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Cablegate: Panama's Suntracs: Union or Political Protest

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 PANAMA 000810

SIPDIS

STATE FOR WHA/CEN
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/11/2015
TAGS: PGOV PREL ELAB PINR SOCI PM CU VE LABOR HUMAN RIGHTSPOLMIL
SUBJECT: PANAMA'S SUNTRACS: UNION OR POLITICAL PROTEST
MOVEMENT?

REF: A. 03 PANAMA 02416
B. 03 PANAMA 02308
C. 03 PANAMA 02321
D. PANAMA 00628
E. 04 PANAMA 02661
F. 04 PANAMA 00892

Classified By: DCM CHRIS MCMULLEN FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)

SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) Recalling the September 2003 street violence sparked
by the firing of Social Security (CSS) director Juan Jovane
(reftels A, B, C), Panama is collectively holding its breath
as the GOP prepares to release its proposed CSS reforms. The
SUNTRACS construction union and its labor confederation
CONUSI are at the center of past, present, and future CSS
protest (reftels B, D). By their own self-evaluation,
SUNTRACS and CONUSI aspire to revive a nationalistic,
class-conscious union movement, guided by Marxist theory and
rejecting "neoliberalism." SUNTRACS and CONUSI officials
played down their radical, rabble-rouser reputations at
recent separate discussions with PolOff. Instead, they cast
themselves as pragmatic political organizers with a
well-thought-out, concrete, and reasonable program of ideas
on CSS reform and on the proper role of the Panamanian labor
movement. SUNTRACS's advantageous collective bargaining
agreement with construction firms gives it financial and
political independence (especially from the ruling PRD party)
that sets it apart from other labor unions in Panama. At the
same time, the SUNTRACS and CONUSI leadership are
ideologically attuned to Cuba and Venezuela, although rumors
about Cuban and/or Venezuelan financial support are harder to
pin down. SUNTRACS's penchant for violence makes it a target
of widespread public criticism. End Summary.

$6,000,000 STRIKE FUND
----------------------

2. (SBU) SUNTRACS Secretary General Genaro Lopez, CONUSI
Secretary General Gabriel Castillo, and Minister of Labor
Reynaldo Rivera all told PolOff in recent weeks that
SUNTRACS's strength comes from its advantageous collective
bargaining agreement with the Panamanian Chamber of
Construction (CAPAC). The agreement permits SUNTRACS (Sole
National Union for Construction and Related Industry) to
collect 2% of workers' wages from construction firms under
the agreement. In recent years that has totaled $500,000
annually, according to Lopez, as employers pay dues under the
agreement for 5,000 SUNTRACS members. (Note: SUNTRACS has
38,000 members, some of whom are unemployed, but the
collective bargaining agreement covers only 5,000 of its
employed members. End Note.) As a result, Minister Rivera
asserts, SUNTRACS wields a $6 million strike fund.

OF NATIONALISM AND NEOLIBERALISM
--------------------------------

3. (SBU) In a country that only recovered control of the
Canal Zone in 1999, SUNTRACS frames its class-conscious
arguments as a nationalist fight for sovereignty. Lopez told
PolOff that he rejects "neoliberalism" because GOP
privatization of state-owned companies has caused a loss of
sovereignty (as foreign firms have entered the market as
investors), a loss of jobs, and an export of profits.
Privatizations, he asserted, increased prices but decreased
services. (Note: In October 2004, a combination of firings,
price increases, and electrical power outages helped touch
off violent SUNTRACS-backed protests in Bocas del Toro. See
Reftel E.)

CLASS-CONSCIOUS REVIVAL
-----------------------

4. (SBU) SUNTRACS's motto -- recalling the radical
syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (or IWW)
-- is one "grand, class-conscious, combative, and
revolutionary" union. A 1999 SUNTRACS publication, still
posted on its website, outlines its "Class-Conscious Project
of the Panamanian Union Movement." The document argues that
General Omar Torrijos (President Martin Torrijos's deceased
father) destroyed class-based unionism in Panama thirty years
ago by coopting the union leadership, leaving it docile,
disorganized, undemocratic, and corrupt. (According to one
scholar, General Torrijos brought pro-Moscow union leaders
into his government who would play ball, while persecuting
others.)

5. (SBU) SUNTRACS's "Class-Conscious Project" concludes
with a Marxist ideological flourish stressing that the
highest aspirations of the working class cannot be achieved
in a capitalist society but only through "radical
transformation of unjust structures in the present
exploitative system and construction of a free and just
society" without private property or exploitation.

CONUSI: TO STRENGTHEN THE MOVEMENT
----------------------------------

6. (SBU) In 1998, SUNTRACS formed the labor confederation
CONUSI (Confederation of Independent Labor Unions) in an
attempt to return the Panamanian union movement to its
class-conscious roots by:

- ending union cooptation and corruption;

- using "combative" methods (like street closures) in
addition to negotiation;

- uniting with democratic, patriotic, and popular sectors
against neoliberalism; and

- creating a nationalist, working-class consciousness.

7. (SBU) CONUSI has some 60,000 members from 26 unions and
4 federations and is one of eight members of Panama's
principal union umbrella organization, the National Council
of Organized Workers of Panama (CONATO). According to
Castillo, CONUSI members include electrical engineers, canal
mechanics, and communications, airline, supermarket, and
banana plantation workers. SUNTRACS provides financial and
technical assistance to CONUSI.

PRAGMATIC UNION ORGANIZERS?
---------------------------

8. (SBU) Despite the "New Left" rhetoric in SUNTRACS's and
CONUSI's publications, Castillo and Lopez are hardly
ideological anachronisms. They came across to PolOff as
pragmatic, politically savvy organizers. Lopez described
SUNTRACS as a union whose social movement lies in its
influence within CONUSI. Sizing up the forces at his
disposal, Lopez emphasized that SUNTRACS and CONUSI serve as
political counterweights to the private sector that (he
hopes) will prevent the government from backing private
sector interests wholesale.

