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On this particular payday…
by Eric Jackson
Panamanians have traditional ways of protesting grievances, but usually these are not employed on the 15th or the 30th of the month. These are paydays, you see. The grievance has to be pretty severe for working people to pour out onto the streets to protest on one of these days.
However, the people blocking the streets on Thursday, September 15 were on a different schedule.
Gas prices have soared over $3 per gallon, and taxi fares are the same as they have been for years. In practice, a lot of cabbies have been asking for the extra quarter, and plenty of people who have a sense of justice and the extra change aren’t objecting to it. But many other Panamanians are also making do on the same wages that they have been receiving for quite some time, even though energy-driven price increases have raised the cost of everything they buy, and they can’t or at least won’t pay any increased fare that the government hasn’t approved.
(The buses are a somewhat different matter. Yes, like all drivers the independent business owners who drive the buses have to pay more at the pumps. However, during the Moscoso administration the metro Panama City bus drivers got a 67 percent increase to a quarter, after having worked for the same fares for many years. But this increase didn’t apply outside the metro area.)
There has been a steady demand for bus and taxi fare hikes, but the Torrijos administration has fended off the unpopular by first eliminating pump taxes on gasoline and diesel for buses only, and by promoting a plan, not yet in effect, to convert many of the nation’s taxis to cheaper liquid propane gas..
But none of that is enough when gasoline prices spike as high as they have. Cabbies are mostly owner-operators, and those who aren’t have to pay the owner of the cupo and cab a set amount per day plus cover their own gas expenses and thus aren’t wage or salary earners. Thus for taxi drivers a Thursday the 15th is not the special day that it is for those who work for somebody else.
(It is, however, usually a good day to do business because a lot of Panamanians who live paycheck to paycheck do their shopping on paydays, and many of these people take their groceries home in taxis.)
Not this particular payday, however. On this day Panama City and San Miguelito cab drivers staged a rolling, shifting series of traffic blockades. The Via Tocumen, the Transistmica and Avenida Balboa in the Paitilla area were key targets, and the metro area was quickly thrown into gridlock. Their demand were the same fuel tax break for cabbies that bus drivers get and a reduction in gasoline prices to $2 per gallon.
At The Panama News office on a side street in Perejil, it was obvious that something was up. Traffic was bumper to bumper, usually a sure sign that the Transistmica in front of the University of Panama has been closed.
And that it was, and not just by the cabbies.
On that morning, for the second straight day, high school students from Artes y Oficios, the vocational high school across the street from the University of Panama, poured out of their classrooms to block traffic and do battle with riot police.
What was that all about? Five kids with a grievance of some sort had manifested their displeasure by setting fire to a wastebasket inside a classroom, for which they were suspended for 10 days each. That brought the kids out to block traffic the previous day, resulting in more than a dozen arrests. So on this, the day after, the kids came out to block traffic to protest both the original suspensions and the arrests in the ensuing protests. The education ministry finally closed down the school --- which was surely the whole point for some of the kids --- and eventually the tear gas and three more arrests took effect and this street blockade dispersed.
The Artes y Oficios students are “usual suspects,” but the cabbies are not.
Some other “usual suspects” marched that afternoon, but not to block traffic. The protests over the unpopular Law 17 Social Security Fund reforms resulted in a month of disruptive strikes and protests, after which the government and labor militants called an uneasy truce and sat down to argue over a dialogue table at the university rectors’ council at Albrook. There has been no reconciliation, and no agreement between the government and the FRENADESSO strike front, in those talks. The government has the votes around the table to do whatever it wants, and meanwhile in the course of a June spent on strike the unions exhausted their strike fund. But President Torrijos is a highly scripted politician who pays careful attention to polls, so the pro-government factions around the table have been dragging their feet on the deeply controversial matters of retirement ages and how many months of contributions into the Social Security Fund people will need to make in order to qualify for pensions.
So the talks drag on, past the government-set target date, and the nearly unanimously anti-labor mainstream media have been generating a steady stream of unfavorable reporting about FRENADESSO and friends. Thus the labor/left umbrella group chose this day to push its side of the argument before the public eye.
However, push did not come to shove. This was a tiny little march, with fewer than 100 workers, mostly Seguro Social employees, and no street blockage or work disruption. It was just a reminder that the argument over Law 17 isn’t over.
Do not think, however, that on this particular payday only people on the lower end of the economic pecking order --- cabbies, vocational students and union members --- and radical dissidents were restless.
No, on this day members of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party were also out to manifest their discontent. In David, 20 PRD members staged a sit-in at party headquarters to demand the government jobs they expected for working on last year’s Torrijos campaign.
In Veraguas, meanwhile, student teachers at Santiago’s Escuela Normal sent a letter to the president complaining of the physical condition of their school and the $60 per month stipends that they consider too skimpy.
And over at Tocumen Airport, air traffic controllers met with their bosses to complain that they were overworked and underpaid, and that understaffing was both a violation of international aviation agreements and a threat to passenger safety.
At the same time, more upscale representatives of various professional and civic groups who have come together in the Citizens’ Alliance for Justice were in the final stages of drafting a blast against corruption in the judicial system and a call for a legislative investigation of several members of the Supreme Court.
So does this wild and crazy payday mean that Panama is about to boil over, or even explode, with public discontent? Probably not. What we are seeing is mainly a matter of disappointment that a year after an amazingly corrupt and equally inept Moscoso administration left the public stage in disgrace the improvements that had been expected have been slow in coming. Political scientists will tell you that the “revolution of rising expectations” can be a considerable political force, but at this point no alternative, radical or otherwise, has captured the public imagination sufficient to pose any serious threat to the established order.
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