Business, Professional, and Labor Organizations

Panama Table of Contents

Traditionally, sectoral interest groups have played a minor role in Panamanian politics. Commercial and industrial interests were expressed largely within the extended family systems that constituted the oligarchy. A heavy reliance on government jobs inhibited the development of professional organizations that could reflect middle-class interests. The slow rate of industrial development, the major role of the United States as an employer of Panamanians in the Canal Zone, and fragmentation and infighting within the labor movement all contributed to keeping that sector chronically weak. Nevertheless, the absence of political parties during most of the 1970s, accompanied by economic expansion, led to a growing importance for sectoral groups as vehicles for the expression of political interests. Frustrations over the failures of the political process and the evident inability of political parties to control the military gave this trend further impetus during the 1980s. As a result, sectoral groups emerged during the 1987 upheavals as major political actors, mounting a significant challenge to military domination of the political process.

In the late 1980s, Panamanian businesses and professions were organized into numerous specialized groups, such as the Bar Association, the National Union of Small and Medium Enterprises, the Panamanian Banking Association, and the National Agricultural and Livestock Producers. Two of the most important organizations were the Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Agriculture of Panama and the Panamanian Business Executives Association. These and numerous other organizations were included in the National Free Enterprise Council (Consejo Nacional de la Empresa Privada--CONEP). The various groups within CONEP have often disagreed on issues, making it difficult to present a position of common interest. On two issues, however, protection from government encroachments on the private sector and the maintenance of their position vis-à-vis labor, members of CONEP consistently have found a unified position. Moreover, sentiment has grown increasingly within CONEP and many of its affiliated organizations that the problems facing the private sector extend beyond specific issues to growing problems within the political system as a whole. Resentment over continued military domination of the political system, a perception of increased corruption and inefficiency within the government, and a feeling that political conditions were increasingly unfavorable for business all combined to make many business leaders willing to join, and even lead, open opposition to the government when the June 1987 crisis erupted.

During the June 1987 crisis, business groups played a key role in the organization and direction of the CCN, which spearheaded protests against the regime. Many of the major bodies within CONEP, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Panamanian Business Executives Association, became formal members of the CCN. A total of more than 130 business, professional, civic, and labor groups joined the crusade, which undertook the task of organizing, directing, and coordinating the campaign to force Noriega out of power and to reduce the role of the military in government. The crusade deliberately excluded political parties from its membership and active politicians from its leadership. The presidents of CONEP and of the Chamber of Commerce took major leadership roles within the crusade, which emphasized peaceful demonstrations, economic pressures, and boycotts of government enterprises as means of forcing change on the government. The FDP responded with a campaign of measured violence and intimidation against the crusade's leaders and supporters. By the fall of 1987, most of the original leadership had been driven into exile and the effort appeared to have lost much of its impetus. The economic pressures continued, however; exiled leaders undertook a major international propaganda campaign against the government, and business groups within Panama kept up economic pressures, which began to have a serious impact on the economy and on government revenues. In December 1987, Delvalle offered an amnesty to most of the exiled crusade leaders, but this action neither appeased the opposition among the business and professional classes nor in any way responded to the causes that had created the crusade.

Although at the end of 1987 the crusade had not been able to force basic change on the government and the military, neither had the government and the FDP been able to end the campaign of civic opposition. How long the CCN would endure and what ultimate success it might enjoy remained unanswered questions, but the role and power of business and professional organizations within the Panamanian political structure had undergone fundamental change.

The Panamanian labor movement traditionally had been fragmented and politically weak. The political weakness of labor was exacerbated further by the fact that Panamanians working in the Canal Zone belonged to United States rather than Panamanian labor unions. The 1977 Panama Canal treaties made provisions for the collective bargaining and job security of these workers, and it was likely that Panamanian unions would replace United States unions when Panama assumed full control over the canal, but in the late 1980s, most canal workers remained with the original unions.

Labor organizations grew significantly in size and importance under Torrijos, who actively supported this trend. Major labor federations included the relatively moderate Confederation of Workers of the Republic of Panama, which had approximately 35,000 members, and the somewhat smaller, leftist, antibusiness National Workers' Central, which had ties with the Moscow-oriented PdP. There was also the Isthmian Workers' Central, a small confederation linked to the PDC. In 1972 these three bodies created the National Council of Organized Workers (Consejo Nacional de Trabajadores Organisados--CONATO) to give them a more unified voice and greater influence on issues of interest to organized labor. Other unions, including the important National Union of Construction and Related Workers, have since joined CONATO, increasing its affiliates to 12 with a claimed combined membership of 150,000. The diverse labor alliance in CONATO was an uneasy one, but the council succeeded in generating greater unity and militancy than had its component unions individually. A 1985 general strike called by CONATO forced the government to suspend plans to amend the labor code. Ultimately, however, the code was amended, reducing workers' job security. A March 1986 strike protesting these changes failed. CONATO reacted by urging its members to resign from parties that supported the government.

Despite the 1985-86 problems, labor generally was more supportive of the government than of the political opposition. This situation, however, was strained by the disturbances that began in June 1987. A few smaller labor groups joined the civic crusade, but CONATO did not. The government's problems, however, were compounded by a series of strikes by the public employees' union, the National Federation of Associations and Organizations of Public Employees (Federación Nacional de Asociaciones y Sindicatos de Empleados Públicos--FENASEP). The leadership of FENASEP even went so far as to threaten to respond to any government effort to dismiss government workers by publishing lists of all those on the government payroll "who do not go to work." CONATO was also critical of many government actions, demanding that closed newspapers and radio stations be reopened and that the government open a dialogue to end the continuing crisis. Whereas labor's influence in Panamanian politics remained limited, it was increasing steadily and was something that neither the government nor its political opposition could control or take for granted.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress