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.
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.