Food aid cutbacks — did Nito’s minions really mean to say…?

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A Panamanian government meme about the food voucher program (vale).

If they mean it and stick with it…

by Eric Jackson

La Estrella buried the story in their economic news. It has been widely reported that Panama is in a deep economic hole — more than $38 billion in government debt and sovereign bond ratings just one notch above junk bond status — and that the Cortizo administration says that social assistance and subsidies are to be cut. But “the voucher will only be for the 134,186 people whose contracts have not been reactivated and who do not have any income” is that what they mean to say?

Consider that most of the Panamanian work force is informally employed and never had a labor contract to suspend nor reactivate. Consider that many businesses that suspended their labor contracts last year are gone forever, or at least not be able to rehire the people who used to work there at the same wages and with the same hours as before. Most importantly, consider that the government acknowledges that the vale (food voucher) program had “1,359,917 beneficiaries.”

With respect to a program that never reached everyone who needed it, prompting road blockages all over the country last year by people who were left out, they are going to turn some wishful thinking about a lesser part of the work force into a policy cutting more than 90 percent of food aid recipients off of food assistance vouchers? Sounds very much like food riots begging to happen. Moreover, the government’s next missive suggests that the intention is just that draconian. We are told that the government is analyzing 3,000 cases of food voucher fraud — out of more than 1.3 million people getting the benefit. Read the various accounts and it seems that it mostly wasn’t people falsely registering, but getting more aid put onto their vouchers than they should have had coming.

It sounds an awful lot like a gringo-style “welfare chiseler” set-up of Ronald Reagan vintage.

The program was set to end in June, but now some report say that it will be extended until December at least. It had also been previously reported that the government is negotiating with MasterCard to create special private sector debit cards for public sector aid — which sounds like it’s meant for more than just six or seven months.

The program was created by presidential decree and has been, and may yet be, extended or modified by the president. This particular president has a history of floating badly conceived policies, then making adjustments in the face of public protests about them.

What else about June? That’s when the moratorium on mortgage payments and ban on evictions — both of which were previously extended — are set to expire. All sorts of people thrown out onto the streets and hungry. Didn’t Bob Marley have a song about that? But consider many foreclosed homes for which there are few buyers, and empty apartments for which few can afford the rent. Panama faced something like that in and just after the pre-invasion sanctions era, when in many cases the losses of that time were apportioned by private agreements.

 

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