Food assistance and demagoguery in Panama City’s richest corregimiento

Junta Comunal
August 27: the local council refers citizen complaints about no food assistance to the national government. Or WAS IT the junta comunal? False messages played on into this story. Anonymous photo from Twitter.

San Francisco – an atypical backdrop to a microcosm

by Eric Jackson

San Francisco is the capital’s wealthiest corregimiento. It’s main drag is Calle 50. At its southwestern corner you find Punta Paitilla. Toward its southeastern edge you find ATLAPA and Jimmy’s. Punta Pacifica and Parque Omar are there.

The millionaires, however, remain a minority in San Francisco. A lot of the upscale residents just have well-paid jobs, on which they live paycheck to paycheck. Or did until the epidemic hit and put them out of work.

Then there are modest, middle class neighborhoods there, with plenty of retirees getting by on pensions, families that can only maintain themselves there with multiple incomes, people living on the informal economy when they are allowed to work.

There are people who mop the floors and trim the gardens of San Francisco who actually live in the neighborhood, too. And there are foreign citizens, legal residents or otherwise, getting by on a thousand different income streams, national or international, many of which have dried up in the economic crisis that strikes well beyond Panama and into their countries of origin.

Lots of PRD voters there, some the relatives of the political caste on juicy government salaries during this five-year sinecure cycle, some of them civil servants on more modest salaries. It’s generally not the sort of neighborhood where you get elected representante by passing out bags of food, but those astute enough to get elected tend to know and cultivate the votes of the folks who really do need a bag of groceries.

A few years back the electric company (before it changed into the present hands) complained that Paitilla was the very worst city neighborhood for electricity theft. Upscale sticky fingers? Those who are not all that upscale and count that among their hustles to hold out in the neighborhood? Dishonest landlords and business owners? Probably bits of all of those things.

So come the virus, the stereotype was that food aid would be essential in Santa Ana but there would be little need in San Francisco. The hard-nosed realist would know that there might be more needy people in one coregimiento than the other, but that food assistance would be necessary in both. Also, that fraud would be an issue.

A crowd gathers for bonos solidarios – food assistance vouchers – at the junta comunal in San Francisco. The national government says that they were summoned their by fake news spread via the social media. Also spread on the social media were claims that this crowd was composed of foreigners, also mostly false. Photo from social media.

So on September 3 the crowd assembled, was told that there was nothing to be had, and did not disperse.

Word spread online that immigration cops had been called. Perhaps a few people left because of this, and a delegation from Migracion did in fact come. Along with another delegation from the food assistance program. Panamanian citizens in need dealt with the regular folks, foreigners with an assistance program that La Migra runs. A sincere one that has been ongoing since day one of the epidemic, that division of the Ministry of Government insists, not a scam to round up and deport foreigners.

The national government has said that there were some malicious false messages, but what’s really happening is that San Francisco’s food assistance is changing – again. It started out with door-to-door distribution. Then it moved to the Junta Comunal, but was cut off without notice or explanation from the Cortizo administration. Now the national government says that the plan is to distribute the assistance at two schools in the large corregimiento.

In the commentary below the newspaper stories about the situation at the junta comunal there was a steady stream of xenophobic bile. Was that PRD legislator Zulay Rodríguez’s call center? San Francisco is not in her legislative circuit but in any case she was shrieking about foreigners on Twitter rather immediately. Thing is, Zulay has this habit of calling those Panamanian citizens she rails against foreigners. That sort of racism has played into the bono solidario distribution in several parts of the country.

A microcosm of what? We might infer a lot of things. Clunky government functions and a deteriorated relationship between the president and the political caste are the more readily apparent things.

The epidemic is easing off in Panama, at least for the moment. Some of the controls are loosening and the economy may nudge up a bit. However, these are hard times and will continue to be. Not a good time for food assistance to break down. Nor to have government officials pointing fingers at one another.

Zulay Rodríguez’s response to Panamanian citizens in somebody else’s legislative circuit who were hungry and could not get the food assistance they expected.



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