Panama is open for business (5): Exploitation in bus terminal

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Inside the Panama City bus terminal

We supposedly have a pro-business government in Panama. President Martinelli makes these endless efforts to attract foreign investment, there's billboards telling us how easy it is to start your own company, we need to reform education and labor laws to facilitate business and so on.

If you are a small business, however, things are entirely different. If you've ever been at the Panama City bus terminal, you're no doubt familiar with the vendors who roam the platforms and enter the waiting buses to sell their merchandise. "Soda soda, soda bien fría!", they yell. They also have water, doritos, and even churros on offer. They're independent entrepreneurs, traders, buying low and selling a little bit less low. Free enterprise! But nothing could be further from the truth.

The vendors are angry, and with reason, if you read a leaflet from the National Union of Micro-entrepreneurs and Vendors (UNMEBU) they were distributing last week to passengers. First of all, the terminal doesn't allow them to bring their own merchandise; they have to buy it at retail prices from the merchants who rent space in the terminal. This way the vendors are de facto working for the terminal, but without the terminal paying social security or vacation etc. In plain English this is called "exploitation". For the privilege of being exploited, the vendors have to pay a daily fee of between $6 and $9 to the terminal. What's more, the management of the terminal has impounded merchandise, imposed high fines, and even arrested vendors for just being independent vendors.

The terminal is a private enterprise, but a public space. According to the bulletin from the merchants, they have to adhere to the municipal decree (Nr. 25 of 1999) that regulates the rights and obligations of street vendors.

So who's behind this harassment and exploitation? The terminal is owned by a company called Grupo Los Pueblos S.A., which also owns the Albrook shopping mall and various other malls and real estate projects.

And behind Grupo Los Pueblos are the usual suspects: Rich elitists, crooked oligarchs. The board of directors consists of Mayor Alfredo Aleman Chiari, Alfredo Placido Aleman Miranda and Hector Ernesto Infante.

According to a report on Global Integrity's website, Mayor Alfredo Aleman is a close friend of ex-president Ernesto Perez Balladares, and a former vice-president and secretary of collapsed narco-bank Banaico. He was previously indicted in the US in a drug trafficking case. He obtained the land in the former Canal Zone where now the Albrook Mall and the bus terminal are in what could be euphemistically described as a "sweetheart deal".

So that is what "open for business" really means in Panama. Rich crooks get to do what they want and small entrepreneurs who want to make a little money to feed their families are being harassed and exploited.

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