Above Photo: Suntracs.
The situation in Panama is becoming increasingly tense as more people join in what has become a permanent strike expressed in street protests. During the last few weeks, there have been several strikes in the transportation sector, especially in agricultural transportation, but the government has not offered any solutions to the demands so far.
The lack of response has generated growing discontent, and since last Thursday, teachers have joined the transport workers declaring a permanent strike, paralyzing a large part of the country’s economic activity. The strike is being supported now by several strong unions, such as Alliance United People for Life and the National Confederation of Independent Trade Union Unity (Conusi), which means over 250,000 workers are withholding their labor.
According to the representatives of these organizations, the main demands is to stop the increase in fuel prices, which a few days ago reached US$6 per gallon. They also demand an increase in salaries and investments in public education.
The increase in fuel prices has had a remarkable impact on the cost of living, especially food, which affects not only the transporters but all Panamanian people. Therefore, Conusi President Marco Andrade affirmed this is not only a union strike but a strike to improve the living conditions of all the people.
The unionist strike has also mobilized several other sectors of society, which have been greatly affected by the high prices of food and fuels. In response to this situation, President Laurentino Cortizo’s government capped the price of gasoline at US$3.95 per gallon for some social groups and offered subsidies ranging between US$250 and US$1,525 per month to agricultural transporters but that is an obvious stop gap measure to buy some time.
The government also invited strikers to negotiate in Veraguas. The table was set up on Saturday, but no results came of it because the government delegation headed by Education Minister Maruja Gorday did not present any real solution causing anger among union representatives, who took it as an insulting maneuver.
“We are open to dialogue, but dialogue to get results, we do not believe in a dialogue where the government tells us that everything we put forward is not possible. The People can’t take anymore,” Andrade said after the first contact.
Given the government’s manipulation, both Alliance United People for Life and Conusi have decided to maintain the highway blockades and public rallies, although the government has reiterated a call for another dialogue on Monday, July 11. Next week, several indigenous organizations confirmed their support for the strike, which means an even greater impact on business as usual.
The protests in Panama join those that have already taken place in Ecuador. These are two processes have very similar roots with similar demands. It is really another expression against the neo liberal model that is sweeping the region. The Panamanian government has tried to avoid an escalation of social pressure, especially considering how the crisis in Ecuador developed. However, its genuine willingness to solve the demands is dubious at best after the first meeting in Veraguas.
Latin America has become one of the most vulnerable regions on the planet. High levels of inequality, the impact of the pandemic, and the current energy crisis have worsened the living conditions of the poorest sectors. This, together with the neoliberal policies only seeking bigger profit for corporations, has been the main social trigger in both cases, Panama and Ecuador.
It is difficult to imagine that in a context where millions of people see their family economies affected by the high price of fuels, transnational oil companies and distributors might have profit peaks. It is just pillaging against those who barely have enough to feed their families. However hard it may be to believe, it is the reality neoliberalism has imposed on a large part of the continent. Taking a glance at countries like Mexico Bolivia or Venezuela can confirm part of this thesis. Those governments have decided to invest in the most precious asset they have: people and not corporations.
Panama is another example of how harmful neoliberalism can be to Latin America. The lack of public investment and neglecting those in need is the daily life of some other countries in the region. Therefore, the strength of social movements will surely be felt if those governments do not take the necessary measures to stop the plummeting living conditions of workers and their families. Latin America is rising and the great fear of the almighty US is evaporating.