Addressing the Question of Civil Society in Panama


In the eyes of many donors and recipients, and even of many democratic theorists, the idea that civil society is always a positive force for democracy, indeed even the most important one, is unassailable.  An active – “vibrant” is the adjective of choice – civil society is both the force that can hold governments accountable and the base upon which a truly democratic political culture can be built.  There follows from this assumption the related idea that promoting civil society development is key to democracy-building.  (Carothers and Ottaway 2000: 4)


Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in environmental conservation worldwide have developed a rhetoric which contends that building localized democratic structures in the form of civil participatory organizations able to cohere into civil society is one of their primary agendas.  Their rhetoric suggests that NGOs encourage participation by developing the capacity of grassroots organizations to actively engage in political, social, economic and environmental arenas.  The rhetoric also purports that NGOs encourage the growth and establishment of a powerful civil society fundamental to a vibrant democracy[1], the focal point in attempt to negotiate vastly diverse interests within national and global settings.  The rhetoric suggests that where there is democracy, there must be civil society, and conversely that a healthy civil society will lead to true democracy in which equality and diversity exist.


In Panama, well-established class relations have hardened the edges of the structural conditions that function as the context for the development of civil participation.  As discussed in chapter two, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, in Panama the interests of an established circle of elites thrive on economic gain and power produced in an area that is approximately 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, between Colón and Panama City.  This geographic area contains the Panama Canal and its watershed, the Colón Free Trade Zone and the offshore international banking system, which form the basis of Panama’s service economy.  This enormous concentration of power is politically, economically and socially constructed and reinforced in the structure of class relations.  The disparity among various class interests poses an obstacle to the development of institutions of civil participation in Panama that could potentially expand the basis for civil society.


Given the economic and political interests focused in the 45 mile long urban corridor, elites who control the Panamanian government feel little need to make compromises with the majority of Panama's population, leaving this population economically poor and politically impotent.  Herein lies an inherent weakness in widescale organized civil participation in Panama.  To the extent that a civil society does exist, it is primarily constituted by the upper class.  Generally, the rest of Panama’s populace has not been able to muster a public force to counter this small yet intensely powerful elite.  Nor have they found sufficient impetus to strategically organize themselves around any particular issue for any length of time.[2]  Primarily, civil organization has come in response to very specific and limited issues, such as housing costs, canal operations and treaties, and privatization of state-run services, etc.  (Elton 1997; Herrera 1998).


Yet, in the last ten years, there has been significant growth in the number of NGOs and community organizations in Panama.  Environmental conservation organizations constitute the largest percentage of any special interest among these organizations (Elton; Herrera).  If there is truly very little interest in the development of civil society among the Panamanian elite or interest in environmental conservation among both the Panamanian elite and the general public, what, then, is the force behind the establishment of environmental NGOs in Panama?  Whose concerns and interests do these organizations reflect?  And what does their existence indicate about the growth of civil participation and civil society in Panama?


During the decade following the 1989 US removal of General Manuel Noriega from power, there was an enormous influx of international governmental and non-governmental aid flowing into Panama (Herrera 1996: 53).  Based on Panama’s political and economic dependency on its service economy, which in turn depends on the international marketplace, the interests of international governmental and aid organizations heavily influence the Panamanian government.  Panama’s political leaders are keenly aware of the benefits in responding to interests and imperatives held by those on whom the national economy rests, even when they arrive in the form of non-governmental organizations.  This is particularly true concerning interests tied to financial and technological aid from the United States.  According to Panamanian anthropologist Francisco Herrera, the national government is giving attention to environmental issues as an economically-biased response to the far-reaching interests of influence of the US as represented by organizations such as USAID.  It is likewise directly due to the influence of these organizations that the Panamanian government is adopting the rhetoric of civil society as part of democracy-building in Panama (Herrera 1998).  The question remains as to what form this rhetoric is taking as it translates into corresponding practices. 

The interests and corresponding project funding related to the Panama Canal are creating an arena for the development of an environmental agenda and civil participation.  As discussed in chapter two, the United States government is investing money and resources in Panama to assist in the transitions of ownership of the canal, desiring to ensure the well-being of the Panama Canal.  One form this US funding, funneled through USAID, has taken is the FIDECO environmental trust fund, created specifically to finance projects in the Panama Canal watershed.  The US concern for the smooth functioning of the canal matches that of Panamanians who benefit directly from canal-generated income (Cardoso and Feletto 1979).  Elite concern has in turn precipitated the fledgling development of an environmental agenda in Panama; an agenda that has further necessitated elite support for civil participatory organizations that can implement environmental action plans focused on canal-related issues.  The agenda and the specific projects are largely determined by international sources of funding funneled through highly controlled mechanisms of distribution, such as the FIDECO Fund and Fundación NATURA.