APART FROM COMMUNIST SYMPATHIES...
----------------------------------

9. (SBU) The media has occasionally linked Lopez and
SUNTRACS officials to communist and Cuban influence. In a
1998 press article, Lopez allegedly admitted to being a
communist. Lopez was reluctant to characterize his ideology
to PolOff, saying only that he "can't deny that he aspires to
a more just society." His words echoed his August 1999
preface to the "Class-Conscious Project" where he wrote that
"the important thing is that we continue fighting for the
construction of a more just society, socialism."

...AND ALLEGED CUBAN TIES...
----------------------------

10. (SBU) In early May 2001, Panamanian media published a
partially obscured photo of Lopez supposedly handing out
leaflets with Cuban Embassy official Felix Luna Menderos at a
protest against a GOP plan to raise bus fares. Both the
Cuban Embassy and SUNTRACS denied any attempt to collude to
overthrow Panama's constitutional order and Luna denied
funding SUNTRACS (though Luna has never denied meeting with
Lopez). The media later identified the man in the photo with
Lopez as a Panamanian. SUNTRACS Secretary General Saul
Mendez accused the Moscoso administration of trying to
discredit SUNTRACS at the time, but also admitted to having
traveled to Cuba to attend a Congress of a Cuban union on May
1, 2001. Nonetheless, many Panamanians believe that Cuba
provides financial support and/or tactical advice to
SUNTRACS.

INDEPENDENCE FROM PANAMANIAN POLITICAL PARTIES STANDS OUT
--------------------------------------------- ------------

11. (SBU) Reacting to rumors pointing to Cuban financing
(reftels B, E, F), Lopez insisted to PolOff that since 1990
(after Operation Just Cause unseated the military government
that nourished it) SUNTRACS has maintained its independence
from political parties, foreign governments, and
international organizations. He denounced allegations of
Cuban financing as "GOP lies." Lopez acknowledged that prior
to 1990 (SUNTRACS was formed in 1972), SUNTRACS received
support from Panama's military regime. Lopez assumed
responsibility for SUNTRACS in 1990.

12. (C) Corroborating Lopez's claims, MOJG Security Advisor
Severino Mejia told PolOff that SUNTRACS is a purely domestic
and internal group with no links to foreign nations or
international terrorist organizations. Similarly, Labor
Minister Rivera denied any foreign influence in SUNTRACS or
CONUSI.

13. (SBU) Lopez contrasted SUNTRACS's financial and
political independence, made possible by its collective
bargaining agreement with CONATO's union confederations. He
then rattled off each group's affiliation, all of which he
asserted receive financing from the governing PRD party,
except the Group Confederation of Workers (CGT) (Panamenista
Party) and the General Worker's Central of Panama (CGTP)
(Democratic Change Party). Lopez underscored the PRD's hold
over the union movement, pointing out that Minister of
Government and Justice Hector Aleman had been General
Secretary of the government employees' umbrella organization,
FENASEP. (Note: FENASEP's current Secretary General is
Leandro Avila, a PRD legislator elected in May 2004).

VIOLENT TACTICS ALIENATE PANAMANIAN PUBLIC
------------------------------------------

14. (C) The Moscoso administration often accused SUNTRACS
of trying to destabilize Panama, citing its pro-Cuba marches
during the 2000 Ibero-American summit, its anti-bus-fare hike
demonstrations in 2001, and its pro-Juan Jovane demos in
2003. The union's trademark tactics include attempting to
block and occupy busy thoroughfares at the height of rush
hour and prepositioning rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails
along demonstration routes. The 2004 dustup in Bocas del
Toro that ended with dozens of injured featured SUNTRACS
demonstrators wielding iron bars. SUNTRACS and CONUSI both
favor use of a general strike to attain their objectives, as
they attempted unsuccessfully in 2001 and 2003 and are
discussing for 2005.

COMMENT
-------

15. (C) SUNTRACS is a leading member of a "rejectionist
front" of unions, NGOs, and student groups that plan to
stridently oppose whatever method of CSS reform that the
Torrijos government offers. This group of "antis" seems to
have allied informally with agricultural special interests
eager to block the bilateral Free Trade Agreement. The
extent of SUNTRACS coordination with those groups or with
deposed CSS leader Jovane is unknown. SUNTRACS leader Lopez
is an astute and effective political operator. In January
2005 SUNTRACS organized in Panama City's financial district a
high-profile anti-fiscal-reform protest (non-violent, as it
turned out), that won cheers from white collar financial
workers, who stood to lose financially from the new fiscal
reform law. That protest was a clever attempt to broaden
SUNTRACS's base of support among people who ordinarily would
not count themselves as members of any "working class"
movement.

16. (C) Despite the disavowals, SUNTRACS is a natural
ideological ally of Chavez and Castro, even though stories of
Cuban financial subsidies may be tough to prove. (Note: The
Cuban Ambassador departed Panama in August 2004, protesting
the Moscoso government's pardon of four anti-Castro Cubans
who had been jailed in an alleged plot to assassinate Fidel
Castro in November 2000. While Cuba and Panama have restored
consular relations, they still do not have full diplomatic
relations. End Note.) Even if its multi-million-dollar
strike fund means that SUNTRACS doesn't need Cuban money, its
political independence, organizational skills, influence in
CONUSI, and demonstrated willingness to use violence to
achieve its ends all make SUNTRACS a dangerous wildcard in
the current CSS debate.

WATT

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