The demonstrations are to protest a mining contract that was signed on October 20th with Canadian company First Quantum Minerals (FQM). This copper mining contract started in 1991, and there were times when mining surpassed the Panama Canal in revenues and was the most important industry for the country’s GDP. According to everything I have read, the new contract has actually increased environmental safeguards and is contributing more significantly to the social security benefits of the lowest Panamanian earners.
The problem is that there is a large amount of money involved--a whopping $375 million per year. Some factions are protesting the environmental impact of mining, while other factions are protesting the alleged corruption involved with the deal, as any time there are large sums of money involved, there are people whose hands get caught in the cookie jar.
The protests have been simmering over the past month, with planned protests that we were able to easily work around. However, after President Laurentino Cortizo signed the renewed contract on October 20th, the demonstrations intensified. Although most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, there have been a few instances of property damage and looting. Surprisingly though, considering the tens of thousands of people involved in the demonstrations, they continue to be peaceful, and there has been no loss of life.
I’ve found a few international news sources who have covered the demonstrations in Panama, but none of them capture the scope of what’s going on. Our local newspaper, La Prensa, has been covering it non-stop. (Unfortunately, most stories on this site aren't translated into English. If you use Chrome as your browser, you can right click anywhere on the screen, and it will do a machine translation of the story so you can get the gist if you want more depth.)
Most of the organized unions have joined this protest. Everyone from the construction union, teacher’s union, and even the medical union are onboard, although the medical union only joined the protests for a specific 72-hour period. Classes at all levels of school have been cancelled.
The main streets, highways, bridges, and arteries are blocked all over the country. Not only are we unable to get over the Bridge of the Americas, but they have also blocked access into Panama Pacifico, so we are unable to get to the grocery store. This morning, the Riba Smith grocery store in Panama Pacifico boarded their windows and closed. This is a bit reminiscent of Covid. However, at that time we were not allowed to go out. Now, we can go out, but there is nowhere to go…. and nothing to do. Even MiBus, the public bus service, has been suspended.
Every night, tens of thousands of people march through Panama City. Similar marches and protests are occurring in the interior (albeit to a smaller scale), blocking major arteries.
We had hoped that this year would be the year we would recover from the Covid. We have seen steady recovery, but we are not yet back to pre-Covid levels. In the rental and real estate markets, we have also been hoping that this high season would be a catalyst toward pre-Covid levels. Unfortunately, these riots are causing tourists to stay home, right when Panama was taken off of the financial gray list. (More on this tomorrow.). The president has been begging his citizens to get back to work so we can continue on the road to recovery.
Economists have said that these demonstrations have cost the country millions of dollars in losses, and they are leading to fuel and food shortages. Fresh fruit and vegetables, which comes from the Chiriqui region, can’t leave the area, let alone get to the city. Some estimate that the Chiriqui farmers alone are losing $1 million per day.
On a human level, my heart breaks for the laborers who live hand to mouth. The produce that they pick has a short shelf life and will end up rotting in the trucks, and the daily workers who desperately need money can’t get to their jobs.
Among my expat friends, there are some who are so proud of the Panamanians for peacefully demonstrating, demanding positive change. Although Panama had one of the healthiest economies in Latin America pre-Covid, the inflation has hit this small country harder than large countries, such as the US. Because of this, a large percentage of the population can't make ends meet. According to many middle-class Panamanians, they are demanding transparency to make sure that the huge sum of money from the mines actually gets to the people.
Through this, I have never been afraid. That is the beauty of living in a non-violent country. It's inconvenient to have roads blocked (and the business owner in me is frustrated that this is affecting business), but I feel like I'm living in Panama at an important time in Panamanian history.