Panama: Ngöbe-Buglé set deadline to stop dam

Panamanian officials and leaders of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group were scheduled to meet on Feb. 2 to discuss the controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. Ngöbe-Buglé representatives are calling for the cancellation of the dam and say there will be forceful actions if the government doesn't agree to their demand by Feb. 15. President Juan Carlos Varela has named a committee to represent the government in the talks; it is headed by Vice President Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado, who is also the foreign relations minister, and includes security minister Rodolfo Aguilera, governance minister Milton Henríquez, labor minister Luis Ernesto Carles and environmental minister Mirei Endara. Some members of the committee held a preliminary meeting with indigenous leaders on Jan. 29, and the government's technical commission was studying the area around the dam on Jan. 31.

Ngöbe-Buglé activists have demonstrated repeatedly against the Barro Blanco project since 2011, charging that it endangers an archeological site and will displace 2,000 or more indigenous people in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca (designated indigenous territory). The government of former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014) failed to hold a required consultation with the communities, according to the activists, who claim the administration had interests in common with Generadora del Istmo, S.A. (GENISA), the Honduran-owned company building the dam. Indigenous protesters have maintained an encampment at the dam's site since February 2014, according to Silvia Carrera, the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca's official leader (cacica). Speaking at a forum in Natá, Coclé province, on Jan. 24, Carrera warned that the government needs to "dialogue with the people of Barro Blanco and the affected communities…before people take to the streets the way it happened in 2011 and 2012." (La Estrella de Panamá, Jan. 25, Jan. 30; Intercontinental Cry, Jan. 27, from Servindi; Hora Cero, Panama, Feb. 1)

In related news, former president Martinelli fled to the US on Jan. 29, one day after Panama's Supreme Court initiated a corruption investigation against him. He flew to Florida from Guatemala, where he was attending a session of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN). "I fear for my life and my family," he said. "I'm the target of a political persecution." He claimed current president Varela "would do the impossible to end" him and his party and is "inventing charges" against him. Varela, who took office last July 1, was Martinelli's vice president, but ran against Martinelli's candidate in the 2014 elections. Martinelli said he had no plans to return to Panama. Thousands marched in Panama City on Jan. 29 chanting slogans against the former president, demanding an end to impunity and jail time for corrupt politicians. (PanAM Post, Jan. 30, from La Prensa, Panama)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 1.