Panama sees biggest protests in decades

A group of protesters in Santiago, Panama, demanding a reduction in fuel prices. Photo: Bienvenido Velasco

Thousands of Panamanians are demanding that the government reduce the cost of living, including gas, food, medicine and energy prices. They also call for a fight against endemic corruption.

By EFE / Confidential

HAVANA TIMES — Panama is experiencing a wave of popular protests described as the largest in decades, demanding government intervention to lower the cost of living. They also demand a direct fight against corruption, considered the root of all evil in this country of 4.2 million inhabitants and one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Amid food and fuel shortages due to highway blockades, the unions and professional associations that joined the fight succeeded on Tuesday July 19 in drawing up a unified agenda of demands. At the top of the list, a real reduction in the prices of gas, food, medicine and electricity, an increase in the education budget and a fight against corruption.

“Our country is dragged down by an ongoing situation that has worsened with the pandemic. It is a pressure cooker that is heating up and now sounding the alarm,” said Dr Ivonne Torres, president of the civic organization. Science in Panama [Science in Panama]told the EFE news agency.

Protests that began on July 7 have continued, despite failed attempts by Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo to quell them. The presidency approved temporary subsidies on fuel prices and certain foods, as well as some government “austerity” measures, although deemed “insufficient” by organized unions, professional associations and indigenous peoples.

The various protest groups, united in their demands, and the government, began nationwide televised negotiations on Thursday with the mediation of the Catholic Church.

RCost of life

Soaring petrol and food prices – which the government blames on the crisis caused by the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine – initially sparked a teachers’ strike. This protest then attracted the social and indigenous sectors, as well as the powerful construction union Suntracs.

Saul Mendez, Suntracs leader and former leftist presidential candidate, told EFE that while it was true that external factors had exacerbated price hikes recently, the cost of living in Panama had been rising for years, due to the economic model of the country, which maximizes the gains of cooperation to the detriment of an increasingly impoverished population.

Last June, Panama recorded an annual inflation rate of 5.2%, an unusual rise in prices in this country with a dollarized service economy, whose “wages reflect neither the productivity nor the dignity of its workers “, according to the organization Science in Panama expressed in a press release.

“Theft” of public money

The protests have also raised the issue of the fight against corruption. Some of the demonstrators chanted slogans against the “theft” of public money by state powers. These powers “have institutionalized corruption,” famous Panamanian singer-songwriter and activist Ruben Bades said in an article.

“Ask them to cancel padded contracts for the [Parliament members’] payroll,” Blades suggested, alleging that entire families of MPs are on the payroll with exorbitant salaries. José Eugenio Stoute, member of the organization Poder Ciudadano [“Citizen Power”]told EFE that such a reduction is one of many measures that society is asking for, but that the government “resides in announcing”.

Five trade union organizations demanded from the authorities: “a roadmap for the implementation of austerity plans demonstrating a desire for change and the “best possible management” of public resources.

“There is an urgent need for the executive, as well as the legislative and judicial branches, to tackle all acts of corruption without hesitation, and end all privileges and opacity,” the associations added in a statement. public.

President Cortizo’s government has assured that it is fighting corruption. Cortizo responded to insistent demands about Panama’s shocking increase in debt — more than $16.5 billion in just three years — by saying he was directing huge resources to welfare programs.

Economic impact of the crisis

The agro-industrial sector said its sector alone suffered losses of around $500 million during this crisis. Added to this is the impact on businesses not receiving the products they need.

The protest erupted at a time when Panama is beginning to recover from the debacle caused by the pandemic. After a 17.9% collapse of the economy in 2020, the economy recovered 15.3% in 2021 and 13.6% in the first quarter of 2022.

Risk rating agency Moody’s said that although the government “has proposed a policy of austerity, gasoline subsidies and the temporary expansion of some social programs, these will have a fiscal impact in Panama. “, which could prevent them from reaching their annual goal. for deficit reduction.

Subsidies “are necessary, as long as they are targeted and with periodic reviews of their effectiveness,” Ruben Castillo, president of Panama’s National Council for Private Enterprise, told EFE.

“We cannot have a sustainable economy by increasing subsidies, but rather by increasing productivity and generating the obsession to create jobs and attract capital. If we don’t have vigorous private enterprise, there will be no adequate economic recovery,” he added.

View of trucks carrying food affected by the blockade of the Pan American Highway. At the time of the photo, the trucks were stuck near Santiago de Veraguas, Panama. Photo: Bienvenido Velasco

Transport trucks carrying food blocked

Hundreds of trucks from Panama and other parts of Central America, loaded with food and other goods, continue to be stuck along the Pan American Highway due to the blockades. Meanwhile, the scarcity of these products has worsened in the Panamanian capital and in other urban centers.

EFE was able to confirm that at least three dozen transport trucks from other parts of Central America were stuck on the outskirts of the Panamanian city of Santiago, capital of the central province of Veraguas, located about 250 km from Panama City.

Salvadoran driver Hector Guerra told us Thursday, July 21 that the Central American convoy had now been stuck for three days, trapped by protests in Panama. “We are in the street, in bad weather; we can’t sleep peacefully, we don’t eat as we should, we don’t know if these people might decide to open our trailers. We are very worried,” he said.

The 30 trucks in the convoy came from different parts of Central America, carrying “food, drink and raw materials”, Guerra added. He pointed out that this delay was draining their budget.

“A tank truck full of fuel costs US$1,000,” he noted. Since it is a vehicle with a foreign license plate, it does not have access to the subsidy approved by the Panamanian government. “All of this escapes us”, concludes Hector Guerra helplessly.

[Editor’s Note: One caravan of 100+ trucks carrying produce from the western part of the country finally arrived in Panama City last night 44 hours after leaving the highly productive province of Chiriqui, less than eight hours from the capital under normal circumstances.]

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