As soaring food and fuel prices rock Panama, nationwide protests have disrupted traffic on major roads and left a weakened government scrambling for credibility — prompting left-wing activists to take advantage of the situation.
The demonstrations, launched early in July beginning with teachers’ and construction workers’ unions, have blocked critical infrastructure such as the Pan-American Highway. The Panamanian government, which has argued that the high prices are attributable to COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, announced on Monday that it would work to reduce the cost of several dozen food items.
“The economy has been struggling here just like around the world, but Panamanians live very much day-to-day,” Jon Fowler, an American missionary working in Panama, told The Daily Wire. “There has been a history of Panama being fairly stable economically and with the government. They had very severe lockdowns, so the economy had already been weakened … but then you had on top of that these prices.”
Consumer prices in Panama, where mask mandates enacted in March 2020 were lifted earlier this month, are expected to end 2022 at 4.0% according to data from the forecasting group Focus Economics.
“It’s hard to get groceries because production is down,” Fowler added. “They’re throwing tomatoes away because things are going bad. People can’t get things because things can’t get to the stores, because protests are happening.”
The protests in Panama follow a collapse of the government in Sri Lanka, which occurred as residents grew frustrated over food and fuel prices — thereby exacerbating religious tensions between the majority Buddhists and minority Tamils. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned his post and fled the South Asian country on a military jet as protesters occupied the Presidential Palace.
While some protesters are merely grieved by the higher costs of living, others seek a reorganization of the government amid nonexistent public trust in Panamanian political leadership. The construction union activists leading the protests have demonstrated support in the past for Nicolás Maduro, the socialist dictator of nearby Venezuela, and circulated footage of wealthy Panamanian elites drinking whiskey amid the nation’s troubles.
“You’ve got some who are saying ‘We need lower prices on gas and food,’ and others who are saying ‘We need to rewrite the constitution.’ These are two different ideas, two different directions,” Fowler observed. “Hard-left extremists are trying to topple things — they’re trying to take advantage of the weak leadership.”
In any case, a socialistic mindset already prevails among the population.
“On paper, they’re the Republic of Panama. Written into the constitution is a mindset of socialism, though. The people have the expectation that the government is responsible for taking care of them when they’re in trouble,” Fowler remarked. “The president that they elected made promises to them to take care of them when they were in need, to distribute wealth… and when it’s the hour of need, he is nowhere to be found.”
Panama, however, is among the most important nations for international trade in the western hemisphere. The Panama Canal handled more than 255 million long tons of cargo and processed more than 12,000 transits in fiscal year 2020, according to data from Georgia Tech Panama, with commodities such as grains, crude oil, and coal among the most heavily transported materials.