The notion that civil society has a readily employable capacity to provide an alternative to state power in any given nation at any given time (cite) is misguided and misleading.  There are systemic, structural conditions that can restrict, manipulate, prohibit or co-opt the actualization of a civil society.  Concerted public effort does not guarantee the establishment of civil society if other forces maintain large-scale political, economic, social and cultural structures that restrict public action at any given moment, and opportunites cannot be forcefully or coercively created within the structure by a coordinated citizenry.  There are real structures with real limits and real consequences that can severely limit individual and group action. 

While current rhetoric suggests that civil society is a kind of free agent, unbound by structural constraints, I demonstrate that historical relations impact the potential development of civil participatory organizations, and therefore civil society, in Panama at this time.  By grounding my research in actual circumstances of the oft invoked, and at times romanticized, notion of civil society, I illustrate the striking divide between rhetoric and practice of national and international institutions at work in Panama.[3]  Three donor organizations established Fundación NATURA with the specific imperative that this NGO should have a significant impact on the growth of civil society in Panama.  However, Fundación NATURA’s ability to fulfill a democratizing directive has been limited by the undemocratic and restrictive controls placed on them by the donors.


At issue is the form and timing of pressure applied by a nation’s citizenry; whether radical revolution, coordinated application of strategies, uncoordinated application of tactics[4] (de Certeau: 1984), enlisting or taking advantage of the international influence, or a combination of these forms of pressure; whether a radical moment in history or a slow, unsteady motion towards a transformation of structural conditions.  Considering civil societies in particular global, international and national contexts highlights the fact that the idea of civil society can be understood only in light of historically and geographically sets of relations of particular publics and particular states, engaged in specific economic relations of production and distribution. 


The Panamanian NGO Fundación NATURA is a nexus of interests and uneven power relations.  It is a site at which domineering national and international governmental and nongovernmental interests are contesting NATURA’s efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Panamanian public.  Fundación NATURA is not simply the functionary of any single hegemonic force, but instead serves as a battleground for the predominance of conflicting ideological and hegemonic forces.  NATURA, as a representative of Panamanian civil society, combines hegemonic norms of the dominant powers as well as norms emerging “from below” (with addition negotiation and contestation going on at each site).


In this chapter, I consider events that reflect the specific nature of contestation between the donor organizations and Fundación NATURA.  These examples exhibit dynamic practices that constitute the translation of the rhetoric of civil society and democracy into practice.  I begin with an account of Fundación NATURA’s original director and the difficulties encountered in his attempts to take an innovative and independent approach to countrywide development of civil participatory institutions.  Following this with a review of the history and current theories associated with civil society reveals the disparity between the hegemonic ideal of civil society in democratic theories and the possibilities for that ideal in Panama.  Making the distinction between the existence of institutions of civil participation and the existence of a civil society is vital to understanding this disparity.  I conclude the chapter with another example in which Fundación NATURA seeks to circumnavigate structural conditions and coordinate efforts of various community groups into a civil society.

[1] This chapter does not examine democracy specifically.  My discussion of democracy is raised only in light of the specific arguments and contexts made by those discussing the role of civil society in liberal democracy and radical democracy.

[2] The woman’s movement in Panama is an exception to this lack of wide-scale organization.

[3] The ethnography of speaking meets practice theory in this context.  Both theoretical approaches deal with the interplay between structure and agency as well as structure and practice.  What is the established norm, if only rhetorically, and what are actual practices in relation to this stated and assumed norm? This case study designates the area of contestation provoked by the space between rhetoric and practices concerning civil society in Panama.  Those with more power tell a story of development that they themselves have not actually fulfilled.  It is quite a show of power that governments and organizations continue to claim success in development strategies, even in the face of evident failure.  Changes in this rhetoric and in practices have been forced by contesting forces, such as the "50 Years is Enough" campaign against the World Bank's structural adjustment policies in particular.  Contestation often creates a new space to question norms and their concurring strategies where no space existed before.  Such is the cyclical nature of hegemony and habitus.


[4] I will address de Certeau’s use of “strategies” and “tactics” in the following chapter.