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The first victim of the free trade agreement

The Isthmian, Panama

15 November 2004

The First Victim of the Free Trade Agreement

By Rafael Perez Jaramillo

He was a Panamanian who lived of what the land gave him. His name? Sabino Rivera. What happened? Death took him when a bomb, abandoned by the United States in Panama, blew him to pieces.

Who Fried The Agro-peasant?

The authorities held Sabino himself responsible because he ignored warning signs, but I think that the blame lies with the poorly understood - and even worse executed - negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US.

If you are a genuine business gentleman you don’t impose, before even exchanging offers, conditions upon your trading partners that violate their human dignity.

Yet, if the information I have is correct, that is exactly what happened at the beginning of the FTA negotiations.

He who expects in this article an economic analysis about the convenience or inconvenience for Panama to sign a FTA with the United States will be disappointed. What I pretend here is to point out ideas to the effect that the death of Sabino was caused by inhumane politics that killed a poor Panamanian, at the same time promising other poor Panamanians that they will benefit from the business they are negotiating.

Neither, in this article, will you find anti-American sentiments. It was after all US citizen John Lindsay Poland, who dedicated years to investigate the deadly weapons the US abandoned in Panama, who paved the way to ensure that Panamanians like Sabino Rivera don’t die in little pieces because of a bomb that was planted next to his crops.

The policies that condemn the innocents to cruel deaths need to change, and the local and global authorities don’t appear to be willing to do so.

But, what relation is there between unexploded American bombs in reverted areas and San José island and a Free Trade Agreement?

Outside the hotels in Panama and the United States where a FTA is being negotiated since April, it is little known that these meetings are only possible because of a silent agreement to forget about two inconvenient issues: The cleaning of the areas the US used in Panama, full of undetonated explosives and the chemical arms that the same country left behind on the island of San José.

On June 27, 2003, big headlines announced that "Bush commits to Free Trade Agreement." It was the most important result of a meeting in Washington between the President of the United States, Gearge Bush, and the President of Panama, Mireya Moscoso. The government was happy and the opposition remained silent about what they considered an acccomplishment to be envious about.

The Panamanian journalist who covered the meeting, Betty Brannan Jaén, had written days before that, according to her information, Panama had not taken the opportunity to demand from the US the cleaning of the "environmental pollution" that this country left at its military bases before marching out on December 31, 1999.

After all, the US ambassador in Panama, Linda Watt, had already said - and keeps saying - that this is a "closed issue."

Although one can not say that the Panamanian authorities joined the choir singing the "issue closed" song composed by the American diplomat, they did remain silent because, according to an official source cited by Brannan, this is a spinous issue which would "introduce disharmony in the meeting."

The journalist went even further: "’s logical to suppose that these words by Watt ["issue closed"] reveal that effectively the Bush government has rejected any intention to clean the bases and has instructed Watt to advise Panama that continuing to bring up the issue would not only be useless, but also counterproductive."

In the beginning of its term, the government of Moscoso was heading Panamanian demands for cleaning up the areas, but became less and less vocal about it, inversely proportional to the increase of negotiations about an FTA which started in April. Only the sudden withdrawal of US visas of Panamanian officials brought the theme back on the agenda.

Since April 2004 there have been several meetings between Panamanian and US officials to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement. Some were held in Panama and others in the United States, but at none of these meetings Sabino Rivera was invited. Even though he would have wanted to, it would not have been possible for him to attend, not even to ask if the agriculture that fed him and his family would disappear.

Although one of the issues being negotiated is the insistence of the US government that Panama adopts measures to improve "transparency," the meetings are being held behind closed doors and nothing is known about the proposed texts, up to the point that various participants had to comply with the humiliating obligation to sign a statement to self-censor themselves and prevent leaks.

Signatories are obligated to keep their mouth shut about anything that is being discussed at the negotiating tables, and to snitch on anyone they suspect of leaking information. Rubén Carles, former Comptroller of Panama, refused to sign the document and was invited to leave the room.

There are things that are not being written, but that everybody knows. Let’s exaggerate a little and imagine a draft for a Free Trade Agreement to start negotiating. Point One: The government of the United States agrees to sign a FTA with Panama, under certain conditions, one of them being the Panamanian government ceasing to demand cleaning up the shooting ranges of Emperador, Balboa and Piña.

Point Two: To start with the negotiations, both governments commit themselves to not advise Sabino Rivera that should he enter the area of Piña (Province of Colon) to do agricultural work, he will be torn to pieces when he steps on one of the thousands grenades the US didn’t clean up in Panama, because this is a "closed issue."

