Panama President Calls a Referendum Seeking to End Protests

Initial reactions to the president’s address were not favorable, maintaining the demand for an immediate cancellation of the concession

Ciudadanos protestan en contra del nuevo convenio minero con una empresa canadiense. Foto: EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

30 de octubre 2023


Sunday saw protests throughout Panama for the eighth consecutive day in popular rejection of a long-term mining concession to a Canadian company. Panama’s legislature and president had fast-tracked the contract through, with virtually no public consultation.

President Lorentino “Nito” Cortizo first signed the concession happily, claiming it would bring economic benefits to the country.  Six days into the protests, he tried to calm the waters by decreeing a moratorium on future mining concessions without even mentioning the one (Law 406) that has had the country at a near standstill with massive protests.

The ploy only stocked more wood on the fire, as evidenced by the protests on Saturday. On Sunday, with no end in sight to the popular demands, Cortizo made another brief address to the nation.  He said he’s been listening to the opposition to the mining concession and has decided to call a referendum on it for December 17th

Initial reactions from protestors reflected widespread distrust of the President’s intentions.

Here’s what President Cortizo said on Sunday:

“Today I want to refer again to the events that we are experiencing in the country. In reference to Law 406 of the mining contract that was born in 1991, 32 years ago.

“I have listened with respect to those who oppose the contract law with Minera Panama. I believe in democracy, and as president I understand the clamor of the voices that are expressed on the matter.

“For this reason, and so that the majority will is expressed in the most democratic way, the electoral court will request the convening of a popular consultation on Sunday, December 17, 2023, so that we Panamanians can decide with the power of the vote whether to repeal law 406 of the mining contract.

“Through citizen participation we will be able to legitimize the will of the people whose result will be of mandatory compliance. I also want to announce that we will be elevating the ban on future metal mining into law at the national level.”

TVN Noticias spoke with several citizens shortly after the president’s address:

Reactions to this new announcement have not been long in coming. Protesters remained emphatic that they demand “the repeal of the Mining Contract Law.” and that “the demonstrations rejecting it would not stop.”

Deputy Juan Diego Vasquez was one of the first to react on the social network X, pointing out that:

“The Electoral Court has said before that for popular consultations to have effect, they must be ordered through a law. It is difficult to give an opinion without seeing that project in writing. As soon as I have it, I will share it and analyze it. For now, not much more can be said. It’s time be very attentive,” he noted.

Former deputy Jose Luis Varela outlined his view on the process of convoking a popular consultation and the time variables involved.

1. The popular consultation must be approved by a Law of the Republic.  

2. The wording of “the question” to be brought to a vote is key.  

3. This debate in the National Assembly will take time.  

4. The National Assembly goes on recess in 2 days, therefore, they must call special sessions

5. National holidays begin this coming week.

Meanwhile, environmentalist Raisa Banfield indicated: “The referendum to decide on the contract is to transfer the responsibility of compensation for suspension of the contract to the population. Not to mention the waste of millions. The correct thing is a pause in the mining operation, until the pronouncement of Supreme Court on suits filed alleging unconstitutionality”.

One of the movements that started the fight against the mining contract, “Panama Vale Más sin Minería” (Panama is worth more without mining), also spoke out:

“Nito’s referendum is a trap. He wants to demotivate people until 12/17/23. It seems like he wants a month to rest… The people are in the streets. He is looking for time and to get his way (to save the contract). The people have been clear. NO TO THE MINING CONTRACT!  #PanamáSinMinería”.

Guillermo Marquez Amado, a former magistrate of the Electoral Court, criticized what was announced by Cortizo saying:

“Once again he is hiding the truth from us. He continues to consider us stupid. There is no respect for democracy, nor for the interests of the Panamanian people… We must wait for a diligent decision from the Supreme Court before anything else”.

Despite the president’s announcements seeking to dismantle the citizens’ movement, the leaders have said that the struggle in the streets continues, reported TVN Noticias.

This article was originally published by Havana Times.


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