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Why quiet Panama has erupted in deadly protests

PANAMA CITY — On the surface, the protests that have shaken Panama the past two weeks are about a government contract that allows a Canadian company to expand its copper mining operations here.

But what’s at stake, all sides say, is a much larger question: What kind of country is this Central American isthmus going to be — one that preserves its natural riches or develops them?

And if the answer is development, another question: Should a country that owes its existence to U.S. exploitation — Theodore Roosevelt broke it off from Colombia in 1903 so the United States could finish and control the Panama Canal — continue in 2023 to surrender its natural advantages to foreign investors?

Two more protesters were killed on Tuesday, police said, bringing the total during the demonstrations to at least four. The two, identified on social media as teachers, were at a barricade placed by protesters on the Pan American Highway in Chame, some 50 miles southwest of the capital, when a man stepped out of a car, produced a gun and opened fire, the Spanish news agency EFE reported. A suspect was taken into custody, police said.

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Supporters say the deal with Toronto-based First Quantum Minerals will fund thousands of jobs while paying the government at least $375 million per year — a boon for this country of 4.4 million, where the per capita GDP is less than $19,000.

Mining engineer Roberto Cuevas, president of the Mining Chamber of Panama, an industry group, says it addresses a basic problem: The country has an abundance of mineral resources but lacks the investment to provide jobs to thousands of Panamanians.

“It’s a resource that can bring a lot of good to the country if it’s well exploited,” he said. “It’s a resource that Panama needs.”

Protesters disagree. Panama’s constitution declares all mineral deposits the property of the state, to be extracted only by concession. The contract, negotiated without the public’s knowledge, gives First Quantum the right to mine copper across a 32,000-acre expanse in the Donoso district on the country’s Caribbean coast for at least 20 years.

“We have to eliminate mining from Panama at the root,” lawyer Cherly Santana said Sunday at a gathering on the Cinta Costera, an oceanside walkway a mile or so from the canal. “Our main resource is nature.”

First Quantum Minerals did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Bonita To, its director of investor relations, said last week that the company was proud to contribute 8,000 jobs to the Panamanian economy and was committed to operating the mine in an “environmentally safe manner.”

She called the Cobre Panama mine the largest private investment in the country’s history, and said it now accounts for nearly 5 percent of Panama’s GDP, makes up 75 percent of the country’s export goods and has created at least 40,000 jobs. “We believe in this project and its potential and welcome the opportunity to have constructive dialogue with the people of Panama about its future,” she said in a statement.

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The result? The largest protests here since the National Civic Crusade of 1987, when Panamanians put on white, took to the streets and banged pots and pans to protest the military dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Demonstrators now have shut down streets and vandalized businesses. Hundreds have been detained in clashes with police. At the height of the unrest, the Ministry of Education suspended school. Events celebrating The Fiestas Patrias, a three-day run of national holidays from Nov. 3 to 5, were postponed.

President Laurentino Cortizo, whose government negotiated the contract, describes it as a problem he inherited.

“When I took over the government in 2019,” he told Panamanians last month, First Quantum “was operating in our country exploiting copper and its associated minerals.”

When the country’s Supreme Court in 2021 ruled the contract unconstitutional, he said, he had a choice: Close the mine and jeopardize jobs and the economy, or negotiate a new deal.

“We made the right decision,” he said in a televised national address. “It wasn’t the easiest.” After “difficult and complex bargaining” over two years, he said, the sides reached an agreement that gives Panama “way better terms and conditions.”

Those terms, he said, include 9,387 direct jobs, an annual payroll of $357 million and social security contributions of $161 million.

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When the contract was presented to the National Assembly in August, lawmaker Juan Diego Vasquez pushed for more debate.

“For the first time, it became a space where the arguments were making it to national TV,” said longtime environmental activist Raisa Banfield, a former vice mayor of Panama City. “And when a lot of people listened to the environmental, climate, economic, judicial [and] technical arguments, they woke up.”

Cuevas, of the mining chamber, says First Quantum has been working in Panama for 10 years, but it’s only now that the public has learned of its operations.

“What this means,” he said, “is that this project hasn’t caused any negative effect.”

The assembly approved the deal, and Cortizo signed it.

“That was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Banfield said. “People are in the streets because they want a Panama without mining. We can’t give way like we’ve always done to international interests that want to control our resources.”

Opponents aren’t interested in Cortizo’s better contract. Among its provisions, it allows First Quantum to make offers on land it deems necessary for its operations. If the owner declines the offer, the contract states, the company can ask the government to seize it on its behalf.

“Throughout the entire contract you become aware that it’s redacted with a lot of protections and strengths for the company and many weaknesses and uncertainties for the Panamanian state,” Banfield said. “How could a government negotiate something like this?”

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“Panamanians felt completely mocked,” said Conzuelo Hooker, a 24-year-old law student. Hooker is a member of Sal de las Redes — loosely, “Get off Social Media” — an organization founded by young activists to promote civic engagement in real life. It has helped organize protests.

Now people of all ages and backgrounds, summoned by the children of those who stood up to Noriega in the 1980s, are jamming the streets of the capital and sea fences in Donoso. Their message: “Panamá vale más sin mineria” — “Panama is worth more without mining.”

Protesters say the government should instead be promoting industries such as sustainable agriculture, fishing and tourism. A march to the National Assembly had the feel of a block party, with costumes — a pig, a rat — vendors selling shaved ice and participants swaying to “Patria” by Panama’s own Rubén Blades.

“Panama’s gold is green,” read one sign. “Panama can’t be sold,” read another. A woman held a red umbrella bearing a hand-painted message: “To remove thieves from the streets, first we have to take them out of the government.”

“This is a collective awakening because we went from being behind a screen complaining to going out and taking action,” said Serena Vamvas, 32. “It’s a historic moment.”

Cortizo, hoping to appease the protesters, signed a moratorium last week on new mining concessions. It applies to 13 pending applications, but not to First Quantum, which already has its deal.

Protesters are not appeased.

It’s a “Band-Aid,” said Santana, the lawyer at the Cinta Costera. “It doesn’t solve anything.”

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The First Quantum contract is now before the Supreme Court, which could rule on its constitutionality as soon as next month.

“If the court declares that the entire contract is unconstitutional,” former Supreme Court magistrate Jerónimo Mejía said, “First Quantum is left without a contract. I don’t think it will be easy for them to win in an international arbitration court.”

One woman at the Cinta Costera is looking forward to a resolution.

“I turn 40 today!” her sign read. “My wish is that the court rules.”

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