Point Three: The government of Panama promises to shut up about the fact that when the "Puente del Centenario" was inaugurated, it did not have any roads leading to it because the areas where these roads are to be constructed are full with unexploded bombs the US army left behind on December 31, 1999, thanks to a Military Dictatorship they installed in 1968 which gave them two treaties that cover these facts in impunity "as long as is viable" and without a fair arbitration clause.

The last article has an annex: Nothing agreed in the previous article prohibits the US government to revoke the visas of corrupt Panamanian officials who construct the "Puente del Centenario."

Another proposed ammendment would be that visas of Panamanians who demand from the US government that they clean up the former military bases or San José island can also be revoked.

It will be clear that I am ironical about these points, but we’ll need to stop here because the last ammendment is serious. If you can not believe I’m telling the truth, I recommend you to read the report by journalist Guido Bilbao, from Argentina but living in Panama, published in the magazine Gatopardo in June 2004. The article is titled The Intoxicated Island.

The quotation I will give is large, but it’s worth exploring, especially considering the source the journalist consulted. The gist of the report is about the efforts of the Panamanian Foreign Ministry to demand internationally from the US to clean up the chemical arms they left in the island of San José. It is a demand that has been made years before the US left, until new evidence backed it up. Seven chemical bombs were discovered that the US left on the island during World War 2. The Panamanian government brought its claim before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which certified the claim, starting a new round in the diplomatic efforts.

I cite the article by Bilbao: "On September 6 2001, the then Minister of Foreign Relations José Miguel Aleman revealed the findings of the OPCW in a press conference [...] The United States was furious. And they showed it. Nobody expected it, but the policy of the OPCW was about to take an abrupt turn: The Bush administration pointed its cannons at the Brazilian director José Mauricio Bustani, a "too independent official" as the media took it upon them to report. Even though the San José case was a painful thorn, it was not the heart of the matter. What really infuriated the United States was that Bustani was getting authorization for the entry of his organization into Iraq. That way, the OPCW would have been able to realize independent inspections in Hussein’s country, next to the UN. Iraq would have ceased to be a clandestine pariah. In Washington, they would have nothing of it. And thus, on April 22 of 2002, just months after the second inspection on San José island, rolled the head of Bustani. The US presented a motion demanding his immediate leave at an extraordinary conference of the member states. If he wouldn’t fall, the US threatened not to pay its contribution, about 22% of the OPCW’s budget, causing huge financial problems. [...] For San José, the sky was getting clouded. Nothing was left of the days of euforia in the Foreign Ministry. They were now confused, and even desperate. They were holding all the cards, but couldn’t play them. And when they tried to play tough, things turned worse. The US did simply not respond, and when they did it was to intimidate them. Some officials, who did not want to be quoted, assured that Roger Noriega, Assistent Secretary of State for the Hemisphere, let them know through an official that if they would not tone it down, the US would revoke their visas."

In this extensive report journalist Bilbao reminds us of the force the Moscoso government initially put behind its efforts to get the US to clean up the contaminated areas. In this story surfaces the question that the journalist answers immediately quoting his source: "What was the reason that Panama stopped this train, making demands to the US government? The answer is simple: Free Trade Agreement."

Bilbao’s sources are credible, and that is why I’m asking again about the relation between the Free Trade Agreement and the complete stop of demands to the US government for a clean environment, to live of what the earth produces and so that Sabino Rivera and 22 others won’t have to die.

Only two weeks before the third round of negotiations (12-16 July 2004) started about a FTA between Panama and the US, the explosion of a grenade killed Sabino Rivera Santamaria, in the area of the old Piña shooting range, one of the three the US used for decades to practice. If anyone cares to look at the relation between the FTA, agriculture, the environment and human life, he can do it now.

When in September 2003 the World Trade Organization met in Cancún, the agricultural world was alarmed. The theme was the same as always: Rich countries subsidizing their agriculture and poor countries being hungry. But there was one farmer who decided not to die of famin, but of protest. Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae killed himself in Cancún to get attention for the dumping in his country of rice being produced in the US.

Sabino Rivera had no idea about this. While the Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated with Panama, instead of forgetting about the dangerous bombs, Sabino carefully entered the land reverted by the US to harvest what the earth produced and thus being able to feed himself and his family. When news of the tragedy came out, the administrator of ARI Alfredo Arias quickly stated that it was Sabino’s own fault, because he didn’t respect the signs which warn about the dangers luring in the former shooting ranges. Arias added that "people entering the area to do agricultural work is common."

When Sabino Rivera died looking for food, he didn’t know that another farmer killed himself in Cancún when he felt robbed of his. Sabino could not possibly know that he would die for the same reason.

 source: The Isthmian