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Panama Faces National Protests, Strikes Over Gas and Food Prices

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: July 11, 2022
Protests are also hitting Panama over the cost of food, fuel, and medicine, but the uprisings seem driven by the unions
Police at the Legislative Assembly building in Panama City on July 1, 2022. Days of protests have rocked Panama over high prices of gasoline, food, and medicine. However, the uprisings appear to be driven by unions and the country is in a better financial situation than places such as Sri Lanka and Albania. (Image: ROGELIO FIGUEROA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Central American country of Panama is another on the list of smaller economies rocked by massive protests over unaffordable fuel and high cost of food.

However, Panama is in a uniquely strong economic situation having no central bank, a currency pegged 1:1 with the U.S. petrodollar, a relatively high per capita GDP, and very low overall inflation.

One of the first reports of unrest available in English comes from the website Panama News on July 5, which stated that 22 teachers were arrested during a demonstration in the provinces of Herrera and Los Santos after attempting to block roadways.

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The participants were cleared by tear gas and pepper spray.

The outlet said the event was part of a national protest “to demand responses to the rise in the basic basket of food and fuel,” and included school bus owners.

On July 6, Panama News reported another strike was conducted by the country’s National Union of Workers in the Construction and Similar Industries, again because of the high costs of fuel, food, and medicine.

The unrest has apparently continued unabated.

Multiple videos posted to Twitter over the last several days show extensive strikes and protests occuring in the streets of multiple locales.

One of the most common themes in the protest is the blockages of major highways, such as the Inter-American Highway in the Province of Veraguas.

The videos date as far back as July 6. 

Panama News stated on July 8 that the President Laurentino Cortizo had called on the unions organizing the protests to resume talks with the government, blaming consequences of the extended Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine for the country’s financial situation.

On July 9, the outlet again reported that thousands of teachers and other professionals had hit the streets in massive demonstrations once again.

The same day, they also reported that an association of the country’s doctors, dentists, and healthcare workers had given the government a 48 hour ultimatum, that if not responded to amicably, would result in a general 48 hour nationwide strike.

Panama’s union of construction workers announced on July 10 that they would commence a 24 hour national strike on July 13.

But a July 8 report by La Prensa Latina provided more context to the situation, stating that much of the dispute surrounded demands by the unions for the government to install a command economy and regulate the price of gas at $3 per gallon.

Yet the article also stated that Cortizo had already initiated a freeze at $3.95 per gallon “for some sectors.”

Panama is home to slightly more than 4.3 million people and technically faces gasoline prices in excess of $5.70 USD per gallon equivalent, according to GlobalPetrolPrices.com.

Data from the World Bank shows that the country’s economy is relatively strong compared to other nations where riots over high fuel and food prices, or total destruction of fuel supply in the case of Sri Lanka, are occuring, with a per capita GDP of slightly more than $14,500 per person.

According to the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Panama, the country primarily exports agricultural goods such as shrimp, pineapple, and coffee, with the United States being its top client.

Data from the U.S. Trade Representative website states that, as of 2019, the U.S. is a net exporter to Panama, posting a $7.1 billion trade surplus.

Panamanians earn an average of 1,249 Balboas per month as of December of 2020, according to website Trading Economics.

However, based on data from the foreign exchange market, it appears Balboas and the USD trade at an exactly 1:1 rate. This appears to be because Panama is something of an outlier in the world economy, having no central bank.

Data from the World Bank shows the inflation rate in the country is incredibly low at only 1.6 percent in 2021. The highest inflation posted in the last 40 years was 8.8 percent during the 2008 Financial Crisis, which is about what the United States hit in May.

An older article, dated May 18 and published by Prensa Latina, revealed that the strikes have gone as far back as May and have been instigated by multiple layers of national unions, demanding the government legislate higher wages.