economy". Also, why isn't there an activist shop in Albrook Mall where you can buy everything from SUNTRACS shirts to responsibly mined gold to books from MarViva or the Alianza Pro Justicia?

3. Virtualize Your Organization
You don't need a hierarchically organized army. Work with loosely connected groups and even "free-lancers" to accomplish your goals. Most people, especially in Panama, don't want to be "enlisted", but they might be willing to help out if required, especially if they see an increasing success rate.

4. Repetition is More Important than Scale
In other words, it is much more effective to keep the road infrastructure (or other networks that can be disrupted non-violently) in a permanent state of disfunction than to spend a huge organizational effort on a one-time big protest march.

5. Coopetition not Competition
All groups that are opposing some government policy, be it mining, tax reforms, educational policy or judicial policy, are by default allies. In Panama the various civic groups compete among themselves for attention, members, funding. This is a big mistake that guarantees defeat, because it becomes so easy to play these groups against each other (this is the main reason resistance against the Canal expansion project in 2006 never went anywhere and was, in fact, an easy victory for the government and the interests it represented). They should adopt the attitude of coopetition, meaning that they share resources, knowledge, platforms. This doesn't mean there should be some sort of new umbrella organization. It means that they share a common platform from which to pursue different goals.

6. Don't Fork the Insurgency
This refers to the trend to improve the cohesion of one group at the expense of others. The result is an overall weaker opposition. We saw this happen among the victims of the military dictatorship, organized in different groups that were fighting among themselves. This kind of social network disruption is to be avoided in general, unless it's aimed at the government, i.e. isolating the Panameñistas from Cambio Democratico.

7. Minimalist Rule Sets
We're opposing the government, not replacing it. Not every civic group needs a constitution, declarations, rules, bylaws and whatnot.

8. Self-Replicate
This goes contrary to the instinct of many groups to run their own exclusive little fiefdoms, but you need to make copies of yourself.

9. Share Everything that Works
Relatively small groups do not have the resources to innovate and invent everything themselves and for themselves exclusively. So the rule is to share everything that works, but also to use everything that works.

10. Release Early and Often
Innovations, whether they are tactics or software platforms or whatever, should be released and used early instead of endless fine-tuning and perfecting them first. Then, if an improvement is made, it should be released immediately too.

Whether civic groups work with these tips or not, they will need to improve their effectiveness. With the PRD in shambles, there is no political channel right now for discontent and opposition, and if civic groups don't take their role more seriously it will be the crime syndicates - as in gangs and transnational drug networks - that will fill the gap.

4 thoughts on “Can Panama’s civil society actually win battles?

  1. Have you watched these thugs whistling and hissing at 11 year old school girls walking by the construction site, blocking the streets and throwing rocks at innocent women on the sidewalk ? “maleantes de mierda” is a very good description of this behaviour.

  2. Good stuff but I don’t think Panamanians are capable of even basic ‘insurgency’ . To ‘vago’ for that too. Like Barney observations above makes clear, they are un-diciplined, allowing the other party to easily undermine their moral advantage, they don’t protest on the weekend, the folks like Alianza Pro Justicia and CIAM are way to civilized to effectively fight these cynical government thugs so, forget…..

    You get the government you deserve: that also applies to Panama.

    A Panamanian friend described it very well:

    Panama: una mierda donde se vive muy bien.

    • @ Scotty: I a sort of agree with you, yet I also think that if civil society fails to organize effective opposition things will get a lot worse than a couple of protesters throwing stones. Things are already moving in that direction with increased violence etc. See for example:

      “But then, suddenly, on the afternoon of Friday, May 12, 2006, São Paulo came under a violent and coordinated attack. The attackers moved on foot, and by car and motorbike. They were not rioters, revolutionaries, or the graduates of terrorist camps. They were anonymous young men and women, dressed in ordinary clothes, unidentifiable in advance, and indistinguishable afterward. Wielding pistols, automatic rifles, and firebombs, they emerged from within the city, struck fast, and vanished on the spot. Their acts were criminal, but the attackers did not loot, rob, or steal. They burned buses, banks, and public buildings, and went hard after the forces of order—gunning down the police in their neighborhood posts, in their homes, and on the streets. The police shot back and killed some people, but the others did not stop. They were like ghosts.

      (…)

      State authorities claimed that the situation was under control, but television showed that it was not. In fact, the authorities were barricaded inside their headquarters watching the same broadcast scenes. Some of the replays were set to music. The attacks continued in irregular waves, without discernible patterns. Through Friday night and across the weekend the police reeled backward, abandoning their posts, only to be ambushed in the open. The police in São Paulo are despised for corruption and brutality, but they do loosely stand for law and order, and it was shocking to see them in retreat. Over the first two days more than 40 police officers and prison guards were killed, and also one of the firemen responding to the flames. For every agent killed, several others were wounded. Passersby died, caught in the crossfire. The national government offered to send in the army, but for political reasons the state refused.”

      Read the whole story here: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/04/langewiesche200704

      You have any idea how easy it would be to bring Panama City to a complete standstill with just small groups of networked gang members/protesters willing to use violence?

  3. Agree. El Panameno will not rise if violence ensue. My thesis is different. Only two groups will do it. The indigenous, if push gets to shove, and the organized workers in the city. There is a slight chance that the population in Colon will follow. I repeat. Slight chance, due to poor living conditions. And the middle class, if these new tax goes thruogh. But is going to take more than a small flare up to do it. Martinelli seem to believe the forces under Peres are capable of stop any violence from escalating. I think he is wrong. The administration, at best, can’t count on 5% of the force to fight, if the shit hits the cealing. Mind you, I hope it does not get to that point, violence, but it sure as hell looks like it headed in that direction. Historicaly, the kids will be in front. UP, Nido de Aguila, etc. The only missing point is a link between all the groups. If, some one is smart enought to do it; the party is over. A shame, since Martinelli was the hope, and have turned out to be a nightmare for the panameno people. Good pieces, Okkie.

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