Panama: Teachers Spearhead Protests Over Rising Living Costs

A spokesman of the teachers’ union in Panama said on Friday that strikers and their supporters would continue their demonstrations indefinitely until the government of President Laurentino Cortizo offers concrete plans for bringing down the country’s exorbitant costs for petrol and food.

“There was an attempt by the government to approach us. Now it seems they want to step back from the call to dialogue, but let’s be honest: if they don’t have anything to propose, we’ll stay in the streets,” the head of the Teachers’ Association of Panama (Asoprof), Diogenes Sanchez, told Efe.

People gathered outside the National Assembly building on Friday for a peaceful protest in this capital city.  Protesters sang, waved banners, and beat drums as they called for a reduction or a freeze in gasoline costs, which they believe is required to bring down the price of basic foods.

Teachers, unions, and popular groups that gave a list of 32 requests to the administration in May have started another wave of demonstrations this week that has gained additional momentum.

On Wednesday, the teachers announced a 72-hour strike, but that action was turned indefinite a day later when teachers’ union leaders and Education Minister Maruja Gorday were unable to meet and resolve their differences.

Alexis Cazorla, the UNEP’s coordinator, told Efe that the union had asked that the government fix the price of petrol at $3 per gallon (3.78 liters).

Despite the fact that government officials are provided with chauffeurs and do not have to pay for the fuel they use, the administration is “irresponsibly” stating that they are unable to freeze the price, according to him.

Demonstrators from a variety of backgrounds have joined teachers in increasingly huge protest events taking place around Panama.  “The entire country is suffering the effects of the high cost of fuel, and as a knock-on effect all the prices of the basic basket are rising. The people are demanding the government intervene. It can’t turn its back on us,” said Yamir Cordoba, a member of the powerful Suntracs construction workers union, which is proposing a “24-hour warning strike.”

Fuel costs, which had risen to almost $6 per gallon at one time, were temporarily frozen by Cortizo’s government in an effort to avert a rise in public transportation charges and food prices.

People’s freedom to demonstrate is acknowledged and respected by the Panamanian Episcopal Conference, which issued a statement on Friday.

However, it exhorted society to strive toward forging a better nation at a time when Panama is recovering from a health crisis that “severely damaged the economy and education.” This was a reference to the significant shortcomings in the country’s experience with distant learning during the pandemic. In addition, it came at a time when Panama was only beginning to recover from the pandemic. “We’re calling respectfully on the national government, on social organizations, all men and women of good faith to seek adequate solutions together at this historic moment for our people,” the bishops said in a statement. “We have to find new forms of protests that avoid harming people, particularly the most vulnerable.” The Episcopal Conference urged Panamanians to “build bridges and tear down the walls that divide us, set our sights on building a country guided by (the principles of) humane, just, equitable and sustainable development for all of its citizens.”

The following article is paraphrased, its original publication can be found here:

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