Panamanians angry at inflation continue to protest

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Frustrated Panamanians have taken to the streets to protest for more than a week, using anger over fuel prices that have nearly doubled to show their general displeasure with the government .

The protests escalated on Tuesday despite President Laurentino Cortizo’s promise a day earlier to extend the gas price freeze to all Panamanians rather than just the public transportation system.

Thousands of people marched through the capital and cities of Panama, while roadblocks paralyzed traffic on the Pan-American Highway.

Cortizo said Monday he understands citizens’ discontent, and he blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the price hike.

Protesters kept up the pressure on Tuesday.

“The cut of tolerance and patience that the Panamanian people have shown during various (administrations) has overflowed with the price of fuel, which is abusive, among other things,” said Miguel Antonio Bernal, professor of political science at the University of Panama. “Furthermore, we have the grand corruption unleashed.”

Leaders of a teachers’ strike, which provided the initial spark that ignited nationwide protests more than a week ago, have slammed Cortizo’s announcement of a fuel price freeze amid talks to end the protests were underway.

They called the offer insufficient. Other groups have called for a greater reduction in the cost of gasoline.

“The price of gasoline is overwhelming those of us who have to travel to teach in our schools,” said Ilbis Rujano, a public school teacher in the central province of Veraguas who took part in the protests. “On top of that, the cost of food has gone up, which is a big blow for the poorest families who have to send their children to school.”

“This cannot be tolerated,” she said.

Panama, a country of 4 million people, has always maintained a fairly stable service economy that uses the US dollar as its official currency. This has practically made inflation a non-issue lately. Today, economists estimate 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 basic goods needed by Panamanian families are more expensive.

Indigenous groups from western Panama, among the country’s poorest, joined the teachers’ protest, as did workers in Panama’s powerful construction industry, who called for protests on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the government asked protesters not to block buses that use the Pan American highway carrying migrants entering Panama from Colombia to the border with Costa Rica so they can continue their journey north. . On Monday, buses trying to cross roadblocks were damaged by protesters, although the government said no migrants were injured.

Early Tuesday, construction workers temporarily closed a main access road to the capital, while thousands of teachers marched towards the National Assembly.