Mass protests hit Panama

The Panamerican highway has been blocked for two weeks. The situation is rapidly deteriorating.

Around two weeks ago I started noticing a drop off in tourist arrivals. Soon after, I would learn that protestors had blocked the Panamerican highway, the main artery linking the towns, farms, and cities on the long isthmus. In many places, the Panamerican highway is the only way to continue on a paved road. At some river crossings, it provides the only bridge across the river. So you can see why when it gets blocked, things get pretty hairy.

Recently, there has been growing unrest in Panama. People are angry. Some public servants (like nurses) haven’t been getting paid. The teacher unions are striking, demanding higher wages and across the board subsidies. The indigenous and road worker unions have largely joined in as well. The government already agreed to fix the price for 10 basic food items and gasoline/diesel at the equivalent of $4/gallon, and many politicians agreed to reduce their payroll by 10% (a reduction of 20,000 government employees), but it’s not enough. They want fuel prices fixed at $3/gallon, they want officials in government brought to justice for alleged corruption, they want government salaries lower, and they want the price of everything to stop going up or for their wages to catch up.

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Obviously, not much of this is under the government’s power to do anything about, but try telling that to the protestors. They are angry and used to getting free stuff during the pandemic years. The highway has been shut down for nearly two weeks and people are waiting for miles and miles on both sides of the blockages, with more blockages appearing around the country.

The economy has virtually shut down overnight. There is very little fuel in my province, what is left is being rationed. Farmers are giving away their produce because they can’t ship it out and don’t want it to go bad. Restaurants and hotels are closing. The supermarket shelves in nearby David are already empty. The funny thing is, my province won’t even feel the worst of it. Chiriqui province provides 70% of the food for the entire country. Our chickens, beef, vegetables, and fruit can’t be sent to the city or central provinces under the current conditions. Panama City is a net food importer. The protestors don’t know, but if this keeps going, they’re going to starve themselves.

There are rumors the president of Panama will resign. The government has made many concessions and even called for intervention by the Catholic church. The impact on the economy has already been immense. Friends I’ve spoken to believe they’ll get tired and give up or the government will send the military to break the protests. I’m not sure what will happen, but right now, things aren’t looking good. That being said, the government has agreed to dramatically tighten its own belt. In effect, the government is dropping benefits for its own employees, dropping travel stipends, reducing staff sizes, etc., to fund the subsidies that the people are demanding. Panama’s government grew during the pandemic, and in many cases the pay of public officials has been exorbitant, so this is a good thing.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed that the government gave into demands for fuel subsidies. Anyone who fills out a form can receive the fixed fuel cost. Food subsidies for the basic food basket might not be a bad thing. It seems both good and bad have come from these protests, but what concerns me is that people don’t understand the danger they are putting the country in by cutting that artery. If farmers in my province are choked off and reduce production, the city will starve.

Unos 200 obreros despedidos por la colombiana Conalvías reclaman los pagos  en Panamá | Economía | Edición América | Agencia EFE
Una inflación desbordada y denuncias por corrupción ponen a Panamá en un  estallido social sin precedentes
Tras varios días de protestas masivas, Gobierno de Panamá convocó a  organizaciones sociales a una “mesa de diálogo” - El Diario NY

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