As Panamanians Vote for the Next President, Where Do Afro-Panamanians Stand?
On Sunday May 5, Panamanians go to the polls to elect a president for a new 5 year term (2019-2024). Seven candidates have run a grueling race which began in earnest in mid 2018. With less than 48 hours before voters go to the polls, Lorentino "Nito" Cortizo Cohen of the Popular Democratic Party (PRD), is favored to win succeeding outgoing president Juan Carlos Varela. His closest competitor, Romulo Roux of the Democratic Change Party (CD) is backed by ex-president Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently incarcerated awaiting trial for corruption. Other candidates include the Mayor of Panama City, José Isabel Blandón, Ricardo Lombana, and Panama's former attorney general Ana Matilde Gómez and Saul Méndez, leader of SunTracs, Panama’s strongest labor union.
The campaign has been dominated by issues of ongoing corruption scandals across the political spectrum, rising inequality and crime, education system, strengthening /reworking of the country's Constitution, concerns about the viability of Panama's social security system and a general lack of trust by the population that government institutions are able to address the concerns of the people, in particular the most marginalized.
Despite the corruption inquiries and economic malaise that has gripped the country for the last 3 years, Panama remains one of the strongest economies in Latin America with 5.3% growth and is projected by the World Bank to have 6% growth in 2019. However this prosperity belies the the fact that Panama's black and indigenous communities have barely benefited from the economic boom which has been driven in large part by the financial sector, Panama Canal commissions, real estate and infrastructure development such as the subway expansion in Panama City. In fact, "nearly one in four of the population has an income less than half of the median level, according to a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean [ECLAC] - the highest discrepancy in 18 countries it reviewed".
On March 22 and April 22 respectively, the Foro Afropanameño, a nationwide entity of various social movement organizations representing Afro-Panamanians and the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples (CONAPIP) representing indigenous communities, held candidates forums for those running. The objective of each was to address the issues of concern to these communities but also to assess the agendas of the candidates towards these communities.
In addition to national elections, May is also the Month of Black Ethnicity in Panama (the officially recognized “Day”, May 30, was made law in 2000, yet is observed the entire month). According to the Panama based watchdog organization, the Observatory Panama Afro, of the seven candidates in attendance on March 22, four submitted action plans with respect to the Afro-Panamanian community or signed onto the Plan of Action developed by the Foro Afropanameño. Generally, the candidates have agreed to ensure fulfillment of the country’s obligations to the Black community under international conventions, in particular the U.N. International Decade of Afrodescendants. On April 5, frontrunner Nito Cortizo presented his plan, followed by Ana Matilde Gómez whose “Government Plan” called for the creation of a permanent national entity to protect afrodescendant rights within the framework of the sustainable development of the country. On April 15, José Isabel Blandón acknowledged his commitment to the community based on the Plan of Action. Since one of these candidates will likely be the next president of the Republic it is important to understand the public policy agenda they will need to embrace. Mr. Cortizo, in fact provided the most detailed plan, parts of which were extracted from the Foro Afropanameño "Plan of Action: 4 Pillars and 1 Star" presented to all candidates. These included 1) realization of the Afrodescendant Census 2020 in a serious, exact and scientific way to ensure verifiable and useful statistics that ensure fair political inclusivity, 2) a relaunch of the National Plan for Afro-Panamanian Development established in 2007, 3) honor and visibilize accomplished community members and inclusion of AfroPanamanian historical and cultural contributions to the educational system and 4) transparent inclusion of public policy concerns relevant to Afro-Panamanians public sector.
Follow through of the winning candidate will be critical. The first two tests will be the appointment of a secretary for Afro-Panamanian development as well as the expeditious assessment and implementation of the Afrodescendant Cenus 2020 plan. Having campaigned on a platform of participatory community-focused reform, should Nito Cortizo prevail, as has been predicted, his administration will be monitored closely to ensure their plan of action is actually put into action.