West News Wire: Since more than a week ago, angry Panamanians have been protesting in the streets, using their ire over the nearly twofold increase in fuel prices to highlight their general discontent with the government.
Tuesday saw an increase in protests despite President Laurentino Cortizo’s earlier pledge to extend the gasoline price freeze to all Panamanians rather than just those who use the public transportation system.
Numerous marching groups numbered in the thousands, and roadblocks caused the Pan-American Highway to come to a complete stop.
On Monday, Cortizo said he understood the public’s annoyance and attributed the price increase to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Protesters maintained the pressure Tuesday.
“The cup of tolerance and patience that the Panamanian people showed during various (administrations) overflowed with the price of fuel, which is abusive, among other things,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, political science professor at the University of Panama. “Additionally, we have the great corruption that has been unleashed.”
Leaders of a teachers’ strike, which gave the initial spark that set off the nationwide protests more than a week ago, criticized Cortizo’s announcement of a fuel price freeze while talks to end the protests were underway.
They called the offer insufficient. Other groups have called for a larger reduction in the cost of gasoline.
“The price of gasoline is overwhelming those of us who have to travel to teach classes in our schools,” said Ilbis Rujano, a public school teracher in the central province of Veraguas who has participated in the protests. “Besides that, the cost of food rose, which is a hit on the poorest familias who have to send their children to school.”
“This can’t be tolerated,” she said.
Panama, a country of 4 million people, has historically maintained a fairly stable service-based economy that uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency. That has practically made inflation a non-issue in recent times. Now economists put inflation around 4%, which is significant but well below some other countries in the region, such as Mexico, where it is around 8%.
Protesters say the basic goods necessary for Panamanian families are more expensive.
Indigenous groups from western Panama, among the country’s most impoverished, joined the teachers’ protest as have workers from Panama’s powerful construction industry, who called for a protest Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the government asked protesters not to block buses that use the Pan-American Highway moving migrants who enter Panama from Colombia to the border with Costa Rica so they can continue their journey north. On Monday, buses that tried to cross roadblocks were damaged by protesters, though the government said no migrants were injured.
Early Tuesday, construction workers temporarily closed a main access route to the capital, while thousands of teachers marched to the National Assembly.